Test Drive: 2010 Toyota 4Runner

The first Toyota 4Runner appeared at the start of the SUV revolution in 1984. Like most of its contemporaries, it was little more than a pickup truck with a permanent ?camper shell? on the back. Powered by the same 4-cylinder engine and drivetrain that motivated the comparable pickup trucks, the 4Runner was an affordable alternative to the much larger SUVs from the Big 3 domestic automakers.

Fast forward to the present and the fifth generation 4Runner is making its debut for the 2010 model year. The latest iteration shows how far the SUV market and the 4Runner have come from those humble beginnings. And this is one Toyota that hasn’t (yet) been recalled.

Where the first generation 4Runner was a compact SUV featuring a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine making just 97 horsepower, the new 4Runner offers a choice of 4-cylinder or V6 engines making 157 and 270 horsepower, respectively, and 178/278 pound-feet of torque.

The 4Runner has long gotten a rap for its fuel economy, or lack thereof. The 2010 V6 4Runner gets 17/23, with an aggregate mileage of 19. The 4-cylinder version is just 1 MPG better, so our strong recommendation is to go with the V6. Over 100 extra horsepower and 100 pound-feet of torque for 1 MPG under optimal conditions? That?s a no-brainer. That extra power is needed, because along the way from 1984 to 2010 the 4Runner grew from a compact to a mid-sized SUV and gained the full menu of creature comforts we?ve come to expect in our SUVs over the years.

Yet the 4Runner is still one of the more capable SUVs on the market, especially in its new ?Trail? configuration. Before the official market launch, Toyota executives took a team of engineers and drove the new 4Runner along the punishing Pacific Crest Trail, completing their planned multi-hundred-mile journey without the 4Runner once breaking down. (Although the video they showed us did reveal some pretty serious body and trim damage along the way.)

Our test of the new 4Runner took us on highways and country roads to the motocross and trail center in Washougal, Washington, for several hours of putting the new 4Runner through our own set of torture tests. Believe me, anything that executives can do in the real world, Journalists can do worse.

The new 4Runner comes in three flavors – the Toyota truck ?SR5? designation used to mean the upscale version, but now refers to the base model 4Runner. As upgrades, customers can choose the previously-mentioned ?Trail? edition or the luxurious ?Limited? edition. Both the SR5 and Limited editions are available in 2WD for urban dwellers who would prefer a little less expense both at the dealership and the gas pump, but the Trail edition is exclusively 4X4. The 4-cylinder engine, however, is available only in the SR5 trim.

With the basic SR5, you get 17-inch wheels, fog lamps, trailer hitch receiver, keyless entry, as well as CD player with Aux jack, air, cruise, power everything and automatic transmission. The 4-cylinder gets a 4-speed auto, and the V6 models get a 5-speed auto.

One feature I have to mention is that the 4Runner is the only vehicle ever to be offered with a button that says ?Party Mode? as standard equipment. There was much speculation among the assembled journalists about this button ? would it open a secret hatch and cause a cooler full of margaritas and a bevy of young and lovely women to appear? Sadly, no, it turns out that Party Mode just turns on an extra set of speakers mounted in the rear hatch ???useful for tailgate parties. Oh well, can?t have everything.

Driving the new 4Runner on the road is exactly what you?d expect from a Toyota ? everything is well-engineered with high quality. Off-road, the 4Runner inspires confidence, especially with the Trail edition, which includes low range and locking differentials. But we experimented by running the same course in 2WD mode, and except for one particularly slick and gloppy turnaround point, the 4Runner just motored through the mud and water and grass without a problem. All the 4X4 4Runners include various flavors of traction and hill descent control, and the Trail edition also includes ?Multi-Terrain Select? and ?Crawl Control? for getting through the worst conditions.

Along with the feature list and the overall size, the pricing has grown up on the 4Runner over the years. Your most basic SR5 4X2 4Runner starts at $27,500, and the 4WD 4Runner starts at $30,915 for the SR5, and jumps to $35,700 for the Trail edition, and $39,800 for the Limited edition. That?s a pretty tall ticket for those of us who remember the original 4Runners as a fun truck option for kids right out of school, but you do get a lot for your money.

The bottom line on the new 4Runner is that if you bought one in the 1980s and loved it, and you?ve grown your bank account like most of us have over the years, you will still be happy as a Toyota customer and you will still be happy running around in a 4Runner.? And with the current economy and Toyota’s recent woes, you should be able to drive a great deal at any Toyota dealer.

[Rating:8.5/10]

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