Unbroken 4Runner Keeps On Keepin’ On

May 15, 2019 by
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Stylishly rugged, the 2019 Toyota 4Runner offers familiarity instead of surprises.

By John Gilbert

Generally when you review a new vehicle you can hardly contain yourself from gushing about all the fantastic new high-tech features and gadgets contained in it. And then there’s the 2019 Toyota 4Runner.

The 4Runner is solid, steady, consistent, free of surprises, and…completely familiar. Even if it looks a little bit different from the one we’ve known for a decade.

Toyota is an amazing company, and nobody can quarrel with its overwhelming sales success, which has been largely achieved by ignoring the styling trends and gimmicks in an automotive world that is seemingly passing it by. By ignoring the guidelines it helped create, Toyota has continued to build the same-old same old of some of its most popular vehicles, such as the Corolla, Camry, Tacoma, Tundra — and the 4Runner.

The RAV4 is different, having been restyled a few times to stay at the top of its popularity game, as Toyota’s top-selling vehicle as a compact SUV.

But go up one step to the 4Runner, the midsize stalwart of the line, and go back to when the fifth generation was brought out, almost a decade ago, Toyota’s reputation for durability and consistency won out over the trends toward latest-tech and gimmickry. Basically, if you are familiar with the 2010 4Runner, you are pretty much familiar with the new 4Runner. The company did make some styling changes for 2018, but the ongoing refinement is primarily under the skin, and is what makes the 4Runner keep 4Running.

Abundant storage room means 4Runner’s midsize is big enough.

Cynics have been accusing Toyota for years about building boring cars, because the emphasis on running forever through a trouble-free existence can cause observers to equate that to boring, compared to so many competitive cars. But overlooked amid the criticism is that people seem to find it comfortable to walk into showrooms and find something so familiar, and they seem to feel comfortable getting the newest version of something they trust.

The trucks and SUVs are the best examples of standing out primarily because they are unchanged. The best comparison might be made to link the Tacoma mid-size pickup and the 4Runner midsize SUV. There is some merit there, because basically, the tried and true Tacoma pickup underpins the 4Runner. You could say the 4Runner is a Tacoma with a body, or that a Tacoma is a 4Runner with a bed carved out of the rear.

A reliable source I know well in the business says it best: “With Toyota, the cars aren’t cool, but the trucks are.”

I’ve always thought it was interesting that the huge rivalry between Japanese giants Toyota and Nissan was best described by the battle between the 4Runner from Toyota and the Pathfinder from Nissan. Both came out about the same size, both about the same shape, both had strong engines and both were the springboards to vastly expanding SUV arsenals.

I personally preferred the Pathfinder, for a couple of peculiar reasons. When I would test a 4Runner, I liked everything about it, but it seemed I would bump my head on the roof as I entered, and again as I exited, and it also seemed that a lot of the switchgear location always required a few days for me to learn. The Pathfinder, on the other hand, felt custom made for me — good clearance for my head in and out, comfortable driving position. with everything right where my instincts and fingertips figured it should be.

That was a long time ago, but it continued to be a factor in my analyses year after year, even though I always accepted and acknowledged that it was me that was peculiar and not the vehicle.

Simplicity without being overly fancy or glitzy is 4Runner hallmark.

Now that the 4Runner has been redone a bit for 2018, the new 2019 version is designed and arranged in a way that seems pretty near perfect. That means, it’s pretty close to the same as ever.

The test 4Runner I had for a week on the North Shore of Lake Superior came loaded with all the right stuff. It was the TRD (for Toyota Racing Division) Off-Road Premium model. It starts out with the stiffest platform Toyota engineers can build — as if the company has an unspoken intention to prove it can “out-Jeep” Jeep. Dedicated off-roaders are certain that only Jeeps can take on the most rugged off-road challenges, but those loyalists might be surprised to learn that the 4Runner can be ordered for comfort or in a form that can go anywhere off-road but with a bit more comfort.

A lot of observers scoff at such claims, so Toyota makes a couple of versions to prove its point. Among the varieties of 4Runner you can select the off-road TRD model, which came with the choice of its heavier-duty Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS), which is for serious off-road enthusiasts only. No sense getting it if you intend to only venture through some rugged long driveways to the lake, or for other light off-roading. You need to be into one-upmanship, or seriously into hobby or high-performance off-roading in order to order your 4Runner modified to take you anywhere.

And there is still a higher level, which is the TRD Pro. While the 4Runner is a smooth handler on the road, the TRD Pro’s trick suspension adds Fox internal bypass shocks and quarter-inch aluminum skid-plates underneath, among other specifics. But you don’t need to go Pro once you add KDSS to the TRD as the test truck had.

Sculptured grille retains tradition of efficiency.

As is, the sticker price, with LED foglights, running boards and the KDSS suspension, was $43,083. More than the compact SUVs, but a long way below the loaded luxury SUV cruisers.

A friend of mine said he liked the 4Runner so much, he was looking for a good used 4Runner to buy.  I threw out an opinion: The 4Runner is one of those extremely high resale Toyotas, which means it will hold its value very well, and which also means if you find one used, it will command too high a price to be a good deal. For that reason, the 4Runner is almost the equivalent of a good automotive investment, because you won’t lose the usual amount of trade-in depreciation.

Rugged or not,  the 4Runner rides with comfortable smoothness on the road. And if you fill it up for a vacation trip, you can still tow 5,00p0 pounds.

Appearance-wise, the test 4Runner came in Nautical Blue, a dark, beautiful blue that makes you first think you’d be crazy to go crashing through the underbrush with that paint job. The grille and contours surrounding the front end look sporty and aggressive, particularly compared to the old er generation.

You also can shift the 4Runner into a full-lock 4×4 setting, either high or low range, and just for trial sake, we had one of those frequent post-winter storms while I had it, and it was simple to shift it into the 4×4 high range just as it was to go to 2-wheel drive for dry pavement highway running.

The 4.0-liter V6 with dual-overhead-camshafts churns out 270 horsepower and 278 foot-pounds of torque, which is more than enough to scale those boulders and off-road trails to that wilderness lake or campsite. A hardy 5-speed automatic transmission sends the power to however many wheels you want. Most have gone to 6-speeds, or even more, but with the right ratios, 5 are enough.

Driving the 4Runner is easy and impressive, in any weather, and while the seats are comfortable and supportive, and everything works, you may miss some of the glitzy features some competitors boast about. But there remains a lot to be said for building something and getting it right, then refining it, however subtly, and sticking with it.

4Runner is further evidence that even if Toyota’s cars aren’t cool, the trucks are. Photos: Jack Gilbert.)

I’m not saying the 4Runner is perfect, but it does do everything a serious performance off-roader can, and it contains all the necessary safety stuff on a trim frame and in a familiar body. And proof of its refinement, I didn’t conk my head on the roof even once!

Who knows when Toyota will decide to make a major change to the 4Runner? But for now it follows the theory that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The 4Runner not only “ain’t broke,” it is built so well it probably will never break. So thpical of Toyota, you won’t need to fix it.


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