On The Road Review: Toyota 4Runner SR5



Since 1985, Toyota has sold a truck-based midsize sport utility vehicle in America that has enjoyed strong customer loyalty and an exceptional reputation for off-road prowess and long service life.

But after several recent quality gaffes and extensive product recalls, will consumers bestow the same affection and admiration on Toyota that helped to propel this Asian automaker to the top of the sales charts?

Only time will tell for sure. However, it couldn’t be a more difficult combination of economic and business circumstances for Toyota to roll out its latest 4Runner.

The fifth-generation 4Runner is undeniably the smoothest operating, nicest riding edition of what many will argue is the brand’s best all-around passenger truck. Still a body-on-frame design with a solid rear axle, this tough vehicle is still suited for serious off-roading — a shrinking niche for sure, but a segment that Toyota still felt that it could lead. With a small list of rivals, Toyota hopes to improve on last year’s anemic sales of less than 20,000-units — a 60 percent drop from 2008.

Wearing a new face and a more contoured body, the latest 4Runner offers increased polish inside as well as a longer list of available features. A four-cylinder engine returns for the first time since the original edition — Toyota’s corporate 2.7-liter four, available on base rear drive models only — while the 4.7-liter V-8 has been dropped from the lineup in favor of a new 4.0-liter V-6 that actually produces more peak horsepower than the departing V-8. EPA mileage estimates creep up a notch, while pricing remains about the same.

Sharing the same rigid platform as the European-based Prado truck and the Lexus GX-series, the newest 4Runner offers traction aids that are often associated with premium vehicles like Land Rover. My SR5 sample came with Hill-start and downhill control, traction and anti-skid control, Active-Trac two-speed manual shift four-wheel drive, front and rear skid plates, limited slip rear differential, as well as variable speed power steering. With good approach and departure angling on the chassis, the 4Runner is well-suited to chasing Jeeps and Pathfinders off-road.

While off-roading is still a strength for this model, and a sought after attribute for many buyers regardless of their actual use, Toyota did shave some of the 4Runner’s peak towing capacity in the name of better on-road performance, as well as meeting redefined towing parameters that all new trucks will have to match for 2011. Peak towing capacity slips from 7,300 pounds with last year’s V-8 to 5,000 with the new V-6 engine.

Ground clearance remains at 9 inches while other body dimensions grown minimally. Cargo space increases about 10 percent, however, a credit to the more efficient packaging of the seat layout as well as less intrusive rear sidewalls. The tailgate still folds down — an uncommon arrangement in the day and age of liftgates, yet the 4Runner retains its handy power rear window.

Since most 4Runners see the majority of their action in the urban world, Toyota has given the truck a more user-friendly cabin. The driver is greeted by a simple array of gauges behind a tilt/telescoping steering wheel that is nicely sized and well-placed for interaction. Power window controls are located on the door panel right where you would expect to easily activate them without contorting your wrist, while oversize knurled knobs handle both the climate selections and the easy-to-use audio system. Suitable for use with gloved hands, both series of knobs are well defined and not at all distracting to reach.

The console offers space for several items while door pockets provide more options. Sun visor extenders — a rarity, unfortunately — helped cover the side window’s rising sun each day, something that all too often can not be said. A mirror-mounted back-up camera screen was helpful when the elements didn’t foul the lens.

Rear seat comfort is good for two adults with ample head room even with the power sunroof. Access is a stretch up, but not objectionable.

I got to spend two 400-mile days in the 4Runner and found the seating to be very comfortable. The positioning is very good for visibility and control and the support level was very high. No ‘numb-butt’ here either — partly due to the seat heaters in my leather buckets. The cabin could be a bit quieter for extended highway motoring as the new V-6 sounds a little coarse on occasion; the idle is audible and the run to redline when passing is a full-on mechanical fury.

The strong headlights and large outside mirrors are perfect for all driving, but the single note horn is tinny sounding; a budget device on a manly truck.

Despite the nature of a truck-based suspension — double wishbones and coil springs up front, independent links and coils in the rear — I liked the 4Runner’s on-road ride. There is some minor head toss over undulating pavement situations, but overall, this is a smooth riding truck with good handling agility. The steering feel is light and sort of numb, yet the slow-speed turning radius is a commendably small 37 feet — about the same as a compact car.

The latest 4Runner has five close competitors, each with an athletic, outdoorsy character: the Jeep Wrangler four-door, Nissan’s Pathfinder and Xterra, Land Rover’s LR3, and maybe Toyota’s own FJ Cruiser, the two-door SUV that shares some platform pieces with the 4Runner. Make me pick a winner from this pack and the new 4Runner takes the prom queen home.

 

Just the Facts: Toyota 4Runner SR5

2010 4Runner starts at $27,500 with rear-wheel drive and 157-hp 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine. Mid-level SR5 4X4 with V-6 begins at $30,915, while the Trail edition is $35,700 and top-of-the line Limited is $37,765. Destination fee is an additional $800.

New 4.0-liter V-6 makes 270-hp, 10 more hp than last year’s V-8, plus it has 278 pound/feet of peak torque — about 28 pound/feet less than the V-8. A five-speed automatic is the only transmission for the V-6. EPA estimates are 17/22 for the V-6, 17/23 for the four. I averaged 19.0 mpg over 1,200 miles.

Standard items on the SR5: fog lamps, privacy glass, roof rails, heated mirrors with signal lamps, eight-speaker stereo with MP3, split-folding rear seat, tilt/telescopic steering wheel, trip computer with outside temp, 17-inch alloy wheels, part-time four-wheel drive, roll-sensing side airbags. Options include; backup camera, power sunroof, premium heated leather seating, sliding rear cargo deck, Bluetooth connectivity, auto climate, electric shift 4X4, double spoke six-slot 20-inch wheels, rear DVD, navigation, and push-button ignition. 4Runner is built in Japan.

 

4Runner Timeline

  • 1984, first two-door 4Runner debuts on the Toyota Hilux pickup platform with a removable composite cap over the pickup bed. Power is supplied by a 2.4-liter four while the front suspension is a solid axle setup.
  • 1988, a 3.0-liter V-6 debuts and the front suspension has shifted to an independent layout.
  • 1990, Toyota provides a distinct 4Runner model that looks different from the compact pickup. Both four-door and two-door 4Runners are built.
  • 1996, third generation gets a larger 3.4-liter V-6 while some markets also can order a diesel engine.
  • 2000, Sales climb to over 111,000 units.
  • 2003, fourth generation 4Runner comes with larger V-6 engine and first V-8. Sales reach 114,000 units in 2004, the peak for U.S. sales.
  • 2010, fifth generation model debuts.

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