I recently drove the new Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro, which is a Toyota 4Runner — already a rough-and-tumble, old-fashioned, off-roader SUV — that’s been given even more substantial off-roader treatment than the regular model, with mud tires and black wheels and a lifted suspension and a skid plate and a lot of other off-the-pavement goodies. It’s cool — but it’s not for everyone.
And yet, its sales numbers say otherwise. Last year, Toyota sold 128,000 units of the 4Runner (not just the TRD Pro, but all models), making 2017 its best year ever — in 35 years on the market. In 2017, the 4Runner outsold the Lexus RX. The TRD Pro model itself is reportedly sold out in many markets across the United States, with some shoppers paying over MSRP just to snag one. We absolutely love the 4Runner.
This is curious because the 4Runner seems to be the antithesis of what we should love. It’s not environmentally friendly, as it returns just 18 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving. It’s not carlike, which is unusual, as most former off-roady, body-on-frame 4Runner rivals have turned into crossovers — think Chevy Blazer, Ford Explorer and Nissan Pathfinder. It’s also not very high tech: you won’t find a turbocharger under the hood; you won’t find a big screen in the interior. It’s the only car Toyota sells without automatic braking. There’s no adaptive cruise control system, no blind spot monitor. It’s a dinosaur.
And not just that: It’s a $50,000 dinosaur. The model I drove, the off-roady TRD Pro, starts around $45,000, but options can take it to $50,000 and beyond. The upscale 4Runner Limited — which, admittedly, does have some high-end equipment like a passive entry system — starts at $46,000, and prices go from there. And by all accounts, Toyota dealers seem to be getting these prices: People want 4Runners badly enough to pay the sticker price, or close to it, despite the ancient design and outdated tech.
Except it isn’t really “despite” the ancient design — it’s because of it. In a world of rapidly advancing technology, people who want their simple, off-road-oriented, go-anywhere vehicles are clinging to the 4Runner like inhabitants of a desert island faced with rising sea levels. This truck is for people who want to take a stand against all the technology, who don’t need all those newfangled features. Apparently, there are more people like that than we thought.
And yet, I can understand the appeal. Driving the 4Runner TRD Pro feels like driving an old-school Toyota Land Cruiser, from the days before the Land Cruiser itself abandoned those people with tons of technology and upscale luxury. It looks boxy, it has a solid (yet slow) driving experience and it lumbers along on the road while simultaneously making you feel both like you own the road, and you could leave the road at any time, enter the jungle and own that, too. It’s basically the 60-Series Land Cruiser of the modern era — and Land Cruiser enthusiasts who insist Toyota has abandoned them overlook that the 4Runner is about the same size and includes a lot of the same traits. Honestly, the driving experience is great, if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s just ready for anything.
But then we go back to technology. Yes, it’s nice that Toyota still offers this bare-bones SUV for people who just want to ditch the pavement and not worry about taking out a blind spot monitoring system sensor along the way. But at some point, you have to wonder why you’re paying $45,000 or $50,000 for a truck without basic features — the infotainment screen is the size of an iPhone — when you could buy a new Audi or BMW with far more stuff. Sure, those cars can’t tackle the trails. But how many 4Runners will actually do that?
The simple truth is, not many. I’d venture that maybe 10 or 20 percent of all 4Runner models will actually get out on the trails and use the body-on-frame design and 4-wheel-drive “low” functions squarely keeping the SUV in the last century. Other 4Runner owners seem to like it because it looks cool, and they’re giving up a lot for it — fuel economy, technology, exciting road manners and even practicality: On paper, a Toyota Highlander is better in every way.
But the thing is, a Highlander just isn’t a 4Runner. Even though the two vehicles are roughly the same size, similarly priced and not far off in terms of interior room, the general thinking is that parents buy Highlanders, while cool people buy 4Runners. The 4Runner is for people who eschew the mommy-mobile, the minivan, the boring suburb cruisers; for people who want to stand out from the crowd with something unique. And as I was driving down the street in the TRD Pro, looking out over the blue hood, with the rear window rolled down and the trucky ride reminding me I could run over passing mailboxes at my choosing, I couldn’t help but feel that uniqueness, that old-school SUV coolness, that you can really only get from a 4Runner in today’s world. I felt special. Me and 128,000 other people last year. Find a Toyota 4Runner for sale
Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.