First Drive: 2010 Toyota 4Runner

December 22, 2009
Washougal Motocross Park

Washougal Motocross Park

2010 Toyota 4Runner SR5

2010 Toyota 4Runner SR5

Washougal Motocross Park

Washougal Motocross Park

Although we sometimes find ourselves sampling vehicles out of their element—convertibles with summer performance tires in the snow, for instance—and that’s sometimes fun in itself, the conditions proved perfect for our first drive of the 2010 Toyota 4Runner last week as we headed out in a steady misting rain and barely 40-degree temperatures, from Portland up toward the foothills of Mt. St. Helens and the Washougal Motocross Park.

The park has a clay base, so things become a little…ehem…fun when the ground gets thoroughly soaked. Yep, very slippery—and, it turned out, perfect for testing out some of the features on the 2010 4Runner. For instance, Downhill Assist Control helped us keep a safe, steady speed down one of the steeper, mud-slicked slopes at Washougal in a 2010 Toyota 4Runner SR5 V-6, while a short time later we were back going uphill at the same run with the off-road-honed 4Runner Trail model, using its Crawl Control, which let us select one of five different speeds that the 4Runner would maintain until we pressed the accelerator or switched the feature off.

In an open, muddy field at the park, we also sampled the differences between the modes of the Trail model’s Multi-Terrain Select system, which electronically allows varying levels of slip to aid traction or stability in different types of terrain. On the soft side of the dial (for snow, mud, or sand), the four-wheel drive system allowed the tires to churn quite a bit for traction, while on the harder side of the dial (for rocky terrain), the system allowed virtually no slip to assure stability in cautious rock-crawling.

Those are a lot of features to potentially clutter up the 4Runner’s instrument panel, but Toyota has kept its interior neatly arranged. Off-road-focused controls are located up above 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. Our several test 4Runners had no rattles or cheap-feeling interiors, and the cabin is relatively free of wind and road noise.

2010 Toyota 4Runner Limited

2010 Toyota 4Runner Limited

2010 Toyota 4Runner Trail

2010 Toyota 4Runner Trail

2010 Toyota 4Runner Limited

2010 Toyota 4Runner Limited

Washougal Motocross Park

Washougal Motocross Park

2010 Toyota 4Runner SR5

2010 Toyota 4Runner SR5

Washougal Motocross Park

Washougal Motocross Park

Most 2010 Toyota 4Runner models come with a new 4.0-liter V-6 engine, making 270 horsepower and 278 pound-feet of torque. Toyota has shuffled the engine lineup for better fuel economy numbers, dropping the V-8 option, but the new V-8 actually makes 10 hp more than the previous generation’s V-8. The four-cylinder model—including a 157-horsepower, 2.7-liter four-cylinder (essentially the same as the Tacoma pickup) won’t be widely available, Toyota says, and only offered in base rear-wheel-drive form.

In V-6 form, the 2010 4Runner feels plenty fast either off the line or at highway speeds and steers and handles nearly as well on the road as a crossover. You likely won’t miss the V-8. The five-speed automatic feels very responsive with the engine, with quick downshifts for passing and smooth, early shifts when puttering around town. Steering feel and maneuverability is an unexpected delight in the 2010 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. Attack faster corners with a little too much zeal, and you’ll be reminded that you’re in a tall vehicle with a suspension calibration that errs on the safe side, with relatively soft sidewalls. On that matter, the 4Runner’s suspension soaks up the major heaves better than most trucks, but in with the standard setup you’re likely to find it quite busy, with an uncomfortable level of head toss on jiggly pavement surfaces (or when off-roading).

All that changes for the better with the Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS) that’s optional in the Trail model. Through a system of clever hydraulics averts body motions on-road and actually increases off-road traction and riding comfort. It did a great job soaking up the deep, muddy ruts at Washougal. Also on the Trail grade, 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 varying terrains ranging from soft sand or snow to solid rock. Limited models get a different setup yet—a so-called X-REAS system with electronically adjusting dampers, geared for flatter cornering and pavement surfaces.

One letdown is interior space for cargo. As we also noted recently in the closely related Lexus GX 460, the 4Runner has virtually the same exterior dimensions as the Toyota Highlander, yet it has significantly less cargo space, either with the third row or the second and third rows folded, than the Highlander. But for passengers it’s all good news. Front seats have been re-contoured, and they’re not a bit longer and significantly wider than before to accommodate American-size occupants. The driving position is excellent, and the available perforated leather upholstery made it feel like we were in a luxury-brand perch. Second-row occupants also get new contours that don’t feel flat like before; this 6’-6” editor rode in the back seat for more than an hour and felt very comfortable. Gone are last year’s small flip-to-the-side third-row seats, replaced by a more conventional folding third row that’s a little hard to access and only good for kids. About the only interior design element that didn't make sense, especially in the pouring rain, was how the window switches are atop the window ledge. They got soaked, but kept working.

2010 Toyota 4Runner SR5

2010 Toyota 4Runner SR5

Washougal Motocross Park

Washougal Motocross Park

Washougal Motocross Park

Washougal Motocross Park

Washougal Motocross Park

Washougal Motocross Park

The 4Runner will be offered in basic SR5, off-road-oriented Trail, and luxurious Limited models. 4Runner Trail models get an upgraded audio system with XM satellite radio, a USB port, iPod connectivity, and Bluetooth audio streaming, while top Limited models step up to 15-speaker JBL premium sound, with a Party Mode that biases output to the rear tailgate speakers, to better project outward. Also available is a pull-out rear cargo deck that includes a separate small cargo box behind the sear seat and can function, when slid out, as a tailgating or camping seat that holds up to 440 pounds. Other desirable options include sonar-based rear parking, a navigation system, and a subscription-based Safety Connect telematics system.

One note: The 4Runner can get pricey, especially if you want the Limited, or the Trail models with all the off-road goodies; the desirable KDSS system that’s available on Trail models is only offered together with the navigation system, at a total extra price of $4,170, bringing the bottom line past the $40k mark.

With very few modern mid-size body-on-frame sport-utility vehicles remaining—the 2010 Kia Borrego and 2010 Nissan Pathfinder bring the closest rivals—the 2010 Toyota 4Runner hits a niche market that a few years ago was the heart of the SUV market. For those planning to haul passengers, crossover vehicles like the Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Edge, or Toyota’s own Highlander would be far better choices, but if you need something rough and ready for the trail the 4Runner remains a very relevant option.

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High Gear Media has partnered with Tesla Motors on a new writing contest where YOU can win a tour and road test of the 2010 Tesla Roadster Sport. You can submit as many articles as you like and enter multiple times.  Enter now!



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