HomeGarageDriven: Toyota 4Runner stays rugged but falls behind in refinement

Driven: Toyota 4Runner stays rugged but falls behind in refinement

The TRD Sport model added to the mix, designed for improved on-road drivability

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While a 4-wheel-drive Toyota 4Runner is celebrated as a go-anywhere off-roader ready for backcountry adventure, the fact is that few drivers actually take advantage of that capability, instead using their rugged SUVs as regular passenger wagons that never leave the pavement.

With that in mind, Toyota has added another targeted model to the 4Runner lineup, the TRD Sport, which is designed to enhance on-road handling and drivability, without taking away from its 4X4 skills.  Not too much, anyway.

The TRD Sport brings to seven the models for configuring the 4Runner, ranging from basic to luxury, and four TRD (Toyota Racing Division) levels, with the other three more-directed toward flogging on rocky trails.

4runner, Driven: Toyota 4Runner stays rugged but falls behind in refinement, ClassicCars.com Journal

(Note:  I know my mind’s pretty much in the gutter, but I still can’t shake the scatological association of TRD. I’m sure I’m not alone.)

The TRD Sport does feel well-planted on the highway, sharper and less jiggly than the other 4-wheel-drive 4Runners. Much of the credit goes to what Toyota calls the X-REAS suspension, which translates as a Cross-Linked Relative Absorber System.

In simpler terms than its creative name would suggest is what it does, which is automatically adjust from side-to-side the damping force of the shock absorbers on bumpy surfaces and while cornering for improved body control.

“A center control absorber cross-links the shock absorbers on opposite corners of the vehicle, like an ‘X,’ to help reduce pitch and yaw by offsetting opposing inputs,” Toyota says in its press material.

4runner

We did take the 4Runner on a not-too-taxing off-pavement excursion on a washed-out dirt road with assorted rocks and gullies, which the truck easily traversed even without the benefit of all-terrain tires. Toyota has 4WD pretty much down pat, and it shows.

The off-road ride was a bit bouncier than what I remember from past 4Runners driven, no doubt part of the compromise dialed-in for on-road agility.

The 4Runner is in its fifth generation, first appearing for the 1984 model year as a 2-door wagon with a composite body structure enclosing the rear. The Toyota quickly graduated to a 4-door all-steel SUV, arguably setting the trend for the SUV/crossover revolution that eventually took over the automotive market.

4runner, Driven: Toyota 4Runner stays rugged but falls behind in refinement, ClassicCars.com Journal

Today’s 4Runner is not all that different from that second-gen version, aside from upgrades in performance, styling and technology.  While most of the competition has gone the unibody crossover route, such as Ford Explorer and Nissan Pathfinder, 4Runner has kept the faith with solid body-on-frame truck construction.

That has its positive and negative points.  On the plus side, 4Runner is still a truck built on a stout ladder frame, which makes it better at hauling, towing and standing up to tough off-road challenges without getting structurally damaged.

The minuses, however, delineate why crossovers have pretty much taken over.   They drive more like passenger cars, which they essentially are, and fuel mileage is typically better.  4Runner’s fuel mileage is rated at 17 mpg city and 20 highway, and a combined 18; its 4,750-pound curb weight and boxy proportions don’t help any.

4runner

Still, 4Runner is a perennial top seller for Toyota, and used examples hold strong values even with high mileage.  The fact that they are as reliable and bulletproof as all Toyota trucks defines much of their appeal. 

But it also seems that while keeping true to form, 4Runner has fallen behind the curve in refinement. The TRD Sport is not as sporty as its name might lead one to believe, and the on-road performance is nothing to brag about.

The engine is the trusty 4.0-liter V6 that puts out 270 horsepower, not terribly powerful while pulling all that weight but, as noted, bulletproof.  The automatic transmission is also too familiar, a 5-speed unit that feels dated and is slow to respond to throttle input. 

4runner

The interior is surprisingly roomy, considering the 4Runner’s dimensions, but here again, there’s a dated feel throughout in both styling and materials. 

But this is where I deviate from current trends – I found the dashboard to be friendly and welcoming, with large rotary dials for audio and climate control, and easy-to-manipulate push-button controls for the 8-inch video interface, which also has a touch screen. I find all that favorable for real-world living, even if it is old school.

The 4Runner that I drove was painted in the medium-gray shade that has grown in popularity recently, a color that Toyota mysteriously calls Lunar Rock. All well and good, but the monochromatic finish without any contrasting details made the SUV look dull and uninteresting. 

4runner, Driven: Toyota 4Runner stays rugged but falls behind in refinement, ClassicCars.com Journal

The TRD Sport package includes 20-inch alloy wheels, hood scoop and special badging.  The model’s special color-keyed bumper, grille spoiler and other bits are part of the monochrome treatment that I found unappealing

The price tag is fairly lofty, the TRD Sport starting at around $42,000, with the test model rising to nearly $46,000 with the additions of a technology package and upgraded audio with GPS navigation.  More-capable models with additional gear and technology go way higher.

At that price, there seem to be a couple of simple items lacking.  For instance, I would expect there to be a power-lifting tailgate, a common feature these days, and the passenger seat also should be powered.  Neither of these were present on the one I drove.

Overall, the 4Runner remains what it’s always been, a no-nonsense SUV built like a truck, and for those who appreciate them, the latest version certainly will not disappoint.  My preference would be one of the versions that’s more oriented to outdoor adventure than on-road cruising.

2021 Toyota 4Runner TRD Sport

Vehicle type: 5-passenger sport utility vehicle, 4-wheel drive

Base price: $42,025 Price as tested: $45,904

Engine: 4.0-liter V6, 270 horsepower @ 5,600 rpm, 278 pound-feet of torque @ 4.400 rpm Transmission: 5-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 109.8 inches Overall length/width: 190.2 inches / 76.8 inches

Curb weight: 4,750 pounds

EPA mileage estimates: 17 city / 20 highway / 18 combined

Assembled in: Aichi, Japan

Bob Golfen
Bob Golfen
Bob Golfen is a longtime automotive writer and editor, focusing on new vehicles, collector cars, car culture and the automotive lifestyle. He is the former automotive writer and editor for The Arizona Republic and SPEED.com, the website for the SPEED motorsports channel. He has written free-lance articles for a number of publications, including Autoweek, The New York Times and Barrett-Jackson auction catalogs. A collector car enthusiast with a wide range of knowledge about the old cars that we all love and desire, Bob enjoys tinkering with archaic machinery. His current obsession is a 1962 Porsche 356 Super coupe.

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