It’s hard to believe that the Toyota 4Runner SUV has been with us for three decades, during which Toyota has sold about 2 million of them, some 75 percent of which are still on the road.
But like its more storied cousin, the Toyota Land Cruiser, today’s 4Runner is a far cry from the simple sport-ute it was in 1984. As it grew bigger, heavier and more complex, it lost some of the charisma that made it an icon in the first place. Moreover, SUV buyers have moved away from truck-based models in favor of lighter weight, softer riding and more fuel efficient crossovers, leaving the 4Runner and its hip platform mate, the FJ Cruiser, as the last such mid-size SUVs on the market.
In hopes to extend its lease on life after 30 years. Toyota gave the 4Runner a facelift. And like many such decisions made to fight the march of time, this one didn't turn out well.
The 4Runner has never been much of a looker, but boy howdy does this thing draw attention now, and not in a positive way. Toyota says that the exterior freshening is intended to convey a rugged, off-road-worthy look, and let’s just say that it succeeds. In top-tier Limited form—positioned above the base SR5 and off-road-oriented Trail models — the 4Runner has a slightly more premium style, with a horizontal chrome grille visually breaking up what appears to be a vacuous hole in the nose of lesser 4Runners. Scowling headlamps, new LED taillamps, and various refinements (ie: mudguards on the SR5, skid plates fitted to the Trail version, new wheels and other bits and pieces) round out the changes.
Most of the styling changes seem to be butch-it-up contrivances rather than functional enhancements. While change for change’s sake comes with the car business, we can’t see why Toyota wouldn’t at least try to make the vehicle less ugly. As it sits, no other new model looks quite so "rugged."
Thankfully, the interior update is more of a genuine improvement. Each trim level gets its own dashboard treatment, and while they’re a tad cluttered, they all look good, particularly the Limited trim with its rich-looking wood grain trim. The Limited model’s interior is also available with a “Redwood” leather hue. At night, the gauges and switchgear glow in a sophisticated blue tint, rather than the plebian amber of previous years.
Toyota’s well-sorted Entune Audio Plus system is standard on the SR5 with a 6.1-inch high-resolution touch screen with voice control; Trail models add standard navigation along with a bundled app suite that includes Pandora, Gracenote, Doppler radar (which could actually come in handy for off-roaders who don’t want to get stuck in a flash flood) and more; Limited models add a 15-speaker JBL sound system. And as always with this generation of the 4Runner, the stereos feature speakers in the tailgate for blasting tunes at parties or campsites.
On the road, the 2014 4Runner showed itself to be the most refined 4Runner we’ve ever experienced. Revisions to the sound-deadening material help quash some of the 4.0-liter V-6’s gruffness, though it does still creep in at high rpms. The ride quality remains a bit lumpy compared with its crossover archrivals, namely the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Nissan Pathfinder, but 4Runner loyalists with undoubtedly see this as an improvement over its predecessors.
The 4Runner still feels heavy (because it is) but the 270-hp V-6’s pull is strong. The five-speed transmission shifts with deliberacy and even features a sport mode, virtually unheard of in this class. We didn’t get a chance to pull a trailer with the 4Runner to see if its new trailer sway control system is effective, but we did get to off-road the thing. Not surprisingly, with its high ground clearance, aggressive approach and departure angles, low range transfer case, and of course, 278 lb.-ft. of engine torque, the 4Runner remains the mountain goat it has always been, particularly in Trail form. We didn’t drive it far enough to go through a tank of gas, but the EPA rates the 4Runner at 17 mpg city / 23 mpg highway for 4x2 models, and one mpg less on the highway for 4x4 models, a reasonably impressive number, considering its off-road proclivities.
All told, Toyota met its goal of adding on-road refinement without compromising off-road capability. The only competitor in which we could imagine doing the same off-road tricks is the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, which can’t touch the 4Runner in terms of everyday comfort and interior refinement. While 2014 model year pricing was not available yet, Toyota outlined the strategy for each 4Runner model. The SR5 adds new 17-inch wheels, the Entune apps, projector headlamps, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and a power driver seat, while roughly maintaining last year’s prices. The price for the Trail model should drop a bit, via subtractions that Toyota claims won’t be noticed by its target customers (ie: hardcore off-roaders). The Limited model now contains the aforementioned apps and most of the toys expected of a $40,000-plus SUV.
Yet the 4Runner still feels like a relic, and there are many more comfortable and/or fuel-efficient vehicles out there (including Toyota’s own Highlander crossover) that are better matched to family truckster duties. Still, Toyota says there are enough die-hard adventure-seekers left who consider body-on-frame construction important enough to forego a little comfort and efficiency. For them, the fact that they will be more comfortable in the 2014 model, and that it's not the handsomest car at the valet stand, won't matter as much. Either way, they’ll probably like it.