Not so great on the road
Nowhere is it more clear that Toyota has placed such a high emphasis on off-road performance than when you get back on the road after a day of trail driving. Back in daily driving land, the 2014 4Runner loses a bit of its luster.
KDSS delivers on its promise of good off-road and decent on-road drivability, but it's not a miracle worker. There are still noticeable levels of squat, dive, and rolling body movement when piloting the 4Runner around at sane and legal speeds. While I was grateful for the 4Runner's ability to smooth out lunar street surfaces around my neighborhood (home of the [physically] roughest street in Oakland), the 4Runner only ever felt vaguely connected to its roller around town.
While the 4.0-liter engine offers good mid-range torque, it's not very responsive in the lower reaches of the tachometer's swing and runs out of steam long before reaching its red-line. That combined with the five-speed transmission's tendency to short-shift whenever possible to save fuel, leave the 4Runner driver often outside of the power band and waiting for the engine and transmission to catch up with each other when passing power is needed.
Roll along at 45 mph and then floor the accelerator to make a pass and you'll first be met with seconds of lag, then the vacuum cleaner-like suck of the engine at full bore, but only mediocre acceleration.
Fuel economy, while not bad, is also mediocre. the EPA reckons 4x4 4Runner models will do 17 mpg in the city, 21 mpg on highway, and 18 mpg combined. I averaged 17.8 over the course of 2 tanks worth of mostly on-road driving, so Toyota and the EPA are spot-on with their estimates. A extra forward gear or two and more precise direct injection technology would help Toyota to eek a few extra ems out of every peegee (and a diesel option would be fantastic), but I don't see conservative Toyota doing that anytime soon.
A dashboard full of surprises
On the outside, the 2014 4Runner uses a chunky, squared off design with bulky headlamps and tails that protrude from the broad-shouldered body. It's a massive, imposing hunk of vehicle. Inside, the cabin and dashboard continue that bulky design language with massive buttons and knobs for the climate and infotainment controls, which are designed, presumably, to be useable while wearing bulky winter gloves.
Front and center in the dashboard, I was frankly surprised to see Toyota's Entune infotainment system making an appearance in such a brutally simple vehicle, but there it was, 6.1-inch color touch screen and all. Flanking that screen are five large buttons with shortcuts to Audio, Apps, and Home, as well as Skip Forward and Back. What looks like a sixth button is actually a cover for the microSD card slot that holds the data for the navigation system and apps.
You'll notice that none of those buttons is a shortcut to Nav or Map. That's because the Entune system hides the vast majority of its functions under the Apps section, including the navigation system, which has the unfortunate side effect of requiring twice as many taps from the driver to change from radio tuning to map browsing.
Once you find your way it, you'll find that the Entune navigation system isn't bad, with smooth graphics and animations, but also fluff like 3D data. Turn-by-turn directions are easy to follow and the simple spoken prompts, which don't use text-to-speech, are easy on the ears. Voice command processing is a bit slower than I'd like, but it also gets the job done with reasonable accuracy.
Also under the Apps section are the telephony controls, which include Bluetooth hands-free calling and SMS. Text messages coming to a paired phone can be intercepted by the system and displayed on the touchscreen (if parked) or read aloud. The system also offers canned or automated SMS responses, accessible with a tap or two.
Then there are the actual Entune apps. We've seen these before on Toyota and Lexus vehicles. Via a paired smartphone running Toyota's Entune app, drivers can access MovieTickets.com showtimes and theater locations, find a restaurant and reserve a table with OpenTable, or search nearby businesses with Yelp ratings. Destinations for navigation can be searched via Bing or pulled down from your Facebook Events and Places. There's also Pandora and iHeartRadio audio streaming. It's a bit simple and the companion app can be finicky on Android, but I've very few real complaints about the Entune system's performance.
Under the Audio section, you'll find the list of available audio sources, including AM/FM/HD radio, satellite radio, Bluetooth audio streaming, CD playback, analog auxiliary audio and USB/iPod connectivity. You'll also find the Entune audio apps, Pandora and iHeartRadio, repeated and integrated here.
That audio plays through an eight-speaker, unbranded premium audio system that is best described as loud and bassy. If you've listened a pair of Beats Audio headphones, you'll know what to expect from this system's character. If you're into hard-hitting rock or thumping rap tracks, you're going to love it. I found the audio quality to be pretty good for talk programming, such as podcasts or sports radio, but didn't really like the hard edge that the stereo added to the unaccompanied human voice.
The chunky dashboard controls carry over the the steering wheel controls, but not in a good way. Here, the buttons for hands-free calling controls and instrument cluster information display were so big and so spread apart that they were hard to use without taking my hand away from the rim of the wheel, which sort of defeats the purpose of having steering wheel controls. The volume control rocker is located low on the wheel's face and so close to the center that, from my neutral 3-9 driving position, it was frankly easier to reach for the volume knob on the stereo's face. That's a bit ridiculous.
If I could end on a sweet note, that volume knob was a nice one, with smooth rotation and linear changes in volume level regardless of how quickly I twisted it about. I know that's an odd thing to compliment, but I've encountered some truly horrible volume knobs recently and small things do matter.
It's good, but not CNET good
The 2014 4Runner is good, but it's not necessarily CNET good. It's a pretty good SUV for the trail, but it's so low tech that there are compromises that come with its every pro. This means that it's performance, economy, and handling on the road (where it will spend most of its life) is pretty mediocre -- not bad, but not noteworthy. What's more odd about Toyota's decision to focus on off-road performance with the 4Runner is that it's already got the FJ Cruiser filling that niche with the same engine, the same 4x4 drivetrain, and the same A-TRAC terrain management software. (Then again, I get that most people wouldn't want to be seen driving a big, blue FJ.)
When it's not competing with its sibling, Toyota wants you to compare this to the Nissan Pathfinder, but we think the latest version is a better match for the family-friendly Highlander. In the back of my head during the 4Runner testing was the Nissan Xterra. Both are dinosaurs: big truck-based SUVs that layer new tech onto simple 4x4 underpinnings and old 4.0-liter V-6s. However, the 4Runner easily outclasses the Nissan where comfort, tech, and daily drivability are concerned with tech more on par with the Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee.
The 4Runner also outclasses the Nissan where price is concerned. Fully loaded, the Nissan Xterra comes to about $33,000 -- about where the 4Runner starts. Our 2014 Toyota 4Runner Trail Premium 4x4 starts even higher at $38,645. We've got another $1,750 invested in the KDSS suspension, $695 worth of mats and a sliding cargo floor, and $1,085 in destination and delivery charges. That brings us to an as-tested price of $42,175, significantly more than the Nissan, but not out of line with the Ford or Jeep.
|Model||2014 Toyota 4Runner|
|Trim||4x4 Trail Premium|
|Powertrain||4.0-liter V-6, 5-speed automatic, manually selectable 4x4 system with locking rear differential and 2-speed transfer case|
|EPA fuel economy||17 city, 21 highway, 18 combined mpg|
|Observed fuel economy||17.8 mpg|
|Navigation||Entune microSD card-based with traffic and Bing online search|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard with audio streaming and SMS reading|
|Disc player||single-slot CD|
|MP3 player support||standard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB/iPod connection, Bluetooth audio streaming|
|Other digital audio||SiriusXM satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||Eight-speaker, unbranded|
|Driver aids||Rear camera|
|Price as tested||$42,175|