After a seven-year model run, Toyota redesigned the 4Runner from the ground up for the 2003 model year based on the Prado platform, shared with the Lexus GX 470. The 4Runner retains a traditional body-on-frame layout, bucking the industry trend to migrate SUVs to unibody construction. Toyota continues to follow a two-prong strategy in the midsize SUV segment, with a pair of overlapping model lines able to appeal to a broad market, rather than focus on a single do-it-all machine. The addresses the soft-roader segment, leaving the reborn 4Runner to focus on the true adventurers and extreme-sports enthusiasts. The 4Runner’s rugged chassis provides an ideal foundation for tackling rocky terrain, while enabling fine suspension tuning for tackling the suburban jungle.
Increased power from a new V-6 and an optional V-8 more than compensate for the fourth-generation 4Runner’s longer, wider, and taller dimensions, and the attendant weight increase. 4Runners come in three flavors: base SR5, pumped-up Sport Edition, and plush Limited. All three have a choice of the six- or eight-cylinder engine, and rear- or four-wheel drive.
It’s clear that Toyota designers tried hard to endow the 4Runner with a rough, outdoorsy look. Maybe they tried too hard; details such a spoiler and a hoodscoop are a bit much on an SUV. Luckily, the non-functional hoodscoop only comes with the Sport Edition. All trim levels now feature body-color fenders. The SR5 has 16-inch wheels and a chromed grille, while Limited and Sport Editions get body-colored grilles, along with handsome 17-inch alloy wheels. An engine-protecting skidplate peeks out from under the front airdam, completing the go-anywhere look. On four-wheel-drive models, the fuel tank and transfer case also get protective plates. The long list of exterior standard features includes a roof rack and power-adjustable mirrors.
The 4Runner’s interior looks great and employs some of the highest-grade materials found in any midsize SUV. Seats are comfortable–even for six-footers–in both cloth and leather trim and provide adequate support, though we’d like more lateral bolstering. The lighter-colored cloth interior trim looks good when it’s new, but may get dingy after a muddy mountain-climbing adventure or two. The darker cloth would probably hold up better over time. Toyota designers may have had a bit too much fun when devising the center-console controls, a set of three video-game-like knobs control the air conditioning and heat. Some finagling of these “joysticks” is required before figuring out what they actually do. Beyond the climate controls, the rest of the interior is remarkably simple. Optional third-row seats can fold flush against the rear windows or be removed completely. With the third row installed, however, cargo space falls to near zero. The 60/40-split second row of seats folds down easily, creating a flat load floor, and an available cargo divider makes the space behind that row more useful. A power sunroof and DVD navigation complete an extensive list of optional interior features.
Toyota has set the 4Runner apart from the rest of the pack with its safety features. Front driver and passenger airbags are standard; first- and second-row side-curtain airbags and side-impact airbags for the driver and front passenger are optional. The head curtain airbags feature roll-sensing deployment, now with a cut-off switch for 2005. This deactivation feature can be useful when you’re off-roading, and though you might be listing extremely, you don’t want the specter of pyrotechnics hanging (literally) over your head. Disc brakes with ABS reside at each corner, as do electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), electronic stability control, and Brake Assist. EBD regulates the braking force applied to each wheel depending on road conditions, for example, a wheel on a dry surface will receive more braking force than one on a slippery surface. Electronic stability control selectively applies a specific wheel’s brake to counteract skids. And Brake Assist recognizes emergency stopping situations and then applies maximum braking power. To increase visibility while backing out of tight parking spaces, convex mirrors are placed strategically at the top corners of the rear hatch in models without the JBL audio system (with it, speakers take up that space).
The base 4Runner is powered by a strong 4.0-liter /245-horse V-6, while the more invigorating choice, the 4.7-liter/270-horse V-8, is the same engine used in some of Toyota‘s bigger trucks. Both engines have variable valve timing and are hooked up to rear-drive in base trim. The V-6 models use a part-time, shift-on-the-fly 4WD system with three modes, while the V-8 models have full-time 4WD. Both 4WD systems have locking center differentials and low range, for serious trail excursions. Adding to the 4Runner’s off-road ability, hill-start and -descent control are standard. Hill-start control uses the brakes to stop the vehicle from rolling backward while ascending a steep hill, and hill-descent control allows the SUV to roll down a sheer slope at 2-4 mph without locking up the brakes and sliding.
Behind the Wheel
Standard on the Sport Edition 4Runner is what Toyota calls “X-REAS Sport Enhancement Suspension.” The system connects the right rear suspension to the left front, and the left rear to the right front, significantly reducing brake dive and body roll, making the 4Runner handle like a much smaller vehicle. Optional on the SR5 and the Limited, X-REAS creates a class-leading combination of on-road handling and off-road capability. This level of off-road prowess usually comes at the expense of on-road ride quality, but Toyota engineers have instilled a Lexus-like ride in this SUV–it feels as comfortable over pavement as most of its unibody competitors. Overall, the ride is quiet, smooth, and not very involving, though the occasional deep pothole will remind you that you’re in a real truck. Riding at highway speeds, the 4Runner feels a bit floaty, a natural tradeoff for the comfortable ride. Without the X-REAS system, body roll limits handling, as it does with any top-heavy vehicle. Steering is light, but with decent feedback. The V-6 provides adequate power and torque, but if more potent acceleration is desired, the V-8 hits the spot. The larger engine provides strong, consistent torque across a wide range and enough top-end power to grant the 4Runner stimulating verve. The only transmission available, a five-speed auto, supplies silky shifting, but it can be hesitant when the throttle is abruptly applied, as when passing.
The 4Runner is not an SUV for a large family; Toyota is targeting the young, adventuresome crowd with the 4Runner. If you’re the kind of person who likes to do some amateur off-roading once in a while, but doesn’t want to compromise everyday drivability, the 4Runner is tough to beat. High resale values make the Five-Year Cost of Ownership low for the 4Runner, and a low incidence of repair makes for a near-trouble-free experience.
The perfect combination of ruggedness, refinement, and quality.
- What’s HotTop-notch interiorReal off-road capabilityLots of standard and available safety features What’s NotFake hood scoopOdd climate controlsThird row limits cargo space
The V-6 now comes with a five-speed automatic. The V-8 makes more power for 2005, producing 270 horsepower and 330 lb-ft of torque.
The most important option may be the front seat-mounted side airbags and the front- and second-row side-curtain airbags. Audio lovers should consider choosing one of two JBL Synthesis stereos, each with 10-speakers. Other items of note: HomeLink universal transceiver, 115V AC power outlet, auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass, power moonroof, and double-decker cargo system with net. 4Runner Limited models are available with such premiums as DVD navigation system, backup camera, third-row seats, rear height-control air suspension, and X-REAS Sport Enhancement suspension.
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