All new and much improved.

by Ray Thursby

Toyota is a longtime player in the sport-utility game. The company's original Land Cruiser gained a solid reputation for toughness; early versions are still a common sight wherever off-roaders gather.

The 4Runner was the company's second entry into this booming market. At first, it was little more than a Toyota pickup with a plastic shell over the bed and extra seats. Customer demands for more sophistication were answered after a few years with an all-steel version, though 4Runner's truck ancestry remained all-too-readily apparent. And when a four-door version was added to the line, it was conspicuously lacking in room for the rear seat passengers.

As the market has grown, so have the choices. Direct competitors include the new Nissan Pathfinder, Isuzu Rodeo/Honda Passport, and Chevy Blazer/GMC Jimmy, as well as six-cylinder versions of the Jeep Cherokee and Ford Explorer. All are ruggedly constructed, capable, stylish and competitively priced, and each has established a solid customer base.

An all-new 1996 4Runner has been created to capitalize on the success of earlier iterations. It has much to live up to, and a few past flaws to overcome.

Walkaround

Unlike previous versions, the new 4Runner shares no exterior sheet metal with Toyota's compact pickup line, and not much at the chassis level, either. There is, however, a strong family resemblance from the grille to the windshield. For that matter, the new 4Runner doesn't look significantly different from last year's version, a deliberate choice by Toyota designers, who wanted to preserve the previous edition's rugged good looks. In our view, at least, they've done an excellent job.

The changes are more apparent from inside. It's still a handsome design, one that looks modern without any faddish add-ons.

A major change can be found in back, where the new one-piece liftgate (replacing a truck-style tailgate with separate window) not only opens onto a lower cargo floor, but has a standard power rear window. One turn of the key can lock or unlock the gate and raise or lower the glass. A rear wiper is standard on all models.

External variations between the three 4Runner trim levels are easy to spot. The SR5 and Limited versions have chrome bumpers and grilles, while the latter adds bodyside cladding, running boards and plastic wheelarch extensions. The base model has handsome argent exterior trim that's every bit as classy as the bright trim on the upscale models.

The Inside Story

This is where the 4Runner's 1996 changes are most easily appreciated. For starters, all four doors are wider, the floor is lower and the roof is higher, making entry and exit a breeze, something definitely not true of past versions. The handsome dashboard, subtly redesigned in the new edition, holds a complete array of legible gauges, and has controls placed where they are most accessible to the driver. Dual airbags are also standard, a welcome safety upgrade from the previous 4Runner, which had none.

Once inside, the occupants will find not only usable room for five adults, but more comfortable seats. In front there's headroom for hat-wearers; full-sized rear-seat occupants need to doff their fedoras, but have nothing else to complain about, another big improvement over the old 4Runner. Storage area has been increased as well.

Our only complaint with the new dashboard is the location of the cupholders, which pop out of the top of the dashboard. When they're in use, they severely restrict access to the climate controls, and they won't accommodate an ordinary coffee mug.

Cupholders aside, Toyota's attention to detail can be seen everywhere. One example is the cargo-area cover, configured for use with the rear seatback folded or upright.

Quality of materials and workmanship has long been a given with Toyota products; the 4Runner will do nothing to tarnish that reputation. Our SR5 tester was beautifully finished inside and out, and is reasonably well equipped, with base models carrying full carpeting, a four-speaker AM/FM radio, fabric seats and a power rear window.

Our SR5 tester had more, including a tilt steering wheel, intermittent wipers (variable-rate in front, fixed in back) rear window wiper and defogger, rear privacy glass, rear-seat cupholders and power door locks.

Additions to the luxurious Limited are power windows and driver's seat, 16-inch aluminum wheels (with larger-diameter front brakes), cruise control, one-touch shifting between two- and four-wheel drive (all Limiteds are 4WD automatics), leather seats and wood interior trim, a premium six-speaker sound system and air conditioning.

Even the Limited can be dressed up with options such as rear heater, power tilt/slide moonroof, locking rear differential and CD player. Most can be ordered on base and SR5 models, as can packages that duplicate many of the Limited's standard amenities.

Ride & Drive

An all-new chassis does wonders for the formerly rough-riding 4Runner. Ride comfort approaches passenger-car levels thanks to coil springs at all four wheels, and the new rack-and-pinion steering delivers a level of precision that equals the best.

When the road is rough (or non-existent) the new 4Runner stands out. The optional 16-inch wheels and 265-section tires provide enough ground clearance to go over those obstacles that can't be avoided, and the suspension is compliant even when confronted with small boulders to climb. The new chassis, developed from the previous pickup line, virtually eliminates frame flex.

Engines are borrowed from Tacoma and T100 trucks. Standard is a new 150-hp 2.7-liter four-cylinder unit that's smoother and significantly stronger than the previous base powerplant. However, it's still underwhelming in a 3400-pound vehicle, and all of the 4Runner's U.S. competitors offer a V-6 engine as standard equipment.

The 3.4-liter V-6 installed in our SR5 and in Limited models is superior to the four-cylinder engine in every respect.

Most of Toyota's major domestic competitors produce even more standard power, and the Grand Cherokee and Ford Explorer both offer V-8 options. But Toyota's new V-6 closes the power gap considerably, and it's distinctly stronger than the standard V-6 in the Explorer. One measure of the difference is trailer-towing ability: the 1996 model can pull as much as 5000 pounds, up from 3500 last year.

The standard transmission with both powerplants is an easy-shifting five-speed manual, while the four-wheel drive setup continues to be Toyota's on-demand system with a separate lever for the transfer case and shift-on-the-fly capabilities. However, there's no full-time four-wheel drive system available, another area where the 4Runner lags behind the Grand Cherokee, Explorer and GM's Blazer/Jimmy twins.

If the V-6 is worthwhile on the highway, it is almost indispensable for off-roading. The key here is torque, which the larger engine produces in abundance. Extra grunt can make all the difference when you're asking your vehicle to traverse a bog, and the 4Runner's supple suspension does a good job when you're picking your way through terrain strewn with boulders and logs.

Aside from performance, the V-6 brings along the added benefit of ABS, an extra-cost addition to the four-cylinder models.

Final Word

We have no hesitation in recommending the latest 4Runner to anyone who is in the market for a sophisticated and reliable sport-utility vehicle. A superb ride and roomy interior make it comfortable enough for daily use, without compromising the durability that makes it a good choice for sensible off-roading.

But shop carefully! The 4Runner is far from inexpensive -- a drawback common to most Toyotas -- and a fully dressed Limited's pricetag puts it up against such stalwarts as the Land Rover Discovery and Orvis Edition Jeep Grand Cherokee V-8, as well as newcomers like the Explorer V-8 and Mercury Mountaineer.

The addition of goodies like chromed alloy wheels ($1030), air conditioning ($985), power windows and antenna ($485) and towing package ($660) quickly sent our tester's pricetag rolling over the $30,000 frontier.

Money aside, though, the 4Runner should be considered a class leader. The quality of assembly and finish is tops, inside and out, and it's a Toyota, which means you can expect long, trouble-free service.

Order our 200+ page magazine of reviews. Send $8.00 (S&H included) to New Car Test Drive, 2145 Crooks Rd. Suite 200, Troy, MI 48084

© 1996 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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