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2021 Toyota 4Runner Test Drive Review

The 2021 Toyota 4Runner isn't for everybody. But for its intended buyer, it's just about perfect.

6.2 /10
Overall Score

Despite its design age, poor fuel economy, rough ride, iffy handling, and marginal safety ratings, the current-generation Toyota 4Runner remains a popular choice in a midsize SUV. Why? Its reputation for reliability and resale value, coupled with its undeniable utility, rugged image, and go-anywhere and do-anything capability, are the selling points. And if that's why you want a 2021 Toyota 4Runner, it won't disappoint you as long as you accept its shortcomings.

Look and Feel

6/ 10

Toyota last redesigned the 4Runner 12 years ago. Sure, over that period, the automaker has updated but, you could still buy a used one right now and wind up with pretty much the same thing as a new one, perhaps without some of the latest infotainment and safety technologies.

Attractive isn't the right word for the 4Runner. Somewhere along the way, most versions adopted a gape-mouthed and angry visage; the chrome-festooned 4Runner Limited the notable exception. Nevertheless, the overall design has aged remarkably well, the two-box body with flared fenders and trapezoidal wheel arches broadcasting balanced proportions, timeless styling, and undeniable utility. The 4Runner is like a good tool, and good tools don't require frequent redesigns.

Toyota offers the 4Runner in SR5, TRD Off-Road, Limited, and TRD Pro trim levels. Premium packages are available for the SR5 and TRD Off-Road, and each series gets its own special edition model. Toyota bases the Trail Special Edition on the SR5, the Venture Special Edition on the TRD Off-Road, and the Nightshade Special Edition on the Limited. Pricing ranges from $36,950 for a 4Runner SR5 with rear-wheel drive (RWD) to $50,570 for a TRD Pro with standard four-wheel drive (4WD).

Our test vehicle was the new-for-2021 Trail Special Edition, putting it on the more affordable end of the scale at $38,565 MSRP. That price is for the RWD model. The point of a 4Runner is to get 4WD. It's right there in the SUV's name. That's gonna run you another $1,875. To this, our test vehicle added the premium audio upgrade with an improved infotainment system, a cargo cover, and a TRD front skid plate, bringing the total price tag to $43,729, including the $1,175 destination charge.

Toyota plans to build only 4,000 examples of the Trail Special Edition, which comes in white, black, Cement (gray), and Army Green paint colors. It sits on dark gray TRD Off-Road wheels and includes the Yakima RoadWarrior rooftop cargo basket you see in the photos.

Inside, the Trail Special Edition features black cloth upholstery with tan stitching, all-weather floor mats, a useful sliding rear cargo tray, and an exclusive custom-made 40-quart cooler that Toyota says can keep ice frozen for a week.

Hard plastic is the rule rather than the exception when it comes to the 4Runner's interior. But this material is entirely in keeping with the SUV's mission and is easy to clean up. The dashboard is old-school, with big knobs, big buttons, and manual air conditioning that you must adjust for yourself. And the 4Runner is the first test vehicle we've seen in a long time that required a twist of a traditional key to start.

These qualities are, in part, what endears a 4Runner to its owner. This SUV represents a simple, durable good on four wheels, something you can buy today and still drive decades from now.

Provided there are still gasoline stations, of course.

Performance

6/ 10

Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreational Area is located high in the mountains north of Los Angeles. For a nominal entrance fee, owners of off-road-capable SUVs like the 2021 Toyota 4Runner can go there to challenge themselves and their vehicles, hopefully emerging without physical or psychological damage.

We took the 4Runner Trail Special Edition there following several late winter storms that dumped rain in the region. And it was here that we discovered the benefits of A-Trac, which is the 4Runner's standard off-road traction control system.

Park rangers call it the Frame Twister. This set of gnarly moguls stopped the 4Runner dead in its tracks, rocking on two wheels, the ones in the air spinning. After pushing the A-Trac button, this technology braked the spinning wheels, allowing the ones in contact with the ground to get some power and move the 4Runner forward.

Otherwise, the 4Runner Trail Special Edition tackled the mud, the hills, and the ruts at Hungry Valley's testing area with the vehicular equivalent of a shrug. And if you upgrade to the TRD Off-Road or the TRD Pro, you'll get a locking rear differential, Multi-Terrain Select, and Crawl Control—each of which is designed to get the 4Runner deep into the backcountry and back out again.

Every 4Runner has a 4.0-liter V6 engine making 270 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 278 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm. A five-speed automatic transmission powers the rear wheels unless you manually shift the part-time 4WD drivetrain into 4-Hi or 4-Lo. The Trail Special Edition does not offer automatic 4WD. The maximum tow rating is 5,000 pounds.

Driven where most people are likely to use a 4Runner most of the time, this SUV feels slow, heavy, and clunky. Those descriptors apply to the on-pavement ride and handling and how the steering and the brakes work. When parking, you'll get an arm workout. And when traveling in stop-and-go traffic, you're likely to have a tough time ensuring smooth braking.

Partially, these characteristics are because of the 4Runner's age. But mainly, it's because this is an authentic SUV, not one of those bloated station wagons (crossovers) wearing an SUV Halloween costume.

In the dirt, the 4Runner is fantastic. In the suburbs, not so much. But its truck-like driving characteristics are a part of its undeniable charm. Whether or not you can live with them daily is another matter entirely, a decision only you can make.

Oh, and you'd better be ready to stop at the gas station frequently. The EPA says this SUV will get 17 mpg in combined driving and no better than 19 mpg on the highway. We averaged 16.8 mpg during our week with the 4Runner, including the off-roading excursion. So, with its 23-gallon fuel tank, the average range is about 385 miles.

Form and Function

9/ 10

The 2021 Toyota 4Runner sits high off the ground, which isn't a problem if you have long legs. Shorter-limbed members of the human race may have some trouble climbing aboard, especially if you haven't opted for the available running boards.

Once everybody is in, they'll find the 4Runner remarkably comfortable. Both the front and rear seats offer proper support, and the back seat has a generous amount of legroom, good visibility out, air conditioning vents, and USB charging ports. Open the sunroof, power down all four windows, lower the rear tailgate glass, and a 4Runner supplies much of the same open-air feeling as a Jeep Wrangler.

A third-row seat is available for the 4Runner, but our test vehicle did not have it. Instead, it came with a sliding cargo deck that holds a whopping 440 pounds. It takes up some cargo volume, but depending on your lifestyle, this feature could prove helpful. Notably, the 4Runner's back bumper serves as a perfect place to sit when changing into a wetsuit, out of muddy boots, or for just watching the sunset.

Depending on configuration and equipment, cargo space measures up to 47.2 cubic feet behind the back seat and 89.7 cu.-ft. with the rear seat folded down. That, combined with the Trail Special Edition's big roof rack, should be plenty of room for any adventure. Interior storage is decent, too.

Tech Level

6/ 10

Due to its position low on the 4Runner trim ladder, the Trail Special Edition does not come with much in the way of technology.

If you live where cold winters are typical, the windshield wiper de-icer system is something to smile about. The 120-volt 100W/400W AC power outlet in the cargo area is worth noting, too. But otherwise, this version of the 4Runner is old-school right down to its physical ignition key.

Toyota equips the 4Runner with a standard 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system. It's fully featured, including Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa compatibility, SiriusXM satellite radio with a three-month All Access trial subscription, and five USB ports. Additionally, it comes with a year of free Safety Connect subscription services and a free three-month/2-GB trial of WiFi Connect.

With the test vehicle's premium audio upgrade, the infotainment system adds dynamic navigation, dynamic point-of-interest search, and dynamic voice recognition. These three features are free for the first three years of ownership, and then you can go back to using Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for these functions. It also adds a one-year subscription to Destination Assist concierge services.

It might not look sophisticated, but the software powering the infotainment system sure is. The voice recognition technology is effective, and the navigation map included some of the main trails at Hungry Valley. Physical shortcut buttons and volume and tuning knobs make using the system easy, and Toyota sizes and spaces them so that you can operate them while wearing gloves. The 8-inch screen might be on the small side, but the functionality here more than makes up for it.

Safety

3/ 10

Toyota Safety Sense P (TSS-P) is not the most sophisticated of the automaker's advanced driving assistance system packages, but it includes the basics. And it has pedestrian detection, which is what that "P" is all about.

Standard TSS-P equipment includes adaptive cruise control, but it doesn't bring the 4Runner to a stop, so you've still got to handle that task. It also has forward-collision warning, automatic forward emergency braking, lane departure warning, and automatic high-beam headlights. Notice that a blind-spot warning system with rear cross-traffic warning is not on this list. You can't get those features on a 4Runner.

That's unfortunate, especially considering that blind-spot monitoring is so effective at notifying drivers when it is unsafe to change lanes. Swerve too hard in a 4Runner to avoid colliding with a vehicle in the lane next to you, and you might get a chance to see if the three-star rollover resistance rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is valid. Know, however, that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the 4Runner's roof crush strength its top rating of "Good," so there's that.

Unfortunately, the IIHS also says the 4Runner's protection for the driver in a small overlap frontal-impact collision is Marginal. And the NHTSA gives the SUV's front passenger protection a three-star rating in a frontal-impact crash.

More than anything, these latter two ratings likely reflect the SUV's age. Modern designs often use ultra-high-strength steel and specific engineering principles to channel crash energy away from the occupant compartment more effectively. When Toyota started crafting the current 4Runner more than 15 years ago, the approach to safety wasn't quite as advanced.

Cost-Effectiveness

7/ 10

Toyota has long since paid for its investment in the current 4Runner, which keeps the SUV's prices relatively low. Even though it is roomier inside, is more capable off-road, and has more personality than any family-sized crossover, it's not more expensive.

Few competitors exist for the 4Runner. The obvious one is the Jeep Wrangler, which delivers an even rawer driving experience. The Ford Bronco is new (and not yet on sale) and appears to promise the open-air freedom of the Jeep combined with more refinement and technology than the 4Runner. We'll see. And it will be a long time before Ford is offering discounts on any Broncos.

If nothing else, you can depend on a 4Runner's dependability. This SUV seems to be indestructible, even when you spend a good amount of time beating on it. You could, theoretically, buy one today and, regardless of your current age, make it the last vehicle you ever own. There is real long-term value in that. Just realize that you're going to spend a ton of money on gas to keep a 4Runner rolling down the road.

Updated by Christian Wardlaw

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