The Toyota 4Runner is built for durability and all-terrain capability. Using rugged body-on-frame construction, the 4Runner is intended to be a tough and reliable sport utility for the more adventurous owner.
All 2012 Toyota 4Runners are powered by a 4.0-liter V6 that generates 270 horsepower and 278 pound-feet of torque. Fuel economy ratings are 17 mpg City and 22 mpg Highway with 4WD. Maximum towing capacity is 5,000 pounds, enough for light boats, ATVs, snowmobiles, and motorcycles.
Two-row and three-row seating configurations are available, for five or seven passengers.
The 2012 Toyota 4Runner comes in three distinct models, each with specialized equipment packages, to suit a variety of luxury, recreational capability, and affordability priorities. All are sturdily built, with an extensive suite of safety features, flexible seating, and multiple cargo options.
The 4Runner SR5 is the standard grade with cloth upholstery, automatic air conditioning, and 17-inch wheels, while the Limited is loaded with leather, dual-zone climate control, and 20-inch wheels. The mid-range Trail Edition is designed to maximize off-road performance with superior approach and departure angles, high ground clearance, and an array of functional upgrades for the most demanding active outdoor enthusiast. It is distinguished by a unique hood scoop, unique 17-inch wheels, black side mirrors, front and rear bumper guards and dark smoke treatment on the head lamps and tail lamps.
All three models benefit from equipment upgrades for 2012. The 2012 Toyota 4Runner SR5 and Trail Edition come standard with SiriusXM satellite radio, a USB port with iPod connectivity, and Bluetooth phone capability and music streaming. Standard on 2012 4Runner Limited, and optional on SR5 and Trail Edition, is a new audio/navigation system whose 6.1-inch touch screen offers access to all the latest digital-electronic candy, including Sirius and HD radio, iTunes Tagging, Toyota Entune service, and much, much more. Still available for Limited only is a premium 15-speaker system from JBL. 2012 SR5 and Limited now offer the option of automatic retractable running boards.
We found the 4Runner has good on-road dynamics with rack-and-pinion steering and well-proportioned disc brakes. It may be as nimble as the lighter-duty Highlander crossover. But the key point here is that the 4Runner is far more capable and much more durable for use on rough terrain. That durability factor is crucial for owners who frequently drive on rough, unpaved roads or over rugged terrain. Compared to the FJ Cruiser, the 4Runner is more versatile and more passenger-friendly, and nearly as capable off-road.
The Toyota 4Runner has a boxy form with a wide stance, with wide fenders to suggest muscularity. The wheelwells are squared off and generously sized for larger tires, like the FJ Cruiser. The bumpers add a sense of heft. Roof rails are standard on all models, emphasizing the 4Runner's potential as a recreational gear transporter.
Projection-beam headlights lend a technical appearance, with high-tech taillights distinguished by unusually conspicuous lens bulges. The effect is contemporary, advanced, and yet in keeping with 4Runner's five-generation tradition of body-on-frame construction.
The Trail Edition is styled to project rugged good looks, a sense of mystery, and a sporting nature. It has a sporty hood scoop, blacked-out mirrors and bumpers, and a dark smoke treatment on the headlights and tail lights.
Trail Edition and SR5 have similarly styled overfenders and mud guards, and both have 17-inch alloy wheels as standard equipment, although each grade has its own distinctive wheel. On the SR5, there is greater use of chrome accents, and the roof rack is silver with black end caps. Heated exterior mirrors have turn signal indicators and puddle lamps.
The Limited comes on lower-profile P245/60R20 tires mounted on 20-inch alloy wheels. All models come with a full-size spare, and the Limited has a matching alloy spare. Like the SR5 and Trail grade, the Limited has a rear spoiler that houses the rear wiper, keeping it tucked away when not in use.
The Toyota 4Runner interior was designed with an eye toward practicality, comfort, and utility. All rows are relatively roomy. The cabin is trimmed in textured materials with silver trim accents, creating a modern, high-tech environment.
The steering wheel is thick, with a technical four-spoke design. The instrument cluster is bright with large dials. The standard three-gauge cluster combines orange-numeral speedometer and tachometer with temperature and fuel meters; on Trail and Limited, white-numeral Optitron gauges are used. All grades share an accessory meter that displays time, average fuel consumption, range, compass direction, and outside temperature.
An automatic dual-zone climate controlled air conditioning system is standard on the Limited; SR5 and Trail Edition have manual climate control.
Three 12-volt outlets are located in the glove box, the center console sack, and the cargo area. Optional 120-volt AC outlets, useful for charging batteries or running appliances at the campsite, are located in the center console box and cargo area.
On the Trail Edition, there is an overhead panel with two dials that house the Crawl Control and Multi-Terrain Select System. The Trail Edition gets water-resistant seat fabric in a charcoal gray color.
The front seats in the 4Runner are comfortable and supportive, with a lot of adjustability. The standard SR5 cloth seat adjusts six ways manually; Trail and Limited models get eight-way power adjustments. Limited features flawless leather, heated seats. Active headrests are standard for all front seats. The seats are easily wide enough for an average-size body, with low bolsters on the seat cushion and taller side bolstering on the seat back. We found they provide cornering support on winding roads, without making the driver's seat hard to get into. The leather seating material on our Limited was conspicuously fragrant, and remarkably free of blemishes or imperfections.
Second-row seats fold completely flat to maximize interior cargo area. With everything folded flat, cargo volume is just short of 90 cubic feet, or 88.8 cubic feet on models with third-row seating.
The third-row seating is functional for everyday use. The seats are realistically sized and there's a livable amount of space. Access to the third row is made easier with second-row seats split into a 40/20/40 configuration, so it's possible to enter the third row from either side using a one-touch walk-in feature.
The rear hatch has a power window that can be controlled from an interior switch, or at the rear door using the key. By lowering the window, efficient flow-through ventilation becomes possible. Not many vehicles have this feature these days. We tried the retractable rear tailgate window underway. By opening the vents in the front, and cracking the rear window, a real breeze can be allowed to flow from front to rear. On a nice day, it might be the best ventilation system of any SUV, as airflow is maximized and wind noise is minimal, much less than from a sunroof. Smokers love it, and it can be handy when hauling smelly cargo, such as a wet dog, dead fish, a deer, fertilizer, tires.
Three audio systems are available for 2012. Standard on both SR5 and Trail models is an AM/FM/CD/MP3 system with eight speakers, SiriusXM Satellite Radio, USB port with iPod connectivity, hands-free phone capability and music streaming via Bluetooth.
Standard on Limited, and optional on the other models, is a 6.1-inch touch-screen audio/navigation system that incorporates an integrated backup camera display; all of the features of the standard audio system; plus HD Radio with iTunes Tagging, vehicle information with customizable settings; phonebook access; advanced voice recognition; and text-to-voice with programmed and customizable text responses. Also included is Toyota Entune, a collection of popular mobile applications and data services, with three years of complimentary access. Once a smart phone is connected to the vehicle using Bluetooth or a USB cable, Entune's features are operated using the 4Runner's controls or, for some services, by voice recognition. Entune offers mobile apps for Bing, iHeartRadio, MovieTickets.com, OpenTable, and Pandora; while Entune data services include a fuel price guide, sports scores, stocks, traffic and weather.
The third system, optional on Limited only, combines all of the above with a premium 15-speaker JBL sound system.
It's in bad weather that the full-time 4WD system in the Toyota 4Runner Limited really shines. It's designed to shift torque between wheels as the vehicle rolls over inconsistent surfaces, so it's ideal for use on roads with slippery patches or wet spots. We found the 4Runner Limited tracked cleanly and accurately through corners and over compromised surfaces.
The brake system feels strong and progressive at the top of the pedal, and even in the rain, lends itself to a secure, confident feeling. The front discs have four-piston fixed calipers and 13.3-inch brake rotors. They are augmented with four-sensor, four-channel ABS and skid control systems.
Full-throttle acceleration is quite brisk for a seven-passenger, family SUV. From a standing start, the 4Runner will hit 60 mph in about 8.6 seconds, and feels good doing it. The full-time 4WD system hunts a little from a standing start, so a small amount of torque initially tugs at the steering wheel, but the 4Runner steers true after a quick chirp off the line. High-speed passes are similarly exuberant. Pin the throttle pedal and the transmission with kick down two gears and let the engine rev to 5500 rpm, making it easy to swoop by lines of traffic and accelerate up steep grades. Decide to pass and the next thing you know, the speedometer says 90 mph. Shifts are smooth and progressive, without much lash or thump, even at full throttle.
Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 17 mpg City and 22 mpg Highway with 4WD. Driven normally, the V6 will deliver decent mileage for a 4800-pound SUV. The fuel consumption readout said we had gotten 20.3 mpg after a day of mostly highway driving.
Maximum towing capacity is 5,000 pounds, enough for light boats, ATVs, snowmobiles, and motorcycles.
Steering effort seemed about right to us, neither too firm nor too light. The engineering involves a variable flow, power-assisted rack-and-pinion arrangement that uses a variable gear-ratio steering rack. So not only does the hydraulic assist adjust based on conditions, but the rack itself is has a different tooth arrangement at the ends of the rack. The result is reasonably precise steering that is strong and easy at all speeds, even at full lock. It's not what you'd want for a sports car, but for an off-road-going, seven-passenger SUV, it's right.
The Limited model looks more sophisticated with its 20-inch wheels and lower-profile tires, and it likes corners better than the other models, a benefit of the tires and the X-REAS suspension setup. But on lumpy roads, the stiffer wheel and tire combination makes for a choppy ride, especially noticeable to back-seat riders. The Limited has a diagonally cross-linked shock absorber system, called X-REAS, that helps damp out pitch and roll, and it works to limit body roll. We like this system on winding mountain roads. But sharper impacts do come through due to the low-profile tires.
The Trail Edition rides about as well as the Limited because of its more compliant suspension and taller tire sidewall, and it transitions through corners only slightly less cleanly. That's because the optional Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS) anti-swaybar disconnect capability allows for thicker stabilizer bars on the Trail Edition. Therefore, on-road cornering power can be preserved without compromising off-road suspension compliance. The Trail Edition, with the thicker bars, did feel a little a little more jittery at speed on the highway but soaked up larger impacts best of all. The Limited, more stylish and better handling, runs along smoothly until larger impacts come into play.
We had an opportunity to drive a 4Runner off road. The Trail Edition is the 4Runner for those who plan to use the vehicle for recreation so that was our choice. Almost like an FJ Cruiser with four doors, the 4Runner Trail Edition is set up to cruise to a trailhead, confidently drive on the trail itself, and return to the highway. That makes its capabilities and packaging advantages ideal for those who camp, hunt, fish or regularly travel backcountry roads. It can ford up to 27 inches of water and has 9.6 inches of ground clearance. Skid plates are included for the engine, transfer case and fuel tank. Two tow hooks are mounted on the front although in a low position that might make them hard to reach if stuck in a stream or snow bank. A rear receiver hitch is standard, for towing up to 5000 pounds, and its presence makes for easy vehicle recovery from the rear. Just as important, the 4Runner has the durability to do this stuff without wearing out in one season.
We found the manual part-time transfer case easy to operate that comes on the SR5 and Trail grade. There is a stubby lever that actuates 4WD High Range and 4WD Low Range. Sometimes lever-actuated part-time systems can be balky, but on our Trail Edition we were able to slip in and out of 4-Low without any dithering. The Trail Edition's part-time system is shared with the SR5.
The Limited gets a dial-actuated full-time system that is always on, ready for changing road conditions or inclement weather. The Limited is better for ice and wintry conditions when grip is inconsistent. It automatically apportions power to the tires with the best grip. The driver need do nothing to engage it.
The Trail Edition trades surprisingly little for the advantages it offers. Ride quality is about as good as the other versions, and steering and cornering are only slightly less crisp. Tire noise is only slightly increased, at least inside the cabin. Meanwhile, traction is markedly improved by the addition of an electronic locking rear differential, the KDSS system, and traction control systems with adjustable rates of feedback.
One system, Crawl Control, allows the driver to dial in speeds from 1 to 3 mph as the driver concentrates on steering across difficult terrain. We tried it, uphill and down, and sure enough, the system controls throttle and braking to maintain a steady speed. When that speed seemed to be too rapid for the suspension to handle comfortably, we adjusted the dial to give us a slower pace. At 1 mph, progress is very slow, safe and predictable.
Another system, multi-terrain select, allows for dialing in the rate of wheelslip when driving off-road. As a result, the Active Traction Control (A-TRAC) system can be just as effective in mud or sand as it is on rock. When even more traction is called for, an electronic locker in the rear axle actuates with the push of a button. KDSS is optional, but it's an excellent off-road suspension enhancement.
The Toyota 4Runner can hold up to outdoor recreational use that would prove destructive to car-based crossover SUVs. Given that capability, the 4Runner stands out as a truly multipurpose vehicle with authentic, structurally based recreational capability. With three different formats to choose from, and a variety of specialized equipment, the 4Runner can be configured for a wide range of needs and budgets.
John Stewart filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after his test drive of the Toyota 4Runner near Solvang, California. Additional material by John F. Katz.