There was a time, and not all that long ago, when pretty much every SUV on the market rode on a truck-derived body-on-frame chassis. Fast-forward to modern day and the exact opposite is true, with most utility vehicles now making use of car-like unibody construction.
But there are still a handful of holdouts, with the Toyota 4Runner among those resisting the wind of change. However, the 4Runner is certainly a dying breed and it's the only body-on-frame choice left in the mid-size SUV segment.
Curious to see if there's still a case for a truck-like SUV in the mid-size ranks, we ordered up a 2014 4Runner for a week-long evaluation.
What is it?
Very much a traditional SUV, the 4Runner dates back to 1984 when it was introduced as enclosed version of the Hilux pickup truck. Over the years the 4Runner has gained its own distinctive styling and better interior appointments, but the SUV has never completely shaken its truck roots.
Now in its fifth-generation, the 4Runner is available in three trim levels - SR5, Trail and Limited. A four-cylinder was on offer for a brief period, but all 4Runners now come equipped with a 270 horsepower version of Toyota's 4.0L V6. A five-speed automatic is the only transmission available, but buyers do have the choice of either two- or four-wheel drive.
When equipped with four-wheel drive, the 4Runner is formidable off-road vehicle, which is a rarity in today's SUV market.
What's it up against?
Given its body-on-frame construction and off-road abilities, the 4Runner has few natural rivals. However, the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited is probably the 4Runner's closest competitor, with the Nissan Xterra also in the mix. Albeit more refined, Jeep's Grand Cherokee also matches up with the 4Runner is terms of size and overall capabilities.
What's it look like?
The 4Runner has never been a beauty queen, but the 2014 version of the SUV scores particularly low on the scorecard.
Refreshed for the 2014 model year, the 4Runner features a new front end that is almost alien-like in nature. A hodgepodge of bulges, angles and shapes, there is little design cohesion in the 4Runner's mug.
The rear of the 4Runner was more conservatively updated, with new-look taillights hailing as the only major change.
In profile the SUV maintains classic two-box styling, along with thick C-pillars that have become a 4Runner design staple. A hood scoop, also a 4Runner trait, is standard across all models.
The 4Runner rolls on 17-inch wheels shod in beefy 265/70 rubber.
Although not pretty, we at least give Toyota credit for making the 4Runner stand out from the crowd.
And on the inside?
The 4Runner's hardened exterior spills into the SUV's cabin where chunky shapes and over-sized proportions dominate the landscape.
The 4Runner's center stack features larges knobs and buttons, but it isn't overly cluttered with controls. That's because most infotainment functions are handled by a high-mounted touchscreen. There are, however, physical controls for oft-used functions like volume and tuning.
Toyota also took a minimalist approach to the 4Runners HVAC controls, with three large dials handling just about everything.
While the large shapes give the 4Runner's interior a sense of substantialness, they make the SUV's 6.1-inch touchscreen look puny in comparison. Perhaps it's time for Toyota to upgrade to an 8-inch or larger screen.
And while they're at it, we wouldn't mind a software upgrade for the 4Runner's infotainment. Although equipped with Toyota's latest App Suite, the system's interface looks dated and isn't always intuitive to use. Toyota calls the screen Hi Res, but it looks more like Mid Res to our eyes.
The 4Runner's gauge cluster is simply designed with a red, white and blue color scheme that gives good contrast, but a speedometer readout with hashes every 5mph would make life behind the wheel a little easier.
The 4Runner's multi-function steering wheel has controls for just about everything, but they aren't logically arranged. For example, the volume switch is located in the lower portion of the wheel, which is impossible to operate with your hands at 10 and 2.
Off-road purist will be happy to see that the 4Runner Trail uses an actual lever to operate its transfer case rather than a push-button. A gated transmission shifter is somewhat old-fashioned, but does offer a manual shift mode. Storage isn't overly plentiful in the 4Runner, but there are cubbies and nooks to hold your essential items.
The shiny plastic covering the center console adds visual interest, but we wonder about its long-term durability. Our test car had covered fewer than 6,000 miles and the shiny surface was already showing plenty of battle scars.
Controls for the 4Runner's AWD system are smartly located on an overhead panel.
The 4Runner offers plenty of room for first and second row passengers. A third row is optional, but our test car wasn't so equipped. We found the 4Runner's seats to be comfortable, even on longer journeys.
Most of the 4Runner's touching points are made of soft-touch materials, but they don't feel of the highest quality. We'd place the 4Runner's interior ahead of the Jeep Wrangler's, but behind the up-scale cabin of the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
But does it go?
Making a civilized cruiser out of an off-road-oriented truck isn't always an easy task, but Toyota has accomplished just that with the 4Runner.
Although not as smooth as a comparable unibody vehicle, the 4Runner offers a compliant ride without the typical bucking and flexing that can plague truck-based SUVs. And because the 4Runner was built to handle the Rubicon Trail, it can handle everyday road imperfections with ease.
Handling isn't an SUV strong suit, but the 4Runner managed the corners we encountered just fine. There is some body lean, but the 4Runner never felt gangly or out of sorts.
The 4Runner's 270 horsepower V6 could benefit from an update, but we were pleasantly surprised by the engine's willingness to get up and go. Even at highway speeds the powertrain was eager to drop down a gear and rev to redline. Toyota says the 4Runner can accelerate from 0-60 in 8.6 seconds, but our seat-of-the-pants test indicates that figure could be on the conservative side.
The 4Runner is rated at 17mpg in the city and 21mpg on the city. We beat the EPA's combined 18mpg rating, netting about 19mpg in mixed driving.
The 4Runner's 4,700 pound tow rating isn't flashy, but keep in mind that Toyota uses strict SAE measuring standards.
The 4Runner lacks advanced features like blind spot warning and adaptive cruise control. However, off-road tech like hill descent control and a locking rear differential are standard on the Trail model.
Leftlane's bottom line
The Toyota 4Runner certainly isn't for everyone, but it has an unmistakeable allure we just can't put our finger on. Maybe it's because we're from a generation when all SUVs were like the 4Runner.
If all you're interested in is good road manners and room for the kids, something like the Toyota Highlander is probably a better option. But if you're looking for a vehicle that can handle weekday duties and then turn into an adventure machine on the weekend, there are few SUVs better qualified than the Toyota 4Runner.
2014 Toyota 4Runner Trail Premium 4x4 V6 base price, $38,645. As tested, $41,825.
Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System, $1,750; Rigid Running Boards, $345; Carpet Floor Mat & Cargo Mat, $225; Destination, $860.
Photos by Drew Johnson.