This mid-size sport utility vehicle was acquired as a rental vehicle with ~12,500 miles on the odometer at the time of pick up. It stayed with us for four days. We drove approximately ~2,500 miles. The test route included the San Francisco urban traffic thru suspension bottoming Death Valley National Park to the extended idling at the Las Vegas Strip & the breath taking Grand Canyon National Park via varies oxygen lacking peaks and gusty valleys. The entire trip in the 4Runner was with 4 average size adults. The averaged fuel consumption was 20 mpg.
The tester is Toyota’s fourth generation 4Runner. It debuted in 2003 and incorporated major redesign to the chassis and styling from inside and out to capture the intense midsize luxury/comfort oriented SUV segment. Along with those changes, Toyota eliminated the wimpy 2.7L I4, underpowered 3.0L V6 and the barely adequate 3.4L V6 engines found in the third generation with a new 4.0L V6 and optional 4.7L V8 engine – the first V8 engine offered in the 4Runner since its introduction in 1984. This V8 engine is the identical unit propelling the Land Cruiser, Sequoia & Tundra. Aside from minor package and a more noticeable facelift in 2006, there aren’t any significant change to our MY07 tester. The three trim levels; SR5, Sport, and Limited Edition are still available in 2007. Each can be equipped with the optional V8 engine and four-wheel-drive system, where the Aisin-Warner built 5-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission is standard in all trim levels.
Our tester is the SR5 4WD model with the V6 24-valves DOHC engine with VVT-i (Toyota’s Variable Valve Timing with intelligence) on the intake cam. This V6 engine (engine code: 1GR-FE) consists of the commonly used 60 deg aluminum block for optimal ignition firing and vibration reduction, and it produces out 236hp@5,200rpm and 266Ib-ft of torque@4,000rpm. Engine is longitudinally mounted, driving the transmission. Engine power is then transmitted to the transfer case incorporated by multi-mode 4-wheel drive with Torsen limited-slip center locking differential to divert power to the wheels. Traction is provided by a set of P265/70R16, Michelin Cross Terrain tires. The body-on-frame chassis is supported by independent double-wishbone front suspension and a 4-link solid axle rear suspension with coil springs. Stabilizer bars are equipped. Stopping power is generated by 4-wheel ventilated discs with ABS, EBD & brake assist.
Searching and approaching the 4Runner in the lot takes some extra care to glance to pinpoint its exact presents. Our problem of identifying this SUV come in 3 folds: 1) from the side; it is hard to judge the difference between a Explore and the 4Runner. 2) Look it diagonally from the front, the boxy shape of the plastic fender at the wheel well resembled the Chevy products. 3) It might very well be our ignorance about the overpopulated bread-and-butter Toyota products on the public roads which made them to look too generic. As we squints our eyes once we spotted the tester to lock on to the target and to avoid the distracting Ford Explore and Chevy Trailblazer parked next by, the 17″ rim wrapped by the ultra thick sidewall tire appeared to be awfully small in proportion to the rest of the body mass, and the “rackless” roof that is missing the ski racks looks plain; base model indeed.
Step onto the conveniently positioned tubular sidestep to situation into the 8-way manually adjustable fabric driver’s seat. The generic dash with three-pod cluster, which was cool 6 years ago and now it is just too common, housing the typical instruments. The not-so-generic climate control joypad style controls at the midsection of the center console required some head scratching to use – took us about the entire length of the trip to have some instinct to use while driving. Perhaps being generic is not a bad thing after all. The driving style is generically car-like that translates as the most responsive and agile midsize SUV that we’ve never driven.
Engine power is surprisingly ample, despite its below par output on the spec sheet when compare to its rival – Nissan Pathfinder’s 266hp & 288Ib-ft output, contributed from its wide power band from just off idle to the 5,500rpm redline. As the result, the engine has adequate off-the-line acceleration, and sufficient passing power to pull around its 4,300Ibs curb weight and then some. Rev limiter kicks in violently at redline due to the fact that instead of taking advantage of the electronically control throttle to provide smooth fuel cut function to avoid over-revving, this 1GR-FE seems to apply the older method by altering ignition to achieve fuel cut. Interesting indeed! What’s more interesting is the uncommonly low 5,500rpm redline in an import engine, and the propeller like sound from the mechanical radiator fan. For the fore, max horsepower achieved at 5,200rpm and with only 300rpm to spare, this engine doesn’t like to rev freely. But hey, this is a truck! And the engine is quite industrial, high speed drill like when the tachometer needle approaches the 4,000rpm mark.
To make matter more transparent is the 4Runner’s distinct WWII DC bomber’s propeller hums during hot start after a heat soak where the enclosed engine heat cooks the fluid in the viscous fan clutch to engage the mechanical fan. After some research, we concluded that most offroad capable SUV with longitudinally mounted engine still uses the proven and robust viscous clutch fans, instead of the more horsepower saving electrical fans. Fortunately, the engine is dead quiet when cruising at freeway speed where the engine stays at about 2,100rpm @ 70mph in top gear. The drive-by-wire accelerator is lag free, but requires higher than enjoyable operating effort, and it can be tiresome to operate in a long journey especially when needing to adjust throttle input constantly due to head or cross wind, which the high profile of the 4Runner isn’t making that easy.
The transmission (code name:A750F) is responsive and adopts well to the engine. Kickdown is smoothly sharp and quick especially for SUV standard. The wobble-gate shifter is very easy to use. Shift knob feels and looks like taken from X3. The equipped VSC (Vehicle Skid Contorl), TRAC (Traction Control) limited majority of the tire spinning, tailing sliding offroading fun. The VSC, and TRAC kicks in simultaneously with just a slight tire spin. The equipped Torsen LSD allows electronically controlled locking feature to provide automatic distribution of engine torque to the wheels with the most traction. The shift-on-the-fly switch that engages the 4WD modes are simple to use just like most shift-on-the-fly system on the market. To enhance the 4Runner’s offroad capability and peace of mind for green offroaders, the DAC (Downhill Assist Control) & HAC (Hill Start Assist Control) comes standard with the 4WD model. The DAC allows the driver to complete let go of the brake pedal at a steep decline while the DAC program will automatically modulate the brakes to maintain vehicle speed at about 4 mpg and to prevent skidding.
When the vehicle comes to a complete stop at an incline, the HAC will automatically apply the brakes as the driver switches the right foot from the brake to the accelerator to prevent the vehicle from rolling backward. Both features were first seen in some highend European SUV models, and now most of the midsize import SUVs equip with that as standard feature with the ABS, and traction controls packages. Majority of the time, the DAC & HAC are an add-on software program to work in conjunction with the standard ABS, and traction control system, since almost all of the mechanical hardware is already in use in the ABS & traction control.
The suspension tuning felt soft at first. But as we put more miles on the truck, the agility surprised us. Cornering can be taken as easy as a Corolla, if not better. Body roll is nicely controlled. The trade-off is a very bouncy ride, and the suspension has the tenancy to amplify bumps that caused excessive body movement. And often be too harsh to our liking especially when we didn’t expect this behavior from a SUV. On rough washboard gravel surface at Death Valley, the Tokico made struts transmit most of the imperfection to the body. This type of suspension tuning seems like the current trend in Toyota where we also experienced the same phenomenon in the Rav4 V6 Limited. To offer better handling to the truck, it seemed like Toyota went too far on tuning and making the ride too harsh even of us – the car enthusiast that are used to harsh rides. Very uncommon characteristic for a Toyota product, where its product used to be buttery smooth and lack of enthuse. Maybe that’s part of Toyota’s product planning to add sportyness to its lineup for the younger market segment like the Scion division, but yet confusing that they killed the MR2-Spyder & Celica production. As if, Toyota doesn’t have much suspension tuning experience for sporty setup, or SUVs just ain’t meant to be sporty in general.
Being so choppy while sitting 4′ off the ground is not a good feeling. Suspension tends to bottom out when going over speed bumps also. The top of the rear axle is sitting just 3 inches below the bump stop in the coil springs. Hopefully, the X-REAS Sport Enhancement Suspension on the Sports, and Limited trim will mitigate the shortcomings in the SR5. The X-REAS is developed by KYB and Yamaha, which is similar to the hydraulic suspension on the original Mini Cooper, where the suspensions are diagonally connected (Front left to Rear right..etc) with special hydraulic fluid. The purpose is to minimize body lean while doesn’t require ultra stiff sway bars or springs.
Brake feel is a disappointment; soggy, spongy & mushy that requires much higher than expected operating effort in result of non-linear modulation, lack of initiate bit and behave like a failed brake system. However, if one is willing to step on it hard, similar to a panic stop situation. The brakes offer confidence – a gift from the equipped Brake Assist function (which applies full braking power under the panic stop scenario) and ABS involvement is noticeable but smooth, followed by heavy nose dive despite the seemingly stiff suspension tuning.
Steering feel is genuine and has Toyota’s light operating effort but not as sharp as our recently tested Explore. Steering wheel feels and looks very generic like the ones belong to early ’90s. The steering tilting adjustment mechanism is coarse and lack of the typical import refinement. Turning radius is surprisingly short considering its 189.2 inches overall length. Initial turn-in exhibits understeering and front tires plow into mild to sever understeer when near limit – a safety feature tuned for ease of control at extreme limit like most SUVs. Stock tires are quiet regardless pavement surface. Left and right transitions offered no hesitation from the chassis thanks to the strength of the Land Cruiser Prado chassis that is much stronger than previous model in terms of torsional, and bending rigidity.
The additional benefit of a stiff chassis provided the foundation for a completely rattle-free interior at any paved surface with more than acceptable rattle at rough terrain. Workmanship is in the same league as European brands, only the material usage gives out a slight hint that it costs thousands less. The front seats are generally comfortable, but our 2,500 miles worth of “butt” time made us want to escape from the hip numbing “too soft” lower cushion even with the user friendly electronic lumbar support that offers great adjustability. Third row seats are extremely user friendly as well. It can be folded up and hanged against the rear windows, or they can be delightfully removed from the interior individually. However, with the third row seat installed, the remaining cargo space required some careful luggage packing to gain effectiveness. The solid axle setup, the rear floor of the third row seats cannot be dropped to provide more legs room for the third row seat passengers – squatting like seating position. Second row seat has the theater style setup where the bottom of the seat is slightly higher than the front seat, allow the 2nd row passenger to enjoy the scenic thru the windshield. The 60/40 split seats allow individual degree of recline as well. Visibility is surprisingly good for a SUV, even when the rear window size appear to be a mile away in the rearview mirror due to the small window. A trip computer is located at the midsection of the center console, and provides usable functions and it is very easy to use.
The standard six-speakers sound system provided good bass output thanks to the insulated cabin. Road noise and wind noise is muted but offers communicative feedback. Disappointment on the stock stereo unit that doesn’t accept more than one CD, and the fuel-filler-door release handle is located at the most awkward place – next to the hood release lever that looks and feels identical.
Exterior styling retained some of the previous generation features. And we are fortunate that the non-functional hoodscoop is not equipped in this model. Toyota tends to place this hoodscoop theme into their SUV line up with the sports trim. Perhaps, maybe Subaru (which Toyota currently owns about 20%) has surplus scoops. Projector style halogen headlights are bright, illuminating the road similar to the HID counterpart. Visibility around the 4Runner is unexpectedly well. The tail gate housing the powered rear window is heavy and requires a lot of effort to close and hard not to touch the dirt accumulated paint for it to close properly.
Overall, after the initial moan and groan toward some of the shortcomings we mentioned above, and once we gained proficiency in driving the 4Runner. We have started to enjoy the broaden eyesight, right-of-way given in courtesy by or forced from the impolite Los Angeles drivers, fearlessly tackling watermelon size potholes, and clearing wheel stops in the parking lot to get to the adjacent stall by preference, not to mention the convenience of the roomy interior, and Toyota’s known dependably. Generic or not, this 4Runner seems to be the one of the best truly body-on-frame SUVs in the block that is suitable and economical enough for urban daily commute as a family transporter, with the offroad capability that a common-Joe will never dare to attempt.
Performance & Acceleration: 7.5
Comment: Surprisingly ample.
Comment: Efficient, and smooth.
Handling & Cornering: 7.5
Comment: Car like control.
Brake Feel: 2.5
Comment: Did Toyota assemble and bleed it properly? Hope it’s not the intended design.
Ride Characteristic: 5
Comment: Stiff and choppy but yet soft enough to hit suspension bump stops!
Interior Comfort: 6
Comment: Butt numbing front seats. Third row short on leg room for grown ups.
Comment: Typical high quality Toyota fit-and-finish.
Comment: Can’t ask for more.
Comment: Bread-and-butter. +.5 on using Torsen LSD in center diff.
In reality, the 4Runner only has one rival from the Rising Sun in this SUV segment – the Nissan Pathfinder. The Pathfinder may not be truly from Japan given that it is designed for and assembled in the Land of the Free. The Pathfinder equips with the identical equipment with a more powerful engine and slightly less expensive price tag than the 4Runner. Aside from the Pathfinder, the Honda Pilot has been kicking around for quite some time now. Being Honda’s 1st midsize SUV, the Pilot is not in the same league as those mentioned. Pilot’s unibody and the low hanging rear suspension setup, with bunch of elbows to connect the exhaust pipe to the rear muffler like a lost snake isn’t offroad material. Even with the front wheel drive based AWD system, and third row seating, Pilot is a SUV wannabe, geared toward the wannabe trendy soccer moms. For less money, a more powerful engine (at least on paper) and equipped with the same equipment if not more, we are looking forward to a testdrive review on the Pathfinder to see if it is really better than the 4Runner base on Car and Driver magazine’s ROCK-CLIMBING SUVS, SIZE M comparison test (April, 2005), where C&D compared six midsize SUVs as the result, the 4Runner 4WD sport Edition with V8 engine placed 5th, & Pathfinder SE Off-Road came in 2nd. END