2023 Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro review: an aging niche
This old-school SUV has the off-road ability, but it's probably not for you
2023 Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro review with The Road Beat
Words and pictures by Mitchell Weitzman
What is it?
Toyota's perennial SUV, the 4Runner, in its maximum guise: the TRD Pro. TRD stands for Toyota Racing Development, their in-house 'cool' branding department, while the Pro moniker means this is the best of the best, with honors. Think of it as akin to Macbook computers, where the Pro naming scheme is reserved for the serious workhorse machines. But, the 4Runner TRD Pro is the antithesis of a high-tech computer, instead relying on rugged, passive construction to go about its business.
Regardless of what you might think of this example’s new Solar Octane paint that does at least perfectly match the autumn season (and your pumpkin spice lattes), this TRD Pro is as a cool as SUVs get when it comes to looks. Aesthetics might not influence how a car drives, but the visual appeal of a 4Runner, and especially with the TRD Pro grille, wheels, skid plate, and roof rack, does play a strong hand in the success of this long-running SUV. This is a vehicle that is genuinely desired by so many in due part to how cool it appears, helping mask the many deficiencies that are quite apparent upon operation. When taking the Pro to a popular tourist pick in Apple Hill, I couldn’t help but feel like the envy of the suburbanites making their annual autumn pilgrimage to the famous El Dorado County destination.
So, it aces the looks test, but what else is good on the 4Runner TRD Pro? While testing a vehicle for just week is hardly a good indication of longevity and reliability, 4Runners are renowned for their insane dependability. What I can attest to is the solid rigidity felt in the 4Runner, with no rattles heard anywhere and even paying attention to the solid thunk when closing the doors. Space is plentiful inside, too, with generous amounts of leg room even in the second row and a prosperous cargo hold for your loot. The benefit of a sliding rear liftgate window cannot be understated, being a perfect companion for your K9 friends and it makes a minimal noise impact even on the freeway.
But the best part of the TRD Pro, and why you should even consider one, is the off-road capability that it comes with right off the rack. Having a traditionally strong body-on-frame construction helps, but without any mods, you can pretty confidently take a TRD Pro just about anywhere, with ground clearance becoming the only real limiting factor (you can always solve that with a lift kit). The hardware impresses, with Fox shocks, a locking rear diff, manual transfer case-controlled 4WD, and aggressive tires, but there's also some electronics thrown in to help, including multi-terrain selection, to help with your endeavors. The thing is, lots of SUVs can do what this TRD Pro does, but the difference is how easy the TRD Pro does everything, feeling utterly comfortable at all times. Aim it down a gravel or dirt trail and you'll be amazed how at home it will feel, almost as if you're still on asphalt. This is a rig you can count on time and time again and not be fearful about getting caught out in all but the most torrential terrain and weather.
On the road, there is a delightful sense of feedback through the steering wheel together with some weighting. The 4Runner does wander somewhat, but that's to be expected of an SUV of this nature; I rather like the old-school steering and behavior even if it's far from modern and a long way removed of refinement. And, for off-road suspension, the ride quality is rarely choppy nor harsh at speed, smoothing out even more at speed to make for a decently comfortable ride.
The problem with the TRD Pro is the 4Runner itself. Yes, it has its merits, but there are so many drawbacks to owning one. Like the fact this TRD Pro costs $55,000, a not so small sum of money, but it has an interior of a $30,000 car. Actually, some cars costing $30,000 (like a new Honda HR-V) have nicer and more luxurious interiors. It's just so downtroddenly cheap inside with nasty plastics everywhere, rubbery faux leather and dash materials, and a center display that must've been designed when the song "Moves like Jagger" came out. Oh, and in case you're wondering, Maroon 5's smash hit debuted in 2010. Sorry for aging you. This is not a nice place to be and represents a huge compromise if you're considering spending this much money on a brand new vehicle when you consider how lovely other SUVs are in contrast in the same price range. At least it has modern technology like blind spot safety systems and radar cruise control, but basically every single mainstream car has those now, too, so not really a plus. Even the cameras, which luckily do include a top-view camera that helps with parking and off-roading, looks low-res and, well, old. This then is a cabin from not last decade, but the one prior, and it shows.
There’s also a ‘steering angle’ digital illustration that can be seen in the instrument cluster, but it’s laughably lame, and does not show the actual angle, but rather just if the wheel is turned or not. If you weave slightly and quickly on the road, the wheels in the illustration actually will remain straight.
Under the hood is a boat anchor of internal combustion, making a measly 270 horsepower from its four liters of V6-ness. Mated to a five-speed automatic (yes, only five forward gears), acceleration is leisurely. Maybe the fuel economy is okay then, since it's not quick? Wrong. I averaged 16.6 MPG during my week with the pumpkin, a quite terrible showing for a new V6-powered vehicle. Slow and thirsty - at least it nails that brief. If you like loud exhausts, you'll be in luck, but the TRD Pro requires working the throttle hard all the time to maintain and/or build speed, leaving you with lots of droning, even on the highway. It's not a good noise, either, more of just a constant blaring. Remember the World Cup games in South Africa? Yeah, like a fleet of those vuvuzela horns.
Another item of note was the sliding rear cargo tray in the rear. There's a label showing that it can hold over 400 pounds, but when extended outwards and pushing down on it as if to lift myself up onto it, some nasty creaks were yielded, like it was going to snap clean off. I quickly aborted sitting on it (a 'no sitting' illustration or label is not present) after deciding to not trust it. If it's designed to be sat on for tailgating, those creaks should not be heard from maybe only 150 pounds of pressure. Weird. It's totally a cool idea, but not if breaks.
The TRD Pro might have a manual transfer case to select a 4-low 4WD setting, but the gear reduction is nowhere near that of something like a Jeep Wrangler, which idles at a significantly higher speed when in 4-low. If you're really into off-roading, a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon (or some of the new Ford Broncos) could be a better option. For those that stick strictly to pavement, the 4Runner does not compute, and many will likely appreciate the refinement and stability, not to mention road performance, of a unibody crossover SUV instead, like Toyota’s own Highlander for instance, or Kia’s excellent Telluride.
This is a capable machine when it comes to off-road ability and prowess, but in reality, there are so many compromises that don't make sense for a brand new vehicle. You can call Toyota lazy all you want, but the fact is that people are still buying the $runner (not a typo, and funny coincidence that the dollar sign is the same key as 4...) as-is, so they must be content. This gives Toyota little incentive to update this aging unit and just keep raking in the profits with no new R&D costs. 2023 is almost here, you shouldn't have to put up with an interior of this quality in a new vehicle that costs over 50 grand, or how much of a lazy lard it is in terms of acceleration and its abysmal fuel economy. But hey, at least the 4Runner TRD Pro looks completely badass, and you can rest assured that it'll probably last forever.
2023 Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro
As-tested price: $55,380
Pros: Curb appeal; Off-road tool
Cons: Slow and thirsty; Derelict cabin
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