COAL: 2016 4Runner SR5–A Car for the 1%

The nation sways and bends to the 1%.  They control monetary policy and have access to the channels of power.  Many times, they are the channels of power.  The ninety-nine experience freewill and choice, such as it is, within the bounds the 1% have set.  Ever has it been, and perhaps ever will it be. And for the last two years, it has been true of my car.  After parsing the relative merits of numerous sports sedans and becoming nearly giddy with the prospect of owning something fast and tactile, I settled on an entirely different creature altogether. I bought a vehicle for the 1%…of miles.


Yeah, I know.  All that carping about interior quality and steering feel and engine refinement in my prior reviews and I go buy the most primitive vehicle for sale this side of the Frontier and Wrangler.  I’m flip-flopping faster than a 1-percenter senator running for president. What can I say? I’ve got a soft spot for Toyota trucks and realized rather suddenly that I wanted to get out on the trail again more than I wanted to pretend to be an automotive connoisseur while trundling through traffic in a sport sedan.

Comfortable, functional, roomy, but lacking in polish.

I came to the conclusion that both vehicle types are case studies in unused potential for most of their miles.  The 4Runner sees dirt about as often as the G37 would see the twisties on an empty Sunday morning.  The rest of the time I rarely exceed 40 mph in the type of urban driving for which a Corolla is almost indistinguishable from a GTI.  My daily route is only a few miles long and between the low speed limits, poorly-timed lights, and zoned-out drivers with one finger inserted squarely in a nostril, there is no joy to be found regardless of what you are driving.  I’d have to dedicate spare time to seek out enjoyable roads, and as the father of two elementary kids you know how frequent that would be.


I find the cold logic of mathematics useful for cutting through the fog of emotion, so I developed two advanced equations for making this decision.  I anticipate the upcoming manuscript will waltz through peer-review at Acta Mathematica:


Equation 1. The true experience of a vehicle is its capability adjusted by a factor proportional to the soul-sucking driving environment in which it operates

Equation 2. Truck + dirt road equals America! 

QED, I do believe.


Body-on-frame SUV or sports sedan, either way I would be buying for the 1%. I just made a different choice about what that 1% would be.  Here, it’s any number of unmaintained roads that lead to mountain lakes, lofty ridgelines, sandstone canyons, and distant campsites across our American public lands.  The wrong vehicle will leave you turning around in disappointment quite often. I know from experience. We have a list of places we have wanted to see for years but never had the vehicle to do it in. I’ve spent too long being thwarted by random nonsense like this:

Show-stopper. This is a graded road. But there had been wind.

Granted, you pay for this 1% capability during the other 99%.  Underpinning this 4Runner is the Land Cruiser Prado J150 frame, which is a great foundation for this purpose but one that puts limitations on the 99% spent on pavement.  If you liked the 1990s SUVs and want one with 2012 levels of safety and amenities, here it is.  If you want the modern feel and tech of today’s crossovers, there are about five billion better options for you.  The 4Runner drives just like it looks, the interior has a few nice touches set against the plastic fantastic wonderland of Toyota’s late-aughts cost-saving spree, and the workhorse powertrain is fifteen years old and feels every bit of it.  Little things annoy, like the tall shift lever blundering through its clumsy gated path, the body lean, and the power-to-thirst ratio.  It doesn’t need to be this way–the current crop of domestic full-size pickups demonstrates just how impressive the engineering can be when there is stiff competition for a giant pile of consumer money.  The 4Runner needs some of that competition.


Aside from the Grand Cherokee, all the 4Runner’s competitors have gone extinct or lost the ability to do this.

Despite this criticism, the old gal is endearing.  Everything that makes it outdated is due to a simplicity that bodes well for durability.  She’s a small tank, regal in her ride height, noble in her indifference to bad pavement, big ol’ engine loping through long gears.  Stomp it to make that gap in traffic, and the relaxed demeanor disappears when she makes a noisy sprint toward the redline with an eagerness you weren’t quite expecting.  She’s at her best cruising with quiet dignity, though. Preferably at 65, comfortable seats adjusted just so, scenery passing outside the low window sills, pulling down 23 mpg.   Push her to 80-85 mph and aerodynamics give her a real drinking problem.

I didn’t test drive a single alternative, a fact I still view with a mix of shame and humor considering I just spent several thousand words scrutinizing a bunch of cars.  I still did my homework, though.  I had specific requirements and car shows eliminated what paper specs hadn’t already.  This thing has no real competitors with my criteria, and until the Ranger FX4 arrives it still really doesn’t. Everything is either too big (half tons), too expensive (Colorado ZR2 and Grand Cherokee Trailhawk), or too compromised (Colorado ZR1, Tacoma, Wrangler, Grand Cherokee non-Trailhawk). Go for the TRD-Pro 4Runner and you enter a price strata that has some worthy alternatives, but that’s far too rich for my blood.  The base SR5 4Runner is still very capable and is in a field of one.

This vehicle is a hard sell to many and I don’t blame them.  Eight model years in, though, and they posted the highest annual 4Runner sales in America ever.  I’m not sure why 140,000 people purchased one last year, they’re certainly not all out on the trails.  Most are purchased for pavement use, and if I wanted that I’d go ahead and spend the same on a 2.7L Ecoboost F150 and enjoy similar fuel economy, better road manners, higher towing, and the ability to humiliate other drivers at the stoplight.  But that’s not the mission profile.


Wes Siler’s modded Outback.  I’m unconvinced.  Look at that chin.

Now we’re getting serious. I’m sure the 2.5 boxer loves turning those wheels and gets fantastic fuel economy.

Others try to fill this niche while courting mainstream buyers.  Subaru is excellent at it, my area is cuckoo for them and I see a lot of Outbacks and Foresters plying the graded dirt roads.  I’m not sure I quite get it, their limitations become apparent quickly out here.   I’m starting to see them lifted with serious tires, which is a big cash outlay that only gets you part way there–you still have a CVT, no low range, no skid plates, and poor approach angles.   It can make all the difference.  This can be demonstrated with two recent cases:


No one for miles, even a balmy Saturday/Sunday.

Case 1: A ridiculously scenic hike in the Utah backcountry that leads down a narrow canyon, up over the pancaked sandstone layers representing  60 million years of geologic history, across a ridgeline with stunning views, and into a garden of rock formations where a hidden natural arch reposes in seldom-disturbed silence.  It’s a marvelous little place. The trailhead lies 4 miles down a dirt two-track that has this unfortunate little obstacle right after you leave the highway:

Pictures don’t convey just how much of the 33-degree approach angle and front end clearance I’m using here.  Regardless of what this doofus says, you’re not getting a jutting-chinned Subaru across that and I promise you will not be willing to park there and add another 8 miles of shadeless open-country walking to this hike.  Abandoning the enterprise would have been a shame, because we camped down there as well and didn’t see anyone for our 24hrs. It only takes about 50 feet of unruly road to cut a three hundred mile journey short.


Not a bad morning. The closest neighbor was a Vaquero on horseback tending a herd

My little guy “helping” set up the tent.

Case 2: A beautifully memorable father-son overnight campout with my 6-year old on a hilltop with grand views of the mountains and rolling sage in all directions and only one passerby.  The reason we saw only one vehicle is because the site was down a road too rough for crossovers and too narrow for the en vogue leviathan pickups. We’re talking just two miles in which we truly needed this vehicle, but that  effectively “made the trip”.  The past two years have provided far more memories on excursions like this than I ever would have achieved in a better road car.

Very handsome, but trying to be all things to all people

The Jeep Grand Cherokee is the closest analogue to the 4Runner and deserves more than a passing mention here.  I’ve been told it is a far superior vehicle.  Reliability metrics don’t bear that out, but for the sake of argument we’ll ignore that.  Half of the reason I never test-drove one is that I didn’t want it to ruin the 4Runner for me. That danger is passed now, so last week I checked out a pre-owned 2016 GC Limited with 45K miles and a price that shows these do not have the Wrangler’s value retention.  Sucker was loaded with leather, heated steering wheel, and interior finishes that make the 4Runner look like a Subaru BRAT.


The GC drives much better as well, with actual body control and carlike steering response, though there’s no hiding the mass when you push it even a little bit and the ride is more jiggly and stiff. The excellent ZF 8-speed transmission allows the Pentastar V6 to do an impressive job moving this 5000-pound unibody, and it is notably more refined.  Looking up the stats, I was surprised to see the GC doesn’t really grip, stop, or accelerate any better than the 4Runner, it just feels better while doing it.


I appreciate the cleaner layout and better materials in the Grand Cherokee.  Image credit Motortrend.

So the Grand Cherokee is a Mercedes in comparison.  This one even came with low range gearing, so why don’t I view this as a direct 4Runner competitor?  Well, pop the back hatch and observe how much smaller that cargo area is. I suppose I could fit our gear in there if I left out the air mattress and the compact folding table and the 7-gallon water jug and the bed pillows and the firewood bundle.  It’s a 30% difference in volume.  I’m thinking about a roof box for the 4Runner but don’t quite need it. The GC would have needed it from day one.


The Jeep also has less minimum ground clearance, worse geometry, and a lower-hanging body that leaves expensive sheet metal closer to the rocks.  So while it has considerable abilities off-pavement, it is still more road-oriented than the Toyota and that makes a difference.  I can think of four separate roads I’d have probably turned around in with the Jeep, and all led to destinations worth reaching. You can solve this by plumping for a GC with the airbag suspension to jack up the body height, but then you are looking at a daunting price tag and are relying on fragile complexity to make a more road-oriented vehicle achieve what the 4Runner was engineered to do from the beginning.  Remember the mission profile.

Of course, this line of reasoning could be followed reductio ad absurdum to the Jeep Wrangler, which also has 4 doors and is even more purpose built.  But then so is a Unimog.  We’ve all got our limits.  Coming from a refined VW wagon, the Wrangler is beyond mine. Toyota has a winning formula here, at least for my 1% needs.   Almost no one expects their family hauler to take them away from other people so they can go look at rocks and stars with their kids and then sleep poorly in a tent and wake up all foggy and sore the next morning, but Toyota offers a vehicle for just that.  Twenty-five thousand miles in and we’ve had some great family adventures.


There she is, all 270 hp and 5 forward ratios.  Frozen in time since 2003.

Postscript–The need for an update

The 4Runner is now entering its 9th model year, with no update in sight and yet another perennial price increase.  It’s overdue for a serious upgrade in perceived quality and powertrain characteristics.  Prior to the 2008 recession, the 4Runner had a history of several rapid, thorough redesigns.  The 1989-1995 generation was so effective at its mission that they are still a hot item.  Toyota massively redesigned it in 1996 and that one is even more of a legend, particularly the new top-of-class 3.4L V6 engine.  Seven years later it was fully redesigned again, and they replaced the excellent 3.4 with another class-leading V6: the 4.0L 1GR-FE in my 2016.  It was wizardry, in less than a decade they went from 150 to 240 horsepower with no loss of fuel economy.  To say this engine stomped the 4.0s in the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ford Explorer for eight straight years until their 2010 retirement is no overstatement.

Careful there, 4Runner. You’re looking a bit dated.

Then…seven years of halted R&D.  Domestic truck powertrains have since moved to dizzying levels of power and efficiency.  The situation has reversed; Toyota is no longer the innovator and this engine has become the Ford Cologne.   The old Toyota didn’t let itself get so far behind.   Of course, the American market was hungrier for this class of vehicle then and the 4Runner’s schedule now is probably tied to the Land Cruiser Prado that is likely driven by global market forces.   The old Toyota also sold SR5 4Runners for $52K in today’s money. That’s way out of my league, so perhaps an old engine and plastic dashboard is a worthy tradeoff for being able to own one at all.


Image credit: Kia

Just don’t do something like this for a redesign.  This photograph represents everything wrong with the crossover craze.  A station wagon is marketed as an SUV, photographed with ridiculous overlanding gear it could never actually use, to create a false image that will appeal to the terminally image-conscious.  Monument of mendacity. I’d rather the 4Runner soldier on in its exact form for another 20 years and then be quietly taken behind the shed and shot than have the nameplate glued to this.