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First Drive: 2014 Toyota 4Runner [Review]

by Andrew Ganz

Toyota\'s off road SUV gets a new look and a few refinements for 2014.

Toyota won't admit it, but we bet its executives were rather surprised with the success of the fifth generation Toyota 4Runner.

Quietly - almost too quietly - launched in late 2009 at, of all places, the State Fair of Texas, the 4Runner has defied expectations over the last few years by finding 40-50,000 buyers annually.

We were skeptical not because we disliked the 4Runner, but because it represents something of an anachronism in the ever-evolving world of SUVs and crossovers. The 4Runner, with its body-on-frame construction, tall tires and plenty-of-daylight ground clearance, represents the way SUVs used to be.

Need proof? Today, it's one of just a small handful of vehicles so constructed. But, as the refreshed 2014 4Runner clearly indicates, there's definitely still plenty of demand for these off road-oriented 'utes.

Off road heritage

Most of us might think of Toyota primarily for its workaday Camrys and Corollas, but it's worth remembering that Big T is best known in the far reaches of the world for rugged Toyota Land Cruisers. As revered for its off roaders as Land Rover and Jeep, Toyota could be subjected to criticism for not getting with the times and and offering a road-going crossover. But there's the hot-selling Toyota Highlander, which represents the yin to the 4Runner's yang.

Based on a platform that also underpins the Toyota FJ Cruiser and the Lexus GX 460, the 4Runner features a rugged frame beefed up with additional bracing for 2014 and a solid rear axle. Only one engine - a carried-over-for-2014 4.0-liter V6 that cranks out 270 horsepower and 278 lb-ft. of torque - is on offer. And it's mated to a five-speed automatic that either sends power to the rear or all four wheels. Since 4Runner is a "real” truck, it offers a pair of two-speed transfer cases - a simple part-time system on SR5 and Trail and a full-time setup on range-topping Limiteds.

Regardless of trim, all 4Runners look different for 2014. Up front, SR5s and Trails get a new fascia that either looks like a ninja fighter or appears to have been attacked by a feral cat. We'll say this: In person, it's a lot better than in photos. Limiteds, meanwhile, gain their own style with a chrome full-width lip that reminds us of a milk mustache.

SR5s are high-volume 4Runners. For 2014, they add a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a backup camera, LCD screens in their center stacks and instrument clusters and a power driver's seat.

Limiteds, meanwhile, up the game with a full complement of luxury goodies like standard heated and ventilated leather seats, navigation and 20-inch alloy wheels. As a nod to their pavement-oriented positioning, Limiteds feature an X-REAS suspension with opposite end cross-linked shock absorbers to reduce side-to-side tussle on rough pavement and lean in corners.

But it's the Trail trim level that really represents the 4Runner best. For 2014, Toyota has made some standard equipment optional to reduce its base price (formal pricing hasn't been released). Remaining standard are a host of off road goodies: A locking rear differential, a Land Rover-style traction control system that can literally be dialed in depending on the type of terrain encountered, and a "crawl control” to descend or ascend steep obstacles at an especially slow pace.

Optional on Trail is a trick Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System that includes thicker sway bars for on road use that automatically disconnect under high articulation conditions. In short, the system delivers flatter on road handling and better off road ability.

One thing Toyota hasn't announced yet is pricing, but the automaker has hinted that 2014 SR5s will list from about the same $31,500, while the base Trail will probably drop to about $36,000 thanks to the deletion of its standard (now optional) moonroof. A similarly-optioned Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon is more like $38,000.

Short of the Wrangler, no reasonably-priced 4x4 offers as many off road credentials, not even the Jeep Grand Cherokee. And it's the Wrangler that really is the 4Runner's best rival since Toyota's Highlander does battle with pavement-oriented crossovers (and former SUVs) like the Nissan Pathfinder and Ford Explorer.

Both 4Runner and Wrangler about the same usable room inside and a similar degree of off road capability. Sure, you can push a Wrangler harder, but for the way most buyers are likely to use $35,000 SUVs right out of the box, the 4Runner is plenty capable.

And, even though the Wrangler has become far more civilized recently, the 4Runner remains more comfortable. Some minor enhancements to its dashboard are centered around the newly-standard audio head unit upgrade. Included on all is Toyota's Entune app-based infotainment, which is generally easy to use for functions like Pandora Internet Radio and (optional) navigation, but the system could use a brighter screen.

The dash itself is bulgy but conveniently laid out with cartoonish big climate control buttons and knobs. Trail models include a "rugged” old-style transfer case lever, while SR5 and Limited trims use an electronic knob.

All models have good front and rear room, comfortable seats and decent visibility, although the optional third row is clearly not for adults. Materials are generally acceptable, with a smattering of hard plastic mixing with nicely-grained and padded surfaces. A notable exception is the econo-car cheapness of the 4Runner's headliner.

On (and off) the road

If the last body-on-frame SUV you drove was back in the design's mid-1990s heyday, the 4Runner represents a giant leap forward. No, it isn't as nimble or, ultimately, as comfortable as the "tall wagon” crossovers with their unibody constructions. Power is adequate but not breathtaking from the big V6.

However, the 4Runners we sampled on rural roads in Pennsylvania and Maryland proved to be commendably refined on terra firma. We spent most of our road time in an SR5 with the standard suspension and a Limited with the X-REAS setup. The former leaned predictably in corners but smothered bumps with aplomb, while the X-REAS-equipped 'Runner felt firmer but noticeably more planted. In fact, we'd argue that either 4Runner felt nearly as precise as the most recent Highlander we tested, although that's damning it with faint praise.

Off road, we only sampled the Trail with KDSS. Yes, a Jeep Wrangler's solid front axle will articulate much further, allowing all four wheels to remain on the dirt, but KDSS is remarkably flexy. Hampered only by its weak road-oriented tires, the 4Runner Trail is certainly among the most capable off roaders ever built. Shame that someone at Toyota clearly doesn't "get it” - the Wrangler Rubicon comes from the factory with off road tires, so why can't the 4Runner?

That's compromise for you, which defines the 4Runner.

MG's bottom line

Some might argue that the 4Runner is a relic of the past. They're right: It is. But it has been carefully updated and refined to provide nearly all of the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited's off road capability with an added dose of refinement and a generally lower price tag.

It'll never topple the Highlander on Toyota's sales charts, but we're glad to see that enough 4Runner buyers keep lining up to give this long-lived nameplate a viable future. It's not for everyone, the 4Runner, but for those still interested in off road ability, it's a solid Wrangler alternative.

2014 Toyota 4Runner base price, TBA

Photos by Andrew Ganz.

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