So-called sport-utility vehicles are the most popular vehicle style today. Therefore car companies are selling every manner of SUV they can bring to the market.
I call them “so-called” sport-utilities because the vast majority of models now available are not SUVs in the traditional sense. Most are crossover sport-utilities, meaning they’re engineered and built like ordinary four-door sedans. Car makers elevate SUV undercarriages a little higher off the road, add all-wheel drive as an option, and expand their cabins, incorporating a hatchback-style cargo area in back. Presto. You have a crossover SUV.
Some crossovers are scarcely even disguised. The Subaru Crosstrek crossover is an alteration of the hatchback version of the Subaru Impreza, which the company sells in both the hatchback and sedan body styles. Starting with an ordinary Impreza, Subaru elevates it a bit, fortifies the suspension a little, tacks on some extra, plastic body cladding for a tougher, rougher appearance, and then calls the altered model a crossover.
Approaches like that make the Toyota 4Runner stand out even more. The 4Runner is unique among today’s sport-utilities because it isn’t an imitation – it’s not an easy-wheeling, light-duty auto with some SUV characteristics grafted onto it. The 4Runner really is made for sporting adventure and utility hauling.
That’s because the 4Runner is built the way pickup trucks are built. SUVs were made that way when the vehicle was emerging as a legitimately rough-duty, leave-the-pavement passenger carrier.
“The 4Runner falls more into the truck category,” explained Ryan Horgan, vice president of Rockingham Toyota in Salem, New Hampshire. “I have customers who come in looking for it because of that.”
What’s more, Horgan noted, the 4Runner has built up a legacy because it has not abandoned the traditional SUV approach, while nearly all other so-called sport-utilities today are crossovers.
“It has its dedicated followers. They create a niche for it,” he said. “It has a legacy, because it’s been around for a long time and it has a reputation for being a bullet-proof vehicle.”
Toyota brought out the first-generation 4Runner in 1984. Then, as now, the 4Runner was based on Toyota’s highly regarded Tacoma medium-sized pickup truck, with its body modified for maximum passenger capacity.
“Older 4Runners retain their value very well,” Horgan noted.
Rockingham Toyota is part of Rockingham Motors, which also operates Rockingham Honda in Salem.
Currently the Toyota 4Runner is in its fifth generation. The 2019 model comes with a gutsy, 270-horsepower V6 engine and five-speed automatic transmission. It starts at a list price of $37,140 for a model with rear-wheel drive. Four-wheel drive adds $1,175, bringing the starting price to $38,315. The 4Runner’s price ranges as high as $50,885 for a TRD Pro trim level. It brings along a more capable off-road suspension, a beefy and prominent front skid plate, and a lot of body embellishments.
The 4Runner’s pickup-like construction style is called body-on-frame. It starts with a separate, underlying steel frame shaped somewhat like a ladder, with longer side rails tied together by cross members – similar to ladder rungs – fastened firmly between them. The frame carries the body as well as the engine and transmission, and provides four rigid corners for hanging the suspension gear that places wheels on the ground. As the supporting foundation for the entire vehicle, the frame is rigid and rugged, enabling the model to perform tough tasks.
By contrast, sedans and today’s crossover sport-utilities don’t have separate frames. Their bodies are one piece, with the unseen underside reinforced to take the place of the frame. With their lighter-duty construction, crossovers are fine for skittish drivers who want the added winter security of all-wheel drive and a higher seating position for better road views. But don’t expect them to clamber over abandoned logging roads in the woods. Traditionally built SUVs are better for that.
The tougher, more rugged and off-road-capable construction of the 4Runner attracts outdoorsy drivers who want a vehicle to support adventures that may take them to those logging roads.
“It’s the vehicle for people who are really into outdoor activities,” Horgan stated. “If a person is into camping, kayaking or mountain biking and they need more cabin space, the 4Runner is the perfect vehicle for them. It does well in New England because of all of our outdoor opportunities.”
But while Toyota’s 4Runner can handle serious off-roading better, it also matches crossovers when performing the common passenger-centered tasks that attract a lot of drivers to crossover wagons. Not every traditionally built, body-on-frame SUV can make the same dual-use claim. For example, the Jeep Wrangler and four-door Wrangler Unlimited have solid off-road credentials, but they can be harsh on humans.
The 4Runner I test drove for a week demonstrated that it has people-pleasing abilities in abundance.
My test model was a TRD Off-Road Premium version, an upper trim level that retails at $43,590. A few choice options boosted its bottom-line price higher. Running boards and a power moonroof added $1,195. More significantly, at a $1,750 option price, the model’s “kinetic dynamic suspension system” improved its off-road ability by allowing more up-and-down wheel travel at low speeds – say when crawling across big ruts or over jutting rocks. The optional suspension also improved on-road performance, by reducing body roll to provide surer traction and more precise steering.
The 4Runner carried me on a few long-distance runs of better than 100 miles each way. I stayed comfortable, never experiencing road fatigue. One of the jaunts included three additional riders, with the four of us pretty much filling the 4Runner’s cabin. During the 90 minutes each way, we had leisure and comfort enough to casually converse. A back-seat passenger found it easy to snooze, because the 4Runner afforded ample leg room and its seat back reclined just enough to make a more appealing sleeping surface.
The 4Runner performed all the passenger-pleasing functions a crossover could do. And at one of the destinations it did more, traveling an unpaved, neglected lane that normally only off-road recreational vehicles and snowmobiles ply. Try that in an ordinary crossover.
Jeffrey Zygmont is an author of fiction, non-fiction and poetry books, and a long-time auto writer. Contact him at www.jeffreyzygmont.com.
2019 Toyota 4Runner
Vehicle type: 4-door, 5-passenger, rear and four-wheel-drive mid-size SUV
Price range: $37,140 to $50,885 (plus options)
Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles basic warranty; 5 years/60,000 miles powertrain warranty; 5 years/unlimited miles corrosion warranty; 2 years/25,000 miles free scheduled maintenance and roadside assistance
Engine: 4.0-liter V6
Power: 270 horsepower at 5,600 rpm; 278 lb.-ft. torque at 4,400 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 17 mpg city; 21 mpg highway
Wheelbase: 110 inches
Length: 190 inches
Width: 76 inches
Height: 72 inches
Weight: 4,400 pounds
Fuel capacity: 23.0 gallons
Turning circle: 37.4 ft.