Review: Over highway, dirt and rock in the 2016 Toyota 4Runner Trail Premium

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The 4Runner Trail Premium served as both our transportation and home for three days and nights(Credit: C.C. Weiss/Gizmag)

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The Toyota 4Runner stands as one of the last true, off-road-worthy mid-size SUVs in the US market, maintaining fast-disappearing features like body-on-frame construction and a 4WD transfer case shifter. This made it a natural choice for our recent 350-mile (563-km) round trip between Phoenix and Overland Expo. We put a 4Runner 4x4 Trail Premium through its paces across the sunburned Phoenix metro area, up and down undulating highway, through wind-ravaged forests, and over rock-littered trail, relying on it as both carriage and castle.

Over recent years, truck-based small and mid-size SUVs have been on a fast path toward extinction in the American market, devoured by the predatory army of unibody crossovers. We've watched once truck-derived SUVs like the Ford Explorer and Nissan Pathfinder go CUV and watched others, like the Toyota FJ Cruiser and Nissan Xterra, disappear completely. The SUV-to-CUV transition has been good to those drivers looking for something more efficient and car-like, but not so good for the small but passionate minority that still want to feel soft dirt and hard, jagged rock under their tires.

For those looking for a true truck-based SUV, of non-luxury and non-barge-sized variety, it's basically the Jeep Wrangler and the Toyota 4Runner. For our trip, we opted for the 4Runner Trail Premium, which offers a compelling blend of road-cruising amenities and off-road readiness.

Step inside

The first thing that struck us when we stepped into the freshly washed, bright red 4Runner – a high step given the lack of optional rigid running boards – was the sheer chunkiness of the interior design. Everything from the radio dials to the steering wheel seemed beefy and oversized, perhaps to match the big, husky exterior styling the current-gen 4Runner wears. It's not necessarily a criticism or compliment, but it did take a little while to adjust to the feel of the beefy steering wheel, and some of the dials just struck us as cartoonishly big the entire trip.

We got off to a rough start with the 4Runner's navigation system, running into problems within the first 20 miles (32 km). We programmed our main route from the Phoenix airport area to Mormon Lake Lodge just south of Flagstaff, Ariz. Given that our chosen route looked quite off the beaten track, running through the heart of national forest, we decided we should probably get some supplies in the Phoenix area before taking off on our way. So, a few miles into our main route, we used a mix of voice recognition and touchscreen controls to find a nearby grocery store and selected the "add to our route" option.

It all seemed to be going along brilliantly. Not only would we get the supplies we needed, but we would do so right along the way, without having to veer off our greater route. And we'd do all that without knowing the area at all, modern technological convenience at its finest!

We should have known something was up when the nearest grocery stores were 9+ miles (14.5+ km) away, but not knowing the area, we didn't think twice about it. What we did think twice about was passing by blue highway signs with little grocery store logos on them on the way to the "closest" store, and what we really thought twice about was passing by the airport exit (our starting point) on the way to the grocery store that was "on our route." The grocery store turned out to be a small Chinese grocer that was not at all what we needed.

Point of interest issues like that proved a problem the entire trip, as did getting the voice command system to understand our one recurring command: "Find coffee." After the grocery store problem, we gave up on the "on your route" option, and just tried to navigate directly to POIs like local coffee shops and visitor centers. After the obligatory voice recognition misunderstandings, cancellations and retries, we twice got directed to coffee shops that weren't there. One was a gas station, the other a home on a quiet residential block. When we did a quick Google search later, we found both listed as "permanently closed."

While there's not much we could have done to help the outdated POI issues, the voice recognition system does prompt you to run through a program to improve performance. Since we were on a relatively tight schedule and just wanted to focus on driving and getting to our destination, we skipped that option. Still, though, the system just wasn't that user-friendly. When the system didn't recognize what we said, it would go into a long, obvious list of options that we couldn't talk over, forcing us to wait it out each and every time or cancel and start over completely.

More basic infotainment features like the steering wheel radio controls and simple A to B navigation worked seamlessly and were nice to have on a multi-hour route we'd never traveled before.

Open road

The first main leg of our drive was a 75-mile (121-km) stretch of AZ SR87 that shoots through Tonto National Forest . The 4Runner's 270-hp 4.0-liter V6 picked up quickly and offered smooth acceleration as we got on the highway. That smooth, quiet performance continued as we pressed pedal up to 100 mph (161 km/h) on flat stretches and later as we worked up and down 7 percent grades. When we desired a bit more push up those extended climbs, the five-speed transmission and V6 worked right along with us, responding quickly and smoothly to the extra accelerator pressure.

Another element that impressed us with the 4Runner's highway manners was its taut steering. A small move of the hand on that bulky steering wheel, and the SUV was hugging the fast curves of SR87 like a long lost sibling. That remained true even after we emerged from the rough, choppy 4x4 tracks we'll discuss below. All in all, the 4Runner's ride proved quite comfortable and effortless for a long highway trip, something that's quite valuable when dozens or hundreds of highway miles stand between you and your off-road adventure, camping trip or fishing outing.

Off the beaten path

You don't buy a 4Runner solely for highway commutes, though, and we had no intention of testing this one on asphalt alone. This is one of the last-remaining off-road-worthy SUVs of modest size and price, after all, and that's the reason we picked it out for traveling to an off-road expedition show. Having no anxiety in leaving the comfort of the road for the uncertainty of the trail was one of our favorite parts of conducting the review.

We spent most of our off-road time on the well-maintained Rim Road (FR 300) that traces the scenic Mogollon Rim, but we did do some runs up and down a few "no passenger car"-type 4x4 trails. The 4Runner handled everything the Arizona earth threw at it – loose gravel, sand, mud puddles of various depths, rock beds, off-camber steps and more – without causing us to fret or sweat (okay, we might have been sweating, but that was more the relentless AZ sun).

The 4Runner proved particularly adept at remaining on course, no matter how hard the rocks, ruts and our occasionally too-fast-for-conditions driving worked to bounce it sideways. The only time we experienced any uncomfortable bounce was when we drove in a little too fast before noticing the series of wavy, rolling ruts that sent us bucking like an angry bull a split second later. We quickly hit the brakes and calmed that bull down before proceeding more steadily.

This particular 4Runner was equipped with Toyota's Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System, optional on both the Trail and Trail Premium trims and standard on the Land Cruiser. Using hydraulics, the system essentially softens the anti-sway bars that stabilize the body on the highway to provide better wheel articulation and control on slow, bumpy stretches of off-road. It certainly seemed to help keep things straight and steady on the rough stuff.

The only instability we experienced was some minor slip when driving in rear-wheel drive down loose gravel at around 50 mph (80 km/h), but overall the RWD was ample for the lion's share of dirt road and track we drove on. We only engaged 4WD occasionally on particularly gnarly stuff like extended sections of loose rock. When we did engage it, it was a pleasure to use the old-school transfer case knob instead of an electric switch or dial.

The 4Runner Trail Premium offers 9.6 in (24.3 cm) of ground clearance (a half-foot more than SR5 and Limited trims), which proved ample for nearly everything we drove over. We did put the standard skid plates protecting the engine/front suspension, fuel tank and transfer case to good use on the stretch of rocky trail pictured below, breaking the silence of the forest with a loud "scccccrape!"

The brakes were solid throughout the trip. They handled a somewhat abrupt 50-0 mph gravel road stop efficiently, bringing the 4,750-lb (2,155-kg) 4Runner to a quick, confident stop without any sliding or slithering.

The 4Runner Trail Premium has some other terrain-eating off-road bells and whistles that we didn't have the need to use, including a locking rear differential, A-TRAC traction control, Multi-terrain Select and Crawl Control, all available via dials and buttons mounted centrally on the headliner between the visors.

Other mentionables

The 4Runner 4x4 Trail Premium has a number of other features that make it a great choice for a hybrid highway/off-road road trip. The standard tilt/slide power moonroof offer a little fresh air on the ride, and a standard 120 V power outlet in back provides an easy way of charging gadgets while in transit. The SofTex synthetic leather seats look great with their red stitching and proved quite supportive and comfy for the hours we spent in the driver's seat.

Our Trail Premium's 6.1-in touchscreen-based infotainment system included SiriusXM, perfect for our trip, since we're sure we strayed well beyond the boundaries of terrestrial radio reception. It also had Bluetooth music streaming, which we didn't use. The audio system had plenty of oomph for the road, but was just a touch underpowered during louder off-roading sections with the window down. We had to jack the volume up near max a few times.

The backup camera was nice to have in civilization, but didn't replace physically looking out back when we were out in the wild, as there tended to be too many variables (rocks, stumps, trees, branches, etc.) to keep an eye out for.

One feature that we were looking forward to that proved underwhelming was the optional sliding rear cargo deck. Listed as a US$350 option, this deck slides out to give you easier access to items stored in the back. We thought we'd be using it regularly at camp to access the cooler or supplies, but the cargo area wasn't deep enough to make it a necessary accessory. We did find it useful in one instance, sliding our suitcase out so that we could get to the zipper on the far side.

Factory-ready camper?

How well an interior sleeps at night isn't really a necessary part of any consumer vehicle review, but since we happened to test that capability on our trip, it's worth a quick mention. Since we were flying in to pick the 4Runner up, we didn't want to get weighed down with suitcases filled with tents and other large, heavy camping gear. Instead, we figured we'd just sleep behind the liftgate (Overland Expo is out in the forest, and it's easier to just camp there than to drive back and forth to the hotel).

The 4Runner's rear seat cushion pulls forward and the seat back drops down, creating a flat surface that's just big enough for a 5-foot 9-in (1.75-m) male to sleep in without having to bend his knees or curl up in a ball. We were able to stretch out completely, albeit with our feet upright against the liftgate. A flat load floor is always an advantage for sleeping, and we were able to get solid sleep on the three nights we spent in the back of the 4Runner.

The tray on the side proved perfect for storing water and accessories like keys, a small flashlight and a cellphone. The power liftgate window could be useful in offering ventilation on warmer nights, but it was too cool to bother testing that theory out.

Bottom line

Those who are interested in mixing a bit of off-roading or off-road commuting in with their more everyday road driving, even if it's just to get to a fishing hole or trailhead, should have the 4Runner, particularly the Trail trims, on their shortlist of test drives. We found ours plenty comfortable and capable on the highway and even more comfortable and capable off-road (we didn't spend any time in the type of narrow urban corridors that threaten to make that big body a detriment, though).

The Trail Premium starts at $40,295 after delivery, and the model we tested was stickered at $41,345 after adding in the $1,750 KDSS suspension and $350 sliding cargo deck and subtracting a $750 "Keep It Wild" promotion. The only way that looks cheap for a vehicle that you're intending to abuse on rock, in mud and over dirt is when you compare it to its older, classier brother, the Land Cruiser. Other than that, it leaves us missing the days of smaller, simpler SUV competition. It's easy enough to dip below the Trail Premium, though; the standard Trail starts at $37,615 and the base SR5 at $34,710.

As to the question of whether you should still be considering a body-on-frame, off-road-engineered utility vehicle at all, we'll leave you with a short anecdote from the last evening of our test.

We left Overland Expo at around 6 pm with no particular destination in mind other than a "nice campsite." We roamed the dirt roads of Coconino National Forest in a modest race with the setting sun, which snuck up on us suddenly because of Arizona's lack of daylight savings. We passed a number of decent campsites, but the terrain just ahead looked like it was slowly climbing toward an open hilltop with big views ... just a little farther ... and a little more after that.

Eventually, our quest for the horizon led off the main forest road and onto unmaintained track that got pretty rocky and rowdy. A few twists and turns, a few more miles, and one particularly rocky descent, and the terrain finally opened up, revealing the warm, golden sun dropping in the distance over Mogollon Rim. We hadn't expected the "hilltop" to be quite so dramatic or the views quite so big, but we were sure glad we had the confidence to press on and find this treasure of a campsite.

We probably could have done it in a lesser crossover utility vehicle, the route was rough but not insanely treacherous, but there's a good chance we would have given up and backtracked before that last steep stretch of rock. With the confidence of the 4Runner, we pressed on and found what we were looking for and much more. And that's the type of payoff that makes you forget all about the awkward city driving and 18 mpg combined fuel economy. Sometimes, the only way to get there is inside a rugged, truck-based SUV.

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