4runner 4×4

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Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

Ivan Stewart, not a Rock Star, but a legendary off-road racer known as the Ironman, was driving flat-out at triple-digit speeds, while whipping up a blast of pale-beige dust half a mile long behind the vehicle racing across El Diablo Dry Lake. He was at the wheel of a new 1984 Toyota 4Runner and, man, everyone that saw that wanted one.

This was in Baja California in 1984. The 4Runner looked sharp, and a lot of people seemed to agree. Toyota went on to sell more than 1.8 million 4Runners.4runner trail

Fast forward 2010. Toyota has brought out what it considers the fifth generation of the 4Runner, which has changed over the years into a substantial all-terrain Rock Star vehicle.

The new 4Runner is supremely competent, particularly when equipped for off-roading. A big body-on-frame sport utility, it arrives in a market that has begun to ignore, or even scorn, truck-based S.U.V.’s. It no longer offers a V-8 engine — no great loss, but an omission that might turn away a few customers.

Timing of its introduction coincided with a period of uncharacteristically troubling news about Toyota; alleged reports of unintended acceleration; braking problems with the new Prius, a series of recalls all blown way out of proportion by a media with shall we say ulterior motives…

The 4Runner has not been implicated in these controversies — it even passed the emergency handling test that caused Consumer Reports to issue a “don’t buy” warning recently for a related vehicle, the Lexus GX 460.

The 4Runner’s upward progression over 26 years serves as a reminder of Toyota’s roots,… dependable and, as it turned out, nearly indestructible. By the late 1990’s, they seemed to be everywhere.

That first 4Runner of 1984 was essentially one of these, little more than a small Toyota pickup with a back seat and an integrated camper shell. The latest one is brawny, laden with features and capable of mind-boggling maneuvers. It also comes with a well-earned reputation as a “Baja tough” S.U.V. The latest proof came when a 2010 4Runner won its class in the Baja 1000 off-road race last November.

After driving all the trim levels now offered — SR5, Limited and the new Trail model, any driver with an appetite and only a morsel of off-road skill could contend for Baja trophies. The Trail, in particular, seems to regard nasty terrain with an attitude of the Big Bad Wolf: “All the better to eat you up!”

The 4Runner’s ladder-type frame, made of thick-gauge steel, is strong as a jail cell. The front suspension is a double-wishbone with coil-over shock absorbers; the rear is a 4-link supporting a solid axle on coil springs.

The S.U.V. is generally unflappable when the going gets rough. If you tackle a diabolical washboard surface at 35 m.p.h. — “getting on top of it,” the racers say — it will dance across as effortlessly as Fred Astaire.

The Trail’s list of standard off-road-specific features goes on and on, including electronic locking rear differential, A-TRAC active traction control, Multi-Terrain Select and Crawl Control.

  • The Crawl and Multi-Terrain Select features — these are preprogrammed throttle, brake and wheel traction settings — will walk the vehicle up, down, around and through nail-biting inclines, guttural raucous mud and axle-swallowing sand, all without added drama.
  • The optional Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System disengages the antiroll bars and loosens up the suspension settings so the wheels have more articulation (up and down movement) so the vehicle can tackle refrigerator-size obstacles.
  • The 4Runner’s rock-crawling capability seems to be limited only by its 9.6-inch ground clearance and 33-degree approach angle.
  • When rolling on the highway, you are unlikely to forget that the 4Runner is essentially a truck. On poorly maintained concrete roads the ride can get bouncy, and the chassis shivers on the worst expansion joints. But the steering is true, its balance is precise and its tracking is unerring. It is a snap to tow up to 5,000 pounds.

The old 4Runner’s optional V-8, an inefficient 4.7-liter that added too much weight and wasn’t particularly powerful with a drinking problem has been eliminated.

Now, most 4Runners come with a 4-liter V-6 that generates 270 horsepower — 10 more than the old V-8 — and has more torque for towing. Fuel economy for the V-6 4×4 has improved to 17 in town and 22 highway from 16/20 last year (and 14/17 for the defunct V-8). This more modern V-6 weighs less than the old V-8. Everybody should be happy even though some enthusiasts are grumbling on the Internet saying Toyota should have borrowed the 4.6-liter V-8 from the Tundra pickup for more towing capacity.

Despite a curb weight of nearly 4,800 pounds, the 4Runner Trail accelerates from a stop to 60 m.p.h. in a reasonably quick 7.8 seconds.

Early 4Runners offered 4-cylinder engines, turtle-like wonders that seemed to run forever.  For 2010, an in-line 4 returns — a 157-horsepower 2.7-liter engine borrowed from the Tacoma pickup. Equipped with the 4, the 4Runner feels lighter and more agile,… fuel economy is minor though, 18/23 m.p.g. might be cool if it were available with a 5-speed manual. But a 4-speed automatic is the only transmission. The V-6 models come with a 5-speed automatic.

There is an upscale Limited which no longer wears the thick tu-tone cladding that distinguished it visually from lesser versions. Now it is a gentleman’s off-roader.. something you can use to inspect your herd on the South 40 and then go to church in on Sunday. The Trail is for grown-ups who still like to play in the dirt. The base SR5 2-wheel drive is useful for week-end trips to Home Depot and the favorite Grocer.

The Limited comes with full-time 4-wheel-drive; the SR5 and Trail 4x4s use a part-time system engaged by a lever next to the shifter.

Prices for the 2010 4Runner start just under $30,000 and top out above $40,000.

The new cabin feels spacious — the old ones always seemed cramped — and Toyota has figured out how to jam in an optional third row of seats. But the ride back there isn’t pleasant for anyone larger or less compliant than 10 year olds. With all seven seats in use, the cargo capacity (up to 89.7 cubic feet with the rear seats down) almost vanishes just when it is needed most.

Without the third row, a sliding rear cargo deck is perfect for tailgating. There is also a “party mode” button, which redirects the stereo’s output to the back for maximum partying.

Toyota decided to keep the one-piece tailgate and the rear window that powers down. This provides flexibility when hauling kayaks, lumber or brass hat racks.

General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are having tomove away from body-on-frame S.U.V.’s toward more carlike crossovers and there are now fewer choices for those who need truck-solid performance and off-road abilities. Now, more than ever, there is nothing quite like a 4Runner.