What is it?
2020 Toyota 4Runner First Drive
New Tech Meets Old School
Last fully redesigned for the 2010 model year, this generation Toyota 4Runner would normally be well past its "best by" date. Yet 4Runner sales have surprisingly been on the rise the past few years. You could forgive Toyota for standing pat at this point, but instead it has added new features to the 2020 model to make it even more appealing.
One useful change is the new touchscreen audio system that has a larger screen and more logical controls. The new unit supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Other 2020 changes include two new USB power ports on the back of the center console for rear passengers and available push-button start and smart entry for the SR5 and TRD Off-Road premium trims. The smart entry feature now works on the passenger side as well as the driver side, too.
The other big change: Toyota Safety Sense now comes standard. This suite of active safety gear includes adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning and automatic high-beam control. The addition of such gear indicates not only Toyota's willingness to keep the model going but also a desire to make the 4Runner more attractive to family buyers.
Why does it matter?
The 4Runner is the last significant midsize body-on-frame sport-utility on the market. One by one, its competitors have morphed into car-based crossovers. You'd think this would make the 4Runner the next domino to fall, but the opposite appears to be true. 4Runner sales have steadily increased throughout the current generation's life cycle to the point where they are more than double what they were just five years ago. The last year for which we have complete data was its best year.
Why is this happening? For one, the 4Runner is a strong product that got even better when it was face-lifted in 2016. It also helped that Toyota introduced a TRD Pro model and rebranded the Trail model as the TRD Off-Road. But the 4Runner is also among the last truck-based SUVs with a full frame and a low-speed transfer case. Every competitor that has gone the crossover route will have pushed a certain type of hardcore customer in Toyota's direction.
To that end, the above improvements don't seem strictly necessary. Why invest in a product that seems to be growing its customer base anyway? For one, automatic emergency braking will soon be mandatory. And then there's the Ford Bronco. Though nothing is confirmed yet, rumor has it that the four-door version of this highly anticipated product will use the same basic layout and body-on-frame construction as the 4Runner. Toyota needs to stay on top of things.
What does it compete with?
Every crossover in the midsize two-row SUV segment does in fact compete with the 4Runner because the average buyer in the segment isn't interested in legacy SUV strong points such as off-road prowess and reasonable towing capacity. Popular choices include the Honda Passport, Hyundai Santa Fe, Subaru Outback, Ford Edge and Chevrolet Blazer — and all of them ride smoother and use less fuel than the 4Runner.
Those who have off-roading in mind have fewer choices. The Jeep Grand Cherokee is one, and the Jeep Wrangler four-door is another. The 4Runner is typically more affordable and has more cargo capacity than both of them, and its off-road functionality falls somewhere in between.
How does it drive?
The 2020 4Runner still uses a 4.0-liter V6 and a five-speed automatic transmission. Outdated as it may be, this drivetrain combination feels consistent and drivable in a wide range of conditions. But it is also somewhat thirsty and, if pushed hard, it can run out of breath. There's enough power and torque for daily use, but you may wish for more if you're driving with a full load of passengers on a high mountain pass.
The 4Runner's old-school body-on-frame construction and solid rear axle lead to a trucky ride that lacks polish. Toyota's engineers have done a good job of smoothing out the rough edges, but it's still less settled than more modern offerings. There's a reason why most other SUVs have morphed into crossovers.
You sit higher, which some will prefer from a visibility standpoint, but that also magnifies body roll and makes the steering feel a bit less direct. The 4Runner ultimately feels balanced and secure when arcing through winding mountain roads, but it feels best when driven driven at a modest pace.
The payoff for all of this legacy off-road truckiness is strong off-road performance. It starts with excellent design fundamentals such as the 4Runner's generous suspension articulation and body-clearing approach, departure and breakover angles. There's a low-range transfer case, of course, and the TRD Off-Road and TRD Pro models come with a lockable rear differential, an advanced traction control system with selectable terrain modes, and a low-speed crawl control system. The latter is not often necessary, though, because the engine's throttle response is especially precise when creeping along in low range at low speeds.
What's the interior like?
The 4Runner's interior is a nice place. Both rows of seating have plenty of space, and headroom is abundant. The dashboard design is both attractive and functional, and it features chunky controls that are easy to use.
The middle of the dash is dominated by the new touchscreen audio system with a much larger screen than last year's model. The screen itself displays crisper map graphics, and the controls are a pleasing combination of volume and tune knobs along with physical shortcut buttons that get you the screen function you want in a hurry.
But the big news here is the addition of support for Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and even Amazon Alexa. In addition to the one front-mounted data port, two extra power-only USB ports have been added for rear passengers. The downside to these updates is arguably minor: The CD player is no more.
How practical is it?
The 4Runner's cargo hold is generous. Its boxy shape and broad hatch make it suitable for carrying tall items, and the volume gets even bigger when you fold down the 60/40-split rear seatbacks. The load floor is a bit high due to the presence of a full-size spare hanging beneath the floor, but an available pull-out cargo tray offers some loading assistance. Some models have a 110-volt, 400-watt power outlet near the back. All 4Runners have a power rear window that allows you to access cargo without opening the hatch.
All grades of the 4Runner are rated to tow 5,000 pounds. They come with a hitch, as well as fully integrated sockets that accept four-pin and seven-pin trailer wiring plugs. An electronic trailer brake controller is not included, but a wiring pigtail and matching socket under the dash are there to ease the installation process.
What else should I know?
Like the Tacoma, the 4Runner TRD Off-road might be a more cost-effective choice than the TRD Pro when it comes to off-road capability. The Pro is certainly impressive, and it is a turnkey solution with impressive Fox shock absorbers. But it is also expensive and can be hard to find on dealer lots. If you're the sort who'd prefer to buy your own off-road tires, wheels and suspension components anyway, it might be better to start with the TRD Off-Road.
What's more, the TRD Off-Road can be equipped with the optional Kinematic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS), while the TRD Pro cannot. KDSS is less complicated than it sounds. Essentially, it is a pair of front and rear stabilizer bars that passively disconnect themselves in demanding off-road conditions and then reconnect when normal conditions resume. This system not only improves articulation off road substantially, but it also reduces body roll on asphalt roads because disconnectable bars can be thicker and more road-optimized. It's a win-win.
The 4Runner may seem like a throwback machine on paper, but a certain subset of SUV buyers still seek the combination of performance characteristics it can offer. Toyota is building a very good example of this diminishing breed, and it helps that the automaker continues to add improvements to keep it relevant.