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Meet the 2014 Toyota 4Runner 4x4 Trail Premium: a simple, old dog that's learned a few new tricks in this latest generation. On paper, it's rocking a 12-year-old power-train that's as dumb as a bag of hammers, but atop those hammers is a bit of high-tech intelligence with an Advanced Traction Control system. At a glance, the chunky dashboard looks like a child's toy, but powering the infotainment is Toyota's Web-connected, app-based Entune system. No doubt you've already seen the middling star rating above, but I actually enjoyed my week spent with Big Red.
I wasn't sure what to think of the 4Runner upon accepting delivery, but I soon learned that while it's not necessarily the most CNET style vehicle to pass through our garage, it's worth a second (or third) look.
Keeping it simple in the engine room
Beneath the bulging hood and the fake hood scoop, you'll find Toyota's 4.0-liter V-6 engine. It's got no direct injection and no forced induction, but Toyota's variable valve timing technology does help this 12-year-old engine to output 270 horsepower and 278 pound-feet of torque. That's decent, but not mind-boggling power.
Power now flows through the only option, a 5-speed automatic transmission, on its way to the rear axle. If this is sounding familiar, it's because Toyota has basically carried the same engine and transmission combo from the previous generation into this 2014 model with a few tweaks. On the one hand, Toyota is sticking with an older gearbox here with only five forward ratios, while the rest of the industry moves to six and beyond. On the other, Toyota knows that this gearbox will be reliable even if it's also a bit uninspiring. That gearbox features Sport and Manual shift modes that slightly change the character of the vehicle's performance, but no paddle shifters on the steering wheel. (We'll talk more about that steering wheel in a bit.)
Before reaching the rear wheels, a bit of the engine's torque can be redistributed to the front wheels via the optional 4x4 system (standard on our Trail Premium model). The driver interacts with the 4x4 system not with a bank of buttons or an electronic knob, but with an old-fashioned shift lever that sits just to the left of the transmission's stick. Throwing this lever from 2H to 4H is a mechanical affair without any electronic foolery. Move from 4H to 4L, you can feel the gears of the transfer case engaging or, if you're not careful, grinding against one another.
Being a brutally simple 4x4 system, the 4Runner is unable to automatically shift from its rear-wheel drive 2H to the all-wheel drive 4H. You'll have to make that decision on your own every time. The 2H configuration should ideally offer better fuel economy and on-road handling for daily driving, while 4H locks the drive-train into a full-time four-wheel drive that improves grip during inclement weather and off-road.
In 4L or 4-wheel drive, low ratio locks the torque split at 40:60 front-to-rear and drops the transfer case to a 2.566:1 ratio multiplying the engine's 278 pound-feet of torque for better climbing ability and control, but at lower than highway speeds. A fourth Neutral position for the transfer case shifter serves as a transitional position between 4H and 4L.
The 4x4 system may be just a tad primitive, but the Advanced Traction Control (A-TRAC) system brings a bit of electronic intelligence to the party. By articulating the brakes at all four corners, A-TRAC is able to add Crawl Speed Control and Multi-Terrain Control to this mechanical system. The driver engages A-TRAC with a button located on the ceiling console. Here is also where you'll find the knobs for the Crawl and Terrain control systems and the locking rear differential.
As I said earlier, if you don't know what you're doing, fiddling around with the 4x4 system's shifter could result in some ugly grinding of gears, so Toyota has included a small, single-line display at the top of the dashboard that gives the drivers information and instruction about what the 4x4 system and A-TRAC are doing. It will, for example, tell you that you need to drive forward or back a bit when shifting between 2H and 4H or that the A-TRAC terrain management system won't work in 2H, so stop fiddling with it. It will tell you what A-TRAC program you've selected and what transfer case ratio works best for the chosen terrain. No, it's nowhere near as informative or intuitive as the system that we tested in the Land Rover Range Rover Supercharged, but it doesn't aim to be.
Pretty good on the trail
The 2014 4Runner comes reasonably well equipped off the line to tackle mild to hard off-road conditions.
It's got skid plates protecting the delicate bits of its undercarriage (engine, front suspension, fuel tank, and transfer case) from rocks and errant branches. There are big, P265/70R17 tires on 17-inch alloy wheels to roll over irregularities. The 4x4 models have a whopping 9.6 inches of ground clearance, and steeply angled front and rear bumpers allow for a 33-degree approach angle and 24 degrees on the departure (4x2 models have 9.0 inches of clearance and slightly shallower approach and departure angles.).
Our example was equipped with the optional Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS), a variable hydraulic suspension system that mechanically varies the damper rates and the looseness of the sway bars to allow more wheel articulation off-road while maintaining decent drivability on-road. Lacking electromagnetic or variable ride-height trickery, Toyota could have very well called this dynamic suspension KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid), but I was pleased by the 4Runner's performance during my light off-road testing.
Down washboard-rough dirt roads, through muddy ruts, and up hills so steep they left mud on the 4Runner's front bumper, the KDSS and the 4Runner's body-on-frame chassis were nearly unflappable.
It didn't climb as smoothly as the Range Rover or switch between drive modes as fluidly as the Jeep Grand Cherokee, but I was also convinced that the 4Runner's simple 4x4 system also required less fiddling than the more complex electronic systems. It's simple like a hammer; there just aren't a lot of decisions to make when using this SUV. Are you on asphalt? Choose 2H. Are you not? Choose 4H. Does that hill look steep to you? Take a moment to pop into 4L and power through. The 4Runner could almost make do without the A-TRAC system for 90 percent of the conditions that its drivers will ever tackle.
However, the massive 4Runner is no trail-blazer. The Trail moniker is earned because this large SUV will tackle all but the roughest trails, but I wouldn't take it rock crawling or too far off the beaten path, especially not on those street tires.
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|