Toyota 4Runner Refined, but Still Capable

November 30, 2014 Updated: December 1, 2014

Too many authentic off-road-craving SUVs have traded in their cleats and gone all crossover to attract ever-increasing numbers of drivers who would rather pretend they have an SUV than actually use one. Nissan’s Pathfinder is at the top of this list. Instead, Toyota’s 4Runner stays true to its all-road (or no-road) roots even if it is styled and equipped for today’s driver.

Standing nose-to-nose with the 4Runner is akin to peering straight at a raging bull. Our Premium edition’s faceted body color facia looks like an F35 jet’s inlet after mating with a Rhino. The design is rugged and modern—love it. The rest of the body looks expensive and capable—especially when placed over 17-inch alloys and off-road tires. Deep running boards are a necessity for heaving oneself up inside.

Once there, notice the industrial ethos. The center dash protrudes like a steel pillar, but contains easy-to-use audio and climate controls. Praise Toyota for the nice rubber-ringed knobs for volume and tuning. Front faux leather heated seats are great on-road or off and can be easily scrubbed free of trail dust or baby fluids. Rear passengers have plenty of legroom for long trips. Open the glass sunroof to let in a little fresh air.

A full suite of technology makes the 4Runner more entertaining. Toyota’s Entune system uses the touchscreen and connected smartphones as the gateway for AM/FM/Satellite radio, CD player, auxiliary audio jack, and USB port. Voice recognition, hands-free phone access, and Bluetooth streaming audio work well. Traffic and weather for most metropolitan areas are available. You can even access Pandora, find restaurants, check stocks, and summon sports tickets.

An advantage of a larger SUV is a cargo compartment that can swallow almost anything. Flip down the seats and toss in a family’s worth of bicycles (or an entire IKEA bedroom). This tells you how spoiled we’ve become: Our test car doesn’t have a power hatch. No worries, the gas struts work fine. A household style electric plug and lamp in the cargo area are nice conveniences.

It’s unlikely anybody will complain about the powertrain. Nestled under the buff hood is a 4.0-liter V6 engine that delivers 270 horsepower and 278 lb.-ft. of torque—routed to the road through a five-speed automatic transmission. A comparably-sized crossover might have a turbocharged four-cylinder, but there’s no replacing a bigger engine for assured power. Of course, downsides of that larger engine are fuel economy ratings of 17/21-MPG city/hwy.

From behind the wheel, you sense the 4Runner is a real SUV that can tackle Mother Nature’s rugged trails. It is not as smooth as a crossover with four-wheel-independent suspension, but it laughs at potholes and can scamp up rough trails. The part-time four-wheel-drive system leaves the vehicle in rear-drive most of the time, but can lock in all four wheels for more challenging conditions. Four-wheel disc brakes, downhill assist control, and hill start assist give drivers the upper hand.

There are many very nice mid-size crossovers hogging the SUV segment. If you want one, Toyota will be glad to sell you an Indiana-built Highlander. You’d be happy. But, I would not take a Highlander too far from blazed trails. That’s where the 4Runner comes in. Styled and equipped for today, it retains all of the capability you remember from yesterday’s SUVs.

A base price of $33,010, or $39,045 loaded, puts 4Runner against the Nissan Xterra, Jeep Cherokee, Land Rover Discovery Sport, and Chevy Tahoe.

2015 Toyota 4Runner
Five-passenger, 4×4 SUV
Powertrain: 270-HP 4.0-litre V6, 5-spd auto trans
Suspension f/r: Ind./Sprung axle
Wheels: 17-in./17-in. f/r
Brakes: disc/disc f/r
Must-have features: Style, Capability
Manufacturing: Tahara, Japan
Fuel economy: 17/21-MPG city/hwy
Base/As-tested price: $33,010/$39,045