Freshened styling and the addition of an off-road TRD Pro trim has extended the life of one of the last of the old-school truck-based SUVs, the aged 2015 Toyota 4Runner — but not by much.
Traditional truck-based midsize SUVs have become exceedingly rare in today's market. You can still buy full-size, truck-based SUVs like the Chevrolet Tahoe or Ford Expedition without a problem, but most midsize ones have moved to car platforms and become "crossovers," like the Nissan Pathfinder and Ford Explorer.
The Toyota 4Runner is a holdout, a real rear-wheel-drive, ladder-frame-based SUV that features some old equipment and old thinking for people who need the superior off-road and towing capabilities that only a truck-style SUV delivers. The 4Runner seats five but offers an optional third row for a seating capacity of seven.
Toyota updated the 4Runner for 2015 with a new off-road-ready TRD Pro version, but left most of the mechanicals alone (compare the 2014 and 2015 models here). The truck's styling was updated for the 2014 model year.
Can the old-style 4Runner still be a viable entry in the midsize SUV segment when most of its competitors have become front-wheel-drive family-haulers?
Exterior & Styling
The 4Runner got a pretty comprehensive styling update for 2015, with Toyota seemingly using just knives to redo the early clay model prototype for the truck. It's all angles and slashes, but it works surprisingly well on the 4Runner (as opposed to some Lexus models we could name), especially in the black-on-black ("murdered out") TRD Pro model I tested. There's no chrome or shiny bits on this model; it's monochrome black with black wheels. With the angry, befanged face of the new 4Runner, a higher stance, aggressive off-road tires and flat-black wheels, it looks quite good.
How It Drives
While the 4Runner may look new on the outside, there's nothing fresh under the hood. Powering the SUV is a 4.0-liter V-6 making just 270 horsepower. That's not a lot of grunt for such a large V-6. By comparison, the 3.6-liter V-6 in the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango makes 290 hp. Both those competitors might be characterized as car-based, but they're similarly heavy, off-road-capable towing machines. Both are also available with a much more powerful 360-hp, 5.7-liter V-8.
The 4Runner uses an old five-speed automatic transmission instead of a more modern eight-speed unit, like the one in the Jeep. The result is a big, heavy SUV that feels like a big, heavy SUV. Put your foot down and you get a lot of noise without a lot of thrust. It's not an issue in around-town driving, where the 4Runner can keep up with stop-and-go traffic without an issue, but it becomes irksome on highway entrance ramps or when passing. One does not get the impression that the 4Runner would be happy fully loaded or towing a trailer.
The TRD Pro trim includes some more off-road-oriented parts, like Eibach springs and Bilstein shock absorbers, aimed at making the 4Runner a highly capable all-terrain vehicle. The changes come without compromising ride or handling very much. Items like a locking rear differential, multiterrain selectable all-wheel drive, crawl control and hill descent control are included.
The TRD Pro feels admirably tight and controlled on pavement, without much of the bouncy float that dedicated off-road vehicles exhibit on the street (like Toyota's own Tacoma TRD Pro compact pickup truck). Aside from some tire noise from the all-terrain tread — and a higher step-in height due to the off-road suspension — the 4Runner TRD Pro feels solid, controlled and well-damped over all kinds of pavement conditions. The brakes feel firm and well-suited to stopping the big truck, making the overall driving experience surprisingly pleasant given the off-road tuning this 4Runner has received.
Compared with the Jeep Grand Cherokee, however, the 4Runner feels its mechanical age. Both the Jeep and the Durango (which are mechanically related under the skin) have much better accelerator response and steering feel. And while neither the Jeep nor the Dodge offer a dedicated off-road desert-racer package like the TRD Pro, the Grand Cherokee features sophisticated four-wheel drive that lets even basic models do some amazing things off-pavement.
Another alternative that's both less expensive and smaller in stature is the Nissan Xterra. It's an old-style SUV — based on a compact pickup truck — that features a similarly sized V-6 engine and rear- or four-wheel drive. The Xterra also features a dedicated off-road version in the PRO-4X, which comes with off-road parts similar to those found on the Toyota TRD Pro series. It looks and feels even older than the 4Runner, however, not having received a major update in nearly a decade. Nissan says 2015 is the Xterra's final model year.
The old architecture and technology in the 4Runner's powertrain limit its fuel economy. The 4x4 TRD Pro version is rated 17/21/18 mpg city/highway/combined, which is about average for this style of large truck-based SUV. My week of mixed-use driving netted about 17 mpg on average. The Grand Cherokee bests it in highway mileage thanks to its eight-speed transmission: Its V-6 4x4 version is rated 17/24/19 mpg. The Jeep is also available with two other powertrains: a V-8 that's rated 14/20/16 mpg and a unique turbo-diesel 3.0-liter V-6 rated 21/28/24 mpg.
It's a significant hop up into the 4Runner's cabin, made a little easier by the optional running boards on this off-road-ready truck. Once you're inside, the cabin is a comfortable, functional place. The interior styling doesn't work as well as the exterior styling, however, with plastics, shapes, knobs, displays and materials that bring to mind a 1990s Japanese boom box. While the outside is businesslike and geared toward rugged off-road ability, the inside features odd, sparkly black plastic trim and blue LCDs — more urban adventurer than outdoorsy tough.
The material quality and design are the only internal flaws, though, as comfort is top-notch, with big seats and plenty of room. Backseat legroom is a little tight, and the floor is higher than you'd find in a typical crossover-style SUV, given the 4Runner's high ground clearance and rear-wheel-drive platform.
That high riding style is also what gives the 4Runner excellent 360-degree outward visibility, with upright, airy windows that provide an excellent view in all directions. It's also quiet in the cabin at speed, but the aggressive tread pattern on the off-road tires produces more road noise than you'd get in a Limited trim model, for instance.
Ergonomics & Electronics
Toyota has included the latest version of its multimedia system in the 4Runner: the Entune Audio system that includes navigation and an app suite. It responds quickly, but like most onboard systems that offer a bunch of apps, most of them are features the majority of the public simply doesn't use in the car, such as Facebook, OpenTable and an app to purchase movie tickets.
The graphics and interface look outdated despite being the latest and greatest from Toyota. By contrast, the Uconnect touch-screen system in the Jeep Grand Cherokee looks and feels much more modern, works just as well and even has a more streamlined voice interface, if you use such features. American and European automakers are still inexplicably ahead of Japanese automakers in terms of in-vehicle multimedia system sophistication.
The layout of the 4Runner's buttons and switches is good. They're easy to use, and it's easy to find what you want to do. The buttons are even large enough to be used while wearing gloves. Most of the four-wheel-drive controls are overhead, on a console on the ceiling. Given they're some of the least-commonly used buttons in the vehicle, that seems a good place for them. Using those systems is perfectly simple, as well, with rotary knobs allowing you to select whatever terrain condition you're facing.
Cargo & Storage
The 4Runner's boxy, upright structure means it can carry plenty of stuff. With the first two rows of seats in place, the 4Runner offers 46.3 cubic feet of cargo room, expandable to 88.8 cubic feet with the rear seats folded. If you get the optional third row (only available on SR5 and Limited trims), cargo room drops to just 9.0 cubic feet. The liftgate is unique: The window slides down into it instead of hinging opening separately. This enables long items to stick out the gate without having to drive with the hatch open — but it also lets exhaust fumes flood the cabin when you drive with it open.
The Grand Cherokee is biased more toward passenger room than cargo space. It offers just 36.3 cubic feet of cargo room, expandable to 68.3 cubic feet with the seats folded. In exchange, it provides 105 cubic feet of space to its five occupants versus the more cramped 4Runner's 97 cubic feet. The Grand Cherokee's extra space comes in its backseat, which has nearly 6 inches more legroom than the 4Runner.
The Dodge Durango is a bit bigger than the Grand Cherokee, offering three standard rows of seats and 17.2 cubic feet of cargo room behind the third row. With the third row stowed, the Durango offers 47.7 cubic feet of cargo room. That number rises to 84.5 cubic feet when the second row is stowed, as well.
The Nissan Xterra is a size smaller than the 4Runner yet is competitive with the Grand Cherokee. It has 36.3 cubic feet of cargo room, expandable to 65.7 cubic feet, and 100 cubic feet of passenger space.
The 4Runner can tow a decent-sized trailer, with a maximum tow rating of 4,700-5,000 pounds, depending on trim and equipment. The Grand Cherokee, though, beats it, with a tow rating of 6,200-7,200 pounds, depending on equipment and powertrain. The Durango ranges from 5,000-7,400 pounds. Even the smaller Xterra can match the 4Runner, with a tow rating of 5,000 pounds.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's crash tests are mixed, with the 4Runner earning a four-star overall safety rating. It scored best in side-impact protection, but didn't score above four stars in front impact tests and only managed a three-star rollover rating.
These results closely follow the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's tests, which also showed problems with frontal impacts. The 4Runner received only a marginal rating in its small overlap front crash test (out of a possible good, acceptable, marginal or poor). See the ratings here.
Despite receiving an update in 2014, the 4Runner still lacks a number of modern safety features: automatic collision warning, automatic braking, adaptive cruise control, blind spot warning, lane departure warning, lane keep assist and other systems. Front and rear sonar parking sensors are available only on certain trim levels. It does feature a standard backup camera and a large complement of airbags, but the aged electrical architecture means the 4Runner isn't likely to get many of these advanced systems until a major redesign happens. See what comes on the 4Runner here.
Value in Its Class
SUVs this size aren't cheap propositions, but the 4Runner has kept a reasonable price. There are four trim levels, starting with SR5, then Trail, TRD Pro and Limited. The SR5 4x2 model starts at $34,110, including a destination fee, with most options coming in packages. (Both the SR5 and Trail are available with a Premium Package that creates SR5 Premium and Trail Premium trim levels.)
A Trail model starts at $37,015, while the TRD Pro starts at $42,210. Both come only with four-wheel drive. My test vehicle was a TRD Pro that stickered at $42,540, with the only options being running boards and all-weather interior mats. If you want a luxury truck, the Limited trim starts at $42,485 for a 4x2 and can be optioned up to a fully loaded price around $47,000. Build a 4Runner your way here.
The 4Runner faces some tough competition from the Grand Cherokee, the last major update of which, in 2011, was far more thorough than the Toyota's. The Jeep offers a more sophisticated four-wheel-drive powertrain, an optional air suspension, adaptive cruise control, all manner of electronic safety systems, a more luxurious interior even on lower trims, more powertrain options, better fuel economy, more sophisticated multimedia systems and higher towing capacity. The advantages are numerous and considerable. What it doesn't have is the 4Runner's cargo capacity or durability reputation, but those are pretty much its only deficits.
The Grand Cherokee starts at $30,990 and can be truly loaded up to luxury-vehicle status for more than $61,000. The Durango isn't quite as capable off-road as either the 4Runner or the Grand Cherokee, but it has the advantage of having more space and a sizable third row for a starting price of $31,490. Loading one up won't break $56,000 or so.
Finally, the Nissan Xterra is similarly sized to the Grand Cherokee but is the oldest, least expensive competitor here. It can do the things the 4Runner TRD Pro can do in the dirt but offers much less sophistication and technology on-road. The upside: Even the most expensive Xterra PRO-4X starts at just $31,475. Loaded up with leather seats and an automatic transmission, it still doesn't top $34,000. See all four competitors compared here.
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