2003 Toyota 4Runner Review

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John Pearley Huffman John Pearley Huffman Editor
September 22, 2002




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The term SUV is thrown around so loosely these days that it’s practically lost its meaning. The term “sport -utility vehicle” was invented to describe a truck with real off-road ability, not some weird hybrid of marketing pretense and a sedan chassis.

The 2003 Toyota 4Runner is a real SUV – its body sits on a full frame, the engines are purpose-built for trucks and sit north-south under the hood, the suspension has enough travel to clear small boulders and the heft to survive them, and the transfer case has a genuine low range to lug up hills and through muck. In a price and size class that’s crammed with competitors the new, slightly larger 4Runner distinguishes itself not just through the image it projects, but how well it backs that image up with the substance of real ability.

Genuinely new

2003 Toyota 4Runner

2003 Toyota 4Runner

From the time of its introduction in 1985 through the 2002 model, the 4Runner was closely  related to Toyota’s compact pickup trucks. It always shared its engines and major elements of the chassis with those pickups and the resemblance usually carried through to both the exterior and interior. But this latest fourth-generation 4Runner is unrelated to the pickups and is instead based on a new version of Land Cruiser Prado, a purpose-built SUV never sold in North America (the same platform also underpins the upcoming Lexus GX470). The new 4Runner doesn’t even share engines with the outgoing model.

The basic 4Runner chassis is hardly revolutionary. The ladder frame is fully boxed for strength and incorporates nine crossmembers for stiffness. The suspension consists of independent double A-arms and coil springs up front and a solid axle located by four-links and coil springs in the back (air suspension is optional), there’s a disc brake at every wheel controlled by an ABS system, and the steering is by rack-and-pinion. All conventional, truck-like stuff unlikely to excite the masses.

It’s the drivetrains that are exciting with a new, truly sweet V-6 and, for the first time in a 4Runner, a V-8.

Gone is last year’s 3.4-liter V-6 and in its place is the all-new, all-aluminum 1GR-FE 4.0-liter V-6 with DOHC heads, four valves per cylinder and, for the first time on a truck engine, Toyota’s VVTi variable valve timing system. Making 245 horsepower at 5200 rpm and 283 lb-ft of peak torque at 3400 rpm, the new 4.0-liter is the most powerful normally-aspirated six Toyota has sold in America. It’s both sweet-natured in operation and slick. Mated to a four-speed automatic in the 4Runner, the V-6 doesn’t have the off-idle torque of a V-8, but it gets into the thick part of its powerband quickly and runs quietly. The V-6 is good enough so that in daily driving most buyers would never miss the V-8. Throw in its fuel economy advantage and lower initial cost and the V-6 will probably be the most popular.

More familiar is the optional V-8, which is the same 4.7-liter, DOHC, 32-valve unit used in the Tundra, Sequoia, Land Cruiser and Lexus LX470 where it’s proven itself smooth, capable and bulletproof. In the 4Runner it’s lashed to a new five-speed automatic that shifts with nonchalance and elegance. But at 235 horsepower, the V-8 is actually down 10 ponies from the V-6. The V-8’s big advantage is its torque production where it peaks at 320 lb-ft at 3400 rpm. Anyone who’ll be using their 4Runner for towing (it’s rated to haul 5000 pounds) should opt for the V-8, but virtually everyone else will be at least as happy with two less cylinders.

The 4Runner is available as a 4x2 (for those cheap poseurs out there); it’s as a 4x4 that the 4Runner shines. The two-speed transfer case and Torsen-type locking center differential ensure an efficient torque split and it’s tough to find a situation where the 4Runner can’t find traction. The new 4Runner is just awesome off-road; the suspension is compliant, long-legged and tough and the electronic hill descent system means if a driver can point the 4Runner in the right direction, it could make it to the bottom on its own. The descent system is noisy as it cycles the brakes, but its ability to control descents is spectacular. Hill descent technology has been seen before on vehicles like the Range Rover, but it’s never been done so well on a less-expensive vehicle than in the 4Runner.

On road, the ride motions are comfortable and well-controlled (especially when equipped with the 17-inch wheels and P265/65R17 tires that come with the Sport and Limited models) and the 4Runner is commendably quiet. With Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) and Traction Control aboard, and the inherently modest grip of the all-weather tires, the 4Runner isn’t a cornering dynamo, but it’s also nearly impossible to upset. The steering is weighted well, but the tires just don’t want to tell the driver what’s going on down there.

Big enough?

The outgoing 4Runner was justly criticized for being stingy on interior room and so the new one is larger inside, but surprisingly not in every way.

Compared to the 2002 model, the 2003 4Runner’s wheelbase and overall length are both up 4.5 inches to 109.8 and 187.8 respectively and that stretch is reflected in the increase in front leg room from 42.6 to 43.7 inches. However rear leg room (not a strong point in the old 4Runner) actually shrinks from 34.9 to 34.7 inches. That’s unexpected.

The biggest gain in roominess comes as width. On the outside the 2003 4Runner expands as much as 7.3 inches more than the 2002 models (and as little as 2.9 inches depending on trim) and inside that results in 4.4 inches more front shoulder room and a full 5.5 inches more front hip room. The old 4Runner’s interior felt claustrophobically narrow, while the new one is competitive with other SUVs in this size class. But buyers shopping for maximum interior room should look beyond the 4Runner. Sure the innards are bigger than the old 4Runner, but it’s still not huge. And it lacks a third-row seat.

2003 Toyota 4Runner

2003 Toyota 4Runner

The interior design is generally good, but does have some frustrations. All the materials used are high quality as is expected in a Toyota, the seats are well-shaped and every switch works with Glock-like precisions, but the dash design is a bit self-conscious with deeply tunneled instrumentation that can disappear in certain daylight conditions (it’s better when the headlights are left on and the gauges are illuminated) and the circularly arranged ventilation buttons (they aren’t dials) are just funky. Also the rear door opening is rather small making getting in and out tough for the less-than-nimble. On the plus side the swing-up rear tailgate still has a power roll-down rear window, which is a convenience no other SUV in this size class has.

Strangely Toyota didn’t install a third-row seat in the 4Runner and it still doesn’t have one in the similarly sized Highlander crossover ute either. That gives the company two mainstream-size SUVs missing an element that others like the Honda Pilot carry as standard. Toyota does claim, however to be working on a third-row seat for the Highlander.

Not for everyone, perfect for someone

Toyota is shipping the 4Runner in three flavors: SR5, Sport and Limited. The SR5 is well enough equipped to not seem like a base model. The Sport is a bit more aggressive with a non-functional hood scoop and bigger wheels and tires. The Limited goes monochrome on the outside and leather inside. Considering the new 4Runner’s space-agey styling, the Limited’s muted appearance seems to look best. But 4Runner buyers are supposed to be a bit more exuberant than, say, Highlander owners and it’s likely a lot of Sports will end up on the road. This is after all a high-capability vehicle built with adventure in mind and it will likely attract some adventurous people.

In off-road ability and drivetrain sophistication, the new 4Runner is the class of its class, and with prices expected to range between $24,000 and $35,000 a reasonable value too. It’s a genuine SUV among pretenders.

2003 Toyota 4Runner Limited
Base price: $35,000 (est.; $24,000 base)
Engine: 4.0-liter V-6, 245 hp; 4.7-liter V-8, 235 hp
Drivetrain: Four-speed automatic transmission, four-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 187.8 x 73.8 x 71.2 in
Wheelbase: 109.8 in
Curb weight: 4290 lb
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes
Major standard equipment: Power windows/locks/mirrors, A/C, cruise control, CD player, keyless entry
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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October 7, 2017
2003 Toyota 4Runner 4-Door Limited V8 Automatic (GS)

Great car with all the extras.

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Great car. Very dependable. Very hard to give up.
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$3,488 - $14,990
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