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December 7, 2010 > Auto Review: Toyota 4Runner: sometimes big is good

Auto Review: Toyota 4Runner: sometimes big is good

By Steve Schaefer

Originally not much more than a compact pickup with a shell over the bed, today's fifth-generation 4Runner is a substantial SUV. In Toyota's wide range of SUV choices it fits between the smaller RAV4 and lumbering Sequoia.

You can order up your 4Runner in three flavors-SR5, Trail and Limited. My 2010 Classic Silver Metallic tester was an SR5 with four-wheel drive. I drove it across the long, flat street grid and freeway loops of greater Phoenix, where my family was visiting to attend my niece Rachael's wedding. However, I did take it onto some dirt briefly. I shifted into 4WD using the sturdy console lever. While many SUVs offer effortless buttons, there's nothing like a real lever. It's a reminder of the 4Runner's truck origins.

Looking at the 2011 models now on sale, all 4Runners come with a 4.0-liter six-cylinder engine, good for 270 horsepower and 278 lb.-ft. of torque. That represents a 34 horsepower gain over the previous generation V6 and is actually 10 horsepower more than the previous generation's optional V8. So there is no V8 option for the truck anymore. All 4Runners use an electronically-controlled five-speed automatic transmission.

The V6 feels strong in traffic, while not exactly neck-snapping on uphill grades. The EPA says it should get 17 City, 22 Highway; I averaged 17.4 mpg. EPA Green Vehicle Guide numbers are 6 for Air Pollution and 4 for Greenhouse Gas.

The 4Runner is the epitome of what an SUV should be. It stands tall and wears a carefully crafted rugged look. The trapezoidal grille has one solid bar within it and the rectangular headlamps sit back from it; its chin juts out. The bold fender lines are straight horizontal folds and the taillight lenses protrude from the rear fender corners. It's chunky.

Inside, man-sized, solid looking shapes evoke toughness and strength. The padded doors and armrests are comfortable despite the rugged look of the rest of the cabin. You can operate the prominent audio and climate knobs while you're wearing your work gloves. It provided fine accommodations for my family as we drove about; the only downside was that it was a bit of a climb up for my spry but 80-year-old mother-and my youthful wife wasn't that keen on that either.

Driving the 4Runner reminded me of why people buy Toyotas. The engine sounds happy-when you even hear it. The controls move with a satisfying heft. Seats are neither too firm nor too squishy. Surfaces are nicely finished but not overdone. The word "quality" comes to mind-something Toyota is carefully reminding the buying public in light of recent recalls.

The 4Runner SR5 comes with the things people want and expect today-power windows and locks, a good audio system, air conditioning, and the Star Safety System. This includes Vehicle Stability Control and Traction Control, anti lock brakes, Electronic Brake-force Distribution and Brake Assist. All of these use the vehicle's electronics to monitor and correct wayward vehicle behavior (caused by the driver or not).

If you want to take the 4Runner seriously off road, the Trail grade has Toyota's Crawl Control (CRAWL) feature, which helps make traversing difficult terrain easier and safer. It's an adjustable electro-mechanical system that you can tune to match the terrain by selecting any of five speed levels.

The Trail model also features the Multi-Terrain Select system, which dials in wheel slip control to match the terrain, including mud and sand, bumpy moguls, or solid rock. All four-wheel-drive 4Runners feature Downhill Assist Control (DAC). It helps the low-speed ascending ability of low-range by holding the vehicle to a target speed without driver intervention.

The Limited grade adds luxury features like a leather interior and smart key. It comes standard with an X-REAS suspension system that automatically adjusts the damping force of shocks when driving over bumpy surfaces or when cornering. It upgrades the 17-inch wheels to 20's, adds chrome to the grille and enjoys other upgrades.

Pricing for the 2011 models starts at $26,335, including destination charge. That represents a 1.2 percent boost. However, the Limited with four-wheel drive-at the top-is actually slightly less than last year, at $40,495 (down 0.3 percent).

My SR5 tester had some significant options, including upgraded audio with USB port and steering wheel controls; a very welcome backup camera system; a power moonroof with shade (a necessity in Arizona), and Lexus-grade leather seating. It came to $37,649.

The 4Runner should definitely be on your shopping list if you're looking for a midsize SUV. It is unapologetically a substantial vehicle and with the right model, you can take it rock climbing in the morning and to the country club (or a wedding) in the afternoon.

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