The Stagecoach Music Festival is a lot of things to a lot of people. Really, it’s the lifeblood of the place where they hold it, though I’m not entirely sure where that is, because I hadn’t heard of it until yesterday when Toyota released the redesigned 2014 4Runner there.
By “redesigned,” which is Toyota’s word, what I actually mean is “facelifted.” And by “facelifted,” what I actually mean is: I have absolutely no idea what’s changed. I’ve looked over the photos and it still looks identical to the old 4Runner, which is to say that it’s 5 percent brawny, hulking SUV and 95 percent brawny, hulking wheel arches. Also, there are now LEDs.
By coincidence, I got behind a 4Runner in traffic the other day. This provided me with some good reading, because all 4Runner owners are required by Toyota to have bumper stickers. Seriously. When you’re test driving one at the Toyota dealer, they say: do you have a lacrosse bumper sticker? If you reply “no,” they show you a Highlander.
Between the bumper stickers and the Stagecoach Music Festival, I was lost in thought about Toyota SUVs. And that’s when it hit me: Toyota now sells seven different sport-utility vehicles. How did this happen?
A Little History
In order to dissect Toyota’s current SUV lineup, we must return to 1984, which is when the 4Runner first debuted. Back then, there weren’t any music festivals, presumably because the top song was “Karma Chameleon,” and no one wanted to hear that played live.
When the 4Runner came out, it was little more than a Toyota pickup with a roof. Actually, it was quite literally a Toyota pickup with a roof, since most of the early models didn’t even have rear seats. This helped Toyota avoid the famed Chicken Tax, though it didn’t help the owners avoid the question: Why didn’t you just put a camper shell on your Toyota pickup?
Of course, the answer to that question is that even by the mid-1980s, SUVs were already starting to become fashionable. Toyota’s other SUV, the Land Cruiser, was already making its transition from being owned by people who kill things for a living to being owned New England doctors who save lives, but occasionally have to venture out into the great beyond. (This mainly consists of New Hampshire, where they can buy shoes without paying sales tax.)
This SUV fashion statement was furthered by the second-generation 4Runner, which came out in 1989. No longer a pickup with a roof, the new 4Runner actually had creature comforts like sound deadening. The Toyota SUV lineup expanded even more in 1996 with the addition of the RAV4, which arrived on the market before its closest competitor – the Honda CR-V – but failed to offer the CR-V’s highly important stowable picnic table.
Toyota’s SUV lineup grew rapidly after that. In 2001, we got the Highlander, which is tremendously good at delivering reliable, safe transportation, provided you hit the right pedal. The enormous Sequoia arrived the same year, which finally allowed Toyota employees to transport the whole family and the boat. By the end of the decade, Toyota brought its SUV total to seven by adding the Venza, aimed at people who wanted a Camry on stilts, and the FJ Cruiser, aimed at people without eyes.
My first thought is that seven SUVs is just too many for one automaker. After all, this is the same number of models offered by the entire Jeep brand combined with the entire Chrysler brand. How is there even room for all of Toyota’s SUVs? (Like, physically, how is there room at dealerships? Do they use the Mitsubishi lot next door?)
But after careful consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Toyota SUV lineup is just right. This is because no one who buys any Toyota SUV would ever consider buying any other Toyota SUV. Allow me to explain.
At the bottom end, you have the RAV4, which now comes only with a four-cylinder engine and two rows of seats. This is for the CR-V buyer: a small family, or maybe a single person (fine, a single woman) who wants to sit up high but doesn’t have to cart around six different people to soccer practice. Next up is the Highlander, which is for medium-sized families who occasionally do have to cart around six people, but really can’t bring themselves to get a minivan.
Then there are the two muscular, off-roady SUVs: the FJ Cruiser and the 4Runner. While these two are mechanically similar and not far off in purpose, the buyer couldn’t be more different. FJ Cruiser owners think the 4Runner is for old people with families, while 4Runner buyers believe the FJ Cruiser is driven by the kind of people who think it’s acceptable to own an FJ Cruiser. Which, decidedly, is not 4Runner buyers.
At the top of the range, you have the Sequoia – apparently for families who tow boats – and the Land Cruiser, which is bought solely with cash by people who don’t understand why it’s socially awkward to ask the salesman: “So, where do you summer?”
Sadly, I’ve left out the Venza, which is the only part of Toyota’s grand design that’s never really clicked into place. But for all you Toyota folks out there, I have an idea: add some LEDs and make a “redesigned” 2014 model. It would be a big hit at Bonaroo.
Doug DeMuro operates PlaysWithCars.com. He’s owned an E63 AMG wagon, road-tripped across the US in a Lotus without air conditioning, and posted a six-minute lap time on the Circuit de Monaco in a rented Ford Fiesta. One year after becoming Porsche Cars North America’s youngest manager, he quit to become a writer. His parents are very disappointed.