Modern cars are all curves and swoops and bends and slopes. The 2020 Toyota 4Runner offers none of these. What one shopper might describe as “old-school,” a 4Runner buyer would certainly call “classic.” The 4Runner doesn’t feel outdated, it feels familiar. “Revolting?” Try “Refreshing.”
The SUV frenzy gave way to the crossover craze years ago. The 4Runner’s history stretches back to the 1980s, but it’s the Toyota Highlander (and its softer, friendlier design) that keeps Toyota in the black. With the 2020 4Runner, Toyota attempts to bridge the gap between the former car’s capable, rugged legacy and the luxurious, safe, and comfortable appeal of the modern Highlander.
Dependably Tough, Surprisingly Nimble
The 2020 Toyota 4Runner comes in a variety of trims, but no matter how you spec it, you’ll likely expect a certain level of performance. All trims come equipped with a 4.0-liter V6 engine that produces 270 horsepower and 278 pound-feet of torque. Step on the throttle to hear its Tim Taylor grunt. Poor fuel economy comes standard, too. Over roughly 400 miles, I managed a meager 17.7 miles per gallon. What’s even more unbelievable, that number sits 0.7 mpg higher than the EPA estimate. The antiquated engine keeps the 4Runner feeling like a truck. When reviewing a 2019 example, George Kennedy actually described the V6 as, “more similar to a V8 with two cylinders lopped off than it is to a modern V6 designed for efficiency and smooth operation.” As a result, the 4Runner delivers only 5,000 pounds of maximum towing capacity, despite its rough-and-tumble feel.
Driving on city streets, the 4Runner feels surprisingly at home. The broken pavement of Boston’s inner suburbs was no match for this SUV. It plowed through and punished any potholes brave enough to appear in my way. Equally surprising, the 4Runner ended up being significantly nimbler than it initially felt. At 18 feet, 7 inches, this overgrown mountain goat sports a tighter turning radius than both its main competitor, the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, and its more family-friendly in-house stablemate, the Highlander.
That doesn’t mean the 4Runner is small. The steering is a blast from the past, managing to feel both heavy and vague at the same time. The full-time 4-wheel-drive (4WD) system in the Limited trim burns fuel like crazy. And I generally used the moonroof only to see how close the 4Runner’s roof was to scraping the garage doors.
Tech and Safety Finally Step into the Present
The 4Runner’s Limited trim swaps in a lot of chrome detailing, most notably the crossbar across the grille. It also adds power-retractable side steps. These started as a cool novelty but quickly wore on me as they appeared and retracted each time I opened a door. Predictably, the 4Runner offered an upright, commanding seating position for the driver and passengers in the front and second row. The third row’s jump seats offer a different story. Even though they showcase some very nifty space optimization, sliding out from underneath the third-row seatbacks, these two extra seats are definitely good for only short trips. If I ordered an Uber XL and got stuck in the third row of a 4Runner, I would not be a happy camper.
On the tech front, Toyota has drastically improved the 4Runner. What was classified a year ago as “basic but straightforward” has advanced to “well-equipped and nicely designed.” Apple CarPlay and Android Auto have both been integrated. The touchscreen display has been bumped up to 8 inches. Entune, Toyota’s proprietary infotainment system, is easy enough to use. Still, I was particularly grateful to have Android Auto at my fingertips when navigating home. While Google Maps suggested an hour-long route, Entune navigation would have had me driving closer to two hours.
Previously, the 4Runner was a poster-car for the hallmarks of passive safety: seatbelts, airbags, and being bigger than other cars on the road. In 2020, that style doesn’t play well, and Toyota has made efforts to keep the vehicle up to date. Notably, you’ll find 2020 models equipped with adaptive cruise control and lane-departure warning, both of which are part of the Toyota Safety Sense P (TSS-P) suite of advanced safety features. This helps bridge the growing gap between the modern Highlander and the relatively archaic 4Runner. As usual, adaptive cruise proved to be a blessing, but the truck-like 4Runner could have benefited from lane-keeping assist more than it did from lane-departure warning; with a vehicle this big and steering this vague, I ended up turning off the system pretty quickly.
A Little Bit of Everything
The days of a $30,000 SUV are well behind us. The 4Runner starts at $36,020 and rises past my Limited test car’s nearly $50,000 price tag. In order to justify that price, Toyota had to bring its go-anywhere rig into the future. That means upscale appointments and advanced safety features. Today, this is a car for the person who needs a little bit of everything. It’s for those who want a truck that can go anywhere but also one that can suit their family’s needs. Some shoppers will undoubtedly see the 2020 4Runner as a compromise, failing to excel in any one area. Others will see it as an appropriate balance between old and new. Regardless, it’s clear that the 4Runner’s 36-year-old name won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.