The Toyota 4Runner handles very well for a truck with a live rear axle truck. We drove various models very quickly down twisting back roads along the Oregon coast and found the 4Runner is easy to drive at a good clip. Suspension damping is excellent. Yes, when the road got bumpy we could tell it had a solid rear axle rather than an independent rear suspension, but the 4Runner handles more confidently than a Chevy TrailBlazer, which also uses a live rear axle. Rack-and-pinion steering gives the 4Runner quick steering response and good steering feel.
On unpaved roads, the 4Runner still provides a very smooth ride, thanks in part to well-tuned damping and progressive-rate spring bumpers. However, the 4Runner really comes into its own when the terrain gets gnarly. There's lots of suspension articulation for climbing over boulders and gullies, and a host of technology for handling steep, slippery grades.
The standard V6 engine is so good we can't see a reason to get the V8, except for frequent, heavy towing. This 4.0-liter V6 is so responsive that a pair of lead-footed automotive journalists testing it never felt short-changed. It was brand new in 2003, and packed with the latest technology, including fully variable valve timing, a new linkless electronic throttle control system and lightweight all-aluminum construction. The V6 is rated at 245 horsepower and 282 pounds-feet of torque. Fuel economy has been improved and the V6 4x2 model gets better-than-credible 18/21 mpg city/highway, according to the EPA (17/21 for 4x4s). The V6 is paired with an electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission. It's smooth and delivers excellent response whenever the driver needs some get up and go.
The optional 4.7-liter V8 generates 235 horsepower at 4800 rpm and 320 pounds-feet of torque. No, that's not a type: The V8 delivers less peak horsepower than the V6. Yet it's torque, not horsepower, that's most important when pulling trailers from a dead stop, and the 4Runner's V8 was designed to provide better low-rpm pulling power without compromising highway fuel economy. V8 models weigh about 125 pounds more than V6 4Runners, and the V8 delivers 16/20 mpg in 4x2s, and 16/19 in 4x4s. The V8 also delivers slightly better acceleration than the V6, but for most buyers it probably isn't worth the price tag ($1,250) or decrease in fuel economy. The difference will be noticed primarily after hooking up a trailer.
Both engines feature a cranking system that keeps the starter engaged until complete combustion is achieved, freeing the driver from holding the key until the engine turns over. This is a feature usually associated with expensive luxury sedans.
We found the two-wheel-drive 4Runner impressively capable off road; indeed, it's more capable than some so-called SUVs equipped with all-wheel-drive. Yet ultimate traction comes from the four-wheel-drive models. For starters, 4WD 4Runners are equipped with a two-speed transfer case, giving the driver a low-range set of gears for creeping over rugged terrain.
V6 4WD 4Runners are equipped with Toyota's Multi-Mode shift-on-the-fly system with a Torsen-type limited-slip center differential. The driver can shift between 2WD, 4WD High, and 4WD Low. The Torsen center differential is open in 2WD mode. It applies a rear bias in four-wheel-drive mode, splitting torque 40/60 front-to-rear in normal driving conditions, providing the driver with a traditional feel and better stability when accelerating. The 4WD mode may be used in all types of driving conditions on all types of roads, from dry pavement to wet or snow-covered roads. The system gives the 4Runner a sure-footed feel because power is applied to all four wheels, improving traction. When the front wheels slip, up to 70 percent of the power goes to the rear wheels. When the rear wheels slip, up to 53 percent of the power goes to the front wheels.
V8 engines are mated to a new five-speed automatic transmission that improves responsiveness and efficiency. The transmission is equipped with Artificial Intelligence Shift control, which changes gear-shifting patterns according to driving conditions and driver intent. It works well and seems to understand when you want to cruise and when you want to get with the program. V8 4WD 4Runners operate in full-time four-wheel-drive; unlike V6 4Runners, the V8 4WD models do not offer a 2WD mode.
All 4WD 4Runners come with Toyota's Downhill Assist Control (DAC) system. It works similarly to Land Rover's Hill Descent Control to control the speed and progress of the vehicle down steep grades. Shift into 4WD low-range, check to make sure Downhill Assist is activated, pull to the edge of the nearest precipice, take your feet off the pedals, and steer your way slowly down the trail. Once you make the leap of faith that comes with allowing the machinery to do the work for you, Downhill Assist works very well and is easy to control. The ABS makes a noisy "dunk, dunk, dunk" sound as it lowers the 4Runner safely down the slippery slope. Gently touch the gas or brake pedals to slow or speed your progress, then take your feet off the pedals again, and the system comes back on. Downhill Assist will also keep the 4Runner pointed in the direction you steer it, as it prevents the vehicle from getting sideways on steep descents by using the anti-lock brake system. The system will work continuously for three minutes (because the brakes will heat up with prolonged use), but Toyota officials say it only needs the shortest of breaks to continue.
All 4Runners also come with a new Hill-start Assist Control (HAC) designed to prevent the vehicle from rolling backward or slipping sideways when starting off on a steep ascent. The system controls the brakes to stop an individual wheel or all wheels, preventing the vehicle from rolling backward or slipping sideways.
Remember: The Toyota 4Runner is a truck, not a car. Rather than using a unibody like the Toyota Highlander or RAV4, the 4Runner is built on a new ladder frame that features full-length boxed section frame rails. Toyota also steered away from using an independent rear suspension like the one on the ladder-frame Ford Explorer and many cars. Independent rear suspension offers better ride quality and allows for a roomier interior, but Toyota maintains that its live rear axle offers more suspension travel, and the 4Runner's off-road capability was a high priority.
V8 Limited models offer an optional rear air suspension for improved ride and performance when towing or hauling heavy loads. The air suspension automatically adjusts the ride height according to vehicle load. The driver can raise the rear suspension when driving off road to increase the ground clearance and improve the rear departure angle.
A system called X-REAS (standard on Sport, optional on Limited models) improves handling dynamics on the road with no compromise in off-road articulation or suspension travel. X-REAS reduces the tendency of the vehicle to bob up and down in corners and improves handling by damping body pitch and roll. A simple system, it links the shocks diagonally through hydraulic lines (e.g., the front left shock is linked to the rear right shock). A central control absorber helps balance shock damping.
Anti-lock brakes (ABS) with Brake Assist and electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) come standard on all 4Runners. The four-channel ABS prevents the wheels from locking under severe braking, improving driver control. The 4Runner's ABS has an off-road algorithm to improve stopping performance in slippery conditions, a great feature. Brake-force distribution automatically balances the braking force front to rear for shorter stopping distances. Brake Assist helps a driver who may not be pressing the brake pedal hard enough during an emergency stopping situation by generating additional brake force to assist the driver.
Even the 4Runner's fuel tank design says "off-road." The tank itself is plastic, offering better protection against corrosion, rust-through and connection leaks. Yet the plastic tank is armored by a steel case for protection against debris kicked up by the tires, or the stumps and rocks off-road enthusiasts often encounter.