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Payne: Trusty Toyota 4Runner is 4Ever

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Ford is about to enter the truck-based SUV market with the Ford Bronco and I get it. People are passionate about these things.

Yet, there are only two truck-based SUVs in the mid-size market — the Jeep Wrangler and the Toyota 4Runner. The Toyota what?

You can be forgiven for forgetting the Tacoma pickup-based ute doesn’t exist because Toyota hasn’t remade it since the Mesozoic Era (actually, 2009). It hasn’t had a wall-to-wall marketing campaign for some time, unlike the Jeep. You’d have to have been living on Mars not to have seen one of the Jeep ads (and I’m told there’s a Mars trim coming.). But 4Runner fans know the Toyota is there.

“What do you drive?” I recently asked a male acquaintance in Los Angeles.

“A 4Runner. Best car I’ve ever owned.”

“What do you have in the garage?” I asked a female shuttle driver in Texas.

“4Runner, I love it.”

2020 Toyota 4Runner

We automotive journalists are guilty of pooh-poohing anything that hasn’t been remade in the last five years. We’re like children attracted to the latest shiny thing. But evidence is that you don’t have to be shiny to be relevant these days.

Take the Dodge Challenger and Charger muscle cars, two of the most-recognized nameplates in America thanks to savvy marketing, state-of-the-art infotainment and big horsepower. Make that ginormous horsepower.

Customers shrug at the fact that the Dodge brothers are based on an ancient 2006 chassis.

Ditto the 4Runner.

I climbed into my 4Runner tester with Mrs. Payne on a cold winter night at Detroit Metro airport after a long week away. The snow was blowing and the roads were covered with it. Detroit potholes were lurking. Boy, was I glad to see the 4Runner’s big bones and knobby, high-profile tires.

We threw our luggage in the cavernous boot, then cranked up the interior temps — heated seats, front rear-defroster, climate temps — with big, knobby dials to match the tires. After clearing the Toyota of crusted ice and snow, I tossed the snow brush into the back seat — rugged, mid-size trucks mean never having to worry about mussing the interior.

After a long day, we were in no mood to spend the next 45 minutes crawling along Detroit’s pocked cart paths worrying about a blowout in subfreezing temps. The opposite was true of 4Runner. The beast positively loved the conditions.

Like a salty sailor on rough seas, the 4Runner relies on old technology to chart its course. I eased the shifter into neutral, then yanked the truck’s second transfer-case shifter (familiar to Wrangler fans, too) back into four-wheel drive. With all four wheels churning, we set off into the gloom.

The 4Runner sits a ridiculous 10 inches off the ground with a Jeep-like 33-degree front approach angle for off-roading. Heck, we probably could have just cut through the woods to go home. The ute even includes a crawl mode for nature's worst. This fearlessness has made Toyota’s ute a favorite of folks in rural communities where snowplows often take days to catch up to rutted roads. But this night, we decided to stick to paved roads.

The SUV bombed happily along, the 4.0-liter 270-horse V-6 mill roaring its approval. V-6s, of course, are frowned upon in this woke green age of turbocharged fuel-sipping 4-bangers. But with its guttural growl and instant torque, the six-holer matches 4Runner’s can-do character. Like the V-6s and V-8s under the hoods of Chargers and Challengers, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Customers sure don’t think the 4Runner is old-fashioned. Sales numbers in the last five years have seen a steady climb from 76,906 in 2014 to 131,888 last year. That’s a 70% jump, mirroring the 60% rise in Toyota Tacoma pickup sales to nearly 250,000 units over the same period.

As the U.S. has moved to SUVs, the idea of a Tacoma SUV with a hatch instead of a pickup bed has real appeal. Ford no doubt hopes for the same gains from a Ranger pickup-based Bronco.

Like Dodge, 4Runner mixes its old-fashioned with a taste of modern tech.

Once on M-39 headed north, I set adaptive cruise-control to 60 mph to avoid Melvindale and Dearborn speed traps. The localities are famous for using the 55-mph speed-limited Southfield Freeway to raise revenue, catching travelers who’ve been traveling the 70 mph common to the rest of the freeway.

Asian automakers have been aggressive about outfitting all their vehicles — right down to $20,000-something compacts — with safety systems like adaptive cruise and automatic emergency-braking. The 4Runner is no exception. In addition to saving my bacon from police radar, automatic cruise-control is a welcome trip companion.

Adaptive cruise is enabled by the big radar brick in the 4Runner’s gaping fish-mouth grille. After a while on M-59, ice and snow began to coat the brick like gnats in a Florida summer. Soon, the 4Runner’s brick was coated and the car’s brain told me adaptive cruise-control was no longer available. No problem, but a reminder of the many challenges self-driving systems have to overcome.

The 4Runner encountered no navigation challenges on the route thanks to another piece of updated software, Apple CarPlay. My wife simply plugged in her phone, and Google Maps routed us around stormy obstacles — traffic backups, road closures, accidents — for the quickest way home.

Speaking of plugs, 4Runner also has a three-prong outlet in the boot — perfect for charging laptop or other devices, because who carries those round cigarette lighter chargers with them anymore?

In a week of frosty, snowy weather, the Toyota was a welcome addition to the driveway. The big lug’s not much to look at, but my $48,000 Venture Edition tester served its purpose as a proper utility vehicle with heated front thrones, fold-flat second-row seats for extended cargo room, slide-out rear floor and updated 8-inch screen that keeps pace with the Wrangler’s modern U-Connect system.

Toyota prices comparably favorably to the Wrangler, too, while offering more cargo space and better interior quiet — if less overall character than the Jeep.

Both the Wrangler and the 4Runner are ol’ St. Bernards that will run the extra mile to save you from the elements. That’s how owners like them and sales numbers prove the point. Which sets up an interesting opportunity for the coming Bronco, which will surely bring lots of cutting-edge Ford tech to the ladder-frame segment.

The 4Runner is a loyal old friend. And customers are loyal back.

2020 Toyota 4Runner

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear- and all-wheel drive, 5-passenger SUV

Price: $37,240, including $1,120 destination charge ($48,877 AWD Venture Special Edition as tested)

Powerplant: 4.0-liter 6-cylinder

Power: 270 horsepower, 278 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 5-speed automatic with second transfer-case shifter for AWD

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.7 seconds (Car and Driver); towing, 5,000 pounds 

Weight: 4,750 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 17 city/20 highway/18 combined

Report card

Highs: Rugged beast; nice modern touches like Apple CarPlay and 3-prong electric plug

Lows: Dated interior; gotta muscle that transfer-case shifter

Overall: 3 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.