I would normally start a car review with an item of trivia or history about the vehicle under review, or about the segment in general. This time I’m going to start by talking about the elephant in the room: the 2014 4Runner SR5/Trail front end. Yikes! I know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but when the attractive new 2014 Tundra pulled away revealing the 2014 4Runner, I was reminded of a woman I worked with in 1998. Drawn in by the promise of eternal good looks, she had her eyebrows surgically removed and lines tattooed on her face. The only problem was the tattoo artist (accidentally?) gave her a permanently surprised “eyebrows”. Oops. Perhaps the 4Runner also regrets going under the knife and that’s why the fog lamp slits make it look like it’s crying. What say the best and brightest? Click through the jump and sound off in the comment section.
Are you relieved by this picture? I was. Things change if you’re willing to pony up $41,365 for the Limited model which adds chrome to break up the frowning grille and deletes whatever is going on around the SR5/Trail foglights. While I still think the headlamps are a little odd, the 4Runner Limited’s nose is attractive overall but it makes me ask: why do you have to pay more for the good-looking nose. Never mind, I answered my own question.
Aside from the new schnozz and some clear tail lamp lenses, little has changed for the Toyota’s mid-sized go-anywhere SUV. That means the 4Runner’s body still sits on a frame. That also means the 4Runner, Nissan Xterra and Jeep Wrangler Unlimited are the only mid-sized non-luxury body on frame SUVs left in America. (And I’m not sure I’d even call the smallish Wrangler a mid-size SUV.) Since I currently own two GMT360 SUVs, I “get” the BOF argument in many ways. Aside from the SR5′s nose, which is still giving me nightmares, there is something decidedly attractive about the proportions and profile of a body on frame rock crawler. Of course I can’t go further without mentioning the 4Runner’s modern nemesis: the decidedly unibody Jeep Grand Cherokee. The big Jeep isn’t just the current darling of the press, TTAC included, it’s also one of the most attractive SUVs for sale right now.
2014 brings a gentle refresh to the interior consisting of a new steering wheel, radio head units, gauge cluster, seat fabrics and plastic color choices. The new steering wheel is essentially shared with the 2014 Tundra and features a thick rim, well places sport grips, soft leather and well placed radio buttons. While Toyota claims that the front seats are unchanged from 2013, they seemed softer and more comfortable than the 2013 model made available for comparison. This could be down to the new fabric choices, but I think some foam was changed as well.
Ergonomics in the 4Runner have always been secondary to the off-road mission, and because little substance has changed for 2014 that remains. Window switches have gained an Auto feature but are still in an awkward and high place on the door, possibly to keep then out of the water should you stall in a stream. Radio knobs and switches and the 4WD shift level all require a decent reach for the average driver. Unlike the Grand Cherokee you can still get a 7-seat version of the 4Runner in SR5 and Limited trim, Trail remains 5-seat only. The extra two seats are an interesting option because the Nissan Xterra and Grand Cherokee, the only two rugged off-roaders left, are strict 5-seaters.
Toyota re-jiggered the features lists and the Trail model now gets heated SofTex faux leather seats with an 8-way power frame for the driver and 4-way power for the front passenger. You also get an integrated 120V inverter, auto-dimming mirror and programmable homelink transmitter. This placed the Trail model firmly between the SR5 and Limited in the lineup.
Like the new Tundra, the 4Runner gets Toyota’s latest infotainment head units. All models come standard with the 6.1-inch touchscreen unit with iDevice/USB integration with voice commands, XM satellite radio, Bluetooth speakerphone integration and smartphone apps. Toyota has “changed their Entune” lately and made the service free, however you need to sign up for an online account to make things work. SR5/Trail Premium and Limited models add navigation software and improved voice commands with text messaging support to the same screen. Limited models upgrade the speakers from 8 Toyota branded blasters to 15 with JBL logos. If you want the detailed look, check out the video.
Anyone hoping for a resurrected V8 4Runner needs to head to the Jeep dealer, engineers I spoke with indicated the V8 will never return. Unless you need to tow with your mid-sized SUV (like I do) this isn’t much of a problem since the V8 model existed primarily to bolster the 4Runner’s towing numbers and consume more fuel. Instead, the same 270HP 4.0L V6 as last year soldiers on cranking out a respectable 278 lb-ft of torque across a broad RPM range. For off-road duty the V6 is perfect as it’s lighter than the V8 and with the right gearing you don’t need more power. About that gearing. Toyota continues to use their old 5-speed auto in the 4Runner and that’s my only beef. The 5-speed unit has a fairly tall 1st gear with an overall effective gear ratio of 12:1, notably higher than something like a Wrangler. SR5 and Trail models feature a 2-speed transfer case bumping that to 31:1, still taller than the Wrangler’s insane 73.3:1 ratio. If you opt for the Limited model the 2-speed transfer case is replaced with a Torsen center differential for full-time four wheel drive with better on-road manners.
Keeping with the 4Runner’s mud-coated mission, the rear axle is still solid, features a mechanical locker and skid plates are still standard. The Trail model still uses an open front differential, but like the Jeep Patriot uses the ABS brakes to imitate a limited slip unit. Toyota claims this keeps weight down and improves grip on certain surfaces. Toyota’s Multi-Terrain Select, active traction control and crawl speed controls continue for 2014. It’s worth noting here that the Wrangler still has a solid front axle.
Out on the road the 4Runner’s manners are defined by the high profile (70-series) rubber and body-on-frame design. Toss the 4Runner into a corner and the high profile tires cause a “delay” in responsiveness that you don’t find in modern CUVs with their 35-series rubber. In terms of grip, the wise 265/70R17 tires on SR5 and Trail models help the 4Runner stay competitive with mainstream crossovers. The Limited model gets reduced grip but improved turn in and feel with its 245/60R20 rubber. Going lower profile but reducing width at the same time seems like an odd choice, but it helps the heavier Limited model with full-time AWD get the same 17/22/19 MPG (City/Highway/Combined) as the part-time SR5/Trail models.
Soft springs and trail tuned dampers mean the SR5 tips, dives and rolls like a traditional SUV, which makes sense as it is a traditional SUV. These road manners have caused a number of reviewers out there to call the 4Runner “conflicted,” “confused” or “compromised.” Clearly these guys don’t live in the country and have never been off-road. The 4Runner is quite possibly the last utility vehicle with a singular mission: retain off-road ability.
Yes, Toyota continues to add creature comforts, and I’m sure they will sell plenty of the RWD Limited model in suburbia, but at its heart the 4Runner is an off-road SUV. This is quite different from the Jeep Grand Cherokee which has been on a constant march toward the mainstream. (Albeit with an eye toward off-roading.) This is obvious when you look at Jeep’s switch to fully independent air suspension, constant size increases, a plethora of engine options and curb weight gone out of control. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Grand Cherokee, but if you want to climb rocks, it’s not the best choice. Meanwhile, Toyota has in many ways re-focused on off-roading. The 4Runner offers a myriad of off-road software aids and the retention of a mechanically locking solid rear axle and rugged frame. In this light, keeping the old drivetrain makes sense: it’s tried and true and there are plenty of aftermarket accessories designed with it in mind.
The 4Runner may be a go-anywhere SUV, but it’s not a tow-anything SUV. The V6 and 5-speed combo limit the 4Runner to 4,700lbs, down from the 7,300lbs the defunct V8 model could shift. That’s thousands of pounds less than the Grand Cherokee and even 300lbs less than the Ford Explorer crossover. However, even this can be seen as a refocusing on the 4Runner’s core mission. As I’ve noted before, nobody seems to tow with their mid-size SUV except me, and off-roaders prefer the lower weight and better balance of the V6 for true off-road duty.
With Toyota canning the slow selling FJ Cruiser at some point soon, the 4Runner will soldier on as one of the last rugged SUVs. For a model that helped ignite the SUV/CUV explosion, it’s refreshing that the 4Runner has stayed true to its roots: providing a daily driver capable off-road machine. The Wrangler Unlimited is a better rock crawler with solid axles front and rear, better approach/departure/breakover angles, better ground clearance and a lower range gearbox, but the Wrangler is too off-road dedicated for the school run. If you’re one of the few that drops the kids off and heads over to the off-road park on your way to Costco, the 4Runner is for you. If you’re the majority of SUV shoppers, there are more “conflicted” “compromised” options out there that will fit your lifestyle better. Jeep will be happy to sell you one.
Toyota provided the 4Runner for a few hours at the Tundra launch event. Food and flights were covered by Toyota.