Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Full Test: 2014 Toyota 4Runner 4x4 Trail: It sure feels good to drive a truck again

All pictures by Ben Aghajanian

By Ben Aghajanian, UpShift Contributing Editor

When Toyota’s 4Runner was redesigned for 2010, I wasn’t initially a huge fan. I loved the styling of the outgoing model, and viewed the new version as a less attractive evolution of the 4Runner DNA. While the basic silhouette was retained, the design details were not as appealing. The projector headlights were gone. The LED taillights were gone. The truck just didn’t look as sharp or desirable as before.

Some updates for 2014
Toyota made some changes for the 2014 model year. The projector headlights are back, and they work really well. I didn’t need the high beams at all in the week that I had the truck, which is very telling. It has a restyled front fascia. When I first saw it in pictures, I didn’t like it that much. However, I grew to like the look of our tester as the week went on. The magnetic gray metallic paint is definitely one of the best colors available. Semicircle cut lines flank the fog lights. The headlights have a menacing slant to them. The styling is certainly not to everyone’s taste, though. As I went through the carwash, one of the attendants asked what year it was. I told him, and he said “from further away, it looked like you had crushed the bumper” or something to that effect. Personally, I like the look because it stands out from the sea of me-too SUV styling and looks aggressive and sporty.

I spent this past week driving a 2014 Toyota 4Runner 4x4 Trail. The Trail spec comes equipped with off-road hardware such as a real, mechanical transfer case, complete with a good old fashioned lever to the right of the shifter. It also has skid plates, tall 265/70R17 tires, Kinetic Dynamic Suspension Setting (KDSS), crawl control, hill-start assist, a locking rear differential, and a multi-terrain selector. Got all that? Good.

The joys of body-on-frame construction
I love body-on-frame trucks.  When I got on the freeway for the first time in the 4Runner, I immediately called our managing editor, Nick Fala, and said “I just want you to know I’m driving a body-on-frame rig for the first time in a while, and it feels TERRIFIC.” There is a solidness to the structure of the vehicle that, in my mind, cannot be matched by many crossovers. As I set the cruise near 70mph, the 4Runner was very quiet, smooth, and composed over our less than stellar roads. The engine turned at a comfortable 2,000rpm. As I sped up to 75, it felt as though I was driving perhaps 60. This was the perfect vehicle for a long weekend road trip. Our destination was Boyne Mountain, in Northern Michigan, over 200 miles north of Detroit. 

Interior exceeds expectations
Once you hoist yourself into the cockpit (it sits up significantly higher than some other SUVS), the cabin is a very comfortable place to spend time. The driving position is excellent. From the driver’s seat, outward visibility is very good. The upright windshield, squared-off hood, and moderately-sized A-pillars contribute to this. Furthermore, the rear passenger windows and tailgate glass are also generously sized, which is fortunate given how high this rig sits. The cabin also boasts soft touch materials in the areas where it actually matters: the center console, atop the doors, and the armrests. While the dash is made of a more rigid material, you aren’t resting your arms on it, so that doesn’t really matter. The seats were pretty comfortable over a few hours of driving. I’d rate them an 8/10—very good, not quite to Volvo level. I wished for a tad more lower thigh support. Anyone with long legs knows what I’m talking about.

The interior functionality, fit, and finish are also very good. The 4Runner’s infotainment system worked much better than the Camry’s that I drove recently—also a 2014 model. In the Camry, my phone would not pair with the system. I tried several different methods. In the 4Runner, it synced right away, and my contacts and call log were downloaded within minutes. Bluetooth call quality was good, as was Pandora streaming audio quality. XM radio was a much appreciated plus during our long drive north. The stereo sounds good for a stock unit, with 8 speakers and decent power. 

Impressive passenger/cargo room and convenience features

Many people will tell you that body-on-frame trucks have cramped, uncomfortable interiors compared to their unibody, or monocoque chassis counterparts. The 4Runner seems to buck this trend/trait. Not only are the front seats comfortable and the front footwells roomy, the back seats are comfortable as well, have decent legroom, and the cargo area is quite generous. The second row seat has a 40/20/40 split, which allows long items (like skis and snowboards) to be hauled while still preserving room for 4 people. Each door has pockets in it that can hold maps or water bottles. In addition to two cupholders, the center console has several cubbies that are perfect for wallets, cell phones, cameras, or toll booth change. At least, that’s how we used them. All this, in spite of the fact that a traditional automatic shifter lever and a transfer case take up a decent amount of room. The one ergonomic oddity that I found? The window switches are all placed on top of the door sill—on each door, and the door handles are in front of the grab handle, which can make opening or closing the door awkward. Our favorite feature was one that’s a bit out-of-season: the power-sliding tailgate glass. It’s terrific for warm summer days.

On the road
Even though the 4Runner sits up high, it handles quite decently. One of my passengers described it as “nimble.” Highway onramps and offramps were dispatched with poise and surefootedness. It’s a bit of a bear to park in a tight lot, mostly due to the ride height, but the tight turning circle and quick steering ratio helps with this, as does the backup camera.

The more I drove the 4Runner, I wondered to myself “Why don’t I see more of these on the road?” I have a couple theories.

The first is advertising. When was the last time you saw a 4Runner ad, print or TV commercial? Exactly. Jeep markets the heck out of the Grand Cherokee. Their robust sales reflect this (174,275 in the U.S. last year versus 51,625 for the 4Runner).

For the second reason, let’s talk about the powertrain. The 4Runner has one engine for 2014: Toyota’s 4.0L V6, a “real truck motor” (more on that later). A DOHC design boasting dual variable valve timing with intelligence, it pumps out 270hp, and more importantly, 278lb-ft of torque. Under the vast majority of driving conditions, it has more than enough power. I rarely needed to rev it past 3,000rpm. It’s coupled to a 5 speed automatic. I have a feeling that this transmission has a little bit to do with the fuel economy we got during our week with the truck.

Gas mileage
In suburban commuting, I was getting around 15mpg with a light foot. The “eco” light on the IP was lit almost all the time. As I headed from Cleveland to Michigan on the Ohio Turnpike, a road where traffic moves from 74-79mph typically, I was averaging about 16mpg. On the way home, I slowed it down a bit, driving 70-74. I averaged 19.7mpg between Detroit and Cleveland, a significant improvement. I barely crested 20mpg during one slower stretch through construction. Yikes, for a vehicle rated at 21mpg highway. All of these measurements were taken in 2wd mode. 

I was really surprised to learn that the 4Runner has not been upgraded to a transmission with more ratios. While some 7 or 8 speeds are clumsy, I think one more gear would be perfect for this truck. When you cruise at over 2,300rpm, gas mileage falls off quickly. Perhaps there is some valve timing or cam phasing that changes at roughly this engine speed. All that being said, the transmission shifts smoothly and is rarely caught in the wrong gear. 

A serious competitor
The 4Runner vastly exceeded our expectations. It felt both rugged and refined behind the wheel, and was quite comfortable over hundreds of miles of driving. The Bridgestone Dueler tires, working alongside the well-tuned suspension were unphased by some pretty beat-up roads. It really seems like a serious competitor to vehicles like the Grand Cherokee, and also stacks up well against more family-oriented vehicles such as the Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, and Nissan Pathfinder. The one major drawback is fuel economy. Although Upshift has not officially tested the aforementioned vehicles under similar driving conditions, each are rated a couple miles per gallon better on the highway. However, most of these vehicles have low-hanging, wind-cheating front air dams, lack low-range gearing, and don’t have off-road hardware (the Jeep and Dodge Durango are the exceptions). Given all of the equipment the 4Runner offers, the $41,825 sticker on our tester seems like a good value. It all depends what you’re looking for.

UpShift would like to thank Toyota for providing the 4Runner, insurance, and one tank of gas for this review.