Engine: 4.0-liter V6, 270 hp and 278 lb-ft of torque / Transmission/transfer case: Five-speed automatic/rear-wheel-drive, part-time 4WD or full-time 4WD / EPA Fuel Economy / (4x4): 17 mpg city, 20 mpg highway / Ground Clearance: 9.6 inches / Suspension: Independent front, solid axle rear with coil springs / Towing Capacity: 5,000 pounds
I am old enough to remember when SUVs first took off, and mobs of people who formerly drove wagons or minivans piled into body-on-frame Explorers and set off for outdoorsy adventures, driving to the mall to get an Orange Julius while listening to the new Collective Soul CD.
The first wave of four-door SUVs were hastily adapted trucks, basically pickups with back seats and a roof over the bed-then came the crossovers.
For all our griping about the basic lameness of crossovers, the advent of the car-based faux truck represented a positive realignment of capability with reality. Compared to a body-on-frame SUV, a crossover will typically weigh less, handle better, have more interior space, and get better fuel economy.
That’s why the Pathfinder morphed from body-on-frame to a mega-Maxima. The Explorer turned into a Taurus wagon. The Chevy Blazer is a taller Impala, and the Jeep Cherokee is a Chrysler 200 that sells 200 times better. Aside from the Jeep Wrangler, which is its own category, there’s only one truck left: the Toyota 4Runner.
Last year, Toyota sold nearly 140,000 of the things, despite the current generation dating to 2010, and the 4Runner outsells every Lexus car-combined. I always try to warn people what they’re getting into with the 4Runner, which is to say, a time machine that takes you back to the era of keyed ignitions and horrible gas mileage.
I typically launch into a sermon on the dynamic and packaging virtues of the Highlander. It’s so much better to drive, I say. The 4Runner drives like a bag of rocks pulled by a Clydesdale that was recently exhumed from the Pet Semetary. If the 4Runner could communicate, it would do so through pointing and grunting. The 4Runner’s so old, its VIN is 1.
Then, after I complete a half-hour roast of the 4Runner, my inquisitor will usually reply, “Oh, well, I’ve got a 2017 4Runner. I love it.”
And then I backtrack. I backtrack like a 4Runner in reverse, which is to say slowly and accompanied by soft whining. Well, it does have character, I say, and the back window rolls down. Then we agree that the back window, which rolls down, is pretty sweet.
A Rebellion on Four Wheels
If crossovers represent rebellion against the minivan, then the 4Runner represents rebellion against crossovers. It’s just got a cool vibe. One recent morning, dropping a kid off at school, the car ahead of me was a 4Runner. The rear window was halfway down, a placid German Shepherd peeking over the glass. And I thought, “OK, I want that scene.”
I want it despite the fact that a cool dog window is inseparable from klutzy steering and a V6 that always feels like it’s been rudely awakened from a peaceful slumber.
I recently drove a 4Runner TRD Pro, which is a 4Runner with its dominant traits (tallness, extroversion) exaggerated. I took it on a weekend trip, my Coleman Steel-Belted cooler strapped to the roof rack. I didn’t really need to put the cooler on the roof, but I wanted my fellow motorists to fully appreciate my active outdoors lifestyle.
“That guy’s probably going to camp by a lake at the end of a rugged trail,” they’d say. “So cool.”
A Dose of Reality
I also rolled the back window down, but not all the way-so everyone could see that there is a window, but I just had it mostly rolled down. Mmm, fresh air and exhaust!
I removed the cooler after realizing that it knocked fully four miles per gallon off the 4Runner’s already grim fuel economy (18 mpg down to 14 mpg, on the highway). The 4Runner's V6 is labored in the first place, churning those big tires through only five forward gears. It's the kind of vehicle where you notice when you're driving into a headwind even without a cooler on the roof-and, aerodynamics aside, a top-heavy rig like this doesn't need an extra 60 pounds in the crow's nest.
Some of the qualities that make a TRD Pro excellent off-road-solid rear axle, towering ground clearance, Nitto Terra Grappler all-terrain tires-exact a penalty on the asphalt trail. So I decided that the roof would be used only for real roof-rack-requiring emergencies, like if developed the sudden need to buy a kayak.
But the reality is that from now on, when someone asks me whether they should buy a 4Runner or a Highlander, I’ll say I really don’t know. Do you prize competence or authenticity? That’s the question. Because the 4Runner has its faults. But on the other hand, the back window rolls down.