Toyota’s blocky, function-first 4Runner has made a name in SUV and off-roading circles as a reliable-as-a-rock brick that will go nearly forever and without much care or feeding. A donkey without the bouts of recalcitrance. A camel without the spitting. A faithful dog without the fur. While the current 4Runner is now in its 11th year in production, making it old in modern car terms, those looking for off-road capability favor the durability of proven mechanicals and basic construction rather than the latest and gee-whizziest. And because Toyota has adhered to this very simple formula, 4Runner sales have plodded along steadily without much feature updating over the years.
Well, that changes now, because the 2020 4Runner offers all the latest features in the Toyota box of tricks, making it perhaps the best it has been since a V8 engine option was pulled in the 2000s.
First off, all the implied off-road performance of the 4Runner is fulfilled by the TRD Pro version ($51,419 as tested), with serious off-roading suspension, clingy all-terrain tires, several terrain modes for rocks, sand, downhill, and mud for the four-wheel drive system, skid plates to protect the differentials and other vulnerable pieces underneath, and a few special trim pieces that others in the know will recognize. The 4Runner can tow 5,000 pounds (2,268 kg), as well. However, 4Runners can also be had in less trail-ready versions for more dedicated street use like the SR5, SR5 Premium, and Limited, in both rear-drive and four-wheel drive. In the dirty and muddy, the 4Runner TRD Pro essentially matches Jeep-levels of capability, which may anger the Jeep faithful, but there it is.
Suburban mean streets see it fall behind car-based crossover SUVs like Toyota’s own Highlander, the Honda Pilot, or Ford Explorer because of the 4Runner’s more rudimentary suspension design, but that design is a requirement for real off-road capability. The simple look as a rugged, fairly roomy, shoeboxy off-roading SUV leaves no room for pretense. Especially in the TRD Pro version on test here, the 4Runner keeps its visual promise, which can sometimes be a veil of false capability in the SUV universe.
Another benefit of the blockhouse size and shape is cargo capacity. The 4Runner has a generous 46 cubic feet (1,303L) of cargo space behind the second row of seats, while Toyota’s own Highlander crossover SUV has just 42 cubic feet (1,189L). The 4Runner’s interior has a stark functionality to everything, with lots of little storage spaces and clearly marked controls. Rear seat passengers will appreciate the addition of two USB ports to charge their devices. There’s also a grounded rear electrical outlet. General comfort inside is good but not outstanding.
The 4Runner is also that rare throwback SUV with a rear window that rolls down while the tailgate remains in place, making it friendly for furry snouts to rest while waiting as you get your shopping done.
It now entertains you when you’re not crawling over boulders
The big news, though, is an all-new infotainment system for 2020. There’s now an 8-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, with Siri and Alexa compatibility, all of which debut for the first time in a 4Runner. Toyota had long held out to deploy its own proprietary smartphone integration system but finally capitulated recently to the marketplace. That’s a good thing, though it took far too long to do so; it should have simply gone with most of the industry and adopted CarPlay and Android Auto years ago. Needless to say, it works very well and is glitch-free.
Another big 4Runner update for 2020 is Toyota’s TSS-P active safety feature set adopted across all 4Runner trim levels. This makes forward collision warning, pedestrian detection, lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, and automated high-beams standard—another welcome update. Automatic unlocking makes a debut, too, where both driver’s and passenger’s side door handles need only to be touched to lock or unlock them.
The 4Runner’s 4.0L V6 engine makes 270hp (201 kW) and 278 lb-ft (377 Nm) of torque, which is adequate, though nothing that will light the dragstrip on fire. It’s also quite a coarse engine, with a certain level of thrash when pushed into higher revs. That V6 mates with a traditional 5-speed automatic that shows its vintage in on-road behavior, shifting with lurchy suddenness under heavy acceleration. However, it’s just fine in normal on-road driving. When off-roading, it also performs well and without surprises.
In suburban and highway environments on pavement, the 4Runner TRD Pro pitches fore-aft and rolls from side to side a bunch, thanks to that off-road-focused chassis, but you adapt and become used to it after 50 or so miles (80 km).
Being heavy and lugging around serious four-wheel drive mechanicals while also presenting itself to the wind like the unaerodynamic brick that it is, the 4Runner wins no fuel economy trophies, returning a combined 17mpg (13.8l/100km) rating. We saw some trips on either side of that figure, but most of the crossovers of the same general size could never cope with off-roading like the 4Runner, either.
Though the 4Runner is not quite as poised on the road as crossover SUVs based on car platforms like Toyota’s own Highlander or the aforementioned Ford Explorer or Honda Pilot, the updated 4Runner is a hugely rugged and reliable SUV capable of strenuous off-roading. It doesn’t give a damn about fashion and cares solely about function. And with a significant injection of better convenience and active safety technology, it makes the overall picture of living with a 4Runner every day more compelling. The 4Runner covers the normal duties of commuting, carpooling, and shopping without much fuss, though its heart is in the woods.
Listing image by Toyota