ROAD TEST: 2015 Toyota 4Runner Trail Edition; 5th Generation 4Runner Better Than Ever
Thirty years ago a new vehicle emerged in a world predominantly filled with cars and pickups: the Toyota 4Runner. It filled a niche for those truck lovers who didn’t particularly like the look of vans or station wagons, or wanted something smaller than the Ford Broncos and Chevy Blazers of the day.
Five generations later the 4Runner is rolling along among a sea of competitors. It’s moved from a compact SUV to a mid-size, but keeps to its roots with a rugged pickup-like body-on-frame design—instead of following the car-like unibody most of its rivals are built upon.
It’s also evolved into a state-of-the-art family vehicle that’s loaded with safety features along with off-pavement/off-road capabilities in the four-wheel-drive models few other vehicles in the mid-size SUV class offer.
I spent a week putting on more than 400 miles in a mid-trim-level 2015 Trail Edition ($38,645) model with the 270hp 4.0L V-6 and 5spd automatic, which is the ony engine and transmission offering today’s 4Runners.
What makes the Trail Edition special is it’s only available as a 4×4, and it’s the only 4Runner equipped with a part-time four-wheel-drive system (the base SR5 and upscale Limited are full-time 4WD). This allows the driver to engage 4wd, and hi- or low-range to better adjust to more demanding driving conditions.
Another standard feature of the Trail Edition is an electronic-locking rear differential and Bilstein shocks, both of which add to the 4Runners off- and on-road prowess. Better traction and better suspension control elevate the Trail Edition 4Runner closer to the capabilities of Toyota’s renown Land Cruiser and FJ Cruiser.
Trail Edition models also get “Crawl Control,” which is Toyota’s version of an automatic low-speed idle so you can keep your foot off the gas in low-range 4wd and let the truck creep along at a slow, steady pace instead of your foot bouncing up and down on the pedal.
Another dial on the overhead console, positioned next to the one for Crawl Control, allows the driver to select the type of terrain or driving conditions being encountered. Changing the selection to one of a half-dozen settings, changes the way the onboard computers adjust brake and throttle to control wheel spin.
This adjustable “traction control” system, which only works in 4WD modes, is excellent for driving in snow, sand, mud, rocks and loose soil where some need a lot of wheel spin to get through and in other situations you don’t want any wheel spin.
The driver doesn’t need to understand when more or less wheel spin is better. They just need to dial in the type of terrain or driving conditions they are in that requires four-wheel-drive.
Another off-road feature on the Trail Edition is the optional Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System ($1,750), which my test truck was equipped. Basically KDSS is a hydraulic system that effectively “disengages” the front and rear stabilizer bars in off-road driving situations so the front and rear suspension travel is maximized.
Stabilizer bars are designed to minimize axle travel and keep the vehicle flat when cornering. The downside, so to speak, is they also limit wheel travel, which is what you want when driving off-road. KDSS provides both.
If you take driving off-pavement and exploring the backroads seriously, KDSS is worth the added cost. If you aren’t, it’s not.
Although I never drove this vehicle into the kinds of off-road, off-pavement situations where KDSS, the selectable terrain or speed control were needed, I have used them in previous driving opportunities where Toyota showed how capable the vehicle is in extreme driving situations.
It was on those outings where I saw first-hand just how remarkable the 4Runner is when it comes to getting through trails and over terrain that would stop other pickups and SUVs in the first rough stretch.
But off-roading is only a tiny aprt of most buyer’s driving. It’s the day-to-day driving experience where the short-wheelbase Trail Runner’s ride, handling and comfort attributes are most important.
I found the ride quality on the firmer side, which is expected of a pickup-based SUV; firm, not harsh. The steering is also a bit more truck-like in that it’s a little on the heavy side, which helps balance the 4Runner’s quick steering response. It handles twisting country roads and city traffic with ease, with very little body lean when cornering or making quick lane changes.
Another nice trait is how easily the 4Runner maneuvers in tight places. The steering is fast and the short wheelbase makes it a breeze to park in crowded parking lots with small parking spaces. It fits nicely in those “compact cars only” spots, too.
It has good power as well. The V-6 and five-speed automatic (with manual mode) gets this SUV up to speed with ease. But I found the electronic drive-by-wire throttle is adjusted to stay out of the higher rpms until you really get deep into the throttle. Then the transmission finally downshifts and the engine rpms climb, letting the Toyota’s 270 horses go to work.
Fuel economy is middle of the pack. A week driving in a mixed bag of conditions from city to interstate to back country roads netted 20mpg. The worst I saw during those was 16.8mpg in the city and the best was 21.8mpg on the highway running along at 65mph.
I also towed a 2,200-pound Tracker Pro Team 175 aluminum bassboat combo to see how the 4Runner responded with an average weekend recreational load. Bump the 5speed out of overdrive and the 4Runner cruises along nicely over country roads with such a boat in tow, all the while delivering fuel economy in the 15mpg range.
(The 4Runner has a maximum towing capacity of 4,700 pounds.)
Seating comfort is average for a mid-size SUV. The cabin has buckets up front and a split-bench in the second row that accommodates three. Child seat restraints and plenty of air bags around the interior give it a high marks for safety, too.
The Trail Edition, being a mid-level trim, has all the creature features and creature comforts with leather interior, power and heated front seats, sunroof, big sound system, navigation system and the electronic connectivity we expect these days.
Cargo space is good, and the rear seats fold flat to expand the cargo area when needed. For those who tend to haul heavier, bulkier items in the rear, there’s a $325 optional slide-out floor tray that has a load capacity of 400 pounds. It’s a nice back-saver when loading/unloading heavy cargo.
Toyota found a winner back in 1984 and they’ve done well keeping the 4Runners that followed on pace with the times and the changing needs of buyers.
The 2015 Trail Edition is a rugged, strong, safe, go-anywhere, mid-size 4×4 SUV that would fit the young family well – or anyone who enjoys an active outdoor lifestyle or exploring the backroads. – Bruce W. Smith
(About the author: Bruce W. Smith is a veteran automotive journalist living in Eugene, Oregon, who has spent more than 30 years exploring backroads and writing about pickups and SUVs. He’s a regular contributor for GCN vehicle reviews, as well as to dozens of national outdoor, boating, construction and automotive publications.)