A few weeks ago, I took my first-ever trip to Seattle. For my weekend in the Pacific Northwest, Toyota loaned me a brand-new 2020 4Runner TRD Pro in Army Green to test while I was there. Here are my thoughts on it.
Current State of the 4Runner
The 4Runner you can buy new today has been on sale in its current form since the 2010 model year. That’s right, it’s seriously old — 11 years, in fact. This is most evident in its ancient drivetrain. Under the hood of the 4Runner is a 4.0-liter V6 putting out 270 horsepower and 278 lb-ft of torque and paired with a 5-speed automatic. A 5-speed! In 2020! Fuel economy comes in at a rather underwhelming 17 miles per gallon in the city, 20 mpg on the highway and 18 mpg in combined driving. Elsewhere throughout the vehicle, you’ll find rough surfaces, square edges and hard plastics, stuff that probably wouldn’t pass in a new vehicle design today. But since the 4Runner is all about old-school cool, we let it slide.
While this vehicle still teeters on obsolete, it does get a few noteworthy updates for 2020, including the addition of standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay and a suite of active safety features consisting of automatic emergency braking, radar cruise control, lane-departure warning and automatic high beams. A blind spot monitoring system and some parking sensors would be a welcome addition, but integrating that technology into this ancient platform would presumably be relatively costly for Toyota and given that the 4Runner had its all-time best sales year just last year, it seems to be doing just fine without them.
The TRD Pro Stuff
The 2020 Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro offers a variety of off-road bits that you can’t get on lesser trim levels. As it starts with the 4Runner’s TRD Off-Road trim as its base, the TRD Pro comes with a lever-activated low-range four-wheel drive system, which is a charming throwback to trucks of the past. It also gets a locking rear differential and Toyota’s Active Traction Control system, both of which are helpful in low-grip situations off-road. There’s also Toyota’s Crawl Control system, which the company describes as off-road cruise control, and a Multi-Terrain Select feature as well, which allows you to tailor the vehicle’s traction control system to a number of different terrains, including sand, mud and rocks. All four of these features are controlled from the overhead console. A-TRAC and the rear locker get their own buttons, while Crawl Control and Multi Terrain Select are operated via dials, which is fun.
One additional thing the 4Runner TRD Off-Road can be had with is Toyota’s clever Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System, better known as "KDSS," which can disconnect the vehicle’s front and rear sway bars any time it senses uneven terrain, allowing for added articulation off-road. Oddly, though, this feature isn’t available on the TRD Pro despite Toyota billing the Pro as the ultimate off-road 4Runner. My assumption is that omitting this piece of clever off-road tech is a way for the company to maximize its profit margins on the TRD Pro.
With all of the basic TRD Off-Road stuff out of the way, onto the TRD Pro Bits. Every year, Toyota offers its TRD Pro line in one unique color. This year, that color is Army Green, and it’s nothing short of excellent.
Beyond this unique color option, the 4Runner TRD Pro gets black TRD wheels wrapped in all-terrain tires, a unique grille bearing the "Toyota" wordmark and a basket-style roof rack similar to what was offered on the FJ Cruiser. There’s also a cat back exhaust, LED fog lights and a few other aesthetic tweaks that don’t really matter. The TRD Pro’s main selling point is its TRD+Fox co-branded off-road shock absorbers that make the vehicle more stable and better suited for high-speed off-road driving by a considerable degree.
As I said in the title of this article, I didn’t expect to like the 4Runner given its ancient construction and lack of modern features. But within about 15 seconds of sitting down behind the wheel, I had a big smile on my face, because the 4Runner is just plain cool.
As soon as we set off from the airport to our AirBnB in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, my friends asked if the 4Runner was in four-wheel drive, given the high rpms of the 5-speed automatic and drone of the cat back exhaust. "Nope! That’s just how the 4Runner is," I replied. When we got to the AirBnB, we encountered another quirk of the TRD Pro: the roof rack. Seattle isn’t exactly a spacious city, and we found that the cramped parking garage under the condo we were staying in didn’t exactly work for the 4Runner, as the slightly increased ride height and tall roof rack meant we could barely clear the low garage door at the entrance. We went in and out about five times over the course of the weekend, clearing by what seemed like a smaller and smaller margin each time. I was ready to either weigh down the cargo area or let some air out of the tires if necessary. Luckily, it never came to that. Only once did we actually scrape one of the screwheads at the front of the rack — just barely. It was tantalizingly close.
We took the 4Runner into North Cascades National Park on day one of our trip, which meant about five hours of highway driving. While it’s certainly a high-riding, truck-based SUV, the 4Runner was fine on the highway. A little noisy, a little bouncy and not exactly efficient (I averaged 17.5 mpg over the course of the weekend), but fine. Over the few forest roads we were able to find, I could see how this thing would be a blast to drive really fast off-road over long distances.
This assumes you’ve got access to those kinds of places, though, and frankly, not a lot of people do. To realize the added benefits of the TRD Pro, you’ve gotta make it off-road a few times every year. Otherwise, you’re just paying for something that’s never going to benefit you.
And you’ll pay a lot for the TRD Pro — factoring in a $1,120 destination fee, this thing comes in at two tanks of gas shy of $51,000.
After four days behind the wheel, I’m sold on the 4Runner. A vehicle this old, this primitive and this inefficient isn’t supposed to be viable in today’s market, and yet here we are. Toyota sold around 140,000 4Runners in 2018 alone, record sales for a vehicle that was, at that point, nine years old. The fact of the matter is that vehicles like the 4Runner are cool again, and Toyota seems to have lucked out in letting the 4Runner’s design linger for so long that it’s now back in style. Its boxy, upright proportions have the same vibe as the old 80 Series Land Cruisers, while its simple interior is functional and pure and can clearly take a beating. The powertrain — well, yeah, it’s pretty bad, but you can rest assured that it won’t conk out on you before 200,000 miles or so. Altogether, the 4Runner is an automotive outlier. Something this old just isn’t supposed to work this well. While I’ve spent the last few years looking forward to the all-new 4Runner that’s supposed to debut some time in the early 2020s, I’m now asking myself, do we even need one? Find a Toyota 4Runner for sale
Chris O’Neill grew up in the Rust Belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He worked in the auto industry for a while, helping Germans design cars for Americans. Follow him on Instagram: @MountainWestCarSpotter