Full ladder frame. 4-wheel drive system with a two-speed transfercase. Locking rear differential. Fancy traction control system with crawl control. Selectable terrain response system. Skid plates. Full-size spare tire. All of those are trademark items found on world’s best off-road 4×4 vehicles, such as this Land Cruiser Prado-based, 2014 Toyota 4Runner.
And yet there I was, technically not even off road, completely stuck in five inches of snow. Nothing designed to keep the Trail edition 4Runner moving forward worked.
All four wheels were just spinning, desperate to grab onto something that would allow them to overcome the low coefficient of friction between the tire, the wet snow, and the dirt under it. What finally did work was a tow truck which winched me out from about thirty feet away after two hours of waiting. It was a Sunday afternoon in Vermont, I guess I should be happy that it only took that long.
So what went wrong?
Attempts at freeing itself only dug the 4Runner in deeper
I went onto a secondary road to take a picture of this truck with a background of a covered bridge. There was a street name and a posted 35mph speed limit. The road itself was not plowed but it did have plenty of tire marks and the snow was packed, or at least in seemed that way. I went a little further because my picture demanded it – it was really pretty.
I was driving very slowly to get the car into the spot I wanted when I noticed some wheel spin and the vehicle abruptly slowing down. The two right wheels were off the hard packed snow and into wet slushy snow, which didn’t look any different from my perspective, and the 4Runner came to a halt.
“No problem, I’ll just put it into 4WD and we’ll move right along”
“No problem, I’ll just put it into 4WD Low and lock the rear diff, and whamo, I’ll go through this like a tank”
“No problem, I’ll just move the Multi-terrain Select® knob into the picture of snow/mud, crawl control into low, and whamo, we’ll magically go forward”
No matter what I did, the four wheels would just spin, digging the vehicle in even deeper. Rocking did not help. Digging the snow around did not help. This would be a good time to point out that I grew up in the northeast and that I have driven many other, less capable, vehicles into much deeper snow, many times, without ever getting stuck. The whole thing was rather embarrassing but funny – an idiot with a fancy new truck stuck in a few inches of snow. What went wrong?
- The driver. Perhaps I could have got a better look at this road. In the end, no vehicle will ever go a place that it has not been directed to. Then again, this was not some deep woods expedition into the unknown, a Subaru Outback easily went by me as I was waiting for my tow.
- The tires. This Trail edition 4Runner came equipped with Dunlop Grandtrek AT20 all-season highway tires. These tires get very poor marks on tirerack.com in all categories but ride and noise comfort. This is why they’re installed on this rig from the factory, to keep buyers from complaining about noise.
These Dunlops are very similar to the awful Bridgestone tires that were on the Infiniti QX80, which the 4Runner can also be equipped with from factory. I had similar poor winter experiences with these tires when I rented an FJ Cruiser, and Tim, too, cursed at them years ago. For reference, Jeep equips its Wrangler Rubicon, a vehicle that is a direct competitor to the 4Runner and the FJ Cruiser, with the BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain T/As. Ford wraps BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KOs around Raptor’s wheels.
The 4Runner Trail
With a high step-in height alone, the 4Runner will never be mistaken for a cute cross-over. Driving characteristics are also less car-like, which is to say good and without any noticeable ill side-effects over its CUV cousins, if perhaps a little more top heavy and more softly sprung. That is the only trade-off for a full-frame vehicle with enormous off-road ability when equipped with proper tires. It actually is fun to drive, giving its driver the comfort of not caring about winter ridden roads. Toyota will happily sell a RAV4 or a Highlander to those wanting a vehicle that looks like a 4Runner but drives like a Camry.
4Runner’s 4.0 liter DOHC aluminum V6 engine makes 270hp and 278lb-ft of torque in its upper RPM range. The gearing and the 5-speed automatic transmission programming always try keeping the engine speed below 2000rpm, where it seems to be the happiest. Keep things civil and the 4Runner is a smooth cruiser, start rushing things and you may want to reconsider your choice. The 4×4 4Runner is rated at 17mpg in the city and 22mpg on the highway. My real-world mixed driving number came out to about 19mpg, which is not much less than an average V6 CUV.
For 2014 4Runner got a facelift, and I have yet to meet anyone who thinks it’s an improvement over the squarer 2010-2013 vehicle. The sports car-like headlights look as much out of place on this truck as the fake WRX-like hood scoop. The good news is that the rest of it remains handsomely utilitarian and square, with a useful roof rack, large doors, and big but slightly short windows.
Inside, the 4Runner feels like a truck and a bit old-school in a good way. There is no ignition button but rather a key operated ignition switch that is actually connected to a starter. It has a normal shifter and not one of those electronic joysticks, and an actual lever to engage 4WD. The dash consists of big basic gauges and large, almost cartoon-y, knobs and buttons. The infotainment/nav system is all inclusive and easy to use but the screen can be difficult to see it direct sunlight. Most enthusiasts will love this simple interior, others should just buy a Highlander.
Seats are comfortable, with high seating position but unfortunately limited headroom – at 6’2” my head was almost touching the liner. Rear bench splits 60:40 and folds flat. Unfortunately it does not slide, nor does it recline further back, which would be nice on longer trips. The big hatch has a roll down rear window, another old-school feature which is just fantastic. Once opened, it reveals a very big, especially tall, cargo area. There are a 12vDC and a 120vAC receptacles, cubbies, and full-size spare under the frame.
There was a time when all SUVs were just like the 4Runner. Over time most of these other vehicles softened up dramatically, to a point where they are nothing more than taller station wagons. The 4Runner has remained true to its roots however; it’s an incredibly capable machine (when outfitted with proper tires) that, if history is any indicator, will last a long time. I predict that very soon it, and the FJ Cruiser, will be sought-after much like the 80-series Land Cruiser is now. Personally, despite some criticism seen here, I love this vehicle and it is in my top five next purchases.
To get more pictures of the 4Runner, I took it to a local construction site. The area, which I know well, which is frequently used by common cars, is just dirt roads but due to recent rains it was muddy. I approached one mud puddle, no more than three inches deep, at around 15mph and continued through it with a steady throttle. Like the time in the snow, I was in 2WD with all settings in default positions. In the middle of a large puddle the vehicle began to slow down, almost stopping. My foot was on the throttle the whole time. I realized that it was the traction control applying brakes and cutting engine power due to slipping rear wheels. The exact same sequence of events occurred on the snow covered road, except there the vehicle lost enough momentum to come to a stop.
At the 2014 Chicago Auto Show, Toyota announced that they will be making a line of TRD Pro 4Runners, Tacomas, and Tundras. These 4x4s will come with upgraded (raised) suspension systems, exhausts, skids plates, badges, and upgraded tires! The tire of choice for the Tacoma, and hopefully 4Runner, is… drum roll… the BFGoodrich All Terrain KO!
That leaves just one problem…
Disclaimer: Toyota provided the vehicle for the purpose of this review. I returned it washed and with a full tank of gas.
[Images: copyright 2014 Hooniverse/Kamil Kaluski and Toyota (interior pictures)]