Story and photos
by Laurance Yap
Vancouver, B.C. – You can be forgiven for forgetting about the 4Runner, Toyota’s midsize truck-based SUV. What with all the hoopla around the full-sized Sequoia, the successful car-based Highlander, and the sporty little RAV4, it kind of got lost in the mix. Last revised in 1996, the 4Runner languished in our collective consciousness — and on the increasingly-competitive sales charts. As more and more trucks became based on more-nimble car platforms, its sitting-on-the-floor-up-high driving position, narrow cabin, and sturdy truck-like dynamics couldn’t compete–Toyota’s legendary quality and reliability notwithstanding.
Yet despite the trend towards car-like driving experiences, styling, and interiors, Toyota still believes there’s a place in the world for a rugged truck-based SUV, with enough ground clearance, strength, and off-road capability to satisfy true truck enthusiasts, many of whom have become Toyota converts over the years thanks to their refined drivetrains and bulletproof performance. So enter the 2003 4Runner, with all the typical Toyota pluses, virtually none of the old 4Runner’s vices, and a fantastic new V8 engine.
Sharing its platform and its optional high-end drivetrain with the U.S.-only Lexus GX470, the new 4Runner still rides on a full ladder frame, this time formed of hydroformed steel, and perched atop a newly-designed suspension, with an innovative cross-linked shock absorber system on V8 models; under cornering, hydraulic tubes linking the opposite shocks provides a more stable ride and better cornering. Cool.
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Base models now have a 245 horsepower V6 (strangely; the V8 produces less horses but a massive 320 lb-ft of torque instead of the V6’s 283 lb-ft) and a four-speed automatic (V8s have a standard five-speed). A dash-mounted knob controls a part-time 4WD system on the V6, and a full-time AWD system on the V8. Low range for extra traction is standard with both engines.
On the road, the new V8’s extra power and refinement is noticeable. It’s nearly silent in normal operation, only giving way to a muted growl when you’re really gunning it. The automatic slurs near-imperceptibly between the gears and is notably responsive to jabs of the gas pedal. Braking is fine, and despite a stance that still has some of that tall, narrow 4Runner look, cornering is as stable and poised as any truck-based SUV with a live rear axle has a right to be.
Given the big hole it has to punch in the air, the 4Runner is also surprisingly absent of wind noise, even at high speeds. On the highway, the light steering has a tendency to wander a bit, requiring lots of little minor steering corrections, and on rough roads, the rear wheels can judder over bumps, but otherwise, there’s little to complain about with this package.
Driving aside, though, where the 4Runner has really made huge strides is in the quality and design of the interior. Though the old 4Runner was nicely made, the pieces it was made out of — the low-set seats, the climate knobs, even the window switches — were clearly from a bygone age. No longer: the new interior has ritzy instrument graphics, big, easy-to-use controls, and high-tech finishes like brushed aluminum and black-stained wood. The shifter may not have a manumatic mode, but its gated design makes selecting the right gear a cinch; the optional leather smells and feels great to the touch; the optional 10-speaker JBL Synthesis stereo sounds terrific, with a 6-CD changer, quality that replicates movie-style surround sound, and rear-seat audio controls and wireless headphones.
Still, Toyota may have missed an opportunity here in not offering a third row of seats to the newly-capacious interior. With all the new headroom, and the cabin’s extra length, a third row for small kids would have, if nothing else, been a good marketing point. Ford’s Explorer, a full-frame SUV, has a third row, though admittedly its low-slung independent rear suspension doesn’t offer the 4Runner’s pretty amazing rock-hopping capabilities. This thing will go further into the wilderness than you likely ever want to go.
No longer based on the Tacoma pickup — and thus liberated from its seat-on-the-floor driving position — the new 4Runner is a clear step ahead of its predecessor in technology and safety. The throttle is controlled electronically, contributing to lower emissions and better response. Air suspension on limited V8 models allows the driver to select the rear ride height, for better departure angles off-road. Electronic brake-force distribution, ABS, and Brake Assist are standard along with a passel of airbags; four-wheel electronic traction control keeps power going to the wheels with grip, and VSC skid control uses the 4-piston brakes to pull the truck back onto line when it slips. Downhill Assist Control and Hill Start Assist Control help you go up and down hills a lot safer and easier.
The introduction of the new 4Runner coincides with a newly-invigorated push by Toyota to differentiate its truck business from its car business. Truck-specific showrooms will spring up across the country, and will allow buyers to build a virtual car with virtual accessories on-site using a DVD-based virtual-reality system. The idea? To create an environment where truck customers can feel at home — something they haven’t felt, evidently, in Toyota’s current showrooms.
For all the 4Runner’s capability, though, it’s hard to make a case for it as a daily-driver when the Highlander is roomier, easier-to-drive, more fuel-efficient, and just as well-made. But for buyers that want a real truck, and a vehicle that has the looks of a real truck, the big new Toyota will be a fine choice. It’s not like the world needs another V8 SUV, but at least this one’s a Toyota.