Pros: Capable V6 engine; optional third-row seat; exceptional off-road performance; available Entune mobile-app interface

Cons: Subpar fuel economy; cramped third row; more trucklike than carlike driving experience; plasticky interior

The 2012 Toyota 4Runner is out to prove that traditional truck-based SUVs can stay relevant in an eco-conscious age. Car-based crossover SUVs have become all the rage in recent years thanks to rising gas prices, but for some drivers, there's still no substitute for a classic SUV with serious off-road skills.

Based on the same platform as the bushwhacking Toyota FJ Cruiser, the 4Runner provides the serious ground clearance and suspension travel that off-roading enthusiasts demand, and there's even a dedicated Trail model if you want maximum mountain-goat capabilities. The 4Runner's robust rear-wheel-drive underpinnings also enable it to tow up to 5,000 pounds, which is more than many crossovers can manage.

Now, if you're looking for a family vehicle that's going to spend most of its time on the pavement, the 4Runner may be overkill. It's optimized for off-road performance, which means it's not the most fuel-efficient SUV on the market, and it rides and handles like the tall, tough vehicle it is.

But the 4Runner does offer plenty of high-tech goodies inside, and the available third row makes it a viable choice for larger families. Think of it as the Swiss Army knife of SUVs-sure, you could get by with something less capable, but there's peace of mind in knowing that you've got a tool for every occasion.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Toyota 4Runner is offered in SR5, Trail and Limited versions. Even the SR5 isn't cheap at more than $30,000, but fortunately it comes nicely equipped, featuring 17-inch alloy wheels, skidplates for off-road protection, an eight-speaker stereo with iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity, power lumbar support for the driver and the classic 4Runner power back window. Notable options include Entune with navigation, a sunroof and a third-row seat.

The Trail model can't be equipped with the third-row seat, but it comes standard with the sunroof and boasts a number of performance upgrades, including a part-time four-wheel-drive system (optional on the SR5), higher ground clearance, an off-roader's version of cruise control called Crawl Control and the Multi-Terrain Select system, which lets you customize the traction control settings to match the terrain you're traversing.

Optional on the Trail is the Land Cruiser's KDSS suspension, which can disconnect the stabilizer bars to increase axle travel over tough terrain. The high-end Limited model adds a full-time 4WD system, the handling-enhancing X-REAS suspension, 20-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry, Entune with navigation, power front seats, leather upholstery and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.

The 4Runner's front seats provide little lateral support, but they're mounted high, giving you a commanding view of your surroundings. The standard power lumbar support is a nice touch at this price. The second-row seat bottom is rather low, however, so taller riders may feel as though they're sitting on the floor. The optional third-row seat is inhospitable to adults, but kids will clamber back there without complaint, so the 4Runner is a viable three-row family vehicle.

The 4Runner SR5's gauges are pretty standard, but the Trail and Limited models get crisp Optitron gauges that take a page out of the Lexus playbook. We're less enthused about the 4Runner's chunky hard plastic dashboard, which should age well but looks and feels a bit cheap for a $30,000-to-$40,000 vehicle. Ergonomics are good, thanks to big knobs and clearly labeled buttons, but the dashboard's flat, upright design puts some controls at an uncomfortable reach for the driver.

Cargo space is just 9 cubic feet behind the optional third row, but don't worry, you can fold that down pretty easily - and that opens up a healthy 46.3 cubic feet behind the second row. Fold that row down, too, and you'll have 89.7 cubic feet to work with, an impressive figure for a mid-size SUV.

Technology

The 4Runner's technological centerpiece is its 6.1-inch Entune touchscreen display, which is not included with the base SR5 or Trail but can be added to those models as an option - and comes standard on the Limited. Entune links up with your compatible smartphone (ask your Toyota dealer for details) to integrate handy mobile apps into the driving experience, including Pandora Internet radio and the OpenTable dining service. We like the touchscreen's sharp graphics and intuitive operation, although you'll likely need a comprehensive data plan to support Entune's usage rate without extra mobile charges. The navigation system works well enough, but it's not hard drive based, so you can't store music on it. You can, however, play music wirelessly from your phone via Bluetooth streaming technology

Performance & Fuel Economy

The 4Runner starts with rear-wheel drive in SR5 and Limited trims. Optional on the SR5 and standard on the Trail is a part-time 4WD system, while the Limited gets available full-time 4WD. The only available engine is a 4.0-liter V6 rated at 270 horsepower and 278 lb-ft of torque; it's paired with a five-speed automatic transmission. Fuel economy is underwhelming at 17 mpg city/23 mpg highway with RWD and 17/22 mpg with 4WD.

With a maximum tow rating of 5,000 pounds, the 4Runner puts its torquey V6 to good use-that's more than enough capability for trailering a boat down to the waterside, for example. But in day-to-day use, we'd say the 4Runner's V6 is just adequate - and a bit noisy when it's working hard. The previous 4Runner offered a V8 engine as well, and we miss its smooth, relaxed character. Most drivers will probably be just fine with the V6, but there are other options on the market if you want V8 power in this class.

Safety

The 4Runner comes standard with stability control and eight airbags, including front, side and knee bags for front passengers and full-length side-curtain airbags. The driver and front passenger also get active head restraints. Rear parking sensors are standard on the SR5, and a rear-view camera is standard on the Trail/Limited and optional on the SR5.

The 4Runner hasn't been subjected to government crash testing, but it did receive a government rollover rating of just three stars out of five. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the 4Runner its top rating of Good in every category except roof strength, for which the 4Runner received a score of Acceptable.

Driving Impressions

The 4Runner comes up aces off-road, no doubt about it. It's absolutely in the running with the Jeep Grand Cherokee for the "most capable mid-size SUV" award. However, the same features that are a boon in the bushes - slow-ratio steering, tough-as-nails truck suspension - make the 4Runner a bit of a handful on paved roads. The Limited model's X-REAS underpinnings noticeably tighten up the 4Runner's handling, but even so, you'll never forget that this is a tall, narrow SUV. We do think Toyota has done a nice job tuning the ride, however, as the 2012 model shows little of the trucklike jitteriness that plagued previous 4Runners.

Other Cars to Consider

Jeep Grand Cherokee - Recently redesigned and full of attractive qualities, the JGC is a formidable foe for the 4Runner. It arguably has a more pleasant on-road demeanor, and there's an optional Hemi V8, too. You can't get a third-row seat, however.

Nissan Pathfinder - Considered the 4Runner's most direct competitor, the Pathfinder similarly offers a workmanlike 4.0-liter V6 and a third-row seat-but, like the Jeep, it can also be had with a big V8. With a new Pathfinder due soon, Nissan dealers might be more willing than usual to make a deal on the current Pathfinder.

AutoTrader Recommends

Try the SR5 with Entune, which should come in under $35,000. Yes, the Limited has some desirable luxury features, but it'll run you at least $40,000 when all's said and done-and at that price point, it's a whole new ball game.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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