You don't have to head east on I-90 for very long before the Seattle stereotypes start to disappear. Tall buildings turn into towering mountains. Coffee lovers turn into fly-fishing nuts. Sprawling tech campuses turn into expansive rows of crops. Six-lane, traffic-logged freeways turn into lonely, one-lane dirt roads.

Up in the evergreen Cascade Mountains, daily life and recreation often demands a rugged, hearty vehicle. That's why Toyota chose this location as the setting for the introduction of the newly refreshed 2014 4Runner. This midsize SUV's history of off-road competence and pleasant on-road dynamics make it a great candidate for life and leisure high up in the Pacific Northwest.

The 2014 Toyota 4Runner has been extensively freshened, both inside and out, with a new look, new interior upgrades and a few tweaks to the engine and suspension. I had the opportunity to take the 4Runner for a spin both on road and off, and, all in all, this is a remarkably capable and comfortable, albeit ugly, SUV. With prowess on rocks and mud rivaling that of legendary Jeeps and Land Rovers, the Toyota 4Runner is a great choice for the off-road enthusiast looking to have some fun with their vehicle, without having to sacrifice comfort and convenience during day-to-day use.

Read on for more.
The Basics

The Basics

Sticker Price: $32,820 - $41,365

Invoice Price: NA

Engine: 4.0L V6

Transmission: Five-speed automatic

Performance: 270 horsepower, 278 lb-ft of torque, 0-60 mph in 7.5 sec. (estimated)

Fuel Economy: 17 mpg city, 23 mpg highway

Seating: Five or seven passengers (with optional third row)

Cargo Space: NA
Exterior Design

Exterior Design

The 4Runner is a big, burly looking vehicle, but it is far from the most attractive SUV on the road. There's no real cohesiveness to the package. There's curves, sharp edges, chrome in odd places, black in odd places. The overall boxy shape works for the 4Runner, and continues a tradition of boxy off-road SUVs employed by Land Rovers, Jeeps, Nissans and more. But it's what is contained within that shape -- the headlights, hood scoop, grille, etc. -- that makes it hard on the eyes.

The fascia of the 4Runner stood out to me the most. Looking at the car head-on, I couldn't help thinking that it looks a lot like a snake. The two black gashes located near the fog lights look like fangs, and the headlights look like eye slits. I don't like snakes.
Interior

Interior

Toyota made a few tweaks that improved interior comfort for the new 4Runner. Lots of new soft-touch surfaces, such as on the door trim, give the cabin a more luxury feel, and a new instrument cluster is much more readable. All trims also come with a nice leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. Sound dampening makes the ride quiet, as road and wind noise are muted, even at high speeds.

On the "Limited" trim level, which is the highest and most optioned-out, the inside feels like a luxury SUV, with its inclusion of comfortable leather seats and all kinds of high-tech bells and whistles, most of which are there to make tackling deep-wooded trails as easy as possible -- more on that later. I love the juxtaposition of sumptuousness and beefiness on cars like this. They're like the Most-Interesting-Man-In-The-Worlds of the auto universe.
Passenger And Cargo Room

Passenger And Cargo Room

The 4Runner can seat either five or seven people. In the five-passenger variants, passenger room is quite good. Up front, the driver and passenger are treated to comfortable levels of head, shoulder, leg and elbow room. The newly designed front seats improve rear leg room, giving passengers seated in the back seats some extra space to stretch out. Opting for the third row in the 4Runner allows you to transport an additional two people. I'd recommend that those additional two people be children, as the third row is quite cramped. I do not envy any fully-grown adults that have to sit back there.

Cargo space in the 4Runner is acceptable. It hasn't been rated with a cubic feet figure just yet, but a cursory look suggests that the trunk can hold a lot. The seats can easily fold down, too, providing much more space for those bigger ticket items.
Driving Dynamics

Driving Dynamics

The 4Runner's bread-and-butter lies in its off-road prowess. I had the opportunity to see just what this SUV could do while up in the Cascades. Toyota had set up a trail along the Cle Elum River complete with some serious elevation changes, loose dirt and much more. The 4Runner ran it over with ease.

Using some sophisticated off-road engineering and technology, the 4Runner is a certifiable beast on the trail. The 4.0L V6 engine provides more than enough power. A double-wishbone independent front suspension and rack-and-pinion steering allows the 4Runner to handle remarkably well on rugged roads. An A-TRAC traction control system, which comes on all 4x4 models, can distribute force to any wheel in contact with the ground, meaning slippery or un-level terrain can be tackled without the driver breaking a sweat. On the "Trail" grade 4Runner, a Crawl Control system keeps the vehicle at an appropriate speed in order to maintain control and minimize the strain on the drivetrain and suspension. This grade also features a Multi-Terrain Select system, which allows you to tweak the 4Runner to a number of different climates and ground types.

Interestingly, while the 4Runner is aggressive and burly while out in the elements, it's mild-mannered on the pavement. Driving on the freeway and around some of the quaint mountain towns was pleasant and smooth. I felt little driver fatigue on the longer stretches of highway. In fact, I think taking a long road trip in this vehicle would be surprisingly easy to do. Comparing the 4Runner to some of its competition, like the Jeep Wrangler or Nissan Xterra, it's a much better option when it comes to day-to-day driving.
Tech And Infotainment

Tech And Infotainment

The 4Runner employs Toyota's Entune infotainment system. Connecting your smartphone gives you access to a suite of apps, such as Pandora, Bing, Open Table and Yelp. You can also access weather, traffic and, for some reason, stocks. The system is easy to use, all in all, and it shouldn't give you any problems. It's function over form when it comes to Entune, as the user interface appears outdated. This is at odds with the overall aesthetics of the 4Runner's interior, unfortunately.

The audio system is quality, coming with a standard eight-speaker system and an optional 15-speaker ear-rocking JBL system.
Bottom Line

Bottom Line

The 2014 Toyota 4Runner is a great balance of off-road capability and on-road comfort and convenience. It can tackle a backcountry trail and the daily slog to the office. Because this SUV is so competent at both aspects of driving, I'd put it on a short-list if I was looking for a burly SUV. It gives the updated Grand Cherokee, which is one of my current favorite SUVs, some serious competition.

It's an ugly car, sure, but it's lovable. Buying the 4Runner will give you something fun, family-friendly and reliable for years to come. It's certainly worth your time to test drive.

AOL Autos accepts vehicle loans with insurance and a tank of gas for the purpose of evaluation and editorial content. Like most of the auto news industry, we also sometimes accept travel, lodging and event access for vehicle drive and news coverage opportunities. Our opinions and criticism remain our own – we do not accept sponsored editorial.


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