The Toyota 4Runner is an old-school 4×4 with its body, drivetrain and suspension hung on a separate heavy-duty girder frame. In a new-style SUV, the welded, glued and riveted body is the frame, which makes the vehicle lighter, stiffer, quieter, and more fuel-efficient, as well as nimbler and better-behaved on the road.
They truly do drive like cars—modern ones—which is why they’re called crossover vehicles.
Way back in the early days of the sport-utility boom, when American families aspired to Ford Explorers, high praise for an SUV was to say “It drives just like a car!” Since most of those vehicles were nothing more than pickup trucks with covered beds and extra seats and doors, this was reassuring to the soccer mom who was moving “up” from a minivan.
It was sometimes true too, mostly because a lot of cars weren’t that sophisticated back then either. Now, though, as far as cars have come in 25 years, the modern SUV has come further yet. All it takes to make this point is to spend some time behind the wheel of a Toyota 4Runner. It’s a blast from the past, even this $40,000 Trail Premium model equipped with comforts, conveniences and electronics.
In hard corners, the 4Runner would prefer to continue on straight, please. The steering is both indecisive and Novocain-numb, and the brakes are no more sensitive. Toyota has done a good job of smoothing out the spikes and tethering the body’s wilder movements, but the 4Runner still rides like a fancy tractor. Where’s that car-like behavior?
Nor is there much refinement coming from under the hood. The gas V-6 makes plenty of power—270 HP and 278 torques—but it’s hard pressed to shove the two-and-a-half-ton 4Runner out onto the interstate. It’s noisy too, and eking out 20 miles per gallon requires a light foot and a downhill tailwind. Finally, although the transmission is an automatic with a Sport setting, it has only five forward speeds, not six (never mind eight).
Yet the 4Runner’s global legion of fans say, in many languages, “Hey, we don’t want no wimpy poser; we want a real truck. And our 4Runner has 10 speeds—and two in reverse!”
Indeed. The stubby lever on the floor next to the shifter rises out of a transfer case, a secondary transmission that can step the 4Runner down into a lower gear range, for crawling. So each road gear has a low-speed, off-road counterpart. The transfer case also sends power to the front axle. This is hard-core 4WD-ness: Crank the 4Runner into a tight turn when the front axle is engaged, and you’ll feel the front wheels binding as they try to both steer and drive.
But unless or until the driver yanks on that little lever, the 4Runner remains a RWD-only 2runner. Midway through a winter in AWD vehicles that automatically power up whatever wheels need help, I forgot this—duh—and got stuck in the driveway. (Toyota does offer a RWD-only 4Runner, without a transfer case, for a lot less.)
Still, we need workboots along with our Cole-Haans. Several million brand-new, old-style body-on-frame rigs—mostly pickup trucks—are sold every year just in the US because all sorts of heavy-duty hardware can be attached to their frames: snowplows, power takeoffs, tie-downs, tool boxes and camper cabins, plus winches and hooks for gargantuan tow loads. Body-on-frame vehicles also can be repaired more easily because the broken bits and pieces simply unbolt and can be replaced. Or thrown away. This has considerable appeal in regions where the nearest Toyota garage might be hundreds of miles away.
It’s no accident that Toyota’s rugged utility vehicles, the Hilux/Trekker/Land Cruiser/Tacoma pickups, are so universally popular. They are produced globally, fairly affordable, often dirt-simple and legendarily un-killable. And any shop-class graduate can convert one into a significant force-projector by bolting a liberated anti-aircraft cannon into the bed.
Today’s 4Runner, costly and relatively sophisticated as it’s become, is still a close cousin to those battered Toyota war wagons seen in news footage from North Africa and the Middle East every night. Battle-tested, uncomplicated, reliable and everywhere—we could call them the AK-47s of the automotive world.