2004 Toyota 4Runner Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
The real deal for off-road capability.
The 2004 Toyota 4Runner shares almost nothing with the mid-size SUVs Toyota sold just two years ago. The 4Runner was redesigned from the ground up for 2003, but its priorities haven't changed a bit. Everything from the basic design to the standard instrumentation and skid plates says this SUV is capable of hard-core off-road work.
While other SUVs are becoming more and more like cars, the 4Runner is the real deal. It's loaded with the latest off-road electronic technology, including Hill Start Assist and Downhill Assist Control. True to its truck roots, however, the 4Runner is built on a rugged ladder frame with a solid rear axle. While some consider this design dated when compared to the latest SUVs with unit-body construction and independent rear suspensions, Toyota believes the traditional package offers better off-road capability and long-term durability in working-truck conditions.
This latest-generation 4Runner is larger and roomier than its predecessor, and ride quality has been greatly improved. Optional features like a linked shock-absorber system have improved handling on the highway, and the standard V6 delivers more power for excellent acceleration. The 4Runner also offers an optional V8, but the V6 is so strong you won't need the upgrade unless you plan to do a lot of towing.
Order the base 4Runner and you have a comfortable, well-equipped, highly capable SUV that can get things done. Order a 4Runner Limited with leather, heated seats and a killer stereo, and it feels like a poor man's Range Rover. Okay, to be politically correct, it's more like a poor person's Land Cruiser.
Toyota almost never naps. Even though the 4Runner was brand new for 2003, the company has broadened its appeal for 2004 with an optional third seat that expands passenger capacity to seven. All models now come standard with running boards and more upscale body-colored bumpers and lower body cladding. For 2004, the optional GPS navigation system includes a rear-mounted video camera for backing up.
While the 4Runner may seem old school to people who want an 'on-road' sport-utility, it's the hot ticket for drivers who want genuine off-road capability, but don't want to be punished for it on the way to work every day.
The 2004 Toyota 4Runner comes in three trim levels: SR5, Sport Edition, and Limited. Toyota offers buyers maximum flexibility by offering all three with either the V6 or V8 and two- or four-wheel drive.
The recently developed 4.0-liter V6 comes standard on all models, delivering 245 horsepower and 283 pounds-feet of torque. A 4.7-liter V8 is optional on all models ($1,250). It generates 235 horsepower and, more important, 320 pounds-feet of torque.
The SR5 is the most popular trim level, primarily because it's the least expensive and still very well equipped. It comes with 16-inch alloy wheels and, for 2004, body-colored bumpers, fender flares and lower cladding, rather than the gray metallic type. The SR5 V6 4x2 ($27,170) and SR5 V6 4x4 ($29,445) include automatic climate control, remote keyless entry, skid plates to protect the underbody and a tire pressure monitor. As noted, the V8 adds $1,250 to all models and replaces selectable 2WD/4WD with full-time all-wheel-drive on 4Runner 4x4s.
The Sport Edition comes with Toyota's new X-REAS shock-damping system, a clever yet simple hydraulic setup that improves stability and handling in sweeping turns. The 4Runner Sport Edition V6 4x2 ($28,410) and 4X4 ($30,685) come with a special cloth interior and are distinguished by a hood scoop, a silver painted grille and standard roof rails, fog lamps, color-keyed outside mirrors, and 17-inch alloy wheels. The also have slightly larger brake rotors.
The 4Runner Limited V6 4X2 ($33,445) and 4x4 ($35,720) gets leather trim and heated power front seats. The Limited has silver painted running boards (rather than black), color-keyed mudguards and a full roof rack rated at 120 pounds capacity. It also adds refinement with a premium JBL stereo with 10 speakers, rear seat audio controls, remote control and headphones.
A Class III receiver hitch with seven-pin electric connection is standard on all models and mounted to the rear frame crossmember. The 4Runner is rated to tow 5000 pounds with the V6 and 7000 with the V8.
Toyota also provides maximum flexibility by pricing all options separately, rather than grouping them in packages. Popular choices include a power moonroof ($900) and the premium JBL stereo with a six-disc changer for the SR5 and Sport ($875). The two-place third seat ($735) is new for 2004. A slick GPS navigation system, packaged with the new rear-view video camera ($2,695), is available only on the 4Runner Limited.
Active safety features lead the class. ABS and Vehicle Skid Control (VSC) come standard on all models. VSC uses the brake system to help the driver maintain control in adverse conditions. 2WD models come with traction control, which reduces tire slippage for enhanced stability under acceleration. 4WD models are equipped with active traction control (A-TRAC), which uses sensors and software to deliver smoother power application in all conditions.
Passive safety features include dual-stage front airbags and three-point seat belts at all positions, with pretensioners and force limiters to reduce the chance of belt-related injuries. Front side-impact airbags and curtain-style head protection airbags for front and rear passengers are optional ($680 on SR5 and Sport, $650 on Limited).
Redesigned for 2003, the Toyota 4Runner is substantially larger than its predecessor. It's 4.5 inches longer in length and wheelbase, and more than 3 inches wider. Its wheels are larger, and spaced farther apart. The 4Runner's roof is no higher than before, but the floor is lower thanks to better integration of frame and body mounts. The floor is still relatively high, however, so loading groceries or gear demands some lifting.
The 4Runner is not the prettiest SUV on the planet. Despite new styling, the 4Runner is still easily recognized by that familiar low roof and high floor. The look is muscular, if not distinguished, and conveys ruggedness. A wide, rounded front end features an aggressive horizontal grille and wide headlamps. Chunky overfenders and cladding on the rocker panels suggest that the 4Runner is ready to go off road. Backing up that contention are skid plates for the engine, transfer case and fuel tank, all of which come standard. The rear is trimmed with big tail lamps and a clunky-looking rear spoiler.
The non-functional hood scoop on the Sport Edition does not, in our opinion, enhance the 4Runner's look. We think it does the opposite.
4Runner's windshield, side windows, and side mirrors are made of hydrophilic glass and repel water like a waxed car or a window that has been treated with Rain-X. The glass causes water to form large drops, which are quickly shed by gravity or wind. The side mirrors are angled out to increase the driver's field of view. The available moonroof includes a two-stage wind deflector designed to reduce wind noise when traveling above 55 mph.
Larger exterior dimensions on the redesigned Toyota 4Runner translate to an interior that's roomier by every measure. Shoulder room, hip room, and cargo capacity have grown. Yet our overriding impression when we climbed out of the 4Runner was quietude, rather than space. Rugged it may be, but the lack of road, driveline or ambient noise in the cabin is impressive, given its off-road capability. Wind noise is all you'll hear if you turn the stereo off.
The standard cloth interior is nice. The cloth seats in the SR5 and Sport models are comfortable, with side bolsters to keep the driver in place when cornering or driving off road. All seats offer adjustable headrests and three-point seatbelts, and the driver's seat adjusts eight ways. Yet the 4Runner's exterior dimensions also translate into a unique seating position, less pronounced than before, but still familiar to 4Runner owners everywhere. The driver and front passenger sit up high, as one expects in an SUV, but thanks to a relatively low roof and high floor, it seems you're sitting flatter on the floor, as in some low cars like a Ford Mustang. The driver's legs stretch out, rather than down, toward the pedals. It's not uncomfortable, but it may require a little acclimating.
About the only negative we noted inside the 4runner was a flimsy lid on the center console. Otherwise, this is a quality interior. Storage bins are provided in all four doors, and every seat gets a cupholder.
A two-tone dashboard houses the instruments. Gauges illuminate orange, set in three deep binnacles that prevent the front-seat passenger from reading them. The fuel gauge uses an inclinometer for accurate readouts when the 4Runner is tilted on an incline. Automatic climate control is standard on all models, while the Limited comes with his-and-hers dual-zone temperature controls. The stereo buttons, and particularly the fan, airflow and temperature controls, are big and easy to locate. A display located just above the climate controls reveals time, ambient temperature, and trip data. An optional 115-volt AC power outlet ($100) means you can bring all the electrical conveniences of home with you. It's a truly useful feature, especially if you're inclined to spend a lot time in the great outdoors.
The pair of small convex mirrors at the rear corners of the interior make an unusual feature, designed to help the driver see approaching vehicles when backing out of a parking space. The mirrors work on the same principal as those big convex mirrors mounted at a corner in an underground parking garage. They may prove helpful when backing up in a busy parking lot because they help the driver pick up on movement. Using them effectively takes some practice, however, and it's hard to distinguish details. Moreover, they are no longer necessary if you choose a 4Runner Limited with the optional navigation system.
For 2004, the nav system includes a rearview video camera hidden in the rear bumper, which projects images on the seven-inch navigation screen when the 4Runner is in reverse. The pictures are sharp, even in complete darkness, and cover the area directly behind and a couple of feet on either side of the car. Yet the extreme fish-eye view of the lens makes distances difficult to judge, at least initially. Like the lower tech convex mirrors, the electronic system takes some getting used.
The rear doors offer a relatively narrow opening to get into the rear seats. The second-row bench seat is roomy, but uncomfortable for anyone in the middle. The seat is raised slightly in the center position, so the middle passenger sits on this hump. The second seat features a wide center armrest that folds down to provide two cup holders and a tray for French fries or whatever. An unusual feature, but perhaps a good idea, is a small trash bag holder for rear passengers. The rear ventilation ducts that bring comfort in the form of warm or cool air are more easily.
The Toyota 4Runner handles very well for a truck with a live rear axle truck. We drove various models very quickly down twisting back roads along the Oregon coast and found the 4Runner is easy to drive at a good clip. Suspension damping is excellent. Yes, when the road got bumpy we could tell it had a solid rear axle rather than an independent rear suspension, but the 4Runner handles more confidently than a Chevy TrailBlazer, which also uses a live rear axle. Rack-and-pinion steering gives the 4Runner quick steering response and good steering feel.
On unpaved roads, the 4Runner still provides a very smooth ride, thanks in part to well-tuned damping and progressive-rate spring bumpers. However, the 4Runner really comes into its own when the terrain gets gnarly. There's lots of suspension articulation for climbing over boulders and gullies, and a host of technology for handling steep, slippery grades.
The standard V6 engine is so good we can't see a reason to get the V8, except for frequent, heavy towing. This 4.0-liter V6 is so responsive that a pair of lead-footed automotive journalists testing it never felt short-changed. It was brand new in 2003, and packed with the latest technology, including fully variable valve timing, a new linkless electronic throttle control system and lightweight all-aluminum construction. The V6 is rated at 245 horsepower and 282 pounds-feet of torque. Fuel economy has been improved and the V6 4x2 model gets better-than-credible 18/21 mpg city/highway, according to the EPA (17/21 for 4x4s). The V6 is paired with an electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission. It's smooth and delivers excellent response whenever the driver needs some get up and go.
The optional 4.7-liter V8 generates 235 horsepower at 4800 rpm and 320 pounds-feet of torque. No, that's not a type: The V8 delivers less peak horsepower than the V6. Yet it's torque, not horsepower, that's most important when pulling trailers from a dead stop, and the 4Runner's V8 was designed to provide better low-rpm pulling power without compromising highway fuel economy. V8 models weigh about 125 pounds more than V6 4Runners, and the V8 delivers 16/20 mpg in 4x2s, and 16/19 in 4x4s. The V8 also delivers slightly better acceleration than the V6, but for most buyers it probably isn't worth the price tag ($1,250) or decrease in fuel economy. The difference will be noticed primarily after hooking up a trailer.
Both engines feature a cranking system that keeps the starter engaged until complete combustion is achieved, freeing the driver from holding the key until the engine turns over. This is a feature usually associated with expensive luxury sedans.
We found the two-wheel-drive 4Runner impressively capable off road; indeed, it's more capable than some so-called SUVs equipped with all-wheel-drive. Yet ultimate traction comes from the four-wheel-drive models. For starters, 4WD 4Runners are equipped with a two-speed transfer case, giving the driver a low-range set of gears for creeping over rugged terrain.
V6 4WD 4Runners are equipped with Toyota's Multi-Mode shift-on-the-fly system with a Torsen-type limited-slip center differential. The driver can shift between 2WD, 4WD High, and 4WD Low. The Torsen center differential is open in 2WD mode. It applies a rear bias in four-wheel-drive mode, splitting torque 40/60 front-to-rear in normal driving conditions, providing the driver with a traditional feel and better stability when accelerating. The 4WD mode may be used in all types of driving conditions on all types of roads, from dry pavement to wet or snow-covered roads. The system gives the 4Runner a sure-footed feel because power is applied to all four wheels, improving traction. When the front wheels slip, up to 70 percent of the power goes to the rear wheels. When the rear wheels slip, up to 53 percent of the power goes to the front wheels.
V8 engines are mated to a new five-speed.
The Toyota 4Runner has grown up. The 2004 model is bigger, smoother, and more comfortable than 4Runners sold just two years ago. It has moved closer to the Toyota Land Cruiser in terms of size and technology. Yet it hasn't diverged from its roots as a highly capable off-road vehicle.
This SUV is a truck, and proud of it. If you want serious off-road capability with Toyota quality, and the company's reputation for durability and reliability, then the new 4Runner is an excellent choice. It will get you over the rocks and through the muck, but it won't make you regret its off-road capability when you're cruising the Interstate. Nonetheless, if you rarely venture off-road (and by 'off road' we don't mean dirt roads), then you'll find the Toyota Highlander and other unibody, independently suspended SUVs smoother and more comfortable.
Toyota 4Runner SR5 ($27,170); Sport Edition ($28,410); Limited ($33,445).
Options As Tested
power tilt and slide moonroof ($900); third-row seating ($735); double-decker cargo tray ($125).
Toyota 4Runner SR5 V6 4x4 ($29,445).
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