Pros: Exceptional off-road performance, optional third-row seat, available Entune mobile-app interface.

Cons: Subpar fuel economy, so-so handling on paved roads, plasticky interior.

What's New: The SR5 and Limited offer automatic running boards for 2013, and the 4WD SR5's transfer case is now operated by a switch instead of a lever.

Introduction

Traditional SUVs are increasingly going the way of the dodo, but the 2013 Toyota 4Runner keeps it real. Closely related to the go-anywhere FJ Cruiser, the 4Runner brings trail-busting bona fides like a rear-wheel-drive platform, available dual-range 4WD, and ample ground clearance. It's an SUV for purists who just can't bear to buy a car-based crossover.

Meanwhile, the 4Runner's former rivals have largely given up the ghost. Remember the Nissan Pathfinder? It's a soft-roader at best these days, having switched to a front-drive car platform for 2013. The Ford Explorer made the same switch a few years ago. With a few exceptions, automakers simply aren't making SUVs like the 4Runner anymore.

That's a shame, because the 4Runner is actually a well-rounded vehicle. In addition to its off-road chops, it boasts an available third-row seat and a decent array of technology features. You don't have to be a hardcore adventurer to appreciate the 4Runner's appeal; it's pretty good at being civilized, too.

Naturally, the 2013 4Runner drives more like a truck than a car, so you'll want to pay close attention to things like steering response and ride quality on the test drive. But if you like the way it handles, you're bound to appreciate the rest of its talents. There's something to be said for a vehicle that can go just about anywhere, and we hope the 4Runner will always remain true to those old-school SUV roots.

Comfort & Utility

The 2013 Toyota 4Runner is offered in SR5, Trail, or Limited trim.

Even the SR5 isn't cheap at over $30,000, but fortunately it comes nicely equipped, featuring 17-inch alloy wheels, skid plates 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 (see "Technology," below), a sunroof, a third-row seat and automatic running boards.

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 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 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 standard full-time 4WD system with locking center and rear differentials, 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. Automatic running boards are an extra-cost option.

In our interior evaluation, we found that while the 4Runner's front seats provide little in the way of lateral support, they're mounted high, so you get 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. Although the optional third-row seat is inhospitable to adults, 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 Lexus's 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-$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, opening 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 midsize 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, though you'll likely need a comprehensive data plan to support Entune's usage rate without extra mobile charges. As for the available navigation system, it 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 SR5 and standard on Trail is a part-time 4WD system (including a locking rear differential on Trail), while the Limited gets standard full-time 4WD with a locking center differential.

The only available engine is a 4.0-liter V6 rated at 270 horsepower and 278 pound-feet of torque; it's paired with a five-speed automatic transmission. Fuel economy is underwhelming at 17 mpg city/22 mpg highway with RWD and 17/21 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 that motor's 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, and a rear-view camera is standard on Trail/Limited and optional on SR5.

Buyers can additionally specify the Safety Connect telematics system, which adds automatic collision notification, a stolen-vehicle locator, an SOS button and roadside assistance. A one-year subscription is included.

In government crash tests, the 2013 4Runner scored four stars out of five overall, including four stars for front impacts, five stars for side impacts, and just three stars for rollover resistance. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the 4Runner its top rating of "Good" in every category except roof strength, where the rating was "Acceptable."

Driving Impressions

The 4Runner comes up aces off-road, no doubt about it. It's in the running with the Jeep Grand Cherokee for the "most capable midsize SUV" award. However, the same features that are a boon in the bushes, like the slow-ratio steering and 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 in civilization, 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 there's little of the truck-like jitteriness that plagued previous 4Runners.

Other Cars to Consider

Dodge Durango - The three-row Durango feels bulkier than the 4Runner, but it looks great and offers a powerful Hemi V8.

Jeep Grand Cherokee - Sharing many of its underpinnings with the Durango, the smaller "JGC" is a formidable foe for the 4Runner. It arguably has a more pleasant on-road demeanor, and the Durango's Hemi V8 is available here, too. You can't get a third-row seat, however.

Toyota FJ Cruiser - If you're drawn to the FJ's distinctive styling, check it out, as it's basically a two-row 4Runner wearing different duds.

AutoTrader Recommends

Try the SR5 with Entune, which should keep you around $35,000. Yes, the Limited has some desirable luxury and performance features, but it'll run you at least $40,000 when all's said and done. At that price point, it's a whole new ballgame.



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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