Alas, poor 4Runner: I knew thee well, and my love stretched across decades. Still, to every season there is an end and today I come not to praise the 4Runner, but to bury it.
The fault lies not in the 4Runner's stars, but in ours and in the steady march forward of technology. Steadfast as Old Faithful, the 4Runner has stayed its course since Toyota first cut off a Tacoma's roof and slapped on a camper shell more than 30 years ago. The 4Runner did not change, or at least not much. We're the ones who have moved on.
Let's get personal.
It's not your fault, dear 4Runner, but now we expect a three-row SUV to be able to avoid frontal collisions, to monitor its blind spots, to provide camera views for parking and towing, and to know how to stay in its lane, especially when you cost more ($49,373 sticker on our recent tester, a 4X4 nightshade V6) as competitors who do all those things.
Lane-keep assist would seem especially apropos for the 4Runner, which received but three of five stars for rollover resistance from the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration. Some rollovers occur when people veer from their lane and try to jerk the vehicle back into its lane. Sudden over-corrections, shifting weight from springs on one side to the other, can set vehicles to tumbling, sending belongings and bodies flying.
Nose to tail collisions are also wicked on people's bodies, and things like dynamic cruise control and frontal collision assistance help prevent those accidents.
Sure, 4Runner, with your bulky, body-on-ladder frame, you feel safe. Indeed, 30 years ago, relatively speaking, you were. Ten years ago, your Toyota Safety Star System was state of the art with vehicle stability control, traction control, anti-lock braking, smart stop technology and a full complement of airbags.
But this is the second half of the second decade of the 21st century, and we are in the age of the semi-autonomous vehicle. Driver-assist technologies reduce injuries and fatalities by 30 to 40 percent. Toyota knows this and leads the industry in making these features standard on most vehicles it sells.
Alas, poor 4Runner, you've been left behind, and consumers are wising up. A car without driver-assist features today is like a car without seatbelts 30 years ago.
Today, in an age of car-like chasses that know how to crumple in a wreck and with control systems that avoid wrecks, you're just the mid-sized pickup that you've always been: An incredibly durable and competent pickup, to be sure, but not the best place for a family, and certainly not a good bet on which to place a $40,000 car note.
Fuel economy, comfort below par
Wait. There's more. We expect an SUV to ride and drive well, to be quiet on the open road, to have a comfortable and technologically wired cabin, and to attain at least respectable fuel economy. Let's be honest, 4Runner, you don't do any of those things well, do you?
Oh sure, Toyota says you should get about 18 mpg in combined driving, not impressive when your cousin, the Highlander, gets around 24 combined, 27 highway. Most 4Runner reviewers are seeing numbers similar to what Consumer Reports got, maybe 17 overall and 12 city.
Granted, we're a little heavy-footed; still, If one drives a vehicle that only gets 12 mpg in town—assuming it is not a school bus, tow truck or ambulance—one need look no further than the mirror to get a handle on the cause of this issue called climate change.
At some point, the oil lobby might lose its grip on Washington, and we might start to see fuel prices like Europe's—$5.70/gal this week in London. That sounds unconscionable until one considers that there are alternatives. A top-of-line Highlander Hybrid Limited Platinum with AWD, for example, gets 29 mpg city and sells for $49,965, delivery included.
Then there's all the things we can find in a Highlander, or a Subaru Ascent, or a Honda Pilot, that the 4Runner does not have: a comfortable ride, supportive seats, soft-touch surfaces, well-thought-out switchgear, phone chargers. Sorry, Highlander, but in an age when front and rear passengers get chargers, power supplies and USB ports, a $179 kit that centers on something to plug into the cigarette lighter just doesn't cut it.
I see Jeep Wranglers driving around town and wonder just how often they actually see mud, rocks or streams. Mostly, I see them in parking lots, driveways or at stoplights. Still, if your lifestyle includes very frequent trips to the deer lease or journeys way off the beaten path—maybe a wildlife photographer?—I'd take the 4Runner over any competitor except all but the latest generation of Wranglers, which finally make some effort to be tolerably comfortable on the highway.
With a 4.0-L, 295-hp, 3.5-L V6 mated to a 5-speed automatic, the 4Runner emphasizes performance over fuel economy. 2WD is standard, but most people opt for 4WD, which is part-time, no automatic setting is available. If you're worried about traction in snow or rain, then, a fulltime AWD system will do a much better job.
We've tested 4Runners, Jeeps, Range Rovers, and flocks of pickups large and small over off-road courses and can attest that the Toyotas will go anywhere the other guys go. On top of that, the 4Runner and its sibling, the Tacoma, have well-earned reputations for reliability.
Hey, if they're good enough for desert terrorists, they're good enough for me.
With one of the largest cargo areas in the segment, The 4Runner shines at chores like hauling a load of plywood or bags of garden soil. Speaking from experience here.
Properly equipped, the 4Runner is exceptional off-road. But if your off-road adventures are more aspirational than realistic, a decent AWD will probably get you where you want to go on the rare occasions you actually go there and provide exceptional control for the 99 percent of the time that you spend on the blacktop.