Driven: 2015 Toyota 4Runner Trail Premium

The Toyota 4Runner retains its tough truck-frame construction | Bob Golfen photos
The Toyota 4Runner retains its tough truck-frame construction | Bob Golfen photos

Nearly every SUV these days is a crossover, recognition of the fact that while many people want to ride tall in the saddle and have lots of room for people and stuff, they also want a vehicle that drives like a passenger car. Thus, stylish wagons that look sort of like trucks but are built on the unibody underpinnings of cars.

That makes sense for most folks, and crossovers of all sizes are the hottest-selling vehicles in the U.S. while traditional sedans are on the fade. Also losing ground are the truck-based SUVs that started it all, with such stalwarts as Ford Explorer, Dodge Durango and Nissan Pathfinder switching to softer, more-user-friendly crossover construction.

So the Toyota 4Runner is something of an anomaly, one of the small number of rugged body-on-frame SUV trucks that still survive, solid rear axle and all. Not many are left, just Nissan Xterra and GM’s full-size Suburban/Tahoe/Yukon/Escalade gang. Also, Jeep Wrangler, if you want to stretch a point.

The 4Runner passes by a stand of saguaros
The 4Runner passes by a stand of saguaros

This is the 31st year for 4Runner since it arrived in 1984 basically as a pickup truck with an enclosed utility body, which quickly won the hearts of adventuresome sorts with its tough backwoods capability and versatile wagon back. 4Runners also became known for their exceptional reliability and long lives, which didn’t hurt their popularity any.

For 2015, 4Runner carries on in the fifth generation that debuted for 2010 with a larger footprint and more-aggressive styling. These days, it sells in the thin market of people who like trucks that drive like trucks and who actually use them to get off road.

The drivability might not be as refined as a good crossover, though it’s not bad on streets and highways. Nor is the gas mileage all that great, rated by the EPA at just 17 city and 21 highway. But those who have 4Runners generally love them for what they are.

I like how 4Runners handle rough desert trails, so I was anticipating taking the four-wheel-drive Trail Premium test truck out for a jaunt on some favorite rocky locations north of Phoenix. But alas, when the 4Runner arrived, the first thing I noticed was that despite its Trail moniker, it was shod with highway tires.

The Toyota trundles up a rocky incline with little effort
The Toyota trundles up a rocky incline with little effort

Arizona trails are loaded with pointy rocks that love to poke holes in anything but the toughest off-road tires, so I dialed back the four wheeling to some of the more placid dirt roads in that area. There are still some steep portions that require four-wheel drive and even low range, but the surface is nowhere near as nasty as the typical cattle trails that lace the terrain.

We’d only gone a few miles when we encountered a normally dry wash covering the road with flowing water. Not too deep and I’m sure the high-clearance 4Runner would have made it, but I didn’t want to chance it with a truck loaned to me by Toyota, which most likely wanted it back unscathed. And not waterlogged.

What I really needed here was the tough-trails version of the 4Runner, the TRD Pro, that’s set up for dueling with the desert. Stiffer, taller and equipped with skid plates and real off-road tires, that’s the hot setup for the Crocodile Dundees who want to venture into the wilderness.

Our exposure to the wild was fairly tame, but at least I had the chance to experience how well the 4Runner Trail would ride and handle on a rutted and rippled dirt road. And I can tell you from past experience, these trucks would climb cliff walls if you asked them to.

The Trail model has relatively high ground clearance
The Trail model has relatively high ground clearance

The test truck was equipped with the optional Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System that allows for extended wheel travel for improved off-road capability and stability, according to Toyota, while also improving on-road handling and reducing body lean. Available on the Trail and Limited models, the trick suspension costs $1,750, which would be worth it if you’re serious about taking this truck places.

Toyota has dropped the V8 option for the 4Runner, now powering all models with a 4.0-liter V6 that generates 270 horsepower and 278 pound-feet of maximum torque. That’s more-than-adequate for this 4,750-pound truck, providing decent acceleration and relaxed highway cruising.

The truck handles relatively well on curves and motors quietly along at 75 miles per hour on the freeway, which is a big improvement over the previous generation 4Runner that sometimes felt tippy in turns and squirrelly at highway speeds. It is totally impressive how they engineer a vehicle that can crawl over off-road obstacles, and then drive home at high speed with calm assurance.

Brightly colored gauges contrast with the straightforward dash | Toyota
Brightly colored gauges contrast with straightforward dash | Toyota

The front-end styling has some Darth Vader aspect to it, and seems influenced by the angular look of recent Lexus products. The hood scoop on the Trail models is purely decorative. But overall, a tough look for a tough truck.

The interior is fairly roomy, another improvement over earlier 4Runners, and the test truck was well-equipped with standard features such as navigation, Entune premium audio, power moonroof and the like. The dashboard is businesslike and functions well, although those brilliantly lit gauges with their colorful accents look like they came straight from the disco days. They should tone them down. A lot.

Base price for the 4Runner Trail tester was $38,655, which rose to a bottom line of $40,890 with inclusion of the suspension option, $4,350 for a sliding rear cargo deck, minus $750 for a 30th anniversary discount, plus $850 shipping.

No doubt, 4Runner continues to be a solid player in the SUV field for those who want to do truck things with their truck. There are compromises in drivability and fuel mileage, but so what when the call of the wild can be such a powerful incentive.

2015 Toyota 4Runner Trail Premium

Vehicle type: 5-passenger sport utility vehicle, four-wheel drive
Base price: $38,655  Price as tested: $40,890
Engine: 4.0-liter V6, 270 horsepower @ 5,600 rpm, 278 pound-feet of torque @ 4,400 rpm  Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 109.8 inches  Overall length/width: 190.2 inches / 75.8 inches
Curb weight: 4,750 pounds
EPA mileage estimates: 17 city / 21 highway / 18 combined
Assembled in: Tahara, Japan

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