Does Toyota Really Need Seven SUVs?

Doug DeMuro
by Doug DeMuro
does toyota really need seven suvs

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.

Too Many?

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 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.

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2 of 102 comments
  • Romanjetfighter Romanjetfighter on May 04, 2013

    I want a Land Cruiser so much!

  • OliverTwist OliverTwist on May 04, 2013

    My brother still has 1998 fire-engine red 4Runner to this day, spinning the odometer to more than 350,000 miles (still with original motor and gearbox). Since Toyota has poshed up 4Runner as the boulevard cruiser with the subsequent generations, he decided against replacing his 1998 with the modern version. If people want the posh version, they can just buy the Lexus or Land Cruiser. 4Runner should be just utilitian and nothing more. By the way, my brother has lost faith in Toyota because of its refusal to offer the diesel version in the United States. Toyota has 'promised' to consider the diesel motors in the US for years. The people at Toyota should be tossed into the bear den for their idiotic decisions to deny the Americans the diesel option.

  • Malcolm It's not that commenters attack Tesla, musk has brought it on the company. The delivery of the first semi was half loaded in 70 degree weather hauling potato chips for frito lay. No company underutilizes their loads like this. Musk shouted at the world "look at us". Freightliners e-cascads has been delivering loads for 6-8 months before Tesla delivered one semi. What commenters are asking "What's the actual usable range when in say Leadville when its blowing snow and -20F outside with a full trailer?
  • Funky D I despise Google for a whole host of reasons. So why on earth would I willing spend a large amount of $ on a car that will force Google spyware on me.The only connectivity to the world I will put up with is through my phone, which at least gives me the option of turning it off or disconnecting it from the car should I choose to.No CarPlay, no sale.
  • William I think it's important to understand the factors that made GM as big as it once was and would like to be today. Let's roll back to 1965, or even before that. GM was the biggest of the Big Three. It's main competition was Ford and Chrysler, as well as it's own 5 brands competing with themselves. The import competition was all but non existent. Volkswagen was the most popular imported cars at the time. So GM had its successful 5 brands, and very little competition compared to today's market. GM was big, huge in fact. It was diversified into many other lines of business, from trains to information data processing (EDS). Again GM was huge. But being huge didn't make it better. There are many examples of GM not building the best cars they could, it's no surprise that they were building cars to maximize their profits, not to be the best built cars on the road, the closest brand to achieve that status was Cadillac. Anyone who owned a Cadillac knew it could have been a much higher level of quality than it was. It had a higher level of engineering and design features compared to it's competition. But as my Godfather used to say "how good is good?" Being as good as your competitors, isn't being as good as you could be. So, today GM does not hold 50% of the automotive market as it once did, and because of a multitude of reasons it never will again. No matter how much it improves it's quality, market value and dealer network, based on competition alone it can't have a 50% market share again. It has only 3 of its original 5 brands, and there are too many strong competitors taking pieces of the market share. So that says it's playing in a different game, therfore there's a whole new normal to use as a baseline than before. GM has to continue downsizing to fit into today's market. It can still be big, but in a different game and scale. The new normal will never be the same scale it once was as compared to the now "worlds" automotive industry. Just like how the US railroad industry had to reinvent its self to meet the changing transportation industry, and IBM has had to reinvent its self to play in the ever changing Information Technology industry it finds it's self in. IBM was once the industry leader, now it has to scale it's self down to remain in the industry it created. GM is in the same place that the railroads, IBM and other big companies like AT&T and Standard Oil have found themselves in. It seems like being the industry leader is always followed by having to reinvent it's self to just remain viable. It's part of the business cycle. GM, it's time you accept your fate, not dead, but not huge either.
  • Tassos The Euro spec Taurus is the US spec Ford FUSION.Very few buyers care to see it here. FOrd has stopped making the Fusion long agoWake us when you have some interesting news to report.
  • Marvin Im a current owner of a 2012 Golf R 2 Door with 5 grand on the odometer . Fun car to drive ! It's my summer cruiser. 2006 GLI with 33,000 . The R can be money pit if service by the dealership. For both cars I deal with Foreign car specialist , non union shop but they know their stuff !!! From what I gather the newer R's 22,23' too many electronic controls on the screen, plus the 12 is the last of the of the trouble free ones and fun to drive no on screen electronics Maze !