SEE ALSO: Toyota Buyer's Guide
Back when it was introduced in the 1985 model year, the Toyota 4Runner was little more than a 4-wheel drive compact pickup with a factory camper shell attached. It was utilitarian and Spartanly appointed -- a vehicle better suited to the campground than the country club. The now-legendary 22R 4-cylinder engine was reliable and sturdy, but not particularly powerful by today's standards.
The original 4Runner was a vehicle for and of its day, as is the 1997 4Runner. Same name, different time, different vehicle. Today's sport-utility customers demand passenger-car comfort to go with off- road looks and capability, as well as towing and hauling capacity. The 1997 4Runner is closer to a go-anywhere Camry wagon in comfort and civility than it is to the 1985 model.
The current version of the 4Runner was introduced early in 1996, and featured major revisions to interior and exterior styling, chassis and suspension, and powertrains. With a choice of 4-cylinder or V6 engines, two- or four-wheel drive, base, SR5, or new Limited trim levels, and plenty of option packages, there is a 4Runner for every midsized sport-utility need.
I recently had an SR5 4x4 4Runner as a test vehicle. It was as comfortable, quiet, and maneuverable as most family sedans. Access was better than is the case with many high SUVs. It was big enough to hold plenty of people and equipment, and small enough to park easily. No wonder I see so many of them on the road.
APPEARANCE: The 4Runner is no longer a pickup with a camper shell, although the current version bears a strong similarity to Toyota's Tacoma 4x4 pickup. It's gotten larger and more sophisticated over the years, and now looks much like its larger sibling, the Land Cruiser. The 4Runner combines the appearance of off-road-readiness with enough elegance to be at home anywhere. Chrome bumpers and a massive chromed grille give pugnacious presence. A slight "power bulge" in the hood, and moderately flared fenders complete the aggressive SUV look. Depending on trim level and customer desires, additional wheel well trim, body cladding, and running boards are available. My SR5 had optional chrome wheel arch molding and 16- inch wheels and tires, for a more upscale look and extra ground clearance.
COMFORT: Even without running boards, it's not too much of a climb up into the 4x4 4Runner despite over nine inches of ground clearance. Inside, the SR5 4Runner looks and feels much like a Camry. The materials, fit, and finish are all to Toyota high standards. The well- designed, carlike instrument panel places everything conveniently. Interior materials in the SR5 are synthetic, although the Limited model has leather. Plenty of custom options and option packages are available, and Toyota availed itself with my press fleet vehicle. A leather-covered steering wheel and shift knob are easy to grip. Power windows, doorlocks, and moonroof give passenger car ambiance. Comfortable, adjustable sports help seats keep the driver and front passenger relaxed and alert. The heat and air conditioning work wonderfully, with plenty of vents. A rear heater console provides comfort for passengers. The rear seat has room for medium-large people and has a split flip and fold design for extra cargo capacity when needed. There are plenty of storage spaces for front and rear passengers. Cargo area access is easy, and the one-piece liftgate has a unique power window. This particular 4Runner is not even at the top of the line. It's come a long way from the days of a pickup with camper shell.
SAFETY: The 1997 Toyota 4Runner has dual airbags, antilock brakes, and side-door impact protection beams.
ROADABILITY: The days when utility vehicles had the ride quality of an oxcart are long gone. The current 4Runner doesn't feel much different than a Camry on the road. It tracks true, with no tendency to wander as is sometimes encountered with 4-wheel drive vehicles. Its power steering is weighted just right, with good road feel. The SR5 4Runner is quiet, with great soundproofing and low wind noise. The height aids visibility. The 4Runner feels secure on pavement, and should work just as well in the dirt. The shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive system may be engaged at speeds up to 50 mph. Important underside pieces are protected by skid plates and nearly ten inches of clearance with the 16-inch wheels and tires.
PERFORMANCE: Either of the available engines -- a 2.7-liter 4- cylinder or 3.4-liter V6 -- have power the old 22R could only dream about. The SR5 has the V6. In typical Toyota fashion, it is a dual overhead cam, 24-valve engine with great low-speed torque and plenty of smooth power whenever needed. The 4-speed electronically- controlled automatic transmission is a good match for everyday use.
CONCLUSIONS: The 4Runner is Toyota's best-selling sport-utility for good reason. It combines passenger car comfort with truck utility.
SPECIFICATIONS Base Price $ 26,578 Price As Tested $ 32,379 Engine Type V6, dual overhead cams, 24 valves Engine Size 3.4 liters / 206 cu. in. Horsepower 183 @ 4800 Torque (lb-ft) 217 @ 3600 Transmission 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 105.3 in. / 178.7 in. Curb Weight 3895 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 21.3 Fuel Capacity 18.5 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular (87 octane) Tires P265/70 R16 Bridgestone Dueler m+s Brakes, front/rear vented disc / drum, antilock on all 4 wheels Suspension, front/rear independent double wishbone, coil springs / 4-link with coil springs Ground Clearance 9.8 inches Drivetrain front engine, on-demand 4-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 16 / 19 /17 0 to 60 mph 9.1 sec Towing Capacity 5,000 lbs. OPTIONS AND CHARGES CA / NY / MA emissions $ 34 Rear Cargo Cover $ 85 Rear Heater $ 165 Front sports seats & trim, cruise control, leather-covered steering wheel & shift knob $ 685 Power tilt & slide moonroof $ 915 Preferred Equipment Package #1: 16x7" alloy wheels and P265/70 tires, larger front disc brakes, chrome wheel arch molding, 4.10 rear differential, premium sound system, power windows & antenna, air conditioning $ 2,750 Convenience Package: roof rack, tow hitch, rear wind deflector, cargo mat $ 768 Floor Mats $ 82 Package Discount -($103) Destination Charge $ 420