There is a distinct trend happening today when it comes to full-size SUV’s. They’re all turning into CUV’s. The once proud Jeep Grand Cherokee, Ford Explorer and Dodge Durango have all joined the Honda Pilot and Chevy Traverse in deleting their frame on body construction in an effort to increase fuel economy and on-road handling. However, there is still one player sticking to its guns, choosing to keep its girder underpinnings – the Toyota 4Runner.
While all the 4Runners competitors, minus the Nissan Pathfinder, have reaped the rewards of an all-new platform underneath them, the 4Runner has failed to compete in terms of on road handling and performance. However, in the fuel efficiency department, the 4Runner is only at a disadvantage on the highway, matching its rivals in town. The bold new look that was ushered in last year along with a lower ride height, has made improvements however the old 4Runner still feels like a truck and not a sedan when running errands around town.
However, one of the very real benefits of keeping with a body on frame construction is its off-road durability and capabilities. The 4Runner has long been regarded as a stout overlander, so the question is, how capable is the current generation in getting itself dirty?
I took the 4Runner Trail Edition to the Whipsaw Trail to find out just how good the 4Runner could handle the great outdoors. It didn’t take long to find just about every condition one could hope to find off-road. Dusty gravel, rutted dirt, rock crawling, deep mud and even snow covered the first 20 km of the trail. For the majority of the trail, 2WD would suffice; however, once the road began to climb into the back country, 4WD-high would need to be called upon. Thankfully the Trail Edition came with a manual transfercase shifter instead of the rather irritating dash mounted electric dial.
When the terrain got steep and muddy, the Trail Edition offered me several different options to tackle the situation. I could just throw it in 4WD-low and control my accent with the throttle and brake. Then there is the Multi-Terrain Select System that allows me to control wheel slip in four different surfaces with settings for “Mud and Sand”, “Loose Rock”, “Mogul”, and “Rock”. On top of that, if things get a little beyond the your skill level, the Trail Edition is even equipped with Crawl Control. This system is like a cruise control for off-road conditions, you just select either low, medium or high, and the traction control will keep the vehicle moving between 1.5 and 5 kmh over the terrain. Both dials are found on the ceiling with sunroof controls, and actually work quite well in their selective operations, although it kind of took all the fun out of controlling the vehicle myself. Off-roading after, is all about testing your driving skill, getting a computer to do all the work just seems like cheating. However, for the beginner, its ideal for perfecting how you approach each obstacle.
Despite all the cool features that make you look like a star negotiating slippery situations, a couple weaknesses showed themselves when the going got rough. To help give the 4Runner competitive fuel efficiency numbers, the ride height is a little low for an off-roader, a situation made even worse by the standard running boards which are nothing more than food to decent sized rock, as I found out. Then when we reached some rutted out mud, the tires showed their worth, and I’m guessing they don’t cost Toyota much. On dry surfaces, the 4WD makes up for the tires weak grip levels, however, in the mud, the treads clogged easily and lateral traction meant I had several close calls when the truck slipped off the high ground into the ruts.
When we made it to camp the 4Runner had a few more surprises in store. For one, the two 110v outlets meant that I could keep cell phones and laptops up and running even deep in the wilds. The rear cargo area had a handy sliding floor that made loading and unloading much easier. If the six best years of your life were spent in grade seven, then you’ll be happy to know that the 4Runners interior is as simplistic and organized as any manufacturer could make. A sharp design that is the envy of most Toyota interiors also has buttons and dials large enough that even an arthritic would love.
Mechanically, the 4Runner proved itself extremely competent off-road. While all the new terrain management gizmos helped make it easier to drive off-road, the drivetrain was more than capable of handling everything I threw at it. It’s only weaknesses turned out to be its ride height and tires, two of the first things that off-roaders will modify after their purchase. However, as a trail edition, you really shouldn’t have to invest large sums of money to bring the 4Runner up to its true potential. Like the Wrangler Rubicon, it would be nice to see Toyota offer the Trail Edition with a little extra clearance and a proper set of All-Terrain tires.