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Published: 04/03/2014 - by Mike Magrath, Features Editor
The last of a dying breed, the 2014 Toyota 4Runner is one of the few body-on-frame SUVs left with real off-road capabilities. Of course, there's a reason this configuration has been dying as CUV sales have skyrocketed. The 4Runner rides, drives and returns fuel economy more like a truck than a tall station wagon.
If that's what you're into, the 4Runner hits all the right marks.
What Is It?
The 2014 Toyota 4Runner is a refreshed version of Toyota's traditional midsize SUV. With a body-on-frame configuration, four-wheel drive and advanced off-road suspension, the 4Runner is a weapon against the boundaries of a paved world. This Trail version takes that off-road ability and cranks it up to 11.
How Is It Equipped?
With a starting price of $36,585, our 4Runner Trail test vehicle comes standard with part-time 4WD and advanced off-road traction control, special cloth seats, a back-up camera, Bluetooth, 10 cupholders, a cool hood scoop and a locking rear differential.
The Trail represents the middle child of the 4Runner lineup. At the bottom is the SR5, which comes standard with 2WD and fabric upholstery. Capping the top of the line is the 4Runner Limited. It's loaded up with heated leather seats, dual-zone climate control, a body kit with lower side skirts and, perhaps most importantly, full-time 4WD.
All 4Runners come with a 4.0-liter V6 that makes 270 horsepower and 278 pound-feet of torque. The only transmission is a five-speed automatic.
How Does It Drive?
Like a truck. With all of the fun aspects and all of the drawbacks.
Toyotas, especially recent ones, have had a particular knack for removing any sort of effort from the act of driving. They're isolated and quiet, the steering is light and doesn't bug you with any real feedback and they're largely refined, inoffensive places. From the minute you twist the key in the 2014 Toyota 4Runner, you know something's different.
The key, like virtually everything else about the 4Runner, takes intention. You've gotta put your elbow into it and when the 4.0-liter fires up, you feel a little wiggle through the chassis. Slotting the chunky shifter into Drive produces an audible, reassuring thunk and then you're off.
Under full throttle on the open road, the 4Runner's 270 hp is merely adequate, and the overwhelming sensation is intake whoosh. Ride that wave of noise from a standstill and you'll get to 60 in 7.8 seconds (7.5 seconds with a foot of rollout as on a drag strip). Stability at high speeds is surprisingly good, though the beefy P265/70R17 tires get a little loud, and the slow steering and exaggerated body motions mean you're using the wheel quite a bit more than you would in a sedan at these speeds. Potholes don't faze this SUV, nor do those frost heaves that wobble other cars. With a suspension designed for the rigors of the trail, those new ruts caused by a sewer pipe installation won't even register.
What will register are the subtle, high-speed bumps that dot California freeways. Frequent jolts send shockwaves through the chassis and get the 4Runner bouncing around like a jet ski. Whether this is fun and endearing, or annoying and distasteful depends on your expectations.
During our handling tests our test driver refused to simply drive in a straight line over the cones, using the 4Runner's natural talents to produce a fast run. Instead, he turned the wheel back and forth and went around them like he's supposed to. This produced a less-than-stellar 57.1-mph run through the slalom and 0.72g of cornering. Nobody buys this car for its on-road grip.
How Good Is It Off-Road?
Have you ever taken a Husky out for a jog? You lace up your fancy new running shoes, throw some zinc on your nose, grab the leash and hit the road. A little while later you've cleared 5 miles, built up a good sweat and are back at home. The dog, however, isn't even warmed up yet. "Where's the sled?" "Where's the sub-absolute-zero temperatures?" "Why aren't we still running?" "Guess I'll go eat the couch."
Driving the 4Runner off-road without significant training and experience is kind of like that. The rutted trails, semi-steep climbs and brief rock crawling that had us calling for a spotter barely got the 4Runner sweating.
Some of the goodies responsible for this incredible confidence include Crawl Control for low-speed off-roading; Hill Start and Downhill Assist Control; Multi-Terrain Select, which engages traction control based on the type of off-road driving you're doing; a locking rear differential; and KDSS.
KDSS, for those wondering, is Toyota's Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System, a clever bit of hydraulic wizardry that disconnects the vehicle's sway bars to improve articulation. Don't worry; if this feature doesn't excite you, you can get a 4Runner without this $1,750 option.
How Safe Is It?
Though the 4Runner is a fully capable off-road truck, it doesn't lack in on-road safety. Features include full-length side curtain airbags and front knee airbags, LATCH anchors, traction control and stability control.
Though the 2014 Toyota 4Runner hasn't been fully evaluated by NHTSA, it has earned a four-star frontal crash test rating and three out of five stars for rollover protection. In front crash testing, the male driver figure scored four out of five stars, while the female passenger managed only three stars.
The mechanically similar 2013 model received five stars for side-impact protection. The IIHS awarded the 2013 4Runner a score of "Good" in moderate-overlap, frontal-offset, side-impact and roof-strength tests.
During our 60-0 panic-stop test, this 4,707-pound 4Runner with all-terrain tires stopped in 132 feet. That number is about 10 feet longer than your average sedan and average for a truck of this size. It also required some steering correction. With the 4Runner, it's best to be proactive than reactive.
What Kind of Mileage Does It Deliver?
As we've discussed, the 4Runner isn't a lightweight and that hurts fuel economy. With its 270-hp 4.0-liter six-cylinder and five-speed automatic transmission, the 4Runner is rated at 18 mpg combined (17 city/21 highway). We didn't hit those numbers.
Over about 1,500 miles of driving, we managed only 17.1 mpg, with a best tank of 20.7 mpg (on our standardized test loop) and a worst reading of just over 15. Ultimately, this kind of fuel economy is to be expected from something this big, this sturdy and this capable. Gotta pay to play, right?
Opting for a 2WD version of the 4Runner only saves you 1 mpg on the highway and 1 mpg combined.
How Does It Rate in Terms of Interior Comfort?
This Trail Edition 4Runner isn't terrifically well equipped for something with a near-$40,000 price tag. Is it overpriced? No. Your money here goes to function and not features.
The cloth seats aren't heated, but they are water-resistant and provide a surprising amount of lateral grip — handy for when you're (intentionally) teetering on three wheels. Legroom is ample, as is headroom. Even the rear seats, decked out in the same tough fabric, offer space and comfort for full-size adults. Other versions of the 4Runner are available with a third-row seat. Ours just came with a massive storage area with a reasonably low loading height.
Materials quality in the 4Runner is a mixed bag. On the one hand, there's nothing we'd consider particularly nice in here. The dash is hard plastic, as are the doors and the shift lever. These are, however, very well put together, with no discernible squeaks. It's also very easy to wipe down after a day out in the dust. Levers, dials and knobs, on the other hand, feel like quality parts with fluid actions. If you're looking for a little more out of your truck, the Limited has you covered.
What Are Its Closest Competitors?
The Toyota 4Runner has two bloodlines of natural competitors. In the first camp we have burly SUVs with 4WD and true off-road abilities. These include the Jeep Wrangler and the Grand Cherokee, the Nissan Xterra and Toyota's own FJ Cruiser.
Shoppers who are more impressed by the 4Runner's size, visual appeal and impressive use of space would be better served shopping more conventional crossover utility vehicles. Comparable CUVs include the Chevy Traverse, Ford Explorer and Toyota Highlander. Any of these vehicles will provide a softer, more carlike ride, lower step-in height and better fuel economy.
Why Should You Consider This Car?
Do you know the difference between 4WD and AWD? Does the idea of a self-disconnecting sway bar physically excite you? Do you read "Danger: Road Closed" signs as a dare? If so, the 4Runner's for you. It's a truly impressive package with talents well beyond those of most drivers.
There's also an ineffable coolness about the 4Runner that can't be denied. Just look at the thing! It's got cutouts in the face to allow greater clearance. It rides on massive all-terrain tires with fat sidewalls on little wheels instead of the electrical-tape-skinny rubber on 22s like other SUVs.
The 2014 Toyota 4Runner is a tool to help bolster an adventurous life. You get that or you don't.
Why Should You Think Twice About This Car?
The 4Runner Trail's part-time 4WD isn't what most people are looking for these days. This setup requires the driver to anticipate low-traction driving and set up the truck appropriately — and go slowly enough to engage it. With its full-time 4WD that will handle sudden downpours and blizzards as well as it'll run through the Rubicon, the 4Runner Limited is the better option for most drivers. Unless you need the ruggedness offered by the 4Runner, or just like knowing you've got that capability in your pocket just in case, any of the CUVs listed above would be a better daily driver.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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