The old mining track descends from the shattered and tilted tablelands toward an imposing palisade of Wingate sandstone running to the horizon in each direction. This is one of the more dramatic and violent geologic upheavals on the Colorado Plateau and the road across it isn’t kind.
Sunbaked boom-time miners once hacked out jeep tracks across this wilderness, scouring for uranium to feed America’s nuclear frenzy. Only a few made it big, but if there ever was a more intriguing landscape in which to lose your mind seeking fortune, I’d like to see it. We’re here for lighter reasons, though, blithely rolling over rocks and ruts that would have halted most CUVs miles before, dropping into steep wash crossings that would stub the long front overhang of an Outback, and confidently inching up a stepped bedrock shelf that would trouble the long wheelbase of a full-size pickup.
The Toyota SUV that is a bit of an archaic brute around town has come into its own out here. The soft suspension requires some care when applying the brakes over obstacles, but otherwise it clambered stoically over terrain inaccessible to me since my friends gave up their 1990s Toyota pickups years ago. Tonight we will make camp far from the thrum of RV generators as a sunset shrouds the cliffs in crimson before yielding to a panorama of stars and complete unviolated silence. We are continuing a family tradition and crafting memories I hope my children hold onto.
I passed up a MkVII Volkswagen GTI for this experience. Press adoration of VW’s wunderkind is not misplaced and I envisioned monthly open track nights at Miller Motorsports and zipping through canyons near home. Then I came to my senses. You can’t string together three turns on our canyon roads without running into traffic, and my routine motoring environment is an utter waste of a driver’s car. The outlying environment, however, is a geologic variety show that people from the other side of the planet pay real money to visit, and graded roads don’t get you very far into it. The time had come to inoculate my young kids with something good before they become another lost generation destroyed by digital media. The criteria shifted to a reliable, high-clearance 4×4 with room for four and a manageable footprint. Miller has kart racing in the meantime.
The elimination process didn’t take long because, not wanting a massive full-size pickup or the Conestoga Wagon that is the JK Jeep Wrangler, there were few other options. Jeep again rose to the forefront with two more-civilized unibodies, but the small cargo hold of the Cherokee Trailhawk was disqualifying and I couldn’t convince myself to trust the very handsome and well-furnished Grand Cherokee long term. Midsize pickups are compromised – the cabins are cramped, the prices are plump, and the Tacoma in particular is cheaply trimmed and uncomfortable compared to the adjacent 4Runner, which was the only remaining option at that point.
The 4Runner. Legendary nameplate and last man standing, but is it good enough to own? I’ve been critical of this iteration since a 2011 auto show where I squinted in disapproval at the MSRP that clashed with the plastic interior. But I wasn’t a truck buyer then and didn’t have truck priorities. Looking at it again I saw nearly 10 inches of ground clearance, good angles of approach and departure, skid plates, a low-range transfer case, and the A-TRAC off-road traction system. Exceeding this level of capability would require more than I intended to throw at it as a camping and exploration rig. Test drives revealed an acceptable level of comfort and civility in town despite the throwback truck frame and hardware. We purchased a base SR5 for … well, CPO Lexus IS350 money, and it’s probably best I don’t dwell on that.
The SR5 is expensive for a base trim but it is better equipped than an XLT F-150. Standard is an eight-way power driver seat, leather wrapped steering wheel, heated mirrors and wipers, and power tailgate glass. Heated seats were negotiated into the deal. Toyota’s Entune system provides eight speakers, muddy bass, and an unremarkable but responsive and intuitive touchscreen to control the standard navigation and audio sources that include USB and Bluetooth streaming. None of this is bleeding edge stuff, but to someone who came from a car with a single line dot-matrix stereo it feels like the bridge of the Enterprise.
Interior materials vacillate between basic and decent, when at this price point they should be firmly in the latter, but this has been par for the course in the world of trucks. Somewhere along the way Toyota abandoned clean interior design and typically high-quality materials for busy layouts and hard plastics and the 4Runner is no exception.
There are shades of Yaris in the thin carpet, headliner, and scratchable dash and door plastics. Assembly quality appears sound, but the mature design and better materials I had in my Sportwagen would be missed here. How much would that have cost Toyota in this high-margin vehicle? A hundred bucks per unit? Seriously, Toyota, get with it for the redesign. Fix the thin fragile paint as well, you are getting killed in the tactile quality fight.
At least we have the meaty leather wheel, thickly padded and stitched door armrests and sills, and comfortable seats. Driver ergonomics are superior to the Tacoma and prior 4Runners – the seating height is normal, adjustability is greater, and the firm seat cushions provide good thigh support for six-footers. Time and use will not be kind to the plastics or paint, but the most important touch points and ergonomics have been properly attended to and this remains a comfortable vehicle to travel in as a result.
The 4Runner drives precisely nothing like the GTI, and this has been an adjustment and a compromise. Everything must be executed with deliberation and mass is evident everywhere. The steering is a black hole of feel, the gravity of its numbness so strong that it sucks tactility from adjacent cars. Freeway tracking is more butter knife than scalpel. Road noise is well suppressed but at brisk freeway speeds wind noise arrives.
The ride quality is compliant for a truck, but the downside of this is roll and pitch. I don’t think the Cutlass Ciera I had in high school leaned quite this much in corners, but apparently the optional KDSS suspension upgrade on the Trail Edition improves this if you want to spend new IS350 money on your 4Runner. The brake pedal is effective but results in an alarming amount of front-end dive and some bobbing fore and aft when completing the stop. You get used to it, and I focus now on the feeling of invincibility as I bounce out of steep parking lot ramps to catch that gap in traffic and run straight over potholes that could flatten low profile tires and tweak alignments. This thing feels solid, and there is undeniable charm in this.
The powertrain is a compromise, as well. The 4.0-liter, 270-horsepower 1GR-FE V6 and five-speed automatic have been in 4Runners since 2003 and operate with the pace and powerband you would have expected in a truck before the recent monster engines surfaced. The conservative throttle calibration is absolutely a boon when crawling off-pavement, but it also makes this vehicle feel dead slow on-road if driven the way I am accustomed to in other cars. The power is certainly there, as evidenced by a 7.5 second run to 60 mph, but you must learn to dig deeper for it against a stiff pedal. The torquey engine operates below 2500 rpm most of the time, groaning quietly while doing so, but as the revolutions build those hoping for the silken quality of Toyota’s V6 sedans will be a bit disappointed.
The five-speed automatic is acceptably responsive, but the wider ratio gaps are noticeable when summoning a downshift and first gear is too tall for my tastes. I don’t want 10 gears, but a sixth to tighten the ratios would be nice. The distinct upside to this very conservative drivetrain from this very conservative automaker is that I expect it to be durable and run for a very long time. While that isn’t nearly as interesting as an F-150 lighting up the quarter mile with whistling turbos, it is an important attribute to the 4Runner’s intended mission and appeal.
Fuel economy? Bad. The numbers are 17 mpg city/21 mpg highway per the EPA, which is realistic in my experience — if you keep it under 70 mph. Consider, though, that a 3.5-liter Explorer is no quicker, returns only 16/23, and has devolved into a fat station wagon that will have its low-hanging front fascia ripped off on the first wash crossing that a 4Runner wouldn’t even blink at. The JK Wrangler Unlimited is slower and thirstier, and the Grand Cherokee with its newer V6 and three additional gears is rated higher but doesn’t seem to achieve it easily in the real world.
This is the price you pay for the particular strengths the 4Runner possesses. Because I live where I do and can exploit these strengths, the fuel costs and road manners are worth it to me. Given how well it aligns with our family’s interests, I can see this 4Runner having a 15 to 20-year service life with us, faithfully and gradually fading as we cycle through more involving daily drivers for our second vehicles. It’ll become an old family friend, and that is a different kind of automotive enthusiasm than is typically expressed on these forums. So, while I may not have my nimble and smartly trimmed turbo hot hatch, I do have a longitudinally-mounted large-displacement engine driving the rear wheels.
If that isn’t the golden recipe for TTAC, I don’t know what is.
[Images © 2018 30-mile-fetch/TTAC]