2003 Toyota 4Runner First Drive

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (2)
  • Comparison
  • Long-Term

2003 Toyota 4Runner SUV

(4.0L V6 4-speed Automatic)

Can the Fourth Time Be a Charm?

The fact that the 2003 4Runner represents the fourth generation of the nameplate says a lot about the popularity of Toyota's midsize SUV. With rugged good looks and true off-road capability, the 4Runner has earned a reputation as a stout no-nonsense sport-ute. While other SUVs in its class have evolved into kinder, gentler versions of their originals, the 4Runner has retained much of its truckish character.

This might seem like a misguided philosophy when you consider that few SUV owners actually go off-road, but Toyota looks at the situation a bit differently. It sees the 4Runner's all-terrain capability as a selling point over its rivals. If you want a "soft roader," there are plenty to choose from (the Toyota Highlander being a convenient suggestion). But if you want a real sport-utility, the 4Runner is still the real deal.

So when it came time to revamp its bread-and-butter sport-ute, Toyota stuck to the same game plan that has served it well since the 4Runner's introduction way back in '84 — keep it off-road-worthy, good-looking and built to last. After our brief introductory test drive, we would consider it "mission accomplished." It still tackles trails with ease, has plenty of eye-catching lines and looks to be put together as sturdily as any 4Runner before it. Factor in the larger interior, more powerful engines and numerous passenger amenities, and it looks as though the 4Runner's popularity will be secure for many years to come.

Previous-generation 4Runners gained a strong reputation for their stout V6s and durable four-cylinders. But increased competition within the ranks of midsize SUVs and dwindling sales of four-cylinder models forced Toyota to rethink the 4Runner's drivetrain options. For 2003, the weak 183-horsepower 3.4-liter V6 has been replaced by a new 4.0-liter V6, while an optional 4.7-liter V8 has been added.

The 4.0-liter V6 is an all-new engine design that incorporates some firsts for a Toyota truck. It's the company's first all-aluminum truck engine, the first truck engine to make use of Toyota's Variable Valve Timing with intelligence (VVT-i) and the first Toyota truck engine to employ a variable intake manifold. The results are impressive: 245 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 283 pound-feet of torque at 3,400 rpm. The engine is also LEV-certified and boasts significantly reduced amounts of lead to make it more recyclable in the future.

The optional 4.7-liter V8 is not quite as new, but it is no less deserving of mention. Debuting in the Tundra pickup in 2000, the iForce V8 has gained a reputation as one of the smoothest, most refined eight-cylinders ever to grace the engine bay of a pickup. Generating 235 horsepower at 4,800 rpm and 320 lb-ft of torque at 3,400 rpm, the iForce engine offers slightly less horsepower but significantly more torque for those who need the extra grunt for towing.

The biggest news for V8 buyers is the introduction of an all-new five-speed automatic transmission — another first for a Toyota truck. It features slightly lower gearing overall than the previous four-speed, but a taller overdrive gear for better highway mileage. All V6-equipped models retain the same four-speed automatic used on the previous model.

Both engines move the truck out quickly, with the differences in their torque production barely apparent. The new V6 is as smooth as the buttery V8, with the slightly higher pitch of its exhaust the only hint of its smaller displacement. We expect most buyers will be perfectly happy with the power and performance of the six-cylinder, but for those who would like the added punch of the V8, the iForce is a gem of an engine that performs flawlessly.

Building on the 4Runner's reputation as a capable off-road machine, all 2003 4WD 4Runners get redesigned transfer cases and a new Torsen limited-slip center differential — the first of its kind used in a midsize SUV. This differential can alter the bias of the available engine power between three different settings depending on which wheels have the most traction. Four-wheel-drive models with the V6 engine come equipped with a shift-on-the-fly multimode system that offers both two- and four-wheel drive, while all V8-equipped models feature a full-time four-wheel-drive system. Both systems use dash-mounted switches for activation and both offer a fully "locked" mode that locks the center differential for maximum traction in difficult terrain.

Also new for 2003 is the addition of a standard Downhill Assist Control (DAC) system on all 4WD models and a Hill-start Assist Control (HAC) system on both two- and four-wheel-drive models. The DAC system integrates the brakes, electronic throttle control and active wheel speed sensors to maintain a slow and steady descent on tricky downhill sections. The HAC system uses control of the brakes to keep the vehicle from sliding backward on an ascent between the time you let off the brakes and apply the throttle.

We sampled variably equipped 4Runners on moderately challenging logging roads as well as a few steep, muddy pitches to test all the new hardware. Not surprisingly, the higher-speed logging roads were tackled without much drama. We never sensed the workings of the torsen differential but we did instigate a couple beeper warnings from the standard stability and traction control systems. The steeper, more difficult sections required the full capabilities of the new sport-ute, but after multiple passes of the same gnarly terrain, we were duly impressed with the 4Runner's adept hill climbing ability as well as its slow, well-controlled pace down the same treacherous route. Hard core off-roaders should take note, however, that the maximum ground clearance is now just 9.1-inches, slightly less than the previous model.

Back on more civilized terrain, we were able to appreciate some of the 4Runner's other notable improvements. The frame now employs fully boxed side rails that significantly increase torsional rigidity. This has eliminated much of the body flex that gave the previous version such a sloppy ride on the highway. Also new are optional X-REAS (Diagonally Linked Relative Absorber System) shocks and a rear air suspension. The X-REAS system connects diagonally opposed shocks to help quell body roll in turns, while the air suspension (only available on V8 Limited models) uses air bladders instead of traditional coil springs to maintain proper ride height when towing heavy loads (maximum towing capacity is 5,000 pounds). The air system can also raise the rear end an extra one and half inches for a better departure angle and lower three quarters of an inch for easier trailer hookup.

Pushing a sport-utility hard through the turns on public roads isn't exactly our preferred test method regardless of what new fangled suspension it has, but our less taxing maneuvers indicated that the X-REAS shocks kept the substantial sport-ute well under control. The lack of an unhitched ski boat lying around also prevented us from properly addressing the merits of the air suspension, but our experiences with similar systems in the past have proven them to be quite helpful when it comes to maintaining a safe ride height when towing.

With all the mechanicals out of the way, we turned our attention to what probably matters the most in the grand scheme of things — the interior. The 2003 4Runner features a much improved cabin that benefits immensely from the vehicle's larger overall size. The longer wheelbase (up 4 1/2 inches) and increased width (2 1/2 inches) result in more interior room in nearly every dimension. Front and rear legroom are up by 2 and 1 1/2 inches respectively, while shoulder and hiproom have increased between 4 and 5 inches front and rear. The effect will be quite noticeable for anyone used to the cramped feeling of the previous version, as 4Runner's cabin now feels like the more spacious interiors of its newer competitors.

The overall design of the interior is both aesthetically pleasing and seriously functional. The large analog gauges are easy to read at a glance and the center stack controls have been kept neat and well within reach. The console features numerous storage bins of varying sizes and well-placed cupholders right at your side. Our only major complaint concerns the climate controls. Although they look like traditional dial controls, they work more like joysticks, requiring you to press the pad in the direction of your preferred vent location or temperature. They felt cheap on our preproduction prototype and weren't exactly the easiest things to work — we would much prefer plain old dials any day.

Another aspect of the interior that might be cause for concern for some buyers is rear cargo room. With a maximum cargo capacity of just 75.1 cubic feet, the 4Runner still lags behind the Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder and Dodge Durango which offer 88, 85 and 88 cubic feet respectively. Toyota isn't completely oblivious to this fact as the company offers a foldable cargo shelf that allows for two-tiered loading, but it hardly makes up for the deficiency.

Oh, and to those hoping for a third-row seat, it doesn't have one of those either. According to Toyota representatives, the typical 4Runner buyer isn't looking for a family vehicle as much as he is a capable sport-utility, so the third-row seat option was nixed. With the limited space available we hardly blame them, but considering that nearly every new midsize sport-ute on the market is finding a way to offer this option, the 4Runner might suffer in head-to-head comparisons without it.

There are three distinct trim levels depending on your appetite for gadgetry and/or larger monthly payments. All trim levels offer both two- or four-wheel drive and either the V6 or V8 power plants. The SR5 continues as the entry-level model, and the Limited remains the top-of-the-line version. A new Sport Edition slots between the two.

Standard features on the SR5 include gray metallic fender flares and body cladding, ABS brakes with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD), automatic climate control with rear vents, remote keyless entry, a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, cruise control, a trip computer and full skid plate protection, among other things.

Stepping up to the Sport Edition adds larger 17-inch wheels and tires; the X-REAS shocks; a hood scoop; a leather-wrapped steering wheel with satellite stereo and cruise controls; high-contrast seat fabrics and color-keyed exterior mirrors.

High-dollar Limited models ditch the gray body cladding in favor of more subtle color-keyed panels along with illuminated running boards, dual-zone automatic climate control, a leather-trimmed interior, rear-seat audio controls, an auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass and special Granite or Silver interior trim.

Additional options for all models include JBL sound systems with up to 10 speakers, an in-dash six-disc CD changer, a DVD-based navigation system, a power sunroof, front and rear side curtain airbags, and a color-keyed spoiler.

Needless to say, the '03 4Runner stacks up favorably against just about any other midsize sport-ute on the market when it comes to creature comforts and standard equipment. Add in the powerful new engines, advanced vehicle control systems and stout underpinnings, and there's little doubt this 4Runner will uphold the legacy of the numerous 4Runners before it.

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