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2019 Toyota 4Runner Test Drive Review
The Toyota 4Runner goes places most cars dare not venture. And with a fully enclosed cabin, it offers more comfort than its main competitor, the Jeep Wrangler.
If you’re in the market for a modern SUV capable of getting off the beaten path, you have only a handful of options. These include the 2- and 4-door Jeep Wranglers, the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk, the Land Rover Range Rover, and the Toyota 4Runner. Of those, only the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited and the 4Runner are 4-door SUVs that put off-road grit above all else.
While the Jeep Wrangler is only one year removed from a complete redesign that brought in many new technologies, the 2019 Toyota 4Runner is based on a design first introduced in 2009. For those keeping score at home, that means the DNA underpinning the 4Runner is a decade old. Yet picking which vehicle I’d choose as a daily drivable, off-road-capable SUV is a surprisingly difficult decision.
So where does an old goat like the 2019 Toyota 4Runner fit in the modern SUV market? Interestingly, the 4Runner's advanced age actually helps it in some respects.
Look and Feel
Many modern crossovers and SUVs are designed with some level of feigned capability built into their visual presence. For example, the Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot look more blocky and brawny than they need to be. They're all about conveying the idea that you could take them off-roading, even if you are actually going to the grocery store.
Technically, the 4Runner received a refresh for the 2015 model year. That gave it a more aggressive front end, but the 4Runner’s style is still a product of necessity. Its stubby front and rear ends provide steep approach and departure angles to ensure it doesn't get stuck on the trail. It needs large tires and flared fenders to achieve this as well. So in the case of the 4Runner, its off-road capability matches its looks.
Trim levels for the 4Runner are SR5, SR5 Premium, TRD Off-Road, TRD Off-Road Premium, Limited, and the range-topping TRD Pro, each of which is available with rear-wheel drive (RWD) or 4-wheel drive (4WD). The base SR5 comes standard with 17-inch alloy wheels, smoked-out taillights, under-body skid plates, tinted rear and side windows, and the power up/down rear window, which recalls the original, first-generation 4Runner from the 1980s. That vehicle had a removable roof from the front row back, and the rear window disappeared into the tailgate for a fully open-air rear area.
Full disclosure: I owned one of those old 4Runners—a black-and-silver SR5. It had a maroon interior and funky graphics down the side. It was very 1980s. While SUVs have changed a lot since then, the 4Runner has evolved at a slower pace. If you actually use your SUV for SUV things, the slower the better.
Inside things were mildly updated in 2015, including a new instrument panel and touchscreen software. But these 2015 updates carry through to today, giving the 4Runner one of the older interiors on the market. The 2019 SR5 comes with an 8-way power driver’s seat, cloth upholstery, and a manual 4-way front passenger seat. It also provides a leather-wrapped steering wheel, Bluetooth connectivity, and one-touch power windows all around. Finally, the SR5 comes with a helpful 120-volt wall-style power outlet located on the right side of the rear cargo area. This helps underscore the 4Runner's camping credentials.
Aside from those few key features, the SR5 is pretty bare bones. That’s why CarGurus recommends going one step further and opting for the SR5 Premium. This trim adds heated side mirrors with integrated turn signals, as well as heated front seats and SofTex (leatherette) upholstery. It also adds a 4-way power front passenger seat and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror. Finally, this trim is rounded out with Entune Premium Audio with Navigation, which is crucial, because the 4Runner doesn’t offer modern infotainment connectivity, such as Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.
The TRD (Toyota Racing Development) Off-Road trim adds a non-functional hood scoop and reverts to cloth upholstery. It also adds TRD Off-Road badging to the exterior, a TRD shift knob, and most importantly, a console above the rear-view mirror that provides controls for the various 4-wheel-drive (4WD) functions found on the TRD Off-Road (more on that later).
As you may have noticed, opting for the TRD Off-Road trim removes some content. But if you want to have your cake and eat it, too, the TRD Off-Road Premium trim brings back the creature comforts of the 4Runner Premium (plus a power moonroof). Of course, it also includes all the off-road gear for which the trim is named.
The Limited takes a step back from the TRD's rugged style and pivots more toward curb appeal. It does so with a garish chrome bar across the front, 20-inch alloy wheels, and plenty of chrome and brightwork touches throughout the exterior. Inside, the Limited gets real leather upholstery, heated and cooled front seats, and dual-zone automatic climate control.
For 2019, you can also get the Limited Nightshade Edition. In many ways, it’s the Limited, but with much of the brightwork replaced with black accents, including the 20-inch wheels.
The TRD Pro is the range-topping trim, and it goes all-out with an intimidating black grille, a unique TRD roof rack, TRD fog lights, and matte black TRD alloy wheels wrapped in all-terrain tires.
These visual cues give way to a host of trail-minded upgrades including upgraded Fox Racing shocks, TRD-tuned front springs, and a thicker front skid plate with integrated TRD lettering. Inside, the TRD Pro gets unique floor mats and a JBL premium audio system.
There’s only one engine offered in the 4Runner, and that’s a 4.0-liter V6 that makes 270 horsepower and 278 pound-feet of torque. Power gets sent through a prehistoric 5-speed automatic transmission to the rear wheels or available 4WD with low-range.
The V6 engine under the hood actually dates back to 2002. In many ways, it is more similar to a V8 with two cylinders lopped off than it is to a modern V6 designed for efficiency and smooth operation. In short, the engine is old, and the transmission is also old. Heck, most of the drivetrain components are a bit more advanced in age than you might find in your average SUV, and this is the beauty of the 4Runner: These are proven components, and they all work together to help the 4Runner tow up to 5,000 pounds.
Because its V6 has those unique V8 characteristics, the 4Runner lurches from a standstill like a truck. Frankly, that's a good way to approach driving the 4Runner. It’s loud, there's a lot of road noise, and even though the suspension and steering are soft, it feels planted and secure. This is a lot like driving a pickup, and if you are used to these characteristics, you’ll actually really appreciate the 4Runner’s familiar feel.
The TRD Off-Road and Premium trims receive fantastic off-road gear, including a locking rear differential, Toyota's Multi-Terrain Select system, and crawl control. The differential locks electronically with the push of a button, and it helps you claw through loose terrain. Multi-Terrain Select is operated via a dial in the overhead console and provides different levels of wheel slip, brake pressure, and throttle response, depending on how challenging the trail is. Also located in that overhead console is the dial for crawl control. This feature allows you to set a low speed and have the 4Runner take over gas and brake application, so you can focus on the trail ahead. Think of it as cruise control for the trail. The TRD Pro takes things a step further with a beefed-up front suspension, skid plates, and all-terrain tires.
These features are what separate the 4Runner from nearly all other SUVs. If you had to make a list of similarly capable SUVs, there’s the Jeep Wrangler, Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, some select Land Rover models… and you’d be hard pressed to find others.
The downside of all that tried-and-true off-road gear is that it’s not particularly efficient. Nor is it very efficient to be running a decade-old powertrain, considering the fuel-saving tech that has been introduced in the last 10 years. As such, 4WD 4Runners return fuel economy of just 17 mpg city, 20 highway, 18 combined. RWD versions do 17/21/18, so there's no real upside to going RWD. In a week of combined city and highway driving, our TRD Off-Road 4WD returned fuel economy of just 16.4 mpg.
Form and Function
This review is not an out-and-out comparison of the 4Runner to the Jeep Wrangler, but given all the off-road gear we just went over, the comparisons are inevitable. And the big difference is the 4Runner’s fully enclosed cabin, which provides many advantages. For one, the 4Runner packs a ton more interior space. As a 6-foot-3-inch driver, I am definitely aware that front-seat legroom in the Wrangler is a bit tight. The 4Runner, on the other hand, has tons of head- and legroom. It also has plenty of second-row space, even with the front seats slid all the way back.
There’s no avoiding the age of the 4Runner’s interior. The 6.1-inch touchscreen is about the size of a modern smartphone. This simplicity offers some upsides, like large knobs that are easy to operate while wearing gloves. This vehicle is ready for all your outdoor activities.
The biggest payout is cargo space. The 4Runner boasts nearly 90 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats folded, which is nearly Chevy Tahoe territory. Compare that to the Wrangler Unlimited, which tops out at 72 cubic feet because the roll cage and convertible top cut into its crucial interior real estate. The Jeep might have the novelty of the removable top, removable doors, and a fold-down windshield, but the 4Runner offers more usable space and is a more daily-drivable SUV.
Tech level? Good luck. Toyota was one of the last automakers to join the party when it comes to Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and those features are currently being rolled out on only its newest vehicles. So you won’t find either anywhere on the 4Runner. This might come as a relief to those who don’t feel like interacting with large touchscreens and menus. The 4Runner's system is basic but straightforward. If you're used to modern infotainment systems, you might find the fonts to be a bit small. Luckily, it’s all quite familiar, because it’s been around for a while.
The SR5 Premium we drove comes with the upgraded Entune system, complete with navigation and Siri Eyes Free. The modern smartphone plays well with this system, and you don’t have to press the voice-control button for an extra second to access your contacts. Plus, without CarPlay, the only way to get navigation is… to actually get navigation.
The 4Runner comes with a full array of airbags, traction control, a reversing camera… and that’s pretty much it. And you could argue the only reason it comes standard with a reversing camera is that it's now required by U.S. law. Safety features here are a snapshot of 10 years ago when driver-assistance features were still exclusive options on high-end luxury cars. Today, they come standard on even an entry-level Toyota Corolla, but you won’t find any on the 4Runner. For driver-assistance features in an off-roading SUV, you’d best look to the Wrangler.
Although our TRD Off-Road seats five, you can get the 4Runner with an optional third row in the SR5 and Limited trims. With that said, it’s not exactly a family-friendly vehicle. In NHTSA crash test results, it was awarded 4 out of 5 stars overall, but only 3 out of 5 in the rollover test.
The 2019 Toyota 4Runner has a base MSRP of $35,310 for a RWD SR5. On the other end, the TRD Pro starts at $46,815. The TRD Off-Road Premium starts at $40,395, and our test model came with the optional Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS), which is a self-leveling system that helps the 4Runner feel as planted as it did on the highway. In the end, our test model clocked in at $43,235. The CarGurus Recommended Trim is the SR5 Premium 4WD, which starts at $39,015.
I was asked more than once during my week with the 4Runner if I thought it was overpriced. Well, the 4Runner certainly doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The Jeep Wrangler Unlimited starts at $31,545, which gets you the 4WD capability, the four doors, and all the neat features and newer tech. But the Jeep is tighter on space, and while there's some road noise in the 4Runner, having a conversation at highway speeds in the Jeep is not easy.
The 4Runner kind of defies logic. Twenty years ago, it was the cornerstone of the SUV market. But today, it’s a lifestyle vehicle. And yet I’m completely smitten with it. When I sit in this thing, I just want to pack up and drive to a national park.
As crossovers become less and less capable, the Toyota 4Runner becomes more and more relevant… and every bit as necessary for those who want to get truly off-road.
From open-wheel racecars to specialty off-road vehicles, George Kennedy has driven it all. A career automotive journalist, George has been a contributor, editor, and/or producer at some of the most respected publications and outlets, including Consumer Reports, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, Autoblog.com, Hemmings Classic Wheels, BoldRide.com, the Providence Journal, and WheelsTV.
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