2014 Toyota 4Runner Limited

What would you say if we told you that outside of Jeep and Land Rover, the best brand for those who want to go off road is Toyota? Sounds remarkable, eh? But the truth is, Toyota's history of providing vehicles for the rougher bits of our blue marble dates back to 1950, barely a decade after Willys built the first Jeeps and only a few years after Land Rover made its big debut with the iconic Series I.

In fact, Toyota's start in off-roaders was with a small contract for providing the US Army with vehicles, during the Korean War. From that, the BJ was spawned. This Jeep-like vehicle evolved into the 20 Series and then into the iconic 40 Series Land Cruiser in the 1960s.

So yes, Toyota knows its way around the trails. While the Land Cruiser, deservedly, gets all the attention thanks to its impressive longevity, we're partial to the 4Runner, which is a far more affordable entry that serves as Toyota's challenger to the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

For 2014, Toyota issued a light refresh of the fifth-generation 4Runner, which originally arrived back in 2009. You'll recall that we already have a test of the off-road-oriented Trail trim level, thanks to our man Michael Harley. For this test, we're driving the top-of-the-line Limited model.

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The 4Runner sort of charms you with its unattractiveness, like a mud-covered mutt.

The 4Runner is not a pretty car. It's not even an okay-looking car. Some might go so far as to call it ugly. It's got a snout. But it sort of charms you with its unattractiveness, like a mud-covered mutt. That blunt face, with its large, dominating stack of grilles, wears a pair of chrome strips, the bottom of which runs nearly the width of the vehicle. The headlights are narrow, angrily canted towards the center of the body, giving the impression that the Toyota always disapproves of whatever it casts its gaze on.

This is a slab-sided brute, with its biggest bit of flair running along the wheel arches and side sills. The C-pillar angles forward rather aggressively behind the quarter windows, while a rather substantial rear spoiler pokes out from the roof. The rear of the 4Runner is perhaps the most under-styled aspect, with nothing more than some glitzy, rectangular taillights and eye-catching "4Runner" badging. It's quite simple, in contrast to the front.

If you've looked at the images we've posted of the Trail model, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the 4Runner's cabin is a simple, plain place. In the top-end Limited trim, the high-quality leather of our tester's Sand Beige seats contrasts nicely with strips of (faux) wood and bright, painted plastics. Despite the artificiality of some of the materials, the cabin feels like a very solid, durable environment. The dash is largely plastic, with a soft-touch upper and a harder, more solid lower section.

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A family hauler at its core, space needs to be ample, and it is. Kind of.

The large knobs for the HVAC and audio systems are delightfully easy to work with, like Toyota designed them specifically for drivers that enjoy wearing a heavy pair of gloves. It's a similar story with the HVAC buttons, located below the touchscreen display – they're large and difficult to mix up. The steering wheel, meanwhile, is plucked straight from the Tundra. That means it's a fairly large tiller, but it's finished in nice leather and isn't overly encumbered by buttons.

As this is a family hauler at its core, space in the second row and in the cargo area needs to be ample, and it is. Kind of. The back seat has plenty of legroom, although for your six-foot, one-inch author, headroom was far too limited. Considering that, the second row will work in a pinch for adults, but is far better suited to children or those of a shorter stature. Headroom may be in short supply, but cargo space isn't, with 46.3 cubic feet on offer in our two-row tester. That's ten cubic feet more than the 4Runner's main competitor, the Grand Cherokee. A foldable third-row is optional, although with the extra pair of seats up, cargo capacity diminishes to just nine cubic feet.

From behind the wheel, the 4Runner is a decent companion. The seats are wide and comfortable for the long haul, while there's enough lateral support that the driver feels pretty nicely cossetted. The tilt-telescopic steering and eight-way power seats provide a solid degree of adjustability, although those that don't enjoy a higher seating position might not be too fond of the 4Runner. Most everything seems to be in easy reach, aside from the very furthest knob on the infotainment system, which is a minor stretch.

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Outside of Entune, tech is limited in the 4Runner..

Speaking of that infotainment system, it's Toyota's Entune setup, complete with a 6.1-inch touchscreen display. As touchscreens go, it's a solid mid-pack contender, held back largely by its relatively small size. Still, if you aren't bothered by screen real estate, it's a smooth operator, with the responsiveness, capability and graphical prowess to serve as an informative companion. Outside of Entune, tech is limited in the 4Runner. Although it offers parking sensors and a rear-view camera, it's lacking when it comes to some active safety features. It's quite unlike Toyota to refresh a car, but pass on offering items like blind-spot monitoring and the like. Still, the 4Runner boasts a roll-down liftgate window, which we suppose is cool enough in the world of SUVs for us to forgive its lack of safety technology.

The 4Runner gets around with the help of a 4.0-liter V6, with 270 horsepower and 278 pound-feet of torque. It's a fairly simple engine, all things considered, lacking things like forced induction or direct injection. Suitably, then, it's mated up to an old fashioned transmission – a five-speed automatic. In our Limited trim, the standard 5AT distributes power to a full-time four-wheel-drive system, which is paired up with a Torsen limited-slip, locking center differential. Active Traction Control is standard, while the 4Runner's towing capacity lags behind its rival, the Grand Cherokee, at 4,700 pounds – with four-wheel drive and the Pentastar V6, the Jeep can manage 6,200 pounds (it should be noted, though, that Toyota adheres to SAE J2807, a towing standard that will be adopted by domestic manufacturers in 2015 and likely result in lower tow ratings).

Despite being saddled with 4,805 pounds of Japanese SUV, this engine felt largely adequate. The engine's torque peak may sit up at 4,400 rpm, but it feels reasonably quick off the line. Mid-range punch is lacking, although we'd place most of that blame on hesitation from the transmission, rather than any shortage of oomph from the engine. Throttle response is sharp when digging in quickly, but it's quite linear and easy to modulate when trying to make careful inputs (a must-have when off road).

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Pairing this engine with this much weight and a mere five gears isn't exactly a recipe for refinement.

Pairing this engine with this much weight and a mere five gears isn't exactly a recipe for refinement. The 4Runner doesn't make a great noise at higher engine speeds, although we found it easy enough to keep the revs low. As we said, the five-speed auto is really the weakest link here. It changes up quickly enough, but it spends a fair amount of time sifting through gears before locking one in on downshifts. This gearbox has been in service since 2003, and has been sold in the four-wheel-drive variants of not just the 4Runner, but the Tacoma, Tundra, FJ Cruiser and even the Euro-spec Hilux – it's solid and reliable, but these vehicles, especially a passenger-minded off-roader like the 4Runner, would be better served by a newer transmission with at least one more gear for highway duty.

As for the four-wheel-drive system, you'll be happiest reading Mike Harley's brief test on the trails. Southeastern Michigan was a relative paradise during our week with the 4Runner, offering bone-dry weather and the warmest temperatures we'd seen in all of 2014. We simply weren't left with much chance to really put the full-time four-wheel-drive through its paces. The one niggle we can comment on, though, is that the Limited trim ditches the old, manually-shifted transfer case that's still sold in the Trail model (which retains a part-time system), in favor of a dial. We know this is a bit of an analog-versus-digital argument, but we can't help but prefer the satisfying sensation of working that notchy shifter, rather than turning a knob.

With a large-displacement V6, a five-speed automatic, the aerodynamics of a barn and a 4,800-pound curb weight, one might think the 4Runner isn't hugely fuel efficient. Well, at 17 miles per gallon in the city and 22 mpg on the highway, it isn't. But – and this is a pretty big "but" – the 4Runner is able to match the city fuel economy rating of the Jeep Grand Cherokee, which boasts three more gears, 20 more horsepower and a smaller-displacement six-cylinder engine. The Jeep does offer a two-mpg advantage on the freeway (it's three mpg better on the 2WD model), which we can likely chalk up to the transmission's extra gears. Our mileage fit in well enough with the projections – an extended, 130-mile freeway run saw us return just under 20 mpg, while our week-long average sat closer to 17.

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Riding on a double-wishbone front suspension and four-link rear, the handling experience in the 4Runner is what we'd expect in an off-road-minded SUV. It's not a sound dancer, with a hefty degree of body roll through bends (it is a high-riding vehicle, after all) and plenty of squat and dive during hard acceleration and braking. Feedback is limited through the seat of the pants, although none of this should come as even a remote shock.

The handling experience is what we'd expect in an off-road-minded SUV.

The 4Runner's ride is decidedly average, despite its X-REAS adaptive damper system, offering up a mix of good and bad manners. It's soft, but it avoids feeling floaty over crests or on undulating roads. Impacts are well smothered, although side-to-side motion from bumps and imperfections is noticeable. There are some body shudders when traveling over particularly pockmarked or washboard roads, but this behavior doesn't strike us as a deal-breaker.

This average ride is, surprisingly, pretty quiet. Impacts are audible, though not disruptive, while road noise from the Yokohama Geolander G96 tires and the 20-inch alloys isn't pervasive, considering this vehicle's off-road nature. The 4Runner's upright, slab-sided design means that wind noise was certainly noticeable, although we had little issue drowning it out with the help of the 15-speaker JBL stereo.

Although there's an old-school hydraulic power-steering setup in the 4Runner, overall feedback is still rather limited. That said, the wheel does weight up quite nicely through bends, offering a linear increase in effort from on-center to lock.

2014 Toyota 4Runner Limited

Our as-tested price was $46,380, nearly $5,000 cheaper than a comparable Grand Cherokee.

Braking, meanwhile, is handled by vented discs at each corner, with 13.2-inch rotors in front and 12.3-inches in back. We had little issue with the brakes, although the pedal wasn't particularly easy to modulate smoothly, with a rather hard initial bite. This sharpness is less noticeable at lower speeds.

Prices for the 2014 4Runner start at $32,820, excluding an $860 destination charge. Of course, that's for the base SR5 with two-wheel drive. (Rhetorical questions: why does a 2WD 4Runner even exist, and shouldn't it be called the 2Runner?) That's a bit pricier than a competitive Grand Cherokee, which starts at $29,395. For our loaded Limited and its four-wheel-drive system, the price jumps to $43,400. The options sheet is pretty small at this level, with just the Blizzard Pearl paint ($395), a foldable third row ($365) and automatic running boards ($1,500) to choose from (along with the traditional batch of dealer-installed accessories). Our tester had only two of those, lacking the extra pair of seats. It should be noted, though, that picking up the running boards on the Toyota consumer website requires adding the third row of seats. We aren't totally certain what the deal is with this inconsistency. Our as-tested price, including the $860 destination charge and a $225 accessory charge for floormats, was $46,380. Now, that's cheaper than the top-of-the-line Grand Cherokee Summit, which starts at $51,195 for a four-wheel-drive model, but the Jeep does trump the Toyota on tech. Still, the GC isn't so well equipped that we'd happily spend the extra $5K.

This all seems rather dour, we'll admit. The 4Runner is an aging vehicle to be sure, but we're growing to accept that trait in most true SUVs. It seems like these vehicles either go the way of the dinosaurs, transform into crossovers like the Nissan Pathfinder or end up finding that rare middle ground that allows them to flourish without compromise, like the Grand Cherokee. The 4Runner's single-minded focus on off-road ability, at the expense of everyday livability, will appeal to consumers that can appreciate its simple assets in spite if its modern-day flaws.