Test Drive: 2003 Toyota 4Runner toyota car test drives
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by Richard Russell
photos by Laurance Yap

Toyota’s lineup has grown to the point where it has a tool for each purpose. When the 4Runner was introduced in 1985, it was little more than a composite cap atop a pickup. Toyota’s first and only SUV helped establish the segment. Now the Toyota SUV lineup includes the RAV4, Highlander, 4Runner, Sequoia and Land Cruiser.

The fourth-generation 4Runner returns to its roots, emphasizing off-road prowess, letting its Highlander and Sequoia siblings meet the needs of soft-roaders interested in straying off the pavement only on rare occasions. It is ironic that technology and Toyota’s knowledge base have resulted in a 4Runner that is not only far more capable in serious off road situations than any previous Toyota, but pretty darn impressive on the smooth stuff as well. Extensive development work has resulted in a far more sophisticated and refined product.

The 2003 4Runner is a road-to-roof redesign with new sheet metal, engines, transmissions and drivetrain. In addition to more power and offroad ability, the 4Runner offers a more comfortable ride and vastly improved handling on smooth surfaces. A fully boxed frame and nine cross members result in a significantly more rigid vehicle. The new chassis is 1,143 mm longer and 762 mm wider resulting in big increases in head, leg and shoulder room in all seating positions. Junichi Furuyama says that early in the development process “we scrapped the idea of adding millimetres and began thinking in terms of cubic feet.’

Test Drive: 2003 Toyota 4Runner toyota car test drives

Test Drive: 2003 Toyota 4Runner toyota car test drives
Click image to enlarge

Climbing into the cab for the first time you immediately get the impression of more space than in the past. New seats provide lots of support and long-distance comfort thanks to being positioned further off the floor. Both front seats adjust for height and the driver gets an adjustable lumbar support. The rear is split 60/40 and either or both sides can be folded flat without removing the head restraints. The instrument panel is bright, legible and logical. The centre stack houses entertainment, HVAC and displays. A couple of little mirrors atop the D-pillars aid reversing by allowing the driver to monitor the rear bumper. Quality materials and the usual Toyota craftsmanship are evident everywhere. The cargo space is huge with tie down and grocery bag hooks placed in appropriate spots.

Test Drive: 2003 Toyota 4Runner toyota car test drives

Test Drive: 2003 Toyota 4Runner toyota car test drives
Click image to enlarge

The additional size and strength means more weight, about 100 kilos worth. But that is more than offset by two new, more powerful engines. The standard V6 is a brand new, all-aluminum 4.0 litre DOHC unit that forms the basis for a new family of Toyota truck engines. It produces 245 horsepower and 283-lb. ft. of torque, actually 10 horsepower more than the optional eight. This is the first appearance of a V8 in the 4Runner and it’s a beauty, the same 4.7 litre unit used in the Sequoia SUV and Tundra pickup. Silky smooth, quiet and tractable, it produces 235 horsepower and 320-lb. ft., of torque. The six is mated to a four-speed automatic. The new five-speed automatic coupled to the V8 is adaptive, in that it learns and adjust to the driver’s style, managing shifts according to engine load and speed. It also utilizes both up and downhill shift logic by monitoring vehicle speed and throttle angle to remain in the proper gear for added control whether climbing or descending. Regardless of engine or transmission, the 4Runner will tow 5,000 and carry 1,000 lbs.

Six-cylinder models come with a part-time four-wheel drive system while V8′s get a more sophisticated full-time system complete with two-speed transfer case. The Torsion center differential apportions power 40%/60% front/rear under normal circumstances changing that delivery is slippage is detected. It can be locked by a switch on the instrument panel for maximum traction.

But in addition to the two-speed transfer case and limited slip centre differential, a host of electronic aids has been introduced taking the 4Runner to a whole new level in terms of offroad capability. The full list of acronyms includes DAC (Downhill Assist Control), HSC (Hill Start Control), ATRAC (Active Traction Control System) and ADD (Automatic Disconnecting Differential) VSC (Vehicle Skid Control).

Test Drive: 2003 Toyota 4Runner toyota car test drives

Test Drive: 2003 Toyota 4Runner toyota car test drives

Test Drive: 2003 Toyota 4Runner toyota car test drives
Click image to enlarge

With the transmission in low range and the DAC switched on, downhill speed is automatically maintained in the 5-7 km/hr range through the use of individual brake intervention. Like driving hands off on a banked track at high speed, it is difficult to for a driver to avoid intervention – but it works and it works amazingly well. Going uphill, the HSC system prevents the 4Runner from rolling backwards after coming to a stop. In either case once the brake or gas pedal are touched, the electronics are disengaged. Both systems are possible thanks to new solid-state wheel-speed sensors that detect not only wheel speeds down to 0, but direction, an industry first. Conventional sensors measure speeds beginning at about 6 km/hr and are unable to detect direction.

The Active Traction Control system uses the same sensors to more accurately monitor and maintain grip in offroad situations where tires frequently loose contact with the surface. The Vehicle Stability Control system works in conjunction with the ABS system. If it detects the vehicles is not going in the direction intended by the driver, it intervenes to correct the situation, preventing a loss of control.

The new 4Runner comes in SR5 and Limited trim levels, with V6 or V8 engines. The standard equipment level is both complete and impressive. It includes the automatic transmission, air conditioning, height-adjustable front seats, power windows and locks, remote keyless entry, four wheel disc brakes with ABS, heated mirrors and alloy wheels.

The 4Runner has come a long way since its introduction. This latest example is a giant leap forward. More refined, more powerful, more comfortable and more capable it’s offroad abilities are second to none and its on-road behavior significantly improved.


Technical Data: 2003 Toyota 4Runner

Base price $40,500
Type 4-door, 5-passenger mid-size SUV
Layout longitudinal front engine/4Wd
Engine 4.7 litre V8, DOHC
Horsepower 235 @ 4800 rpm
Torque 320 lb-ft @ 3400 rpm
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Curb weight 2050 kg (4510 lb.)
Wheelbase 2790 mm (109.9 in.)
Length 4800 mm (189.1 in.)
Width 1875 mm (73.9 in.)
Height 1810 mm (71.3 in.)
Trunk space 41195 litres (42.2 cu. ft.) seats up; 2127 litres (75.1 cu. ft.) seats down
Fuel consumption City: 15.5 l/100 km (18 mpg)
  Hwy: 11.5 l/100 km (25 mpg)
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km