2003 Toyota 4Runner Limited Road Test

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

2003 Toyota 4Runner SUV

(4.7L V8 5-speed Automatic)

Running Upmarket

When the Toyota 4Runner debuted back in the mid-'80s, it was offered only in a two-door body style with a four-cylinder engine as the lone power choice. Eventually, the demand for a more practical and accommodating body style prompted Toyota to produce a four-door 4Runner. The slower-selling two-door variant was dropped after the 1992 model year. Today, nearly every SUV on the market comes only as a four-door, and four-cylinder engines are rare. With the increased weight that accompanies upsizing and adding luxury car features, most of today's midsize SUVs are powered by either six- or eight-cylinder engines.

Competition in this arena is at a fever pitch, with everyone from Kia to Porsche throwing their SUVs into the ring. Toyota enjoys the advantage of having a strong nameplate; everyone knows about the company's solid reputation for excellent build quality and bulletproof reliability. People are willing to pay more for a vehicle they know will provide them with pleasurable and mostly headache-free motoring for more years than they probably care to drive it. When we saw the $42,539 sticker for our 2003 Toyota 4Runner Limited, though, we wondered how much more. For that kind of money, one could look at luxury-brand SUVs, such as the BMW X5 3.0i, Mercedes-Benz ML320 and Lexus RX 330.

Of course, those are all six-cylinder base models and not every Toyota 4Runner lists for such big cake as our loaded test vehicle. Manufacturers typically place the top dogs in the press fleets, perhaps to put those vehicles in the best possible light. In addition to pampering journalists, this practice also has the benefit of allowing most optional features, all the way up to a navigation system, to be evaluated as well — obviously, this wouldn't be possible if the vehicle was a stripper.

In the family there are three trim levels: 4Runner SR5, 4Runner Sport Edition and 4Runner Limited. Each is available in both two- or four-wheel drive with a choice of either V6 or V8 power. Pricing starts at $27,715 for an SR5 two-wheeler, which includes automatic climate control, a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, power windows and locks, cruise control, an eight-way manual-adjustable driver seat, a sound system with both cassette and CD players, an automatic transmission, antilock brakes and stability control. The Sport Edition, more than just an appearance package of foglamps and a hood scoop, comes with hardware such as bigger front brakes, 17-inch alloy wheels with 265/65 tires and Toyota's X-REAS (Diagonally Linked Relative Absorber System). X-REAS (which is optional in the Limited) connects diagonally opposed shock absorbers (hence the "X" in the name) and transfers the shock fluid medium from the unloaded shock to the loaded shock, thus minimizing body lean in the turns.

Our Limited test model was decked out with leather-trimmed seating, power heated front seats, dual-zone climate control, monotone exterior paint scheme, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a "double-decker" cargo storage system, rear-seat audio controls (though the wireless headphones are extra at $44 each) and a 115-volt outlet.

With the new body style, Toyota kept some of the previous 4Runner's styling cues, such as the grille and C-pillar shapes. Although the squared-off wheel wells reminded one staffer of a Chevy Avalanche, the overall look of the new Toyota 4Runner is attractive, appearing aggressive and classy at the same time. Also noticeable is the new size of this SUV. Also noticeable is the new size of this 'ute. With a wheelbase stretch of 4.5 inches and a width increase of 2.5 inches, there's a healthy increase in passenger room, especially in the backseat. But although it may look as if a third-row seat should be available (it isn't), it would probably be very short on legroom (as is its upscale twin, the Lexus GX 470) since the 4Runner's solid rear axle wouldn't allow a dropped floor, a la the Ford Explorer with its independent rear end.

Scrutinizing the cabin of our Limited had us thinking we were in a Lexus. Most materials are well-finished and pleasing to the eye. Real stitching on the door panels and armrests, as well as faux granite accents add to the upscale feel. Gauges are large and clear, and most controls are simple to use. We liked the location of the trip reset button, on the left side of the instruments, where it's much easier to hit versus the usual locale that requires you to poke your hand through the steering wheel spokes. The climate controls may seem a bit befuddling at first because they look like knobs you would rotate when in fact you press on them to work the various functions. As we've stated many times before, we prefer three simple twist knobs (fan, temp and airflow) to gee-whiz designs.

Another slight glitch in the ergonomics department is found in the adjustment of the steering wheel. It tilts and telescopes, but requires two separate levers to do so, as opposed to a single lever such as that found in many VW models. And why did Toyota put the fuel door release at the bottom of the dash, next to the hood release and the driver's left knee? The traditional placement next to the driver seat worked fine. If it ain't broke...

While we're picking nits, although the optional DVD-based navigation system is a breeze to use, its screen does double duty by also serving as the interface for the audio. Not only do you have to glance at the screen in order to see where to touch it, but some of the displays, such as the bass and treble, are hard to see due to a lack of contrast. And if you order the nav system, you can't get an in-dash CD changer, as there's only so much space in the dash for various gadgets. However, those of us who still have a huge collection of tapes do appreciate the cassette deck that comes along with the CD player.

At 75 cubic feet, the Toyota 4Runner's maximum cargo capacity trails behind most of its midsize competitors, including the Ford Explorer (88 cubes) and Nissan Pathfinder (85 cubes). The 4Runner Limited does come with a nifty double-decker-style divider, which allows items to be stacked without fear of crushing the ones below. Another unique feature is the roll-down (one-touch power both ways) rear window which allows small items to be placed in the back without lifting the somewhat heavy tailgate.

A choice of two drivetrains is offered for the new Toyota 4Runner. A new, all-aluminum muscle-bound 4.0-liter V6 puts out 245 horsepower and 282 pound-feet of torque, numbers that would've been impressive for a V8 of that size not too long ago. It comes mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. Our tester had a V8, the same "i-Force" 4.7-liter mill used in the Land Cruiser, Sequoia and Tundra, not to mention a couple of Lexus models. A five-speed automatic gearbox comes with the eight. Although it corrals 10 less horses (235), it pumps out a stout 320 lb-ft of twist, which is more telling as it's torque that allows a vehicle to jump off the line and level hills with ease. And jump our 4Runner did, as it rushed to 60 mph in just 7.6 seconds and ran through the quarter-mile in just under 16 ticks, not bad for a 4,400-pound SUV. Gear changes were typical Toyota — velvety smooth — and the five well-spaced ratios make the most of the V8's power.

Of course, stopping is important, too, and we rated the 4Runner's four-wheel disc setup (with its 134-foot stopping distance from 60 mph) only average. Our resident test pilot felt that the pedal was a little spongy while he performed panic stops at the track, and other staffers agreed that the pedal could've been a little firmer.

With a solid rear axle, full-time 4WD (V8 models only; V6 models get part-time 4WD), a locking center differential, skid plates and technology that helps the vehicle climb and descend hills in a slow and controlled manner, the 4WD Toyota 4Runner is ready to rock off-road. Downhill Assist Control (DAC) automatically modulates the brakes and throttle to maintain as smooth a descent as possible. And Hill-start Assist Control (HAC) helps prevent the 4Runner from rolling backward on steep ascents when you lift your foot off the brake to give it some gas (but why didn't they call it Uphill Assist Control?).

It all works like a charm; when we ventured off the beaten path and tackled terrain that looked better suited for dirt bikes, the 4Runner handled it with dispatch, nary putting a tire wrong. We'd go so far as to say that this vehicle's capabilities off-road are probably quite a bit greater than most drivers' nerves.

In the real world (the one with asphalt, potholes and crazy drivers), the Toyota 4Runner is a much-improved mount over its predecessor. Where the old truck felt lazy and loose, the new one feels spirited and taut. Running through our favorite twisty canyon roads, the SUV impressed us all with well-weighted and precise steering and minimal body lean (some credit must go to the X-REAS setup). Over broken pavement, the Toyota felt solid as a rock and delivered a smooth ride that made it feel more like a car-based 'ute than one built on truck architecture (which utilizes full-frame construction that is more rugged and ideal for off-road bashing). A new frame that features fully boxed rails goes a long way toward eliminating the torsional flex that the older model exhibited. On the freeway, only some wind ruffle intruded into the cabin, noticeable chiefly due to the lack of other noise, such as tire rumble or engine roar.

There are standard safety features galore. In addition to the expected three-point belts all 'round and antilock brakes, the Toyota 4Runner has stability control (dubbed VSC for Vehicle Skid Control) and traction control as well as BrakeAssist (which supplies full braking power when it detects, via sudden pedal movement, a panic stop). A seat-mounted side airbag and headliner mounted side curtain airbag package is a $500 option.

Mulling over our week with the 4Runner, we were struck by how Toyota nearly always hits the nail on the head when revamping one of its vehicles. With the 2003 Toyota 4Runner, the company has done it again by providing a level of ride comfort and on-road handling that rivals most car-based "soft-roaders," while also enhancing its already renowned off-road skills.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 9.0

Components: A center channel speaker and a subwoofer in a truck? What is this world coming to? The available 10-speaker, 360-watt JBL "Synthesis" upgrade is a good example of how factory stereo systems are starting to catch up to the aftermarket. Along with the treats mentioned above, it comes with tweeters in the top of the front doors and large midbass speakers below them, medium-size speakers in the back doors and two more tweets in strange pods near the tailgate window. Unfortunately, the optional DVD-based navigation system involves a motorized touchscreen display that must be opened to load a tape or CD (and you better hit the "Close" button or the volume knob will be trapped and you won't be able to see the screen). Steering wheel-mounted buttons and available rear-seat audio controls with remote control and wireless headphones help make up for the annoying head unit.

Performance: The head unit may be a setback, but the sound produced raises the bar for midsize SUVs. A subwoofer dedicated to the bump-and-rumble tones, tweeters in four corners and powerful midrange speakers paint a pretty picture, and the driver in the middle of the dash adds lots of color. People in the front seats get treated to a waterfall of sound reflecting off the windshield with strong bass from the doors and the cargo area along with a sprinkling of highs from the rear of the cabin (but that's all the folks in the backseat get — reflected highs). This can be nearly overwhelming with thickly produced songs, but it's usually a good thing, especially with live recordings. Pop in Tool's Opiate EP and the Synthesis audio system shines during the heavy workout. Vocals are warm and powerful, while the drums are very strong without overriding guitar licks. The complex feedback and subtle string play of Sonic Youth often become mud in factory speakers, but every note on the band's latest album, Murray Street, is given room to breathe thanks to the various speakers devoted to particular frequencies (especially the center channel). When pushed to teenage volumes, the amplifier begins to show wear, making cymbals crash, then splinter, causing one rapper to sound like he had a sore throat (although the bass didn't crack!). This was not apparent at more dignified decibel levels.

Best Feature: The bass — oh, what a feeling!

Worst Feature: Touchscreen controls are more suited for ATMs than dashboards.

Conclusion: "Blind spot" mirrors in the cargo area are replaced by tweeters if you choose the JBL Synthesis upgrade, but you won't miss them. Hopefully, this audio system is a sign of things to come in the midsize-SUV segment. — Trevor Reed

Second Opinions

Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
I applaud Toyota's effort to update an aging but still popular SUV. The new 4Runner is a good-looking truck that appears to be a gradual modernizing of the old design — it looks dramatically different yet has hints of the classic style so many people loved.

The interior seems to be where the most dramatic changes were made. This new 4Runner is much more luxurious than last year's model, but the updating of the controls seems like overkill. The funky HVAC controls are not appreciated, although no one could argue with their placement. I spent about 15 minutes trying to figure out how to turn the fan down to the lowest setting without taking my eyes off the road.

High praise goes to Toyota for designing a well-thought-out interior with regard to storage and cargo. There are tie-downs galore, and a really cool collapsible rear shelf. More kudos for the folding trash bag holder in the rear seating area — great for road trips or those hauling a baby around.

The V8-powered 4Runner lives up to the Toyota standard — more than adequate power and it's delivered in an ultrasmooth manner. The transmission is equally excellent.

This new 4Runner is certainly an SUV worth considering if you really go off-road. If you tend to use your SUV as a family car and commuter vehicle, the Highlander offers an even more carlike ride.

The big buzz kill in all this is the price. As equipped, our tester rung up a $42,500 bill. That is too much for an SUV this size. The larger Mercury Mountaineer, Oldsmobile Bravada and Toyota Sequoia (to name just a few) can all be had for less with similar equipment. However, the 4Runner has them all beat in the off-road arena.

Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
Before driving our test vehicle, I had taken another 4Runner on an off-road course of moderate difficulty. Like its predecessor, it loved dirt and rocks and felt incredibly stable and capable. Of course, so did the $24K Kia Sorento that I drove right before it.

However, I was unprepared for this 4Runner's performance on pavement. Ride and handling characteristics are incredible for a truck-based vehicle, and that's among all SUVs, car-based crossovers included. Ford gave the Explorer a fully independent suspension in its 2002 redesign, but the nation's best-selling SUV simply can't match the on-road confidence of the Toyota, even with the latter's off-road-friendly solid rear axle. Our test vehicle's ride was smooth and quiet, on just about any pavement, and it took corners with ease. The previous 4Runner had sloppy steering, but this one certainly doesn't — just about ideal weighting around corners and at highway speeds. I'm sure this Limited model's optional rear air suspension and X-REAS shock absorbers had something to do with my enthusiasm, so I look forward to driving a more stripped-down SR5 or Sport model without the suspension upgrades. And while power from the V8 was certainly ample, I'm sure most buyers would be better off with the less expensive V6.

I found this 4Runner more comfortable than its predecessor, mainly due to the vastly improved legroom situation in the front. And I appreciated the telescoping wheel adjustment, though the designers' use of separate levers for telescope and tilt adjustment initially confused me. Visibility from the cockpit was excellent, due to the large side mirrors. The auto climate controls looked weird but were pretty easy to use and sort of fun, I thought. The nav system seems like a waste; besides added cost, you have to take the extra step of pressing the "Open" button to access the CD and cassette players. And really, given the high price of our test vehicle and the rough-and-tumble nature of the 4Runner model, there seems to be no reason to get the Limited when all of the essential features (including the V8, if you're planning to tow a trailer) are available on the base SR5.

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