New Car Test Drive

2002 Toyota 4Runner 

Off-road capability and comfort.

By Mitch McCullough, Editor-in-Chief

Introduction

Toyota 4Runner is enjoyable to drive. Its coil-spring rear suspension gives it surprisingly good handling. Its V6 engine and four-speed automatic transmission deliver good acceleration performance.

Comfortable and convenient, it comes with lots of storage room and can be fitted with leather upholstery, automatic climate control, and other luxury features.

Head off the highway and the 4Runner really comes into its own. This is one of the tougher trucks in Toyota's lineup and one of the tougher trucks available from anyone. 4Runner is built on a truck chassis and it's set up to venture away from civilized roads with lots of suspension travel. Four-wheel-drive models are equipped with a low-range set of gears.

Model Lineup

4Runners are available in two trim levels: SR5 and Limited. Each comes in a choice of two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive.

Toyota's excellent 183-horsepower V6 comes as standard equipment along with a four-speed electronically controlled automatic. (The four-cylinder engine and the five-speed manual transmission were discontinued year.

Prices range from the $26,335 SR5 two-wheel-drive 4Runner to the $36,105 Limited with V6, four-wheel drive, leather and power everything.

Traction control for rear-wheel drive models, anti-lock brakes, 15-inch wheels and stability control are all standard features.

There are relatively minor changes for the 2002 model year: new exterior colors, a chrome license plate garnish, new chrome package for SR5 versions and changes to the Sport Edition option package ($1,585), which now includes front bumper skid plate, badging, floor mats and tube steps as well as a hood scoop, aluminum wheels with 16-inch 265/70 tires, 13-inch brakes, a 4.10 rear differential, sports seats, special door trim planels, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, metallic instrument panel trim and color-keyed bumpers and grille.

Walkaround

4Runner presents a rugged exterior. A bulge in the hood, flared fenders with shoulders give it a purposeful look. Tubular-shaped running boards add to the rugged appearance. Look at any Toyota and you'll find that everything about it is well done and logical. It's been around awhile now: the last complete redesign was in 1996.

Interior Features

As with all Toyotas, the 4Runner accommodates its passengers well. Although not the roomiest in its class, the 4Runner offers enough space for five adults with comfortable room behind the front seats. The rear seat is split 50/50. This was useful when three of us drove to a restaurant with all of my fishing gear, including some two-piece nine-foot fly rods.

As a result of the ground clearance necessary to deal with serious off-road use, the 4Runner sits somewhat higher than some of the competition. This means that shorter people may find it less convenient to get in and out. But most of us find getting in and out of the 4Runner easy.

All controls are where you expect and need them and operate logically and easily, from your first grab of the door handle to turning on the wipers or using a cup holder. There's nothing goofy here, no awkward result of some stylist's whim. Just simple, appreciated correctness, which adds up to a high degree of operating ease. The instrument panel is arranged for sensible visibility and operation of all control functions. Map pockets, glove boxes, cubbyholes and cup holders add to happiness during long trips.

A center differential lock switch located on the instrument panel allows locking and unlocking of the center differential by pressing a button. This lets the driver make the choice of positively locking both rear wheels and one of the fronts together, meaning at least three tires will be clawing their way through muck or slush.

The bottoms of the rear seats flip up and the seat backs fold down, presenting a large, flat cargo area. The rear seat headrests are conveniently stored by sticking them into a pair of holes on the seat bottom. There was plenty of room for fishing rods and a couple of duffel bags of gear. I stopped at dawn on a long drive from North Carolina to Washington, D.C., and slept comfortably for an hour on the flat cargo floor.

All owners will appreciate a couple of features in the rear. First, the spare tire is mounted underneath, so it doesn't interfere with cargo access, and doesn't intrude on cargo space. Second, access to the rear is through a hatch with a separate opening window. A hatch is superior to a door-style tailgate because it opens up and allows you to stand closer to the cargo area when you're loading stuff. And, if you want to toss small items in the back, just lower the window--it's power-operated in all models. The 4Runner comes with well-designed big side mirrors, which provide excellent rearward visibility. For all-around convenience, the 4Runner is one of the best of the mid-size (so-called compact) sport-utilities.

Driving Impressions

Toyota's 4Runner showed off its impressive highway performance on a lengthy drive through Virginia and North Carolina. I was headed to Harker's Island near the southernmost tip of North Carolina's Outer Banks to go fishing and quickly found the 4Runner is extremely stable at high speeds.

One of the nicest features is the 3.4-liter V6 engine. It is a sweetheart. Though it lacks the stump-pulling grunt of the V8s available in some of the competition, it's exceptionally high in smoothness and driving pleasure, with excellent throttle response and a silky feel throughout its wide rev range. And there's more than enough power to deal with a full load of passengers, luggage and a medium-sized trailer.

Toyota's 3.4-liter twin-cam V6 delivers 183 horsepower and 217 pound-feet of torque. Expect fuel economy to be around 16/19 mpg city/highway for four-wheel drive models; rear-wheel drive versions achieve about 1 more mpg overall. It's rated to tow trailers up to 5000 pounds.

From a handling standpoint, the 4Runner has one of the best chassis and suspension arrangements in its class. While some mid-size sport-utilities have front suspensions of struts or even live axles, the 4Runner has an independent suspension with upper and lower control arms and coil springs. In the rear, the axle is mounted with a multi-link arrangement and coil springs instead of the more common, and less sophisticated, leaf springs. The 4Runner also has the precise feel of rack-and-pinion steering and a tidy turning circle of 37.4 feet. The result is a combination of ride comfort and handling ease that is exceptionally good for a vehicle of such outstanding off-road and rough-road capabilities.

Living with the 4Runner and driving it on a daily basis is easy and free of hassles. It doesn't drive exactly like a car, of course, but it's no truck either. It rides nice, it handles nice, the engine runs great, it's nimble in tight shopping mall parking lots, and it basically does all the things you'd like it to do in the ways you'd like it to do them. About the only negative I logged was that, like most compact SUVs, the 4Runner does not provide good grip on wet pavement. The rear tires will often spin when trying to take off aggressively in the rain.

We also had the chance to take the 4Runner off-road. With its high ground clearance, aggressive tire pattern and Toyota's on-demand shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive system, the 4Runner is practically unstoppable. All four-wheel drive models come with a two-speed transfer case that provides low gearing to slowly creep down steep declines. Toyota builds the RAV4 and Highlander for light-duty non-pavement trekking, but also offers the 4Runner, Land Cruiser and Sequoia for those seeking more serious off-road adventures.

Summary

The 4Runner is a textbook example of Toyota's insightful, thoughtful, comprehensive care in design and engineering. Everything about it is correctly done. It's highly capable off road, better than all but a very few SUVs. Of course, the 4Runner comes equipped with Toyota's quality, durability, and reliability.