Thirty years after its U.S. debut as a utilitarian, four-wheel drive truck with a fiberglass cover on the back, the Toyota 4Runner remains a different kind of family sport utility vehicle.
Sure, the 2014 4Runner has seats for up to seven passengers and can be stocked with navigation system, leather-trimmed seats and satellite radio — some things never envisioned for the old 4Runner. And now, a rearview camera is standard, while exterior styling has been refreshed for 2014.
But Toyota’s long-running 4Runner hasn’t totally given up its rugged, ways.
The truckish body-on-frame construction remains. The 4Runner’s two-wheel drive is rear-wheel drive — not the front-wheel drive that’s favored for many lighter-duty SUVs. Four-wheel drive 4Runners include standard low gearing and locking differential to handle really treacherous terrain offroad. Ground clearance of at least 9 inches puts passengers high above it all on the way to campgrounds, allowing the 4Runner to straddle rocks and get through waterlogged trails without vehicle damage.
Best of all, perhaps, the 2014 4Runner is rated well above average in predicted reliability by Consumer Reports magazine.
The 4Runner also was one of the top three mid-size SUVs in dependability in the latest J.D. Power and Associates study that looked at 3-year-old vehicles.
No wonder Toyota reports nearly 2 million 4Runners are still on the roads.
Starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $33,680 for a 2014 4Runner SR5 with five-speed automatic transmission and two-wheel drive.
The lowest starting retail price, including destination charge, for a 2014 4Runner with four-wheel drive is $35,555. All 4Runners come with a 270-horsepower V-6.
Major competitors include the 2014 Nissan Pathfinder, which comes with a 260-horsepower V-6 and has a starting retail price of $29,810 with two-wheel drive and $31,410 with four-wheel drive. The Pathfinder comes with a continuously variable transmission that a driver operates like an automatic.
Another competitor, the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $30,190 with 290-horsepower V-6, eight-speed automatic and two-wheel drive. Starting retail price for a Grand Cherokee with four-wheel drive is $32,190.
The mass movement of American families to softer-riding, pavement-traveling crossover SUVs hasn’t stopped the 4Runner in its tracks. In fact, U.S. sales rose a bit last calendar year to 51,625, and sales were up another 1.8 percent in January and February from the year-earlier period.
The test 4Runner, a top-of-the-line Limited 4X4 model, instantly reminded passengers of earlier SUVs.
Were it not for optional-for-$1,500 motorized running boards that automatically slid out from under the door sills when needed, many passengers would have had to work to scramble upward and get inside. Once settled onto cushioned seats, everyone had good views onto the roofs of cars and through the windows of nearby trucks and SUVs.
Even the two third-row riders — third-row seating is a $1,365 option — had decent-sized side windows, though the windows did not open and seats were just a few inches from the floor.
The biggest exterior design change for 2014 is a new look at the front of the 4Runner. It borrows from Toyota’s smaller FJ Cruiser SUV.
The ride is somewhat old style, with passengers feeling vibrations as tires went over broken road surfaces, and there was some truckish bounce on dirt trails.
Steering is less than precise but acceptable for an offroader. The turning circle isn’t great, at 37.4 feet, but it’s better than that of the Pathfinder.
Don’t expect great gasoline mileage. With a hefty 4,800-pound weight, less than aerodynamic shape and an older-style five-speed automatic, the 4Runner is rated at just 17 miles per gallon in city driving by the federal government. Highway travel carries a rating of 21 mpg or 22 mpg, depending on whether the 4Runner is a 4X2 or 4X4. The test vehicle did worse than the ratings, getting just 15.1 mpg in city traffic and just over 19 mpg on the highway.
By comparison, the Pathfinder SUV is rated at 19/25 mpg.
Engine sounds were heard all the time in the 4Runner, and the powerplant became loud during hard acceleration.
Torque peaks at 278 foot-pounds at 4,400 rpm, and shift points were noticeable.
One complaint was an annoying whistle that came on as the vehicle reached about 40 mph. The whistle emanated from the side outside mirrors, and it made no difference if the nearby side windows were up or down. The only thing that stopped the whistle sound was putting a hand between the mirror and the SUV body to break the wind flow.
On the plus side, the newly designed center stack in the 4Runner protrudes for easy reach. Buttons and knobs are large, and there also can be controls buttons on the steering wheel.
Also new: Brightly illuminated Optitron gauges in front of the driver.
Maximum cargo capacity, with seats folded, is a good 128 cubic feet.
Headroom in the third row seemed tight even for a 5-foot-4 passenger. Toyota reports 34.3 inches of third-row headroom, which is less than the 36.5 inches in the third row of the Pathfinder.
A full 41.7 inches of legroom is available in the front seats. This is about a half inch less than the 42.3 inches of front-seat legroom in the Pathfinder.
Climbing into the third row takes a bit of work. The tester had a tilt-and-slide manual mechanism for the second-row outboard seat only on the curb side of the SUV.
The federal government reports the 2014 4Runner earned four out of five stars in frontal crash testing. Side crash test results were not available.