Vehicles engineered toward a specific use can be frustrating when they also must be applied as broad-spectrum transportation. Five years and sixty-thousand miles into our 4Runner ownership, I’ve had my share of oscillations in affection for it.
I’m not sure what analogy to use here, but guys and their trucks seem to have a relationship not entirely dissimilar to…guys and their dogs? Sure, let’s go with that: the fifth-generation 4Runner is that dumb black labrador that digs up the flower bed and knocks cups off the coffee table with its tail and sheds everywhere and just kind of gets in the way, but then wins you right back with its friendly, loyal demeanor whenever you need a lift. It’s not a fancy precision-bred showpiece with AKC papers proudly filed away…it’s just a good functional all-around dog that does dog stuff. Does that compute? I don’t know. But some days I hate this truck, other days I adore it, and sometimes both in the same day.
Happier here than on high speed interstates, as expected
This was prompted by a family road trip this summer. It was an archetypical example of the cycle triggered when the 4Runner’s deficient on-road performance is juxtaposed against its off-pavement personality. I was cranky after four hours of 80-85mph slogging against strong frontal winds along the lamentable I-80/I-84 corridor through northern Utah and Idaho’s Snake River Plain. There, along the lifeblood that is the mighty Snake, the underworld hath wrought its vengeance upon the earth by vomiting black volcanic bile across the land, which responded to the insult by sprouting potatoes, jacked-up pickup trucks flying a particular flavor of flag, and seemingly constant wind. I like potatoes alright and can stay in the right lane to escape the brodozers, but the winds are unavoidable.
The 4Runner did not like any of this and began to fidget and grumble. Constant steering corrections to counter the crosswinds. Gusts and tractor-trailer wakes causing little shifts in yaw. Engine thrumming in fourth because it’s unable to hold 80 in fifth against the headwinds on level ground. 270 horsepower was a pretty stout number not too long ago, but against an effective 120 mph of wind resistance on that bulldog face it doesn’t amount to much. The fuel needle is on the move and I don’t dare look at the mpg readout. I know, I know, I’m asking a lot of the available machinery here and one look at the thing tells you exactly how it’s going to behave in these conditions…but many modern vehicles don’t transform so dramatically and it was a little wearing. The 4Runner is a throwback machine and in this case it wasn’t charming. The final hour was a 65 mph two lane out of the wind and that was much more pleasant. At the Airbnb I finally flip to the fuel economy readout, still grouchy, thinking perhaps we recovered some efficiency over that final stretch. Nope; 16 mpg for the trip. You bastard.
I shake my head and go inside, leaving the 4Runner to sulk in the driveway like a dog scolded for barfing on the floor after making itself sick eating fallen apples from the backyard tree. Maybe I’ll sell it for a base MDX when we get home, they’ve got some brains.
But the next morning…redemption. I’m a lunatic who is up at 4:30 AM come hell or high water, so I’m out the door while the family is still hours from waking to go for a run while the Milky Way is visible and meteors streak by. Once the sky brightens, I take the 4Runner up some jeep trails in the surrounding foothills. These are narrow and have tight turns so most folks park their pickups and take the side-by-sides. The 4Runner, however, is agile and at home here. Eager even, scampering around like a big puppy and absorbing all of the rolling chuckholes and dips with long strokes of the suspension. The short wheelbase that was terrible in the crosswinds now shines. Deeper stream crossings, severe cross-camber ruts, embedded boulders, nothing bothers it in the least. These aren’t technical trails, but it wouldn’t be enjoyable to force a Subaru up them, white-knuckled, hoping not to hear the bang! of the front end failing to clear that submerged rock. Ten miles up, I watch the sun throw its first rays over the horizon onto the snow-capped Pioneer Mountains, and the loudest sound registered by my ears is my own pulse. Back down to town in time to help make breakfast for the kiddos. I am energized for the day, man. I pat the 4Runner on its big ugly nose. Yeah, alright. You’re a good boy.
The 12,000ft peaks of the Tushar Mountains in Utah
Over the next few days, the 4Runner shuttles us around the area in comfort. It’s happy at these lower speeds, tail wagging and eager to please. We spend a day kayaking a lake in the Sawtooth Mountains–a lake we have to ourselves because the last two miles are a genuine jeep track over the glacial moraine forming the lake’s basin. First gear, 15 minutes to the mile. The surefooted 4Runner gets another pat on the nose. Atta boy. The highway between the Sawtooth Valley and Ketchum climbs the Galena Summit, resulting in 3,000 feet of elevation gain one way and 2,000 the other, but speeds of only 40-65mph. Round trip fuel use after all of that warring with gravity? 22 mpg. You’re such a good boy, 4Runner!
Alright, maybe I’ll keep him. At least until he snatches that plate of chicken off the table when he thinks no one’s looking.
Ahoy there! Full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes!
Ownership has been easy, as it should be for any vehicle with only 60K. It’s had fluid changes, and we’re still on the original brake pads. The Takata fragmentation grenades have been replaced with airbags that won’t sever my carotid artery in an otherwise survivable crash. They swapped out the clicking blower fan while they were at it. I spray a few rattle cans of Fluid Film onto the suspension and frame before winter most years because it sees a fair amount of salt on the way to the ski lifts. There are branch scratches in the clear coat everywhere down both sides from trail use and I’ve long since given up caring because nothing can be done about it. Scratch “removers” blunt them well enough that from 30 feet away the Barcelona Red still looks vibrant and new but any closer than that and you’ll see them. It operates the way it has since Day One, which is a useful byproduct of being unrefined right off the factory floor.
It was a shame to scratch this paint; I’d consider a ceramic coat next time…or just opt for white
Fifth-generation 4Runners are stout but have two off-pavement weaknesses: the tires are for street use and the front end is a tad low and softly sprung. The stock Dunlops wore out at 30K and were replaced with Pirelli Scorpion AT Plus all terrains. I couldn’t get my head around ruining the ride quality and spending nearly twice as much on the gold standard (and heavy) BFGoodrich T/A KO2s. The Pirellis have a capable tread pattern and are civil on pavement. It’s a good compromise. The OEM shocks were replaced by affordable Bilstein 5100s. The fronts are adjustable, from 0 to 2.75” of lift. Mine are set to 1.75”, and a 1.5” spacer was installed above each rear coil since the rear Bilsteins aren’t adjustable. The Bilsteins reduce body roll and brake dive, and they muffle sharp impacts and washboard judder better than OEM. The additional clearance and body control are very noticeable offroad. I’d recommend these shocks to any 4Runner owner regardless of how their vehicle is used, it’s a vast improvement on street or trail. On-road penalties for the lift are minimal, mainly the maxed-out upper control arm adjustability leading to a low degree of caster, which can be felt in the steering. Several aftermarket control arms with good reputations will fix this, but I haven’t wanted to repay for labor. The tire and lift combo seems to cost 1-2 mpg at highway speeds.
The stance after the lift. Noticeable but not over the top. It’ll take a lot to exceed this ground clearance.
Our base SR5 now has more clearance and better angles than a TRD Pro, so for a thousand bucks parts + labor you can exceed the basic capability of Toyota’s favorite lifestyle statement in any low speed situation that doesn’t require a rear locker or computerized crawl control…and save fourteen thousand dollars in the process. Something to consider if you find the $53K MSRP and $800 monthly payments of the Pro galling regardless of what inflation has done to the value of the dollar. I also think there’s something to be said for flying under the radar and avoiding the aesthetic bow wake the TRD Pro pushes before it.
But if you do want the look? Jerry cans, Tepui tents, and bright orange MaxTrax can be mounted atop an SR5 as well, and the office will still run to check your Instagram feed because they just know adventure is going to happen any moment now. Really, it is, just as soon as I can get the time off approved…maybe next month because it’s all hands on deck at work and ain’t nobody gettin’ time off approved…but then we’ll have to wait for Junior’s soccer league to end so we can have Saturdays back…and hope some homeowner issue doesn’t pop up (which it always does)…but then there’s three birthdays in the extended family we’re obligated to attend and Little Miss’s track meets begin…so maybe we’ll manage a rushed 3-day weekend five months from now in which we camp off the side of a dirt road that a Chevy Traverse could manage, but that fully-deployed Tepui will still look awesome if photographed from the correct angle. Sure glad I spent five thousand dollars kitting this thing out for “overlander” use!
Ask me how I know all of this, by the way.
The 4.0 liter V6 feels like it has more to give and indeed Toyota used to offer a TRD supercharger that could force feed these allegedly understressed engines into producing another 70 horsepower or so without voiding the warranty. Turns out they only offered them for the 4.0 liter Tacoma and there are differences in the variable valve timing system between the two engines. So, no Toyota supercharger for the 4Runner. Magnuson, however, stepped in and has a good reputation. I considered it for the 30 seconds it took me to find the seven thousand dollar price tag and choke nearly to death on my bagel. Stock horsepower will have to do.
I don’t like camping next to people and this vehicle helps me avoid that.
Auto reviewers are idiots
Car reviewers often miss the mark on vehicles that weren’t simmered and seasoned for their fussy little palates. I always read a 4Runner review when it lands, and the comment threads are good fun to scroll through. There’s a staggering ignorance there about the 4Runner’s abilities and pricing structure, and for a quacking chorus of supposed automotive enthusiasts and savants, neither reviewer nor commenter seems to understand the fundamental strengths of the 4Runner and how to drive one on the street to mitigate its quirks. I’ll offer three basic pieces of advice to anyone taking the reviews seriously:
1. Learn to drive it. It isn’t a crossover and doesn’t act like one. The 4Runner’s throttle is linear rather than jumpy, so push it down when you want power and it will give you enough. Use the Tiptronic style gear selector to lock out upper gears around town and on grades. This eliminates the gear hunting everyone complains about and makes the powertrain far more responsive. Enthusiasts claiming to be dialed-in drivers who miss their manuals should really have figured this out on their own.
2. Understand the long-term appeal of durable goods over short-term infatuation with touchscreens, stitched dashboards, and quarter mile trap speeds. “Outdated” isn’t a universal pejorative and some of us do not want what the Grand Cherokee and Defender have become. If we did, we would have bought one of those. We know they exist.
3. Buyers aren’t lemmings for continuing to buy 4Runners, and they’re not being ripped off. Thirteen model years in, and there is still no direct competitor for a low- to mid-trim 4Runner’s combination of reasonable road manners, interior packaging, and off road capability. Worst-case scenario, a 4Runner that never leaves pavement and was never cross-shopped still provides the owner a roomy wagon with predictable operating costs, high utility, easy maintenance, winter invincibility, and a big fat check at trade in whether that occurs at 36,000 or 236,000 miles. The lemming didn’t go over a cliff, he received dependable well-engineered transportation with low depreciation.
Towed this 2,700lb rental up and over a 9,600ft pass without much drama
Finally, the street cred of an SR5 4Runner. You wouldn’t think there would be any. Toyota posted a record 144,000 sales of this model in 2021 despite the microchip shortage, so I see red 4Runners nearly every day now. Still, I receive a suspicious number of compliments on it. It gets noticed. By men, mostly. There was the middle-aged guy who walked up to me downtown, saying how much he liked it before backing up a few steps, checking out the 4Runner in a way that would have made a young woman deeply uncomfortable, and said, “Nice truck.” Then the 20-something hiker at the trailhead who pointed it out to his friends, nodding in appreciation and casually extending an index finger: “look, bitchin’ 4Runner”. Multiple friends and acquaintances have complimented it, apropos of nothing. Women do not seem to notice it. I may need a Wrangler for that. Or a friendly black lab. But then it would be a constant bother. “Ladies, ladies, please. I’m taken. This is a family vehicle and I’m a family man.” Who wants that problem? Not me!