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.