by Mitch McCullough
Excellent handling with that Toyota toughness.
Base Price $21,938
As Tested $37,648
With so many new sport-utilities coming out, it's easy to overlook the Toyota 4Runner. But that could be a mistake because the 4Runner has a lot to offer. Everything is easy to operate. There's enough room in back for a ton of gear and it's flat enough for sleeping. The luxurious Limited model comes with comfortable seats swathed in leather. And the optional V6 engine delivers snappy acceleration performance.
But our overriding impression of the 4Runner was of crisp handling and impressive high-speed stability. It instills security and confidence whether hurtling down dry Interstates or negotiating back roads in near-hurricane conditions. Add to that Toyota's reputation for reliability and durability, and you've got some solid reasons to check out the 4Runner.
All 4Runners come in a four-door body style. They are available with two- or four-wheel drive, in three trim levels: base, SR5 and Limited. Two powerplants are available, a 150-horsepower four-cylinder engine and a 183-horsepower V6. A four-speed electronically controlled automatic comes standard on Limited models and is available on some of the other models for approximately $900.
Prices vary widely, from the $21,938 base two-wheel-drive 4Runner with five-speed manual gearbox to the $36,468 Limited with V6, four-wheel drive, automatic, leather and power everything.
The 4Runner shares strong family ties and many components with the nearly unbreakable Toyota pickup trucks. Look at any Toyota and you'll find that everything about it is well-done and logical. Thoughtful features abound. The last complete redesign was in 1996. In 1999, the front fascia was redesigned and a new four-wheel-drive system was employed for the Limited grade. It's relatively unchanged for 2000.
Base models of the 4Runner are equipped with a 2.7-liter twin-cam 16-valve four-cylinder engine that makes 150 horsepower, arguably the best four-cylinder engine to be found in a sport-utility. It has twin balance shafts to cancel out vibrations and, for a four-cylinder, offers an outstanding blend of smoothness and power.
For those wanting more power, the 3.4-liter twin-cam V6 - standard in the SR5 and Limited - is a sweetheart, delivering 183 horsepower and 217 pound-feet of torque, which allows towing trailers up to 5000 pounds. The tradeoff for the extra power is reduced fuel economy; the V6 gets 17/19 city/highway EPA mpg ratings, versus 20/24 for the four-cylinder (both with automatics).
There are two transmission choices, a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. Of interest to off-roaders is the option of a locking rear differential. The 4Runner offers a part-time, shift-on-the-fly 4WD system (as distinct from full-time all-wheel drive). With the optional locking rear differential the driver has the choice of positively locking both rear wheels and one of the fronts together, meaning at least three tires will be clawing their way through muck or slush. As you can see from the as-tested price, Toyota isn't exactly giving these things away, but at least there's a lot of stuff there for your money.
As with all Toyotas, the new 4Runner thoughtfully accommodates its passengers. (The previous-generation, pre-1996, 4Runners required the passengers to make allowances for the vehicle.) Although not the roomiest in its class, the 4Runner offers enough space for five adults with comfortable room behind the front seats. The rear seat is split 50/50. This was useful when three of us drove to a restaurant with all of my fishing gear, including some two-piece nine-foot fly rods.
As a result of the ground clearance necessary to deal with serious off-road use, the 4Runner sits somewhat higher than some of the competition. This means that shorter people may find it less convenient to get in and out. But most of us find getting in and out of the 4Runner easy.
All controls are where you expect and need them and operate logically and easily, from your first grab of the door handle to turning on the wipers or using a cup holder. There's nothing goofy here, no awkward result of some stylist's whim. Just simple, appreciated correctness, which adds up to a high degree of operating ease. The instrument panel is arranged for sensible visibility and operation of all control functions. Map pockets, glove boxes, cubby holes and cup holders add to happiness during long trips.
The bottoms of the rear seats flip up and the seat backs fold down, presenting a large, flat cargo area. (The rear seat headrests are conveniently stored by sticking them into a pair of holes on the seat bottom.) There was plenty of room for fishing rods and a couple of duffel bags of gear. I stopped at dawn on a long drive from North Carolina to Washington, D.C., and slept comfortably for an hour on the flat cargo floor.
All owners will appreciate a couple of features in the rear. First, the spare tire is mounted underneath, so it doesn't interfere with cargo access, and doesn't intrude on cargo space. Second, access to the rear is through a hatch with a separate opening window. A hatch is superior to a door-style tailgate because it opens up and allows you to stand closer to the cargo area when you're loading stuff. And, if you want to toss small items in the back, just lower the window--it's power-operated in all models. Its well-designed big side mirrors, which provide excellent rearward visibility. For all-around convenience, the 4Runner is one of the best of the mid-size (so-called compact) sport-utilities.
Toyota's 4Runner showed off its impressive highway performance on a lengthy drive through Virginia and North Carolina. I was headed to Harker's Island near the southernmost tip of North Carolina's Outer Banks to go fishing and quickly found the 4Runner is extremely stable at high speeds.
From a handling standpoint, the 4Runner has one of the best chassis and suspension arrangements in its class. While some mid-size sport-utilities have front suspensions of struts or even live axles, the 4Runner has an independent suspension with upper and lower control arms and coil springs. In the rear, the axle is mounted with a multi-link arrangement and coil springs instead of the more common, and less sophisticated, leaf springs. The 4Runner also has the precise feel of rack-and-pinion steering and a tidy turning circle of 37.4 feet. The result is a combination of ride comfort and handling ease that is exceptionally good for a vehicle of such outstanding off-road and rough-road capabilities.
Living with the 4Runner and driving it on a daily basis is easy and free of hassles. It doesn't drive exactly like a car, of course, but it's no truck either. It rides nice, it handles nice, the engine runs great, it's nimble in tight shopping mall parking lots, and it basically does all the things you'd like it to do in the ways you'd like it to do them. About the only negative I logged was that, like most compact SUVs, the 4Runner does not provide good grip on wet pavement. The rear tires will often spin when trying to take off aggressively in the rain.
Aside from the expected Toyota attention to detail, which is faultless and comprehensive, one of the nicest features is the 3.4-liter V6 engine. Though it lacks the stump-pulling grunt of the V8s available in some of the competition, it's exceptionally high in smoothness and driving pleasure, with excellent throttle response and a silky feel throughout its wide rev range. And there's more than enough power to deal with a full load of passengers, luggage and a medium-sized trailer.
If you don't require the brute towing power of a V8, you'll have trouble finding a better mid-size sport-utility vehicle than the 4Runner. It's a textbook example of insightful, thoughtful, comprehensive care in design and engineering. Everything about it is correctly done. On the critical issues of reliability and durability, the 4Runner and Toyota's reputation are a tough combination to beat.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.