Kamis, 05 Juni 2008

Toyota 4Runner Review

By William C Montgomery

In 2002, I embarked on a week-long trek across the High Uinta Mountains. On our first day out, I aggravated an old knee injury. So we borrowed a six-year-old all wheel-drive 4Runner and resumed our backcountry adventure by wheel. The 4Runner was ideal: rugged, reliable, capable and comfortable. Of course, Toyota didn’t get to be the world’s largest automobile manufacturer by leaving well enough alone…

In ’02, we flipped our mirrors back and threaded our way through narrowly spaced aspen trees to a lake at the bottom of a steep ravine. Skinned tree bark bore evidence that previous adventurers had attempted our road in wider vehicles.

Toyota’s ’03 revamp of the 4Runner added significant dimensionality to its formerly svelte figure. For the fourth gen 4Runner, the company based the vehicle on the plump Land Cruiser Prado 120. The 4Runner is now six inches longer and 4.3 inches wider than afore. That might not seem like much on-road, but off-road, well, let’s just say small is beautiful. Speaking of which…

In ‘06, the 4Runner underwent cosmetic surgery. The procedure pumped fresh collagen into the SUV’s trapezoidal grille and fender flairs. The nip/tuck also tightened the fog lights into round lenses and implanted projector-beam headlights and LED taillights. The Sports Edition continues to sport a decorative (i.e. useless) hood scoop: an ineffective affectation that belies Toyota's rep for serious-minded design.

We took full advantage of 4Runner’s cargo capacity to mule creature comforts: tent, chairs and a cooler. For family duty, the leather-trimmed 4Runner fit the wife, kids and our Black Lab. Still, it was a bit “snug.”

The obvious upside to the 4Runner’s Prado underpinnings: more elbow room for all concerned (unless you’re an adult banished to optional third row seats). The 4Runner’s cabin is amongst the best that Toyota-branded cars have to offer: supportive seating, soft-touch plastics, quality switch gear, flawless fit and finish and sublime ergonomics. Bonus! Even Nigel Tufnel would be impressed with a standard stereo’s power.

The Uinta’s Depression-era “roads” hadn’t been maintained since the Civilian Conservation Corps built them. The topsoil had long since eroded, leaving a highway strewn with boulders. We made full use of the 4Runner’s 11” of ground clearance, bucking and lurching our way to pristine lakes, without so much as a squeak or rattle.

Die-hard (one hopes) off-roaders will appreciate the 4Runner’s standard Hill Start Assist Control and Traction Control, and [available] Downhill Assist Control. They’ll also get off (so to speak) on the pair of convex back-up mirrors mounted above the 4Runner’s cargo area, inside the D-pillars. It’s a smart, low-tech substitute for complex (read: trouble prone) rear-view cameras.

Mud-pluggers will be FAR less pleased with the 4Runner’s aforementioned Biggie-sized proportions, and ground clearance and approach and departure angles that are little better than a full-domesticated CUV. These changes render an unmodified 4Runner completely unsuitable for a genuine Rocky Mountain high.

And then… a miracle. When we pulled onto a paved road, the 4Runner handled with the smoothness and quiet sophistication of a Lexus.

The latest 4Runner is even better equipped to handle extreme contrasts in road surfaces. Double-wishbone independent front suspension and four-link rear suspenders deliver creamy Camry refinement on tarmac. Sure, the big rig leans through corners like a four-wheeled La Torre di Pisa. But the SUV’s motions are controlled, predictable and rebound free. This truck tracks down the freeway as easily as it negotiates alpine trails.

My 4WD 4Runner Sport Edition (17” wheels, enhanced suspension) holstered the popular 236hp 4.0-liter V6, mated to a 5-speed automatic cogswapper. On the upside, the free revving 24-valve mill has lots of low down grunt (266 ft.-lbs. of torque @ 4000rpm) to motivate the two-ton leviathan. Soccer moms will have no problem getting the team to their Title IX practice. On the downside, 18/22 mpg.

Our 4Runner was a primal machine, bereft of electronic trickery or safety nets. We admired it for that.

The 4Runner now offers standard ABS, Vehicle Stability Control and Electronic Brake-force Distribution. The latter balances the amount of brake pressure applied to each disk depending on cargo load distribution. For example, if you put The Big Show (don’t know, don’t ask) into the back seat, the 4Runner will adapt to the extra 500 lbs. by channeling more braking force through the rear binders.

When we returned the 4Runner, I looked back with admiration, as one does with a faithful steed at the end of a long journey. Respect.

As an off-road machine, the current 4Runner is severely compromised. Toyota baked all of its mud-plugging goodness into the FJ Cruiser and relegated the 4Runner to highway and light trail duty. In other words, the 4Runner is now a refined, rugged looking, long-legged station wagon that gets miserable gas mileage. It's a terrific machine, but what's the point?