The venerable 4Runner is still going strong, for better or worse.
The 2021 Toyota 4Runner is one of the oldest new cars you can buy brand new today. I say oldest because the strong fact remains that the 4Runner's largely unchanged and is still fundamentally the same species from the mid-2000s. Sure, it's a new car, but underneath that timeless shape is a relic. However, as much as an all-new model would be beneficial, the underlying charms are still there to give the 4Runner its glowing greatest strength: it's cool. Coolness can only go so far though.
Coolness might be not a legit and quantitative measure to judge a car by, but there's no ignoring the fact that the 4Runner is cool. It's partly for this reason that Toyota continues to sell the 4Runner like hotcakes in the United States. Besides a couple tacked-on safety features, there's literally nothing new and fresh about this SUV; it's just old. The engine, for starters, is a 4.0L V6 that churns out a lazy 270 horsepower and 278 pounds of torque, numbers that are wholly unacceptable from a motor of such capacity in this decade. Heck, many four-bangers of exactly half the swept volume make that much horsepower and twist. Connecting that boat-anchor of a powerplant is an equally derelict five-speed automatic. Yes, a five-speed. Five-speed autos used to be a big deal, remember, but that was in 1995.
As you'd expect, such modest power ratings and an aging transmission don't do much for performance, with 0-60 MPH taking a smidge under eight seconds. Ouch. The trans is slow to shift and can make for abrupt downshifts, too, which the 4Runner has to do on just about any hill on the freeway in order to make it up due to the noticeable lack of oomph. The downshifts are made more jarring because, as a five-speed, the space/distance between gear ratios is far greater with only five gears. The 4Runner is also thirstier than a frat boy on St. Patrick's Day, binging gasoline (also, not far off of what a frat bro would drink on St. Patty's) at an overall rate of just 17 MPG. That number did at least hit 20 on the highway, but there's no way around denying this is a drinking machine. This is a vehicle that requires a newer powertrain, and I'm not even talking about forced induction. What's wrong with the 300hp 3.5L V6 in the Highlander? Even the Tacoma has a six-speed automatic. If you're going to be remarkably inefficient, at least have power to make up for it, but it's both slow and uneconomical.
On the road, the 4Runner is rather curious because of its tendency to wander across asphalt at speed. Cross-winds don't help either, causing the big SUV to further sway in each and all directions at 70 MPH; Because of the body shape being akin to a brick, it's not exactly aerodynamic. This also affects the noise levels inside, with the 4Runner being far from quiet as the constant rush of air splattering against the body panels and glass makes itself known. The slow steering means it's easy to control to not feel darty, but there wasn't a freeway trip where I wasn't constantly sawing at the wheel to keep things in order. Call it involving in an unflattering way? Or just an old truck, which it is of course. Thanks to soft suspension, the ride quality is comfortable for most part as it's meant to absorb all sorts of bumps on the roads less traveled, but it also equates to heaps of body roll when cornering and diving under hard braking. Navigating turns with enthusiasm is not on the 4Runner's agenda, so for that it can be forgiven; nobody is buying a 4Runner to tear up back roads like you would in an AMG or M SUV. I did find myself regularly driving below speed limits on most roads 4Runner, likely due to the perception of speed and feel of it when behind the wheel. Usually I'm pretty good at gauging my speed from so-called feel, but almost every time I found myself doing 40 in a 45 zone and so on. Take that for what you will.
One could say that the interior might as well be from 2005, and that's not entirely untrue. Lots of cheap plastics adorn the cabin and other inferior materials in this 4Runner Trail edition. A more expensive Limited model adds luxury, but they're still far and away removed from actual luxury. What the interior is, though, is functional, and at least also decently spacious and comfortable. The cloth seats are decent chairs to spend reasonable time in, but not even remotely close to the Gucci-clad armchairs that were in the Lexus LX 570 luxury SUV (basically the same as the Toyota Landcruiser) I recently tried. The infotainment screen that serves as the center display reminds me of the last time the Yankees won the World Series, with a tired design and Playstation 2 graphics. Modern features are there luckily, like bluetooth, and so are active safety features that are standard in all other new Toyotas these days. Despite the cheap furnishings, the interior does seem to be screwed together well enough so that it doesn't have any excessive creaks and rattles, but it's definitely also not the bank vault that defined the LX 570 either. The cargo area is spacious and has a nifty sliding tray for tailgating. Also included in the Trail edition is a Toyota-branded hard cooler, a neat and unexpected inclusion.
The 4Runner's main purpose is one that it does more than decent: off-roading. In fact, it's pretty bloody excellent at it. A classic body-on-frame architecture giving extra rigidity and strength plus an advanced four-wheel drive system help contribute to some serious hardcore chops through the dirt, mud, and snow. While other TRD models get extra aids and controls, this spruced up entry-level Trail does so without any fancy electronic help. For the casual enthusiast, this 4Runner can do most all of anything you throw at it still, with electronic aids only coming into play in the most serious of terrain crossings. Using the 4WD selector (only TRD models get a manual transfer case) and choosing 4-Low gives this SUV the most ability in extreme scenarios as it effectively shortens all your gears by a substantial amount, gifting you a decent idle pull up hills and extra control over the throttle. However, the gear reduction isn't even remotely close to the extra drive that 4-Low in a Jeep Wrangler gives, which practically wants to idle away to running speed on its own up even steep hills.
In the torrentially mild conditions and terrain that I experienced the 4Runner in, it was able to gently cruise over bumps and rocks with ease, prowling over the earth like an advancing Sherman Tank. The ride remains good, too, keeping occupants from bouncing around uncontrollably. For that same casual buyer that this 4Runner is aimed at, it succeeds perfectly in its ability. A lift kit could also be added for more ground clearance for those wanting or needing more. Same goes for knobby off-road tires. Tires are normally both the biggest limiting factor and also upgrade when it comes to venturing through the dirt mud. So, for a small investment towards a lift kit and aggressive off-road tires, you could turn this Trail in a real mean machine.
And so that brings us to the most important aspect of the 4Runner again: it's cool. Just approaching it even, you can't help but think this is a purposefully good looking and cool rig. The Trail also adds attractive wheels plus a Yakima roof rack, both nice editions that help to make an otherwise base SUV appear much more premium than it is. It's such an old basic shape, but it's just what an SUV should look like. 4Runners are the type of vehicle that many aspire to, and they wouldn't if it wasn't cool nor looked the way it does. You can also tow 5,000 pounds in the 4Runner, a decent number for such a sloth of an engine.
It's a shame that the bones beneath the timeless look are so old. If the 4Runner could be updated with a modern interior worthy of this decade and an actually decent and more economical powertrain, the 4Runner would be a legit contender in the SUV world. Jeep recently updated their Wrangler to include a much needed modernizing of the interior and powertrain with a 8-speed automatic and it does make things appreciably more cultured while still retaining its core Jeep character. The 4Runner would thrive under a relatively similar makeover, but for now it's impossible to not think that Toyota is just being extremely lazy with the 4Runner. But I guess why shouldn't they be, especially when 4Runners continue to sell in droves; there's no incentive for them to update it.
It's a cool SUV, and that cool factor goes a long way here along with the inherent off-road chops on tap, but those two sole attributes can only go so far from a critical standpoint to be properly compelling. The other fact is that many 4Runner owners will likely never take their brand new machines off-road, rendering their use of one completely pointless because there are so many better options for a strictly asphalt-based SUV. Of course, the same also goes for Wrangler buyers who never venture off-road. If you still want a new 4Runner then good news, little has changed, which means you will continue to desire one anyways. However, it likely won't win over any new converts to the 4Runner lifestyle who are better off choosing mainstream offerings like the Highlander and other alternatives in the meantime.
2021 Toyota 4Runner Trail
As-tested price: $43,126
The Road Beat Rating: 3/5
Pros: Coolness goes a long way with the 4Runner
Cons: ...but not nearly far enough. Old bones; Slow and thirsty.
Verdict: It might still be cool and capable, but a next-generation 4Runner would be very welcome