The 2017 Toyota 4Runner is slowly becoming one of a kind thanks to a focus on off-road capabilities and ruggedness rather than the refinement, passenger comfort and crash avoidance technologies that are prioritized in competing models. If you'd like the latter, there are a plethora of car-based SUVs out there, like the Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot, to get the family around in comfort. The 4Runner, on the other hand, has hardware better suited for weekend camping trips, mountainous exploration or, as I found, oddly good maneuvering of an urban landscape.

What makes it so capable? The 4Runner retains body-on-frame construction, a once-common chassis type that's given way to lighter — and less-capable — unibody SUVs (commonly called crossovers or car-based SUVs)

New Name, Same SUV

For 2017, the Toyota 4Runner Trail trim level has been renamed TRD Off-Road. The 4Runner trims are now SR5, SR5 Premium, TRD Off-Road, TRD Off-Road Premium, TRD Pro and Limited. I tested a TRD Off-Road Premium that stickered at $39,835 including destination charge, $350 sliding cargo floor and a Toyota Keep It Wild saving discount of $750.

Toyota's Keep It Wild discount applies to all 2017 4Runners and was initially introduced in 2014 to celebrate the 4Runner's 30th anniversary, but Toyota kept the discount going. It continues to discount the base and TRD Off-Road by $500, the SR5 and TRD Off-Road Premium $750 and the Limited by $1,000.

How It Drives

TRD Off-Road trims have standard four-wheel drive and beefy off-road features, including a manually selectable two-speed transfer case; an electronic locking rear differential; and an obstacle assist feature called Crawl Control (see it demonstrated here). Compared with the buttons and dials most off-road vehicles now employ, it's gratifying to feel a mechanical connection coursing through the transfer case lever on the TRD Off-Road. I'm not sure if this feature is nostalgically cool yet, like Aviator sunglasses, or just an outdated way to select four-wheel drive, but I felt satisfied every time I engaged it.

Unfortunately, the transfer case provides the only feeling of connectedness among the SUV's driving controls. The steering wheel feels only loosely connected to the front wheels, and accelerator and brake pedal response is more an approximation than a precision control. The looser feeling comes from a suspension and tires that mold better to uneven surfaces — beneficial for rough terrain. On pavement, however, the 4Runner's soft suspension tuning equates to slushy body movement.

With its base suspension, the Jeep Grand Cherokee's refined ride quality is starkly different. Even better, the Jeep's optional air suspension provides a choose-your-own-adventure adjustable ride height; the 4Runner doesn't offer one. Compare the 4Runner with the Grand Cherokee here.

The 4Runner's highway ride quality is surprisingly supple, and wind and road noise are shockingly in-check for an off-roader thanks to its pavement-friendly Bridgestone Dueler H/T tires. The 4Runner TRD Pro we last reviewed had noisy, knobby Nitto Terra Grappler G2 tires.

Even on-road, the 4Runner was at home driving Chicago's late-winter roads, where potholes can bend rims and pop low-profile tires. The 4Runner's meaty tires, though, glided over potholes and rough roads with aplomb. My route to work has a half-mile stretch of road with speed bumps every few hundred feet, and the 4Runner barely flinched hitting those 8-inch tall bumps at the 25-mph speed limit. Most SUVs' rear tires smack the pavement coming down the backside of speed bumps, but the 4Runner's rear suspension carefully unloaded the rear wheels without upsetting the ride.   

The 4Runner's archaic architecture shows thanks to a raucous 270-horsepower, 4.0-liter V-6 that isn't too happy lugging the 4,750-pound SUV. Its five-speed automatic transmission is a gear or two short of most modern transmissions, and it struggles to find pep or efficiency. EPA-estimated gas mileage with 4WD is a poor 17/20/18 mpg city/highway/combined on regular gasoline. The eight-speed transmission in the Jeep Grand Cherokee, meanwhile, makes it feel lighter than it is. The Jeep's fuel economy also outdoes the 4Runner's; it's rated 18/25/21 mpg with its standard V-6 and four-wheel drive.

The 4Runner's brake pedal is numb until about a quarter-way down, when the brakes grab with unexpected force and the 4Runner's loosey-goosey suspension adds nosedive to its list of characteristics. I had to offer many apologies to passengers for the repeated sudden jolts.

Interior

The TRD Off-Road seats five — not seven, like a 4Runner SR5 can with its cramped optional third row. From the driver's seat, the interior is airy and spacious. A high seating position and tall windows make for a commanding view of the road, and it's nice to tower over other cars and have 9.6 inches of ground clearance. It makes for a big step into the cabin if you don't get running boards, but that's the way to go if you need maximum clearance for off-road driving. For most buyers, though, a set of running boards will help; they're available as an accessory at your local Toyota dealership.



The backseat isn't quite as roomy as a typical mid-size SUV's — like a Highlander's — and it's also short compared with a Jeep Grand Cherokee, which might be the better option if you're going to use the backseat a lot. Legroom in the 4Runner is cramped; there's just 32.9 inches in the backseat, compared with the Highlander's 38.4 inches and the Grand Cherokee's 38.6 inches. Compare the three models here.



The utilitarian styling works, and the 4Runner feels ruggedly stylish for a sub-$40,000 SUV. The interior trimmings, however, aren't going to wow you into thinking you purchased a more expensive vehicle, like one of the Grand Cherokee's higher trims. There aren't many frills in the TRD Off-Road Premium, either, though you do get heated seats, a USB port and imitation leather upholstery.

The multimedia system isn't anything to get excited over, though our test vehicle included the 4Runner's optional navigation system, Siri Eyes Free and a weather function with Doppler overlay. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto aren't offered.

Cargo and Towing

The 4Runner's 89.7 cubic feet of maximum cargo space is sizeable compared with the Grand Cherokee's 68.3 cubic feet and the Highlander's 83.7. The 4Runner's cargo opening is tall and wide, and the whole floor can slide objects toward and beyond the cargo opening if you get the optional cargo slide deck. The feature will cost you a little overall cargo height and a cubic foot of storage, but it's unique and usable every day.



People who tow frequently may not find the 4Runner suitable for much more than light-duty use. Despite its rugged construction, the 4Runner's 5,000-pound towing capacity is the same as the Highlander's, and it's less than a Grand Cherokee's 6,200 pounds (with the gasoline V-6). The Jeep's V-8 can tow up to 7,200 pounds, while the Wrangler and Wrangler Unlimited max out at 3,500 pounds.

Safety

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the 2017 Toyota 4Runner a score of marginal in its small overlap front crash test (out of a possible good, acceptable, marginal and poor) and good in four other crashworthiness tests. These ratings match the 2017 Jeep Grand Cherokee. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the 4Runner an overall safety rating of four out of five stars, while the Grand Cherokee has an overall five-star rating with four-wheel drive and four stars with rear-wheel drive.  

The Highlander aced IIHS crash tests and scored five out of five stars from NHTSA.

In NHTSA's rollover testing, the 4Runner earned three stars — the rating most often earned by off-road and truck-based models — with both RWD and 4WD. The Grand Cherokee earned three stars with RWD but four with 4WD. Typical of car-based SUVs, the Highlander rated four stars regardless of driveline.

The Highlander and other popular SUVs, including the Grand Cherokee, have more optional crash-avoidance features than the 2017 4Runner. The 4Runner lacks forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, lane keep assist, blind spot warning and more. That may change soon, however, with Toyota's promise to include automatic emergency braking for the 2018 model year. A backup camera is standard, and front and rear parking sensors are optional.

Value

For $39,835, a TRD Off-Road is still the sweet spot in the 4Runner lineup, just like it was when it was sold as the Trail trim level in 2016. It offers a lot of capability but not a lot of refinement, which could be endearing to weekend adventurers or those who just want to feel like they could dive deep into the woods at a moment's notice.

The Jeep Grand Cherokee is arguably a more modern interpretation of an off-roader, with all the safety and convenience features you'd expect in a modern SUV. Of course that also comes at a higher price, and it's hard to argue with Toyota's reliability and ownership perks. J.D. Power's 2017 Vehicle Dependability Study, which measures reliability of 2014 vehicles, rates the 4Runner five out of five for predicted reliability, while the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee gets just two out of five. (Neither model has been redesigned since 2014, so these ratings set reasonable expectations for the 2017s.) Toyota also offers two years/25,000 miles of free scheduled maintenance.

With less-than-stellar crashworthiness ratings and some modern features absent, the 4Runner is certainly not for everyone, but the roomy and off-road-oriented SUV certainly packs a lot of capability and ownership perks for less than $40,000.