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Expert Reviews 1 of 5
By Joe Wiesenfelder
February 23, 2010
The completely redesigned 2010 Toyota 4Runner reminds me why Americans fell in love with truck-based SUVs — and why we're falling out of love with them. If you're someone who wants a rugged, off-road-capable truck — or simply wants the rugged look — you'll find the 4Runner a strong competitor to the likes of Nissan's Pathfinder and the 2010 Ford Explorer. If you're simply looking for the utility of a vehicle with good visibility, four powered wheels and a liftgate, chances are you'd be happier with a Toyota RAV4, Toyota Highlander or another of the car-based crossovers to which buyers have flocked.
The 2010 has made some sacrifices in towing capacity in the name of better mileage, but some of its off-road features should make the 4Runner more capable on the trail than ever before. The 2010 4Runner is not included in Toyota's high-profile floormat or accelerator pedal recalls.
Before I delve into the 4Runner's pros and cons, here's a quick rundown of Toyota's extensive SUV/crossover lineup, in order of price:
The RAV4 is a compact, car-based crossover and a longtime best-seller with an optional third-row seat, which is rare in the compact class. The Ford Escape and Honda CR-V are notable competitors.
The FJ Cruiser is a truck-based SUV that's smaller than the 4Runner and is Toyota's most off-road-oriented vehicle. It takes on the Jeep Wrangler and Nissan Xterra.
The Highlander is a midsize crossover that seats five or seven. The Ford Edge and Nissan Murano are competitors, though they seat five.
The 4Runner splits the difference between the FJ Cruiser and larger models, with more room and comfort but good off-road chops. It seats five or seven.
The Sequoia is Toyota's largest SUV and is truck-based, as are all full-size SUVs. It comes with seven or eight seats and takes on the Chevrolet Tahoe, Ford Expedition and Nissan Armada.
The Land Cruiser is a large, eight-seat SUV that combines comfort with truck capabilities (at the very high price of $65,970 to start). One could argue that it competes with the likes of Land Rover's Range Rover Sport ... but then what is Toyota's Lexus division for?
The 4Runner is a bit longer and taller than the Highlander, but — typical of truck-based models — it's "dimensionally transcendental," a term I borrow, with full awareness of the personal social implications, from "Doctor Who." The Doctor travels through time and space in a machine called the TARDIS, which from the outside looks like a blue police box (imagine a phone booth large enough for four) but whose inside is as cavernous as an apartment in the average New-York-City-based sitcom. (It's a toss-up as to which of these is less plausible.)
In truck-based SUVs, though, it's the opposite scenario: The interior is disproportionately smaller, so in this case "dimensionally transcendental" might just be a euphemism for space-inefficient. For example, when equipped with five seats, the 4Runner's passenger volume measures 97.3 cubic feet, and its maximum cargo volume (with the backseat folded) is 89.7 cubic feet. The Highlander gives its passengers 113.5 cubic feet and its cargo 95.4 cubic feet. Current 4Runner owners will find 6 cubic feet less passenger volume, but a jump from 75.1 cubic feet of maximum cargo volume to 89.7 cubic feet in the 2010. Climb On In The 4Runner's high step-in (or step-up) height is a carryover from the truck-based heyday. Lacking step rails, our SR5's cabin was a bit of a climb. For what it's worth, our 4x4 test model had 9.6 inches of ground clearance; rear-wheel-drive versions have 9.0 inches.
Once inside, the ride height grants a commanding view of the road, a more appreciated carryover from the era when body-on-frame construction ruled the earth. Shorter drivers, however, might find the hood a bit too high and the bulkhead-like dashboard too claustrophobic. I thought the front seating dimensions were roomy enough, but I hit my head on the ceiling while getting into the backseat — not on the doorframe, but on the ceiling itself. I can't say that's ever happened before, except in coupes. The headliner is scooped out to improve headroom, but apparently not far enough forward or outward. Compared with the previous-generation 4Runner, backseat headroom is down almost a half-inch, which is a lot in a seating dimension.
Backseat legroom is also down a full 1.7 inches versus 2009, and the Pathfinder, Grand Cherokee and Explorer all offer inches more. (See 'em compared here.) Numbers aside, the 2010 4Runner was surprisingly workable for me when the front seats weren't positioned all the way back. The backseat is relatively low to the floor, which improves headroom but makes you sit with your knees raised. Still, it was reasonably comfortable, even in the center seat, which has decent headroom and a relatively small center floor hump. The backrests recline to four positions. Our 4Runner was a five-seater, though a third-row seat is offered on all trim levels except the SR5 with a four-cylinder.
*Specifications for base models **With optional third row; five-seat model is 47.2 / 89.7 cu. ft. (behind backseat / seat folded)
Cabin Quality The interior styling leans toward the rugged, with a blocky center control panel. Toyota was once a clear leader in the quality of its materials and interior construction, but I'm ready to declare that era over. The other guys have dialed it up, and Toyota has stayed the same or even fallen behind. For one thing, there's too much silver plastic, which is best used sparingly even when it succeeds in approximating real metal — which the 4Runner's doesn't.
The cabin's width is pretty good, which doesn't excuse some controls being out of the driver's reach, toward the passenger side. Major ones include the temperature dial and radio tune/scroll knob. The four-wheel-drive control is also far forward, by the passenger's left knee; this was particularly a problem with our part-time four-wheel-drive system's manual lever, which requires a solid yank to move into position. (The optional full-time four-wheel drive, which is standard on the Limited trim level, uses an electronic knob instead.)
The 4Runner moves through space with more grace and quiet than earlier 4Runners, but there's no mistaking truck suspension for crossover suspension. Some crossovers ride firmly, but true SUVs have more bounce to them on interrupted pavement. It's a different feel, but I won't say it's worse. And it's hard to argue with any vehicle that can vault speed bumps and potholes without slowing down. The steering is also more trucklike than the Highlander's, but the difference is nowhere near what it was just a few years ago. The Limited trim level includes X-REAS, a system that cross-links the shock absorbers in opposite corners to control body roll, much the way a stabilizer bar ties one wheel to another on the same axle. V-8 Gone, Not Forgotten The previous generation's base engine was a 236-horsepower, 4.0-liter V-6. Our test 4Runner had a 270-hp V-6, which for 2010 is the optional upgrade. Gone is the V-8 option. Though the V-8 produced 10 hp less than the new V-6, I miss its superior torque: 306 pounds-feet versus 278 pounds-feet in the 2010. It just doesn't have the off-the-line urgency of the 2009, which was lighter. As before, the 2010's V-6 employs a five-speed automatic.
For 2010, the 4Runner's base drivetrain — available only on the SR5 4x2 — is a 157-hp, 2.7-liter four-cylinder with a four-speed automatic. I didn't drive it, but I suspect it's only slightly faster than a TARDIS that's going back in time.
I'm not the only one who will miss the 4Runner's V-8. With me will be anyone who has a trailer of more than 5,000 pounds. Higher towing capacities have been a major advantage of truck-based SUVs in their battle against crossovers, but not in this case. A V-6-powered Highlander also tops out at 5,000 pounds. The 2009 4Runner with a V-8 was good for up to 7,300 pounds. The current Pathfinder tows up to 7,000, the Explorer pulls 7,115, and the Jeep Grand Cherokee can handle 7,400 pounds.
What I don't miss about the V-8 is its mileage, which maxed out at 15/19 mpg city/highway with rear-wheel drive. The 2010 with its V-6 is rated 17/23 mpg. Here are combined mpg numbers for the whole Toyota SUV line:
*Range accounts for different engine and transmission options
Note how the new 4Runner's V-6 engine eliminates the Highlander's mileage advantage with four-wheel drive — an accomplishment for a truck-based model. With two-wheel drive, the Highlander is 1 or 2 mpg better, but its lead isn't as dramatic as one would expect. Clearly, the 4Runner has sacrificed towing for mileage. Off-Roading Technology Depending on which four-wheel-drive system and trim level you choose, the 4Runner is fundamentally either a simple, old-school off-roader, or a showcase of advanced technology. Both, however, are overkill for the vast majority of buyers, for whom simple all-wheel drive — as you'll find on a crossover — is adequate or even preferable.
Our test model had the simpler, part-time four-wheel drive, which operates in rear-wheel drive until you tug that transfer case lever to "4H," 4WD High. This setting locks the center differential, and then the four-wheel traction control, which Toyota calls Active-TRAC, shifts torque between the left and right wheels when necessary. The problem is that the driveline binds if you turn when on dry surfaces, so it's best to switch back and forth between "4H" and "2H" if you're encountering patchy snow. This is a drag, and the reason why simple, automatic all-wheel drive is better for most urban and suburban dwellers.
What crossovers can't do is tackle true off-road situations, because they lack the 4Runner's heavy-duty hardware and additional low gear. Helpful technology includes Downhill Assist Control, which uses the antilock brakes to help descend steep inclines, and Hill-start Assist Control, which automatically holds the brakes to keep from rolling on an incline when you go for the accelerator. Apart from these features and A-TRAC, the part-time four-wheel drive is pretty simple in nature, but harder to use.
The full-time four-wheel drive is the opposite. It drives all four wheels all the time for driver ease, but can also be switched to part-time mode by turning the transfer case's electronic control knob to "H4L," 4WD High Locked, which locks the center diff. Full-time is standard on the top, Limited, trim level. Ultimate Off-Road Capability Ultimate off-road capability comes in the Trail trim level, which adds numerous features you won't find on any comparable SUV:
The Trail grade includes a locking rear differential the driver can activate for added control. It provides a hard mechanical lock for the kind of high-demand off-roading A-TRAC couldn't handle.
Crawl Control, which works in 4WD Low, automatically controls acceleration and braking to maintain a set speed regardless of incline. The idea is to let the driver concentrate on steering; it's sort of an off-road cruise control with five speeds from which to choose.
The Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System disconnects the stabilizer bars, decoupling the right and left wheels, which increases their suspension travel and allows one side to compress without restricting the other side's extension.
The Multi-Terrain Select knob lets the driver select one of four modes that optimize the 4Runner's throttle responsiveness and traction control for different off-road scenarios, including Mud/Sand/Dirt, Loose Rock, Mogul and Rock. It's pretty much a copy of Land Rover's Terrain Response Control, though Rover's models usually also vary ride height using air suspension, which the 4Runner doesn't.
While all this tech is impressive, I'm dubious. Computer-controlled systems are under more scrutiny than ever in the wake of Toyota's many recalls, and the 4Runner Trail combines them with scenarios that are inherently much more hazardous than a run to the grocery store on paved roads. Not to monger fear, only caution. Recall woes aside, the purist in me distrusts features that make it too easy for the uninitiated to attempt anything that otherwise requires skill and experience. Even when they work perfectly, computerized features are a slippery slope. Pun intended. Safety As a recently redesigned model, the 4Runner hasn't been crash tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety as of this writing. The 4Runner is equipped with standard antilock brakes and an electronic stability system with traction control. In addition to the required frontal airbags, there are front-seat-mounted side-impact airbags and curtains that cover the side windows for all seat rows. Roll Sensing Curtain Airbags are designed to deploy in a rollover, so there's an RSCA Off button for use in off-roading scenarios when the 4Runner might lean when it's not rolling over. Front occupants also get knee airbags and active head restraints. Now optional is Safety Connect, a subscription-based service similar to GM's OnStar that provides collision notification and roadside assistance, among other features. See all safety features by clicking here. 4Runner in the Market In some ways, driving the 2010 4Runner was like going back in time — not because it's unrefined or lacks technology, but because it's of a formerly mass-market genre that's increasingly becoming a niche. The niche buyer typically seeks towing, off-road capability or image. Towing seems to have gotten the shaft, but perhaps a V-8 will appear in the future if the 4Runner faithful raise a big enough fuss. As for image, there's no defining to whom the 4Runner will appeal, but if you've ever heard of a TARDIS before, you're probably more suited for a crossover, or even a nice minivan. And for that I applaud you.