Not afraid to go off road.
by Mitch McCullough
Base Price (MSRP) $26,335
As Tested (MSRP) $36,704
The Toyota 4Runner represents one of the tougher trucks in Toyota's lineup. While the newly redesigned RAV4 and the all-new Highlander are car-based SUVs, the 4Runner, like the Land Cruiser, provides the two-speed transfer case and suspension travel needed for serious off-road driving. The 4Runner has all of the sturdy stuff you need to venture beyond civilized roads.
It can also be fitted with leather upholstery, automatic climate control, and other luxury features.
Overall, the 4Runner is easy to drive, gives a comfortable highway ride, secure handling, and provides lots of storage room. The standard V6 engine and four-speed automatic transmission delivers snappy acceleration performance.
Traction control for rear-wheel drive models, anti-lock brakes, and stability control are all standard features for 2001.
All 4Runners come in a four-door body style. They are available with two- or four-wheel drive, in two trim levels: SR5 and Limited.
The four-cylinder engine was dropped for 2001, leaving the excellent 183-horsepower V6 as the standard powerplant. The five-speed manual transmission was also discontinued; a four-speed electronically controlled automatic is standard.
Prices range from the $26,335 SR5 two-wheel-drive 4Runner to the $36,105 Limited with V6, four-wheel drive, 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. The 2001 models receive a redesigned front grille and new taillights.
The 3.4-liter twin-cam V6 is a sweetheart, delivering 183 horsepower and 217 pound-feet of torque, which allows towing trailers up to 5000 pounds. Expect fuel economy to be around 16/19 mpg city/highway for four-wheel drive models; rear-wheel drive versions achieve about 1 more mpg overall.
For 2001, a center differential lock switch has been provided on the instrument panel so that the locking and unlocking of the center differential can be controlled by the push of a button. This allows the driver to make 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 with all Toyotas, the 4Runner accommodates its passengers well. (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, cubbyholes and cup holders add to happiness during long trips. New for 2001 is a modified air conditioner control panel; power door locks are also standard throughout the model line.
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. The 4Runner comes with 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.
We also had the chance to take the 4Runner off-road. With its high ground clearance, aggressive tire pattern and Toyota's on-demand shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive system, the 4Runner was practically unstoppable. All four-wheel drive models come with a two-speed transfer case that provides low gearing to slowly creep down steep declines. Toyota builds the RAV4 and Highlander for light-duty non-pavement trekking, but also offers the 4Runner, Land Cruiser and Sequoia for those seeking more serious off-road adventures.
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. Plus, it's an extremely capable off-roader.
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