As tough and durable as ever, the 2011 Toyota 4Runner rolls into showrooms with little in the way of change. Receiving a major makeover for 2010, the 4Runner further cemented its place in Toyota's stable as a go-anywhere SUV with decent cargo capacity and a healthy amount of amenities. Historically SUVs evolve slowly, so there was little motivation for Toyota to tinker with one that had been thoroughly redesigned just a year ago.
A market segment with a split personality, SUVs fall into one of two groups: traditional, truck-based pack horses or crossovers that are basically butched-up alternatives to minivans. 4Runner is firmly and unequivocally entrenched among the former. It has been and continues to be an SUV with "off-road capability" emphasized boldly in its mission statement. A rugged dirt pounder of the first order, it is better suited to rock crawling than carting little Jimmy to his weekly bassoon lesson; but can achieve either with equal competence.
Toyota offers the 4Runner in three trim levels: SR5, Trail and Limited. A 4x4 system is available in the SR5 and is standard in the Trail. An all-wheel-drive system is available in the Limited.
One major split between the 2010 and 2011 4Runner lineups is the disappearance of the anemic 157-horsepower four-cylinder engine giving life to last year's RWD SR5. For 2011, all 4Runners, from the $30,335 entry-level RWD SR5 to the top-of-the-line $40,495 AWD Limited, derive their giddy-up from a 270-horsepower 4-liter V6. No matter the number of drive wheels, a five-speed automatic transmission distributes engine output.
You might think you would miss the availability of a V8, but not so much. A number of competitors don't offer a V8 option either. This V6 is both powerful and efficient. When appropriately equipped, it can tow up to 5,000 pounds. In 4Runners configured with RWD, the EPA estimates mileage at 17 mpg in the city and 23 mpg on the highway. And whether the four-wheel drive is full time or part time, only the highway mpg number is affected, and that's only by -1 mpg.
My test 4Runner was the $32,075 SR5 4x4. Rounding out the trim-level selection are the $36,615 Trail and the $38,460 RWD Limited.
Brutish in appearance, this SUV projects a no-nonsense demeanor promising a high level of skill once the pavement disappears. Contributing to its off-road prowess it its body-on-frame design and advanced four-wheel-drive systems. Found in the SR5 and Trail is a two-speed part-time system operated by a second shift lever mounted on the center console. It features a 4HI and 4LOW setting, as well as neutral.
Serious off-roaders should appreciate Trail's CRAWL control that matches one of five speed levels to the terrain, freeing the driver to concentrate on steering a safe course. Additionally the Trail's Multi-Terrain Select system lets the driver dial in a targeted amount of wheel slip based on the current terrain, such as mud or sand. The Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System is a $1,750 option on the Trail that allows disconnecting the stabilizer bars for increased wheel travel over really rough terrain.
The Limited's AWD system features a locking center differential and a three-mode switch mounted on the center console. Both the part-time and full-time systems have A-TRAC traction control capable of distributing power to whichever of the four wheels has grip.
An independent double-wishbone setup in front and a four-link arrangement in the rear are the major components of the suspension that also includes coil springs over gas shocks at all four wheels. Although you won't mistake the ride with that of, say, the Avalon, it is surprisingly smooth for a vehicle engineered to overcome wild terrain.
Seventeen-inch alloy wheels hide ventilated disc brakes with antilock oversight on all four wheels. Stability control, electronic brakeforce distribution and emergency braking assist join the aforementioned traction control as some of the standard safety features. Two knee airbags bring to a total of eight the number of airbags around the cabin.
With the optional third-row seat, 4Runner can seat as many as seven in its roomy interior. Both the second- and third-row seats can fold flat. With the third-row seat in place, there are nine cubic feet of luggage space. Folding the third-row seat flat increases space to 47 cubic feet, which balloons to 90 cubic feet with both rear seats folded flat.
Standard in every 4Runner are full power accessories, remote keyless entry, heated outboard mirrors with integrated turn signals, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and 10 cup/bottle holders. Entertainment in the SR5 comes from an eight-speaker audio system with CD player, satellite radio and auxiliary input jack. Every audio system has what Toyota calls "Party Mode." When engaged, this feature cranks up the base and transfers the output balance to the rear speakers, including those located in the tailgate.
Although 4Runner serves well as an image vehicle for poseurs, it excels as an off-road tracker for adventurers serious about the outdoors. Keeping it reined in on paved surfaces only is something akin to harnessing Seabiscuit to a hay wagon. What's the point? When drafted into around-town errands, however, 4Runner is sufficiently civilized, roomy and comfortable to deliver whatever is demanded of it. Engineered for the outback, it performs brilliantly in the city.