B. Grant Whitmore, Contributor
When Toyota redesigned the 4Runner in 1996, it created a good-looking and competent, off-road hauler with enough luxury amenities to win over any middle-class suburbanite looking for something to drive to work Monday through Friday and take skiing on the weekends. In 1996, the 4Runner was a new breed of SUV, one that put some distance between itself and its "truck" heritage. That differentiation brought with it a high price tag which made the 4Runner one of the more expensive midsize sport-utility vehicles available. People didn't seem to mind the high prices, though, as we received mail from readers for nearly 18 months after the 4Runner's overhaul indicating that the truck was selling at or near MSRP--a sure sign that consumers were crazy about this truck.
What a difference three years makes. The 4Runner still sells well, but the reasons are less clear. Lately the trend in SUV design has been one toward car-like handling and luxury amenities rather than truck-like character. Since the redesigned 4Runner came to market, most of the entrants have become smoother, quieter and more refined. Toyota, and its upscale counterpart Lexus, offer two car-based SUVs that do well, the Lexus RX300 and Toyota RAV4. Mercedes has introduced the ML320, which is a true truck that has been equipped with a number of "car" parts to improve on-road ride and handling. Even Jeep has gotten into the comfort game, refining the Jeep Grand Cherokee and positioning it against this new breed of sissified SUVs.
The 4Runner we tested was certainly not a sissy. The SR5 V6 four-wheel-drive model we drove comes standard with a 3.4-liter V6 engine that makes 183 horsepower @ 4300 rpm and 217 foot-pounds of torque @ 3600 rpm. These numbers might suggest that the revs must build before the engine has any appreciable grunt or power; that is simply not the case. The 4Runner's DOHC powerplant comes on remarkably strong down low, giving this SUV capable acceleration. Midrange power is impressive too, allowing the 4Runner to make the most of openings in traffic on congested freeways.
All 4Runners are equipped with rack-and-pinion steering, although one of our drivers commented that it felt slower and less communicative than the recirculating-ball steering found on his mother's '76 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. This means that 4Runner drivers are apt to wrestle with the truck and its large turning radius when trying to finagle into a parking space at the supermarket. We sure did.
A double-wishbone front suspension and solid-beam rear suspension help keep the 4Runner's tires planted to terra firma when the terra becomes infirma. Yes, the 4Runner is an enthusiastic off-roader made better this year by the addition of a driver-controlled locking differential. This boulder-bashing goodness is augmented by an 11-inch ground clearance that will allow all but the lamest off-roaders to keep the 'Runner's underbelly components safe from jagged outcroppings.
As one might expect, the 4Runner's suspension doesn't provide the most compliant on-road ride, which is unfortunate, since sport-utility vehicles spend most of their time on the road. The 4Runner is smooth enough on suburban boulevards, but becomes uncomfortably choppy on the freeway where expansion joints and pavement irregularities are the norm. The tires don't help either, humming and bouncing along like Lenny in Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men."
Edmund's staffers have issues with the 4Runner's interior, and it is here that the 4Runner is most obviously outclassed by the new wave of sport-utility contenders. The 4Runner's seats are low and uncomfortable for both front and rear passengers. This was surprising for us, since our truck came equipped with optional sport seats that provided six-way manual adjustments. With all of our fiddling, you would think that we could have found a comfortable driving position. Instead, we ended up frustrated and uncomfortable.
Other interior missteps include a poorly placed stereo faceplate, a flat center console that isn't oriented toward the driver, and slide levers for the climate-control system. No, none of these problems are earth-shattering but they all make the 4Runner feel out-of-date when compared to the likes of the Nissan Pathfinder or Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Our biggest gripe with the 4Runner is not its on-road ride or interior flaws; it's with the truck's high price. Our model topped the $30,000 mark, and didn't include things like running boards or a leather interior. We think that 30 grand is a high price to pay for an SUV, especially one that doesn't offer anything more, content-wise, than a Nissan Xterra or Jeep Cherokee. If Toyota wants to sell the 4Runner as a full-purpose four-wheel-drive vehicle, that's fine with us. They just need to bring the price down to put the 4Runner in line with vehicles that occupy the lower end of the market. If, however, Toyota wants to sell the 4Runner to middle-class families who are looking for solid value, they're going to have to add content without raising the price.
Toyota sells quality vehicles. Sometimes that quality is accessible, as in the case of the Camry or Corolla. Sometimes it is out of reach but worth the stretch, as in the case of the awe-inspiring Land Cruiser. Three years ago Toyota might have been able to get away with commanding a premium for the 4Runner simply based on the truck's bulletproof reputation. In the intervening years, however, the competition has answered with vigor. Everyone is selling trucks now, and everyone has improved their quality. Nissan, Jeep and Ford have compelling reasons for you to visit their showrooms when you are thinking about buying an SUV. It's time for Toyota to take off the gloves and get serious in this segment.
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