When carbon-dating a car’s age, there are a few options for taking the necessary samples. Consider this Toyota 4Runner. You might know that it’s old because the truck’s basic structure (dressed up with new styling for the 2010 model year) can be traced to its last full redesign for 2003. Or perhaps you’d notice that its order form lacks even the option to add increasingly common safety features such as automated emergency braking, lane-departure warning, or blind-spot monitoring, all of which are available—mostly as standard equipment, even—on nearly every other Toyota.
Extremely capable off-road, square-jawed appearance, nicer than a Jeep Wrangler.
Geriatric platform and feel, tight rear seat.
Instead, the 4Runner has a steering wheel, accelerator and brake pedals, windows to see out of, four-wheel drive, and big ground clearance for off-roading. The focus is even narrower with the TRD Off-Road trim level tested here; the biggest update on this model for 2017 is a name change from the previous Trail. Sitting just beneath the hard-core TRD Pro and above the base SR5 on the 4Runner’s performance pyramid, the Off-Road lacks the Pro’s Bilstein shocks, special springs, and TRD-branded (Toyota Racing Development) skid plates and black-painted wheels. Even so, it’s set up to get dirty with a standard electronically locking rear differential, Toyota’s Multi-Terrain Select and Crawl Control electronic traction aids, and substantial Dunlop Grand Trek tires.
For an extra $1960, the TRD Off-Road is available in Premium trim (previously, this was referred to as the Trail Limited model), adding standard goodies such as a 6.1-inch touchscreen with navigation, faux-leather seat upholstery, heated front seats, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, and TRD lettering on each front-seat headrest. Our non-Premium model had the $345 Entune Premium Audio and Navigation package, which brings the aforementioned 6.1-inch infotainment system.
Engage Your Own 4×4
More critical to the 4Runner’s mission, however, is the TRD Off-Road’s part-time four-wheel-drive system, which is activated via a muscular transfer-case lever and requires the transmission be placed in neutral to switch between two-wheel drive and four-wheel-drive high or low range. Our test Toyota was further optioned with the $1750 Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS), which electronically disconnects the anti-roll bars to free up more wheel articulation during rocky excursions. Opting for this trick hardware triggers a $750 “Keep it Wild” discount, which more than offset our truck’s $350 sliding rear cargo shelf that can extend beyond the tailgate opening to ease loading and unloading.
All-in, our trail-ready 4Runner came to $40,240, fairly reasonable given the truck’s equipment (absent safety gear notwithstanding) and the ever-increasing prices seen among crossovers and SUVs. You’d have to spend another $10K to drive off in the basest Land Rover Discovery.
The Toyota’s MSRP invites comparisons to Jeep’s four-door Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon. Both are among the dwindling handful of SUVs capable of leaving the mall parking lot the grassy way, both have four doors, both are similar in size, and both cost about the same when optioned similarly. They’ve both been around for a long while, too, with the JK-generation Jeep dating to 2007 (but there’s an all-new Wrangler coming for 2018). Another difference: The Toyota’s roof doesn’t come off, but its rear window—the one in the tailgate—can retract for semi-open-air motoring . . . or to make it easier to poke one end of a surfboard out of the cargo hold.
The Toyota’s 9.6 inches of ground clearance and 33-degree approach and 26-degree departure angles aren’t as extreme as the Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon’s 10.0-inch and 42.2- and 32.5-degree measurements. Still, they allow the 4Runner to scamper over the sort of obstacles that would leave most modern crossovers panting and begging for mercy. We dirtied the 4Runner at a local off-road park and barely taxed its capability. In any event, the Toyota also is far more livable than the Jeep thanks to its fixed roof, independent front suspension, and better-appointed (and quieter) interior.
Refined Is a Relative Term
Nevertheless, the old-school 4Runner suffers many of the same shortcomings as the Jeep. Its traditional ladder frame forces the floor up high and reduces cabin space relative to unibody crossovers. The meaty tires hum on the highway and serve up notably poor grip; we were even able to chirp them during not particularly hard braking in traffic. And the solid rear axle mixes awkwardly with the independent front suspension, the setups delivering roly-poly handling and significant body dive under braking. At least ride quality is generally comfortable.
The steering has vague on-center action, so you’ll spend plenty of effort on long trips nudging the wheel to and fro. Stopping requires pressing one’s foot through a squishy dead zone that spans most of the brake pedal’s long stroke to the floorboard. Predictably, the TRD Off-Road’s 183-foot braking distance and 0.76-g grip figures are unimpressive, and driving it hard results in disconcerting body lean and howl from the tires. This is how SUVs used to drive.
You’ll find more cobwebs under the hood, where an ancient 270-hp 4.0-liter V-6—no turbos or direct fuel injection here!—works with a five-speed automatic transmission to move the 4Runner. This unremarkable combo labors against the TRD Off-Road’s considerable mass when pressed, but otherwise it fades into the background in normal driving. That ye olde V-6 pushes the Toyota to 60 mph in 7.5 seconds is frankly quite impressive, as is the 17-mpg average we recorded during our test, which matches the EPA’s city estimate.
Designed to Stay Together
Other positives? The cargo area is large at 47 cubic feet—and that’s just behind the second-row seats. The dashboard is pleasantly straightforward and easy to use, particularly the climate and audio controls, both of which have knurled knobs and large buttons easily manipulated by gloved or wet hands. It is leagues more civilized inside than the Wrangler, at least partially because—unlike the Jeep—it isn’t designed to come apart (i.e., the doors, roof, and other bits aren’t removable). The materials inside are at least two generations behind Toyota’s zeitgeist, but they’re still okay.
So, much like the usual subjects of carbon-dating tests, the Toyota 4Runner is a relic, albeit one with a niche use for the right buyer. This TRD Off-Road iteration marks a nice middle ground in the 4Runner lineup, and one can ratchet up the burliness by opting for the TRD Pro or down with the more basic 4Runner SR5 or luxe Limited. Either way, every 4Runner is a throwback to when SUVs existed under the pretext of off-road capability, not as the family-hauling minivan alternatives that they have become. With Nissan’s discontinuation of the Xterra after 2015, the choices for an affordable, four-door four-by-four have dwindled to, well, the Wrangler Unlimited and the 4Runner. If you have tunnel vision for an SUV of this ilk, the Toyota is the friendlier everyday companion.