The 4Runner has a traditional body-on-frame construction, and the Highlander has a car-like unibody configuration.
The Highlander can be had with all-wheel drive, but it’s not as capable off-road as a 4-wheel-drive-equipped 4Runner.
The Highlander and the 4Runner are two midsize SUVs that are technically in the same segment. Despite being from the same brand in the same segment, they actually don’t have all that much in common. Depending on what you’re looking for in an SUV, one could be a much better fit for you than the other.
To put it simply, the 4Runner is an off-roader, and the Highlander is a family vehicle. Let’s take a look at what exactly that means and what the differences are between these two Toyota SUVs.
The Highlander and 4Runner look so different on the outside that you might never guess they’re made by the same brand if it wasn’t for the emblems. The 4Runner is much boxier and more rugged-looking, exuding the off-road capability that lies beneath. The Highlander looks a little more curvy and dignified. The Highlander is handsome, but tends to blend in with traffic. The 4Runner’s unconventional look stands out more and has a little more character.
The exterior dimensions of these two Toyotas are strikingly similar. The length and width are identical, but the 4Runner is four inches taller than the Highlander partly due to its higher ride height. Other than the height difference, the 4Runner and the Highlander will take up the same amount of space in your garage.
The interiors of the 4Runner and the Highlander are about as different as the exteriors. Both of them are spacious and comfortable on the inside, but the interior design is pretty different for the two. The 4Runner doesn’t have the most modern interior, but it all works. That’s kind of the point of the 4Runner: It might not be pretty, but everything serves a purpose and works. There’s no question you’re in a truck-like SUV when you’re behind the wheel of the Toyota 4Runner.
The interior of the Highlander is a little more pleasant and easy on the eyes. It’s clear that the Highlander is more focused on convenience, creature comforts and looking nice than the 4Runner. For example, the Highlander has 12 cup holders, and the 4Runner only has eight. Both SUVs have three rows of seating, but the third row is pretty cramped in both.
The 2018 Toyota Highlander is available with three different engine choices, and the 2018 Toyota 4Runner is available with just one. The base and only engine in the 4Runner is a 4.0-liter V6 that produces 270 horsepower and 278 lb-ft of torque. Fuel economy is underwhelming at 17 mpg city/22 mpg highway.
The Highlander has a lot more variety under the hood than the 4Runner, and it can be much more fuel efficient. The base engine is a 2.7-liter inline-four that makes 185 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque while returning 20 mpg city/24 mpg hwy. We’d recommend upgrading to the available 3.5-liter V6, which has much better performance and better fuel economy than the base 4-cylinder. It makes 295 hp and 263 lb-ft of torque and it gets 21 mpg city/27 mpg hwy. For even better fuel economy, you can get a hybrid variant of the 3.5-liter V6, which returns 30 mpg city/28 mpg hwy.
The big advantage of the 4Runner is much stronger off-road performance when equipped with one of its two optional 4-wheel drives. It can be had with part-time or full-time 4WD, and it’s available with multi-terrain select so you can adjust the 4Runner’s capability to your needs. It also comes with what Toyota calls Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System and Crawl Control, which allows a 4WD-equipped 4Runner to go just about anywhere off the beaten path.
The Highlander, on the other hand, is available with all-wheel drive. This AWD system is not exactly for extreme off-roading like what the 4Runner can handle, but it’s more for better traction on the street when the roads get nasty in the rain or snow. An AWD-equipped Highlander is capable of some light off-roading, but nowhere near what the 4Runner is capable of.
If fuel economy is a priority for you, then the Highlander is an obvious choice over the 4Runner. However, if you’re planning on taking the road less traveled regularly, then you might like the special off-road equipment you can get with a 4Runner.
Features and Technology
There’s a big technology gap between the 4Runner and the Highlander that can’t be ignored. Toyota has an advanced suite of safety tech called Toyota Safety Sense-P (TSS-P) which includes lane-departure alert, dynamic radar cruise control, a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection and automatic high beams. TSS-P is standard on every 2018 Highlander and not even an option on any trim of the 4Runner.
Another perk of the Highlander over the 4Runner is the availability of a rear-seat entertainment system. With a nine-inch screen, a Blu-ray player and two sets of wireless headphones, your backseat passengers will be more than content on long rides.
The 4Runner can be optioned with pretty nice features like Bluetooth, navigation and JBL premium audio, but in terms of technology and creature comforts, the Highlander has the 4Runner beat.
It’s almost hard to compare the 4Runner to the Highlander because they’re built for such different purposes. The Highlander’s focus is on safe, sensible, reliable family transportation — and it’s good at it. While the 4Runner can certainly be used as a family vehicle, it’s much more designed to be an off-roader than anything else. The Highlander is more comfortable and more efficient on the road, but where the road ends, the 4Runner’s advantages begin.