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 Toyota Highlander 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).