Review: 2010 Toyota 4Runner Trail 4×4
By Chris Haak
I’m going to begin by mentioning how disappointed I was during my time with the all-new 2010 Toyota 4Runner. Not in the vehicle itself, really – more in the circumstances surrounding my use of the vehicle. In spite of my best efforts to plan a trip to the woods and get the thing muddy, I barely got any dirt on it. In fact, the photos you see throughout this review were taken after traveling over 100 miles to a friend’s mountain cabin for the express purpose of taking the 4Runner off road. Shameful, I know. And it’s especially disappointing given the fact that my friend was warning me for weeks that the road leading to his cabin was covered in mud, and that his parents were upset by the amount of mud on the lane to his cabin.
Instead, I used the 4Runner Trail – probably the most off-road capable model in Toyota’s current lineup – for a week of mostly driving around town and into the office, plus two back-to-back days of extended highway trips. Altogether, I tallied over 700 miles in the 4Runner. I learned a lot about it after living with it for a week and all of those miles, and I came to appreciate many aspects of it. With that being said, it’s hard to understand why families would choose to use a 4Runner as their primary transportation, when so many other vehicles don’t have the inherent compromises in fuel economy, ride, handling, and interior room that an off-road specialists like the 4Runner has.
For starters, the 4Runner’s new shape is more blocky, more squared off than the previous-generation model that was sold through the 2009 model year. The fender bulges are built into the body. The SUV’s redesign is a fairly conservative one, which means it’s still easily recognizable as a 4Runner, only slightly larger than before. Aside from the fender bulges and the large, rainbow-shaped grille opening, there is little about the 4Runner’s styling that is particularly interesting or groundbreaking. It has a Subaru-like hood scoop that has been found from time to time on various Toyota models. In a quick underhood examination, it did not appear to serve a functional purpose, and most 4Runner models have a plain hood.
The one unusual feature, however, are the protruding lenses for the headlamps and taillamps. They stick out so far that I was frequently spooked into thinking that there was a red car tailgating me when I’d glance into my side mirrors. In reality, of course, it was the giant tail lamps, which extend several inches past the body to the rear and to the side. The front side marker lamps sweep back from the headlamps and similarly jut past the body. It has an angry countenance, particularly when everything is magnetic gray metallic as was this test vehicle.
The proportions of the 4Runner are attractive, particularly when equipped with the large, high-profile (P265/70R17) tires. The truck sits high off of the ground, to the point that I was concerned that it might be too tall to fit into my garage (which later turned out to be a non-issue). It looks – and is – aggressive and tough without resorting to fake toughness. This is a real man’s SUV.
Inside, the controls are very easy to use (at least the primary ones are) and generally quite large – good for using with gloved hands. The navigation system (a costly $2,420 option that my tester was equipped with) has a larger screen than does older Toyotas, but the same interface and graphics that aren’t as sharp as newer-generation navigation systems from Nissan and Ford. I found that for longer trips, the navigation system consistently overestimated travel time by about 20 percent – and I wasn’t really speeding. A backup camera is included with the navigation system as well.
The 4Runner’s interior has a lot of hard plastic throughout, yet it’s clear that Toyota spent money in other areas of the interior. The top of the dashboard, the door panels, and the center console are all finished in hard plastic. The steering wheel in my $40,874 test vehicle was not even leather-wrapped (it was also extremely large). The simple, large ventilation controls in my Trail model are manually operated, so that frequent adjustments are required to maintain a consistent temperature. I greatly prefer the set-and-forget automatic systems. On the plus side, all buttons and dials are actuated with a consistent quality feel. The electroluminescent gauges are large and easy to read, and I actually didn’t mind the orange backlighting that my colleague complained about in the 4Runner SR5 4×2 a few weeks ago. The inside door handles are perhaps the largest that I’ve ever seen.
I enjoyed the 4Runner’s audio system; it featured AM/FM/XM/MP3/iPod (USB) and boasted eight speakers. The sound quality was clear and strong enough that I didn’t dare venture to the upper levels of the volume knob. It is sometimes a little annoying that the audio function won’t stay on the screen by default (switching back to the map automatically), but I believe that is a setting that can be adjusted. There was no Bluetooth streaming audio, but Toyota’s implementation of it drives me crazy anyway, so no loss there. (Unlike most other companies, Toyota’s Bluetooth streaming audio requires you to pair the audio device and your Bluetooth phone separately. When your phone IS your audio device, that presents a problem.) The Bluetooth phone connectivity, however, worked like a charm. Bluetooth should be standard in every new car; it’s an important safety feature in my opinion, and not to mention convenient.
The only ergonomic gripes that I have on the interior are the unusual placement of the power window switches on the top of the door handles (on the same plane as the door sills), and the need to study the owner’s manual multiple times to learn how all of the off-road hardware works. For the off-road stuff, there are just too many abbreviations and icons to make it easy to understand without the instruction book.
The cargo area was large and usefully squared-off. Although there is no third-row seat on the Trail (that’s available with the top-of-the-line 4Runner Limited, though), there was a pretty slick sliding cargo shelf back there that covers nearly the entire cargo floor. It has a latch handle at the back of the vehicle. If you release the latch, it glides out the back door, making loading and unloading easy. It also can support 400 pounds even when extended over the bumper.
As I said in the first paragraph, I did not have an opportunity to truly test the 4Runner Trail’s off road capabilities. I made it up my friend’s dirt-and-stone lane in two wheel drive, though the lane had a few deep ruts that bounced us around a lot, but otherwise didn’t faze the Toyota. When we left the woods, we had to go downhill, so I decided that it was time to play with the controls for the off-road hardware that makes the Trail special (shown to the right). Mind you, I still didn’t figure everything out, but I think I mostly know what I’m doing with them now.
Four wheel drive is engaged via an old fashioned lever to the right of the gearshift. Pull it toward you to engage 4H, then to the right for Neutral, followed by a push forward to get the transfer case into 4L. With the 4Runner in 4L, knob on the left is the crawl control, which maintains a steady [very slow] speed, allowing the driver to take his or her mind off of braking and accelerating, and concentrate on steering in very tricky terrain. Crawl control is activated by pushing the button in the center of the knob, then adjusting the speed from low to high. Once activated, the sensation is one of jerkiness and constant ABS activation, as each wheel picks over the ground beneath it.
The other knob works exactly the same way, but activates Multi-Terrain Select. This feature allows the driver to control the level of wheel slip that the electronic nannies will allow before reeling in the fun based on the type of terrain underfoot. Another trick up the 4Runner Trail’s sleeve is Toyota’s Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS for short). This $1,750 option basically controls body motions, and helps to optimize the 4Runner’s suspension for on-road or off-road situations that it may encounter. KDSS is actually hydraulic struts mounted to the front and rear anti-roll bars to add roll stiffness above 40 mph for more body control on the highway, but relaxes it below 40 mph for superior wheel articulation off-road. In extremely limited off-road driving, we had little chance to tax the suspension’s articulation, but on the road, the 4Runner handled better than it rightfully should have.
Don’t get me wrong; this thing probably would post a 22 minute lap time on the Nürburgring. But in spite of its obviously large tires, large suspension travel, and high center of gravity, I never felt like it was a poor-handling vehicle. Those tires surely helped, in almost a counter-intuitive way, because they have very low handling limits, so when you play a little too much, they audibly protest and gradually let the truck slide a bit on-road. It may not be fun, but it keeps the shiny side up, as they say.
Acceleration was just right for this type of vehicle. You’re not going to win any drag races, and at first glance, Toyota’s decision to drop the 4.7 liter V8 from the option list seems to be a blow to performance enthusiasts. But the upgraded 4.0 liter V6 in the 2010 model jumps from 236 horsepower in the 2009 to 270 in this 2010 model. The old 4.7 liter V8 only produced a measly 260 horsepower, so you’re actually gaining horsepower by losing two cylinders. In spite of being saddled with a carryover five-speed automatic, fuel economy jumped from the previous generation. The old V6 was rated at 16 city/20 highway and the old V8 was rated at 14 city/17 highway. The new V6 is rated at 17 city/22 highway, so it tops the old V6 in economy and the old V8 in power. Not bad. I saw right around 20 in some 700 miles of mostly highway driving.
Steering feel was surprisingly good, for a Toyota AND for an SUV. I disliked the giant steering wheel, which to me could have been smaller without compromising off-road control and accuracy. The steering felt more accurate and better weighted (again, discounting for the fact that the large tires were dulling responses) than my wife’s 2008 Sienna’s does. I have no doubt that a 4Runner Limited, with lower-profile tires, would handle even better. Braking performance was mainly limited by the tires’ low-grip compound. Lockup (and therefore ABS engagement) came quickly, but pedal feel was decent. (Again, for a truck.)
Aside from the overabundance of hard plastic inside the new 4Runner, really the only knock on it may be price, which struck me as a bit high for a midsize SUV that didn’t even have leather seats. The Trail 4×4 V6 model starts at $36,500 including destination. The KDSS option adds $1,750 and the navigation system adds $2,420. Throw in the $204 carpet floor mat and cargo mat for $204, and it’s $40,874 out the door. But compared to the Nissan Pathfinder, which had leather but lacked navigation and all of the sophisticated off-road hardware, it’s not bad; that Pathfinder had a $39,310 bottom line. Coming from someone who owned a current-generation Pathfinder for two years, I’d take the 4Runner.
The 4Runner is perhaps the last of a dying breed of midsize body-on-frame SUVs. Kudos to Toyota for continuing to evolve the breed. The 4Runner’s place in the Toyota lineup is now more clear to me than before, and its old-school architecture, while making some compromises in on-road comfort and passenger space, remains something of an asset off-road.