2015 Toyota 4Runner Review

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Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
May 28, 2015

The 2015 Toyota 4Runner offers true SUV capability--and trades away some on-road refinement for it.

The 4Runner is one of few remaining true SUVs, built on a separate frame and using parts from trucks underneath instead of those pulled from passenger vehicles. While Toyota definitely sells more of its car-based crossovers (Venza, Highlander, etc.), the 4Runner remains for true off-road enthusiasts, using a recipe that's as old as the badge itself.

The big news for the 2015 4Runner is the addition of a TRD Pro Series model. Accompanied by similar versions of the Tacoma and Tundra pickups, the TRD 4Runner is the most off-road focused of the Toyota SUV lineup. The package includes remote-reservoir Bilstein shocks, Nitto all-terrain tires, TRD-tuned front springs, unique wheels, skid plates, and a host of interior and exterior pieces to distinguish it from regular 4Runners. It should make an already capable off-roader even more so.

The rugged look of all 2015 4Runners isn't just an image conjured up for marketing purposes. The 4Runner has had the same basic wagon shape for years, offering a longer alternative to models like the Jeep Cherokee and Grand Cherokee. The beltline is high, the proportions are chunky, and the downward slope of the rear pillars are a direct callback to the original. Inside, the same fundamental approach works, and works well: the knobs and controls are big and laid out in an uncluttered way, and the controls and gauges are framed with simple materials and the barest dash of metallic trim.

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A 4.0-liter V-6 engine, now the only engine offered, makes 270 horsepower and 278 pound-feet of torque, and feels plenty quick either off the line or at highway speeds. Fuel economy is estimated at 17/22 mpg for rear-drive models, and 17/21 mpg for four-wheel-drive versions. V-6 SR5 models are offered either with rear-wheel drive or a part-time four-wheel-drive system, while Trail and TRD Pro models are only offered with the part-time system. Limited models get a separate full-time four-wheel-drive system that's more on-road-oriented. The Limited gets standard 20-inch wheels and tires, while other models come fitted with 17-inchers.

Overall, the 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 big sidewalls and a soft suspension if you attack corners too quickly.

Base models can roll a bit 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 smoothing out bumps. 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.

The 4Runner is relatively refined inside--dodging some of the impressions of trucks and off-road-able vehicles and providing a tight, quiet highway cruising experience, with a reasonably smooth ride and very little road or wind noise. Safety is also not at all compromised compared to popular crossovers, 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. Safety scores from the IIHS and federal government have indicated that the 4Runner has relatively good occupant protection, but it's not in the top tier. A rearview camera is standard on all models.

You might start to notice some of the shortcomings of the 4Runner's traditional body-on-frame layout versus models like the Ford Explorer or Dodge Durango when you get inside. While the 4Runner has smartly designed seating and is comfortable enough for long highway trips, it's not quite up to the competition's levels of cargo space or flexibility, due to its narrower body and rather tall floor. The front seats look and feel great with the available perforated-leather upholstery, and they're wide and supportive, to fit quite the range of sizes. The second row adjusts for rake (reclining 16 degrees in four stops), and adult-sized occupants will also feel at home, thanks to seat contouring that goes well beyond the stiff bench cushions in some rivals. As for the third row, it's hard to get back there, so leave it to the (small) kids; it's only offered on the more on-road-oriented models.

Base 4Runner SR5 models include plenty of standard equipment, including a power driver seat, a roof rack, power features, and an audio system with a CD player, satellite radio, a USB port, iPod connectivity, and Bluetooth audio streaming. Mobile-app connectivity is standard via Toyota's Entune services. The off-road purists who also sometimes need to haul the family will want the Trail model, which includes all the off-road goodies. Top Limited models step up to dual power front seats, navigation, and 15-speaker JBL premium sound. Other desirable features include sonar-based rear parking, a navigation system, and a subscription-based Safety Connect telematics system.

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2015 Toyota 4Runner

Styling

If you're into straight lines and squared-off corners--boy, does Toyota have an SUV for you.

Like it or not, the Toyota 4Runner's profile hasn't changed much over the past decade.

The 4Runner stays true to sport-utility tradition, which dictates a truck front end and a wagon body, and some chrome tossed in only where it'll protect the paint from rocks or trees. Last year brought a more aggressive, almost cartoonish front end to the 4Runner, along with some minor visual updates. But that silhouette hasn't changed.

It's brawny and aesthetically unconcerned with sleekness, setting the 4Runner apart from entries like the Ford Explorer and Dodge Durango. It's still mostly a conservative, traditional SUV look in the rear, with a wide, downward-sloping C-pillar looking to past generations of the 4Runner.

Inside, the 4Runner also feels traditional yet freshly detailed. It's quite upright, built on the fundamentals of the Tundra pickup and Sequoia SUV as much as it does take after 4Runner tradition--but again with better attention to detail throughout. The simple, sensible way the 4Runner's controls are arranged—and the chunky yet precise 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. A secondary display sits atop the center stack, and redundant steering wheel controls access audio and Bluetooth functions--something that wasn't around when the 4Runner first came on the scene.

The new TRD Pro Series takes the 4Runner's angry-catfish look even further, with a unique grille with inset Toyota lettering, and a TRD skid plate visible underneath. It's also available in a TRD-exclusive color, Inferno.

Attitude Black replaces Black on all 4Runner models for 2015.

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2015 Toyota 4Runner

Performance

The 4Runner's off-road capability endures, and it's not as uncomfortable on pavement as it used to be.

Any off-road-capable SUV, especially a true body-on-frame such as the 4Runner, is going to suffer somewhat on the road for it. Depending on the model, however, the 4Runner can be made to remain somewhat civilized on the road as well. And what it lacks in on-road composure, it more than makes up for off-road, assuming you plan to use it in the rough stuff.

The 4Runner is big but nowhere near as bulky as Toyota's own Sequoia. It's offered with a sole drivetrain, pairing a 4.0-liter V-6 engine, making 270 horsepower and 278 pound-feet of torque, with a five-speed automatic transmission. The combination is strong enough to deliver competitive acceleration, whether taking off from a stoplight, climbing a steep trail or driveway, or passing at highway speeds. And there's enough torque to handle even difficult rock-crawling situations. The quick-shifting automatic always seems to be on its game, though it's at least one cog behind the state of the art, if not three.

There also are some differences in how the various 4Runner models deliver their power to the pavement--or the ground, anyway. SR5 models are offered either with rear-wheel drive or a part-time four-wheel-drive system, while Trail and TRD Pro Series models are only offered with that 4WD system.

Limited models get a full-time four-wheel-drive system that's more road-oriented. They also include the X-REAS system, with electronically adjusting dampers, geared for flatter cornering and smoothing out rough pavement.

In TRD Pro and Trail models, the 4Runner includes a host of electronics and systems meant to complement the sturdy off-road hardware. Crawl Control uses electronics to maintain a slow, steady speed when in low range, while a Multi-Terrain Select system allows driver-selectable levels of electronically allowed wheel slip for terrains ranging from soft sand or snow to solid rock. The Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS) that's optional in the Trail model and included on the TRD uses hydraulics to reduce motions on-road or increase off-road traction and riding comfort, with more wheel travel in that situation.

Considering its off-road ability, the 4Runner is pretty well behaved on pavement. Steering feel and maneuverability are unexpected delights in the 4Runner; at low speeds especially, the 4Runner handles with better precision and control than most would expect from such a big, heavy model, and visibility isn't bad. But you'll be reminded you're in a tall vehicle with big sidewalls and a soft suspension if you attack corners too aggressively. It's all about expectations: if you're hoping for carlike maneuverability and visibility, you'll be disappointed, but as an updated version of the SUV circa 1990, the 4Runner feels downright advanced.

The TRD Pro Series model, new for 2015, should raise the bar once again for the 4Runner off-road. A new suspension with reworked springs and Bilstein remote-reservoir dampers is paired with Nitto all-terrain tires and other TRD parts like skid plates to ensure that this old-school SUV keeps its capability up. And with the FJ Cruiser gone for 2015, the 4Runner has a little more on its shoulders.

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2015 Toyota 4Runner

Comfort & Quality

We rate the 4Runner's cabin as good for four adults, though an unusual two-seat third is offered.

There's no way around the fact that a crossover can offer superior packaging, space, and comfort to a body-on-frame SUV. But for a traditional off-road fan that needs room for five and some gear, the 4Runner does the job. Its shortcomings as a minivan substitute are easy to pick out, and drivers looking for that should look elsewhere anywhere--maybe something in an Explorer, Flex, or even a Durango.

The 4Runner's high floor and rather narrow body give away its truck roots, but it's still reasonably comfortable for up to five adults. In front, great-looking and supporting seats are best with the available perforated-leather upholstery. They're wide and supportive, and they fit quite the range of sizes.

The second-row bench seat adjusts for rake (with four detents), and adult-sized occupants will also feel at home, thanks to seat contouring that goes well beyond the stiff bench cushions in some rivals. As for the two-passenger third-row seat offered on SR5 and Limited models, it's hard to get to. We'd leave it to the (small) kids.

Years of evolution have provided some refinement for the 4Runner cabin. It's relatively free from wind noise, even at highway speeds, and the soft suspension does a good job of keeping smaller road imperfections from upsetting the occupants. 

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2015 Toyota 4Runner

Safety

The 4Runner's crash-test scores have taken their lumps, in the form of the new small-overlap test.

The Toyota 4Runner earns acceptable, but not stellar, crash-test ratings from the NHTSA and IIHS.

The 4Runner earns four stars overall from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), four stars in frontal crash, five stars in side crash, and three stars in rollover. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives it top 'good' ratings in all but the small overlap front test, which it scores as 'marginal.'

All 4Runners come with a good array of safety features. Eight airbags are standard, including front side bags, side-curtain bags for the second and third rows, and front knee bags for the driver and passenger. Safety Connect, a button-activated, concierge-style system that's similar to General Motors' OnStar, is available.

In addition to the requisite electronic stability control and anti-lock brakes, 4Runners also get Hill-start Assist Control (HAC) for safe uphill starts, plus Downhill Assist Control (on 4WD models), to help maintain a slow, steady speed down steep slopes. For parking assistance (or perhaps spotting when off-roading), some also include a small screen built into the rearview mirror. Some form of rearview camera is standard on all models, while rear parking sensors are an option on some.

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2015 Toyota 4Runner

Features

The 4Runner puts luxury features in the background, and elevates off-road gear--as it should.

Over the years, this true off-roader has learned a thing or two about convenience and luxury, although it's still aimed at utilitarian tasks more than coddling its passengers. And you'll pay for the capability, with prices starting north of $32,000.

In most ways, the 4Runner is equipped like Toyota's Tacoma and Tundra pickup trucks, down to the trim levels: SR5, Trail, TRD Pro Series, and Limited. Even base SR5 4Runners get a comprehensive package of standard features including power windows, locks, and mirrors; cruise control; a rearview camera; and air conditioning.

Those off-road purists who also sometimes need to haul the family will want the pricier Trail model, while the Limited model appeals to those who want a level of conveniences--if not outright luxury--on par with a Land Rover. And the new TRD Pro Series model is aimed at the extreme off-road crowd; it's the only way to get all-terrain tires on a 4Runner, which are a must when doing anything but light off-roading.

Limited models are priced in Lexus territory, very near to the Lexus GX 460 that shares its chassis with the 4Runner, and add 15-speaker JBL premium sound, HD Radio with iTunes tagging, and navigation; last year's "Party Mode" that biased output to the rear tailgate speakers has been deleted since the new audio system has a better balance feature.

The Trail comes in five-passenger trim; both the SR5 and Limited can be ordered with two small rear seats, for a total of seven passenger spots.

All versions now get a basic audio system with Entune Audio Plus, a sound/connectivity package that includes satellite radio, a USB port, iPod connectivity, and Bluetooth audio streaming, as well as smartphone-driven connections to Pandora, Bing, and other mobile apps.

Other desirable options include sonar-based rear parking sensors and a subscription-based Safety Connect telematics system.

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2015 Toyota 4Runner

Fuel Economy

If you're looking for gas mileage, you shouldn't be looking at a 4Runner.

Now that the 4Runner is restricted to a V-6 engine, and no V-8 is offered, the fuel economy is somewhat respectable on all models, especially considering the capability the off-road hardware can allow.

The EPA rates rear-wheel-drive 4Runners at 17 mpg city, 22 highway. And with either four-wheel-drive system, the 4Runner returns 17 mpg in the city and 21 mpg on the highway.

There are seven-passenger crossovers that match or exceed those numbers, though. The 4Runner's body-on-frame layout has some advantages off-road or when hauling heavy loads, but its added weight (compared to modern car-based crossovers) and boxier body altogether just aren't as good for gas mileage. In choosing an off-road-oriented vehicle such as this, this is a sacrifice that needs to be taken into consideration.

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