Toyota relaunched the Venza last year, and it sits nicely between the popular RAV4 and the revised Highlander. All three of these vehicles have seen major updates and look significantly different than they did a decade ago; Venza comes with a hybrid drivetrain and the other two are available as a hybrid as well. Yet the Toyota 4Runner remains steadfast, a working horse among show ponies in the brand’s SUV lineup. Aside from a front-and-rear fascia update and some interior changes in 2013, the 4Runner is appealing for its classic look.
Originally based on the Hilux in 1984, the rough-and-tumble SUV reached its fifth generation in 2010, launching here in my neck of the woods in 2009 at the State Fair of Texas. The unveiling location made sense; the 4Runner is definitely geared to the outdoorsy type and that’s where it excels. Its sibling, the Highlander, has better road manners and comfort features, and the versatile RAV4 outsells it more than three to one. But off-road, I’ve found, the 4Runner is hard to beat. It competes in the market with the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Jeep Wrangler in different ways, but it holds its own.
Even U.S. News and World Report gives the 4Runner high marks against the Wrangler in terms of cargo space and comfort, and they say the 4Runner TRD Pro is “one of the most capable off-road-focused SUVs on the market”. On an off-road course in Austin, I tested out the 4Runner on a variety of obstacles, including a 34-degree incline. Frankly, I wasn’t prepared for how nimble it was all over the course.
As of right now, the 4Runner isn’t offered as a hybrid, but it seems like the SUV is going to have to get on board with the brand; Toyota said in their January financial report that they are number-one in sales of alternative vehicles sales (which includes hybrids, electrified vehicles, fuel cells) for 21 years. Fourteen hybrids are now available under the Toyota brand, including the new Sienna, Venza and Mirai. Overall, the 4Runner lost about two percent in sales numbers from 2019, and that’s an improvement over 2019, which showed a five percent loss. Think of it more as a gradual erosion of beach property than a landslide.
Does the automatic-transmission 270-horsepower 4.0-liter V6 feel a little clunky on the road? Yes. Does it have a lumbering feel during acceleration? Yes. Impressively, the 2021 4Runner includes all of the driver-assist features in Toyota’s safety suite, and the seats are comfortable, especially in the TRD models. The back seats recline, which is lovely.
I thought it was a little strange that a twist of the burly climate control knob does not display the temperature in the cabin; it shows a gradient from cold to hot and it’s a guessing game. I’d like for the touchscreen to be updated and the audio controls easier to navigate. But that’s not why I’d choose a 4Runner. It’s like putting on your favorite baseball glove after you’ve reconditioned it: you know it’s going to fit and you know it’s going to work exactly the way you expect it to, and you can count on it. It’s built to be an SUV you can trust to take just about anywhere, and only the Jeep Wrangler can beat it when it comes to hard-core rock climbs.
My husband is a die-hard Range Rover fan, and his daily driver is a 2000 Rover in the P38 body style. He loves it. But if he had to replace it, he’d pick a 4Runner, and that is saying a lot.