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In the 1990s and even earlier last decade, the Toyota 4Runner occupied a place in the market that was very much mainstream. But as most families shoppers moved over to safer, more comfortable, and more efficient car-based designs (like Toyota's own Highlander), Toyota kept the 4Runner tough and very much a truck—relegating it to niche status.
For 2012, the 4Runner enters its third year since a complete redesign (for 2010) that again kept its toughness intact, and placed an even greater emphasis on off-road ability. Styling remains unchanged; with that redesign, the 4Runner became higher, chunkier, and more rugged, with a higher beltline and more flared wheel wells. While inheriting some of the imposing appearance from the Sequoia and Tundra full-size trucks, the 4Runner sticks to more of a conservative, traditional SUV look toward the rear, with a wide, downward-sloping C-pillar looking to past generations of the 4Runner.
Overall, the 2012 Toyota 4Runner drives much better—and more athletically—than its trail-crawling appearance might suggest. Steering feel and maneuverability are unexpected delights in the 4Runner; at low speeds especially, the 4Runner handles with better precision and control than you might expect from such a big, heavy model, and visibility isn't bad. But you'll be reminded you're in a tall vehicle with soft sidewalls and a safe suspension calibration if you attack corners too quickly.
A 4.0-liter V-6 engine, makes 270 horsepower and 278 pound-feet of torque, and feels plenty quick either off the line or at highway speeds. V-6 SR5 models are offered either with rear-wheel drive or a part-time four-wheel-drive system, while Trail models are only offered with that 4WD system. Limited models get a separate full-time four-wheel-drive system that's more road-oriented.
In Trail grade (the off-road model), the 4Runner includes a host of electronics and systems meant to complement the sturdy off-road hardware. Base models can be a little pitchy on rough pavement, but Limited models get yet another setup: a so-called X-REAS system with electronically adjusting dampers, geared for flatter cornering and pavement surfaces. The Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS) that's optional in the Trail model uses hydraulics to reduce motions on-road or increase off-road traction and riding comfort, with more wheel travel in that situation.
You won't find the 4Runner to be quite as roomy inside as less trucklike options such as the Honda Pilot or Ford Flex, but it's up to par in comfort for the first two rows of seating. Front seats are wide and supportive—they look and feel great with the available perforated leather upholstery—and the driving position is excellent. In the second row, which adjusts for rake, adult-sized occupants will also feel at home. The third row is only good for kids—and hard to get to.
But as decent as the 4Runner is for passengers, it's disappointing for cargo and overall versatility. The flip-forward folding third row is easy enough to use, but the body is rather narrow and the cargo floor is quite high.
The way the 4Runner's controls are arranged—and the feel of them—is a highlight of its interior. Off-road-focused controls are located in an overhead console, keeping the center stack of controls straightforward and accessible, with large buttons and knobs that have a great tactile feel. A secondary display sits atop the center stack, and redundant steering wheel controls access audio and Bluetooth functions. The instrument panel and door trim build on the fundamentals seen in the Tundra pickup and Sequoia SUV, but with better attention to detail. It's macho and utilitarian, but the chunky center stack and easy-to-read gauge cluster highlight a macho, utilitarian look and common-sense simplicity.
All 4Runners also come with eight standard airbags, including front side bags, side-curtain bags for the second and third rows, and front knee bags for the driver and passenger. Some include a small screen built into the rearview mirror that provides a fish-eye camera view backward for parking assistance. Safety Connect, a system that's similar to General Motors' OnStar, is available. About the only safety blemish is an only 'acceptable' IIHS roof strength score.
Base 4Runner SR5 models start just below $30k and actually include a good level of equipment; but the off-road purists who also sometimes need to haul the family will want the Trail model, which includes all the off-road goodies plus upgraded audio, a USB port, iPod connectivity, and Bluetooth audio streaming. Top Limited models step up to 15-speaker JBL premium sound, with a Party Mode that biases output to the rear tailgate speakers. Paired with the optional pull-out rear cargo deck, it's an instant tailgate party.
New to the Limited for 2012 (and optional on other models), the 4Runner gets redesigned audio systems, plus Toyota's Entune services and HD Radio with iTunes tagging.
- Rugged exterior style
- Strong, flexible V-6 powertrain
- Perhaps the best Toyota truck interior
- Useful off-road electronics (Trail)
- Excellent visibility
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- Choppy highway ride (SR5)
- Small third-row seat
- Disappointing cargo space
- Nearly as heavy as a full-size ute
- Trail and Limited models can be pricey