I grew up as a city kid, but my parents made sure I had every opportunity to experience the great outdoors. Most of the time I elected to skip those opportunities. Although I enjoyed attending a rustic summer camp where we slept in tents and warded off raccoon and skunks each night, I did not take well to camping, coming back with over 300 mosquito bites. Fishing was too slow of an activity to capture my attention, but sport shooting was the opposite. After that, I never once picked up an Xbox controller, finding Halo and Call of Duty to be unsatisfying facsimiles for sending rounds downrange. A pity that it took me nearly 25 years to actually go off-roading; I may have never bothered with sports cars in the first place.
For my father, off-roading involved sliding his Inline 6-powered right-hand drive Chevrolet Nova around the unpaved country roads of his native Barbados. Insofar as the Nova was sufficient to all real-world tasks, the purchase of an SUV seemed an unnecessary and useless extravagance. That didn’t stop many people we knew from buying SUVs, and the Toyota 4Runner was especially popular. As car-based crossovers became more popular, however, sales of the body-on-frame old soldier dried up. From the peak of 114,212 in 2004. sales declined sharply, failing to break the 50,000 unit mark in 2012.
It’s not hard to see why after a few minutes behind the wheel of the current model. The notion of an authentic body-on-frame SUV may be romantic to some, but consumers have voted with their wallets and chosen crossovers for a reason. They feel very similar to unibody cars, but with the higher driving position that comes with an SUV. The 4Runner is a stark reminder of what consumers have decided to leave behind.
The 270 horsepower/278 lb-ft 4.0L V6, shared with the FJ Cruiser and Tundra, is matched with an outdated 5-speed gearbox that feels inadequate for motivating the 4500-lb 4Runner. In a straight line, the 4Runner feels solid enough, but touch the brakes and there’s enough nose-diving to perturb anyone unfamiliar with the dynamics of an old-school BOF SUV (*ahem*). Wind noise at speed made itself noticeable. The cabin is newish but it already looks dated. The Entune infotainment system on the SR5 (base) trim level being tested was slower to respond than an anemic DMV employee. Despite EPA estimates of 17/22 mpg, fuel economy ranged between 13-15 mpg on my test loops covering Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia.
Pulling in to the staging area, I turned to my drive partner, Road & Track’s Zach Bowman, and asked him why anyone would consider buying this thing when there are so many better choices on the market. My query was answered as soon as we got to the off-road course Toyota had set up for us.
Zach is a frequent visitor to the off-road parks near his hometown of Knoxville, Tennesse, while I had never set foot (or tire) on anything more rugged than a gravel driveway. With Zach in the passenger seat, I was quickly brought up to speed on the finer points of driving off-road, namely, that you can never go too slowly.
The first stage of the off-road course involved traversing a series of logs – a task that seemed simple enough, if taken at a slow deliberate pace. I decided that the proceeding at a virtual crawl wasn’t exciting enough, and decided to speed things up a little bit. As a result, I was met with one of the most gut-twisting *BANGS* I’ve ever heard while behind the wheel of anything, while my face flushed a deeper crimson than the paint that adorned our tester.
“And that,” Zach said between laughs, “is why you want a body-on-frame off-roader.” I started blankly. “If this was anything else, you would have creased the unibody.” Needless to say, I approached the rest of the course as if my own newborn child was perched on the roof of the car. And it was still great fun.It turns out that driving at 3-5 mph can be a blast, as long as there’s no pavement involved. Zach was kind enough to act as a spotter and photographer along the way, and encouraged me to do the course in 2WD mode (the reason being that getting stuck in 2WD can be solved by switching to 4WD. Getting stuck in 4WD involves being towed out) just for kicks. Somehow, I survived.
Knowing only slightly more about off-road driving as a result of my adventure, I would like to say that the 4Runner is about as capable as anything else you can buy once the pavement turns to mud (or deep water, which we traversed, Africa-style, but without a snorkel). But my opinion is worth about as much as my opinion on automotive design or PRS guitars, which is to say, not much at all.
I can tell you that for everything else, the 4Runner may not be the best tool for the job. It’s not very comfortable, it won’t meet most buyers expectations for interior quality or creature comforts and its on pavement-performance leaves quite a bit to be desired. But for better or worse, it does everything that a Highlander cannot or will not do – namely, go off-road and perform to a reasonable standard on-road. Evidently, there are tens of thousands of buyers looking for just that kind of capability. And now that the FJ Cruiser is apparently disappearing for 2014 (per Toyota’s fleet website), the list of choices facing those people just got a little shorter.