While I love my role as mother, it's not something I want tattooed across my forehead. In the automotive world, there are certain vehicles — one word: minivan — that have the same branding effect. For that reason alone, my heart leapt at the idea of testing out the not-quite-a-mom-mobile 2012 Toyota 4Runner.
I liked the idea of living an adventurous life of off-roading and camping (two activities this SUV would be perfect for), but my real life of errand running on paved roads was made just too bumpy and jerky by the 2012 Toyota 4Runner.
The 4Runner's 4.0-liter V-6 engine provided plenty of power for highway driving. The 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine has been discontinued for 2012. The SUV's body-on-frame construction meant that we felt every bump in the road, but it's really meant to go off-roading. The 4Runner has plenty of features just for that such as crawl mode, hill descent control and a terrain selection system that lets the driver pick the drivetrain setting for the conditions.
Between the rough ride and the small mountain I had to climb to get the little ones into their child-safety seats, I was ready to trade anonymity back in for the comfortable mom-mobile that I regularly drive.
The 4Runner is available in three trims: SR5, Trail and Limited. It has a starting price of $31,900. My midlevel off-road Trail trim with an optional navigation system cost $38,560.
With the 4Runner's chiseled good looks including a hood scoop on my Trail edition test car, rugged black trim and high ground clearance, I envisioned the start of an outdoorsy life for my family. My girls and I could ditch the pavement and spend our free time hiking and camping at places where four-wheel drive comes in handy. And then reality hit: Grocery shopping had to be done and preschoolers needed to be picked up from school.
I bounced around (literally) from errand to errand in the 4Runner. While the high ground clearance may make off-roading enjoyable, it makes loading up the wee ones into their child-safety seats exhausting. I found the step-in height to be cumbersome for me, let alone my 3-year-old.
On a more positive note, the cargo area was almost cavernous, with enough space for a week's worth of groceries and a stroller. My Trail edition came with a standard pull-out deck in the rear that could be used as a table, a bench or an awesome diaper-changing area, depending on your demographic. A third row of seats is available and increases seating from five to seven.
All trim levels on the 2012 4Runner have a 4.0-liter six-cylinder engine that delivers 270 horsepower. Considering the power it provided, I was pleasantly surprised with its 17/23 mpg city/highway. For my weeklong test drive, I averaged 17.5 mpg, and thankfully, the 4Runner only requires regular gasoline.
SENSE AND STYLE
Family Friendly (Not Really, Fair, Great, Excellent): Great
Fun-Factor (None, Some, Good Times, Groove-On): Good Times
With optional water-resistant cloth seats and hard plastic controls, the 4Runner's interior looks as if it's meant to get dirty. It's a nice departure from the sparkly, fancy interiors of most SUVs these days.
While I wasn't necessarily collecting dirt from a trail, my kids do have a habit of making everything appear filthy. I appreciated that I could clean all surfaces with a baby-wipe and not worry about streaks or smudges. The interior wasn't teeming with storage, but it had enough so that I didn't have too many loose articles sliding about the front row.
When designing the 4Runner, four long-legged adults on an extended road trip must have been envisioned because there was a surprising amount of legroom for my family of four and our large child-safety seats. We rarely fit in a vehicle without somebody compromising on legroom. Having enough space for everyone was a nice treat.
For an additional $995, my test car came with an easy-to-use navigation system. Alongside it was Toyota's new multimedia system, Entune, which uses a 6.1-inch touch-screen and your cellphone's data plan to display a multitude of applications including but not limited to Pandora, OpenTable, MovieTickets.com as well as local weather and fuel prices. Fortunately the basic multimedia needs such as satellite radio, USB port with iPod connectivity, Bluetooth streaming audio and steering-wheel controls come standard on all trim levels.
An awesome feature of the Trail edition is the Party Mode speaker system that directs most of the audio to the SUV's rear and also increases the bass levels. Yep, those tailgaters who are enjoying the pull-out rear deck will also be listening to your music.
IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT
Storage Compartments (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample
Cargo/Trunk Space (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample
The 2012 Toyota 4Runner earned a top score of Good in front, side and rear crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It received the second-highest score of Acceptable in the roof-strength test. In crash tests by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the 4Runner received an overall score of four stars out of five. In the side crash test, it earned five stars of five, and it received four stars in the front crash test. In the rollover crash test, the SUV received three stars out of five.
There are two sets of lower Latch anchors in the 4Runner. They were easy to find and use. However, installing child-safety seats will give you a workout considering the high step-in height. Once installed, the child-safety seats don't swallow up the entire backseat or eat up the front-row legroom. The seat belt buckles are stable enough to allow older children in booster seats to buckle independently without any trouble.
Standard features are rear-wheel drive, antilock brakes, an electronic stability system with A-TRAC traction control that distributes power to any wheel with traction, rear parking sensors, a backup camera and eight airbags, including knee airbags for the front row and side curtains for the first and second rows. Four-wheel drive is optional on the base SR5 and top-of-the-line Limited trims. It's standard on the Trail trim.
Get more safety information about the 2012 Toyota 4Runner here.