The 4Runner is no car-based crossover station wagon. It's built on a rugged ladder frame with a solid rear axle. While some consider this design dated when compared to the latest SUVs or CUVs, which use unit body construction and independent rear suspensions, the 4Runner's more traditional design offers better recreational capability and long-term durability.
Yet the 4Runner does not ride like a buckboard wagon. Toyota engineers went to great pains to prove that this durable, adventurous configuration need not compromise everyday comfort and convenience. The 4Runner is quite comfortable around town and on the highway, with a nice ride quality, almost luxurious. An optional linked shock-absorber system called X-REAS further improves handling in sweeping, high-speed turns. Active safety features include ABS, EBD, Brake Assist, traction control, and electronic stability control, all standard.
Though the basic design may be relatively traditional, the 4Runner features the latest in off-road electronic technology, including Hill Start Assist and Downhill Assist Control. Having the 4Runner walk you down a steep, muddy incline with both feet off the pedals is an impressive display of technology and engineering. Both full and part-time four-wheel drive is available, but even the full-time system comes with a locking function for when the going gets sloppy. Add that stuff to its highly capable suspension, and the 4Runner will go just about anywhere any other production vehicle will go.
Whether you choose the standard V6 or the newly revised V8, the 4Runner offers responsive performance. The V8 boosts the 4Runner's tow rating to 7,300 pounds. Both engines benefit from a sophisticated variable-valve setup and drive-by-wire throttle, delivering strong, responsive acceleration out on the highway; the V8 was revised for 2005 for vastly improved performance. Both engines also benefit from a five-speed automatic transmission.
The 4Runner is noted for its quality construction, durability and reliability. Look up QDR in the automotive dictionary and you might see a picture of a Toyota 4Runner.
Inside, the 4Runner is roomy and comfortable. An optional third-row seat expands the passenger capacity to seven, but the seat can be folded or removed for cargo space. The optional GPS navigation system includes a rear-mounted video camera that lets the driver back to within an inch of the vehicle behind when parallel parking and can help the driver spot a small child before backing up. The navigation system on 2006 models features voice activation. Bluetooth technology has been added for 2006 as well, and a factory-installed rear-seat DVD entertainment system is now available.
For 2006, the appearance of the 4Runner has been revised. Grille, bumpers, and light clusters are re-styled for '06, as are the overfenders and lower body cladding. New trim provides more visual distinction among the SR5, Sport Edition, and Limited grades. For 2006, the 4Runner benefits from upgraded upholstery and more features.
While it may seem old-school to people who want an all-weather sport touring vehicle, the 4Runner is the hot setup for outdoor enthusiasts for its ability to carry them and their gear down primitive roads, rough two-tracks, serious mud or sand, and rugged terrain. Yet it won't punish its owner in everyday use. It's smooth and quiet and highly sophisticated in terms of technology and features. If your weekend involves driving over rugged terrain, the 4Runner is an excellent choice.
Toyota 4Runner SR5 2WD V6 ($27,635); SR5 4WD V6 ($29,910); SR5 2WD V8 ($29,650); SR5 4WD V8 ($31,925); Sport Edition 2WD V6 ($29,975); Sport Edition 4WD V6 ($32,250); Sport Edition 2WD V8 ($31,355); Sport Edition 4WD V8 ($33,630); Limited 2WD V6 ($34,350); Limited 4WD V6 ($36,625); Limited 2WD V8 ($36,110); Limited 4WD V8 ($38,385)
Styling changes for 2006 add still more visual muscle. The trapezoidal grille remains, but now it slashes into the bumper below; and one big, bold horizontal crossbar has replaced the two slimmer bars used previously. Foglights, when ordered last year, were contoured to the surface of the bumper; now they are standard, and they hunker down in squared-off foxholes. The more massive and bumpy front bumper sets a chunkier theme that continues through more prominent overfenders and body cladding (making the 2006 model an inch-and-a-half wider than the '05). Headlights and taillights have been more subtly re-shaped, with the teardrop effect of the former slightly exaggerated.
More than ever, the 4Runner looks off-road rugged and ready to hit the dusty trail. Backing up that contention are skid plates for the engine, transfer case and fuel tank, all of which come standard. (Even 2WD models get the engine and fuel tank plates.) A molded-in step adds a functional look to the broad rear bumper.
Visual cues help distinguish among the three trim levels. Bumpers are body-color on all three models. On SR5, however, grille, door handles, and the license-plate trim are chrome, and running boards are painted black. The Sport edition retains the hood scoop and is further distinguished by a smoked-chrome effect in its grille and headlamp trim, and by a graphite-and-black roof rack. Tubular side steps replace the SR5's running boards. The Limited looks almost military with its body-color grille, black roof rack and black running boards (which are illuminated). The standard aluminum-alloy wheels have six spokes on SR5 and Sport Edition; five on Limited, and they grow from 16 inches to 17 to 18 as you move up the line.
4Runner's windshield, side windows, and side mirrors are made of hydrophilic glass and repel water like a waxed car or a window that has been treated with Rain-X. The glass causes water to form large drops, which are quickly shed by gravity or wind. The side mirrors are angled out to increase the driver's field of view. The available moonroof includes a two-stage wind deflector designed to reduce wind noise when traveling above 55 mph.
The standard cloth is nice, and the cloth seats in the SR5 and Sport Edition are comfortable, with side bolsters to keep the driver in place when cornering or driving off road. All seats offer adjustable headrests and three-point seatbelts, and the driver's seat adjusts eight ways, manually on the SR5 V6 and powered on all others. The driver and front passenger sit up high, as one expects in an SUV, yet flatter to the floor, as in some low cars like a Ford Mustang. The driver's legs stretch out, rather than down, toward the pedals. It's a feeling we've noticed in some Jeeps, going back quite some years, and it's the side effect of a very practical SUV impulse to pull the ground clearance up as high as possible while keeping the overall profile low for stability.
A two-tone dashboard houses the instruments. Gauges illuminate orange, set in three deep binnacles that prevent the front-seat passenger from reading them. The fuel gauge uses an inclinometer for accurate readouts when the 4Runner is tilted in the rough.
Automatic climate control is standard on all models, while the Limited comes with his-and-hers dual-zone temperature controls. The fan, airflow and temperature controls, are big and easy to locate; they are long on design and a little awkward at first, but become easy to use with familiarity.
The stereo buttons are easy operate. The Auto down button for the power windows is illuminated but the central lock button is not and can be difficult and awkward to find in the dark, leaving impatient, would-be passengers tapping on your window as you fumble around for the switch, a daily annoyance. A display located just above the climate controls reveals time, ambient temperature, and trip data. A 115-volt AC power outlet is available, a real bonus in the backcountry.
An unusual feature is a pair of small convex mirrors at the rear corners of the interior, designed to help the driver see approaching vehicles when backing out of a parking space. The mirrors work on the same principal as those big convex mirrors mounted at the corners of large parking garages. In the 4Runner, they help the driver detect motion in a busy parking lot. Using them effectively, however, takes some practice, as it's hard to distinguish details. We're guessing most people don't use them.
The rearview video camera works incredibly well. A video camera hidden in the rear bumper projects the image onto the seven-inch navigation screen on the center dash whenever the 4Runner is in reverse. The pictures are sharp, even in complete darkness (with the backup lights on), and cover the area directly behind and a couple of feet on either side of the car. The extreme fish-eye view of the lens makes distances difficult to judge, but skilled drivers quickly learn how to use it to their advantage. When parallel parking the camera allows the driver to easily back to within an inch of the car behind. The camera adds safety by giving the driver an opportunity to see what's immediately behind the 4Runner, whether it's a short metal pole or a child on a tricycle or someone pushing a grocery cart.
The navigation system is among the best, intuitive and relatively easy to use. It features a touch-screen monitor, voice guidance and Bluetooth capability. Toyota says that its route-searching capabilities are more than twice as fast as competitive systems. Map data for the contiguous United States and major cities in Canada is stored on one DVD. The integrated Bluetooth feature provides a hands free communication system using a cellular phone; calls can be dialed by using the
The optional 4.7-liter V8, introduced for 2005, represents a huge improvement over the V8 it replaced. We found it delivered strong performance for our 2006 4Runner. It's smooth and tractable and never struggles when thrust is needed. The V8 features variable valve timing with intelligence (VVT-i) and electronic throttle control with intelligence (ETCS-i), turning it into a real performer. It's rated 260 horsepower and 306 pound-feet of torque, and adds about 190 pounds to the weight of the vehicle. EPA fuel-use estimates are 16/20 mpg for the 2WD V8 and 15/19 with 4WD. Toyota recommends premium fuel. Both engines feature a cranking system that keeps the starter engaged until complete combustion is achieved, freeing the driver from holding the key until the engine turns over. This is a feature usually associated with expensive luxury sedans.
Both engines are paired with a sophisticated five-speed automatic transmission. More gears means better response for any given situation along with better efficiency. The transmission is equipped with Artificial Intelligence Shift control, which changes gear-shifting patterns according to driving conditions and driver intent. It works well and seems to understand when you want to cruise and when you want to get with the program, and it shifts smoothly around town.
The 4Runner handles very well for a truck with a live rear axle. We drove all the models over twisting back roads along the Oregon coast and found them easy to drive at a quick clip. We also spent a lot of time in a 2006 Limited 4WD V8 around Los Angeles. The suspension damping is excellent. When the road got bumpy, we could tell our truck had a solid rear axle rather than an independent rear suspension, but the 4Runner still handles more confidently than other live-axle SUVs, such as the Chevy TrailBlazer. Rack-and-pinion steering gives the 4Runner quick response and good steering feel.
The ride on unpaved roads is smooth, which is important on long gravel treks over washboard surfaces. The 4Runner's well-tuned damping and progressive-rate spring bumpers are to thank here. Where the 4Runner really comes into its own, however, is when the terrain gets truly gnarly. There's lots of suspension articulation for climbing over boulders and gullies, and a host of technology for handling steep, slippery grades.
Still, the 4Runner is a truck, not a car. Rather than using unit-body construction like the Toyota Highlander and RAV4, the 4Runner is built on a separate ladder frame that features full-length box-section frame rails. Toyota also steered away from using an independent rear suspension like the one on the ladder-frame Ford Explorer. An independent rear suspension would have offered better ride quality and allowed for a roomier interior, but Toyota said off-road capability was a high priority for the 4Runner and that its live rear axle provides more suspension travel.
A limited-slip differential, optional on many SUVs, is standard on even 2WD 4Runners. We found the two-wheel-drive models impressively capable on rugged terrain; indeed, a 2WD 4Runner is more capable off road than many all-wheel-drive SUVs. For ultimate traction, however, you do need a four-wheel-drive model; and it seems to us that if y
The Toyota 4Runner is a highly capable trail vehicle. It will get you over the rocks and through the muck, but it won't make you regret its durable construction when you're cruising the Interstate. It's smooth and quiet on the road and there's plenty of room for family and friends. The V6 is our first choice for its power and efficiency, but the V8 delivers excellent response and is the proper choice for towing. If you want serious recreational capability with quality, durability and reliability, the 4Runner is an excellent choice. On the other hand, if you rarely venture onto unimproved trails, then you'll find the Toyota Highlander and car-based SUVs smoother and more comfortable.
NewCarTestDrive.com assistant editor John Katz contributed to this report.