Climbing up the near-vertical dirt trail in the all-new 2010 Toyota 4Runner Trail Grade seems pretty easy, at least until we get to the hill-climb's crest. The trail is actually too steep to walk up and the front tire on the driver side starts losing traction and the front end begins to slide off the trail toward a drop-off that borders each side of the incline.
After stopping the SUV on the hill's face (and taking a few deep breaths), we engage the push-button Crawl Control on its most aggressive setting, grab on tight to the steering wheel and take our foot completely off the brake. This allows the Crawl Control to modulate throttle and traction control at each wheel to maximize grip up the hill at a slow and controlled pace, allowing us to just focus on steering away from the cliff's edge.
A few short moments later, we crest the trail's lip with ease.
Making Something (Focused) for Everyone
If you've ever been stuck on a steep hill-climb, the 2010 Toyota 4Runner's crawl-control technology — first introduced in the 2008 Toyota Land Cruiser and also featured in the 2008 Lexus LX 570 — will make you an instant convert. You won't find anything closer to a "God button" in the automotive kingdom. But is all this heavy-duty four-wheel-drive technology necessary for a midsize SUV in today's market?
Probably not, especially since so few people do anything close to hard-core four-wheeling. Yet if you ask Toyota, it has a different answer. Russ Koble, product education manager for trucks and SUVs, says there's nothing complicated here: "It's a simple strategy, really. We want to make something for everyone, no matter where they live or what they need."
In the midsize market, Toyota offers both the Highlander crossover and the 4Runner SUV, where many other manufacturers offer just one product. This overlap has allowed Akio Nishimura, the 4Runner's chief engineer, not only to start with a clean sheet of paper but also to stay true to the vehicle's rugged heritage — something many other makers of midsize SUVs have comfortably abandoned in search of a more carlike bull's-eye.
If some of the exterior styling cues look familiar (the hood, the bulging headlights and taillights, and the muscular front and rear shoulders), it's because Nishimura also has been the chief engineer for the Toyota FJ Cruiser. In fact, it was in that capacity he first learned that the FJ's platform (also used for the Toyota Land Cruiser and Japanese-market Toyota Prado) would also be underneath the new-generation 4Runner.
The FJ Cruiser Connection
Though the 2010 Toyota 4Runner's wheelbase still measures 109.8 inches and the vehicle is less than an inch longer, wider and taller than before, the new platform makes the 4Runner feel much larger inside, due mostly to a lower floor height. This is most evident in the front seats, as you no longer feel like you're sitting in a compact pickup truck (which, indeed, the 4Runner once was long ago) with your legs straight out in front of you.
Interior design touches similar to those of the current FJ include window controls at the top of the door panel (which will unfortunately expose them to moisture), while the switches for the four-wheel-drive system are now located overhead, above the rearview mirror. The center stack and console are much cleaner in design, and it's easier to distinguish the HVAC controls from the radio and navigation system.
Our favorite change to the interior is the new gauge layout, where each of the three instrument binnacles has a floating center with various instrument readouts at the outer edges. At the center of the speedometer is an "ECO" meter, letting you know exactly how fuel-efficient your driving is (green is good; red is bad). The switchgear itself is solid, sturdy and easy to use.
Boots on the Ground
Although the chassis is all-new, the suspension uses the same strategy to deal with road irregularities as did the previous model, with a few twists. The independent front suspension still features dual wishbone-type control arms and coil-over dampers, while the rear suspension remains a four-link live axle located with a panhard rod and suspended by coil springs.
Of note, the rear shocks are mounted far outside of the frame rails to dampen as much of the erratic motions of the stick axle as possible. Additionally, the optional Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS, introduced by the current-generation Toyota Land Cruiser) is in place, a hydraulic strut mounted to the wrist-thick front and rear antiroll bars that adds roll stiffness above 40 mph for more body control on the highway and then relaxes it below 40 mph for better wheel articulation off-road.
We found the KDSS a marvel off-road, allowing the suspension to keep the tires on the dirt through holes and off-camber obstacles. On-road it works remarkably well and the twin-tube dampers help keep the chassis far more stable than any midsize, body-on-frame SUV we've ever tested. The 2010 Toyota 4Runner's behavior is so good on dirt that we thought we were riding on underinflated tires, while it handled highway expansion joints every bit as good (and in some cases much better) than the current crop of unibody midsize crossovers.
A new steering setup also allows the 4Runner to carve highway corners like it never could before, no doubt aided by the KDSS's body control. Leave it to Toyota to find a hard-core four-wheel-drive technology that also hugely improves on-road driving dynamics.
Under the hood, the big news is that the previous 4.7-liter V8 goes away. When you consider that this significantly refreshed 4.0-liter V6 offers 10 horsepower more than the V8, you might not miss it so much.
This DOHC 24-valve 3,956cc V6 has variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust cams, and it produces 270 hp at 5,600 rpm and 278 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm. It delivers pretty good fuel economy for its power output, an EPA-rated 16 mpg city/22 mpg highway/19 mpg combined for this 4Runner 4x4. The two-wheel-drive version of the V6-powered 4Runner is rated at 17 mpg city/23 mpg highway/19 mpg combined.
For serious fuel economy, Toyota has brought back a four-cylinder engine for the two-wheel-drive 4Runner, a 2.7-liter inline-4 rated at 157 hp at 5,200 rpm and 178 lb-ft of torque at 3,800 rpm. Its EPA-rated fuel economy is 18 mpg city/23 mpg highway/20 mpg combined.
We saw 19.4 mpg from our V6-powered 4Runner's trip computer during around-town driving and 21.8 mpg during highway cruising with a light touch on the throttle.
Putting It to the (Track) Test
At the track, our fully loaded Trail Grade 4x4 weighed in at 4,753 pounds, so we were impressed to find it runs to 60 mph in 8.2 seconds (7.9 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip). Our best result came with no wheelspin in the transmission's Sport mode, letting the five-speed unit shift itself. This 4Runner Trail Grade has a final-drive ratio of 3.73:1, while 1st gear is 3.52:1.
With P265/70R17 113S Bridgestone Dueler H/T 684II all-season tires on the ground, the 4Runner stops in 140 feet from 60 mph. Naturally the combination of the tall tire sidewalls and long-travel suspension that you want for off-roading doesn't produce impressive results in our handling tests, as our truck records a modest 57.2 mph in the slalom and 0.71g on the skid pad. This is pretty good, we'd say, and we find it interesting that the stability control isn't very intrusive yet manages to engage at exactly the moment on the skid pad when the tires begin to lose their grip.
This 2010 Toyota 4Runner Trail Grade introduces some useful new hardware, and the result lives up to what we expect from the truck that reminds us that there's a whole family of Toyota off-road loyalists out there. Our guess is that Toyota might introduce the Tundra pickup's 4.6-liter V8 and six-speed automatic transmission for the 2011 Lexus GX, the 4Runner's upmarket twin, but it's only really important if towing is your thing. Meanwhile Toyota won't confirm or deny that the six-speed automatic will be paired with the 4Runner's V6 down the road.
Final pricing will be set shortly, but expect the SR5 4x2 four-cylinder model to start well under $30,000, with the fully loaded Limited easily reaching $45,000 and higher. We'd guess that this 2010 Toyota 4Runner Trail Grade with optional KDSS, a navigation system and a mildly upgraded audio system would cost around $38,000.
Comparing the 4Runner to competitors in the midsize segment is a challenge right now, especially since Toyota has decided to maintain much of the 4Runner's traditionally rugged personality at a time when so many other manufacturers are hunting for the crossover sweet spot. There just aren't that many serious 4x4 SUVs being made anymore, really. But keeping a body-on-frame model for people who want real utility as well as real off-road capability makes sense to us.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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