In the pantheon of legendary off-roaders, the Toyota Land Cruiser is held in high esteem as a gold standard of ability when the asphalt ends. They’re in service around the world as U.N. peace-keeping vehicles, rides of choice for rangers in the Australian Outback, and regular daily drivers for wealthy Saudis who, on weekends, hit the desert dunes before hosing them off and coming back to work on Monday, chrome trim flaring in the sun. Oh, and you’ll find them pulling school duty throughout well-heeled suburbs in America.
But the barrier to entry for a Land Cruiser is high; though it comes loaded with virtually every bell and whistle in Toyota’s arsenal, you’ll be plunking down $83,825 down at signing, and that’s before delivery and taxes. If you don’t have that kind of dough, don’t need such a large vehicle, don’t need that many features, need better fuel economy, or just don’t like how it looks, Toyota has a very capable runner-up in the 4Runner.
Like the Land Cruiser, you can get a 4Runner in Saville Row-guise in the Limited trim. But unlike the Landy, the 4Runner comes in a variety of other flavors, from the near-bare bones SR5 to the off-road-oriented TRD-Pro. I had the latter for a week to see what it could do.
Fortunately for Toyota, the 4Runner already offers a really solid foundation for creating a purpose-built off-road vehicle. Add a 1.5-inch lift, a beefy skidplate, TRD-tuned suspension, and some rugged Nitto Grappler tires (or don’t, since Toyota has already done all this at the factory), and the 4Runner transforms from domesticated dirty-road junkie into a genuinely rugged weekend warrior.
For years — decades, even — the 4Runner was quietly understated, an enormously capable SUV in a quiet, dignified package. Sometime around 2012, Toyota essentially said “fuck it” and put on the brashest, most aggressive face not just in 4Runner’s history, but arguably of all mass-market off-roading vehicles being produced today.
Shooting for polarizing versus safe doesn’t seem to have lost Toyota any sales, as the 4Runner is still immensely popular. The TRD-Pro doesn’t do anything to temper down the wild aesthetics, and arguably emphasizes them with the “TOYOTA” stamped bar across the front grille. I admittedly wasn’t wild about its appearance at first (I’m a big fan of the ’96-’02 myself), but it did begin to grow on me as the week went on.
Exterior pros and cons
+ Bold, aggressive, and mean-looking — it’s one Toyota that you can’t accuse of being boring.
+ The cement-color paint hides mud splatter really, really, well.
+ Contrasting black TRD rims are as great-looking as they are functional.
— The Quicksand paintjob isn’t for everyone, but it’s worth noting that it’s a color from Toyota’s heritage when it built the classic FJ40s in the ’70s.
— It’s not the prettiest car out there.
— Light body sculpting leads to monolithic slabs of cement-colored sheetmetal.
Toyota maintains its reputation for reliability by keeping its vehicles — mainly its powertrains — for as long as possible before either consumers stop buying them or the government forces them to change. The benefits of this strategy are apparent: Toyotas, especially their SUVs and trucks, last forever. Top Gear famously tried to kill an old Hilux — and couldn’t.
Our tester uses the 4.0-liter V6 that’s immediately familiar to Toyota off-road enthusiasts. It produces 270 horsepower and 278 pound-feet of torque, but being built on older architecture, don’t expect Prius-like fuel economy. Over seven days in varied terrain, we averaged about 18 miles per gallon.
Powertrain pros and cons
+ The V6 is smooth, and the transmission gets it done.
+ The TRD-Pro takes to rough terrain like a pig in mud. Piloting it up steep grassy inclines and down steep sandy inclines was effortless.
+ There’s a setting for just about any type of adverse terrain you can imagine.
— It can feel like the engine’s doing a lot of work without a whole lot to show for it; acceleration is not a strong suit.
— The five-speed transmission could certainly benefit from an extra gear — at least.
— You’ll get pretty friendly with your local gas station attendant.
Aside from some TRD-Pro badging here and there, you’d have little indication that you were sitting in a special 4Runner. That being said, it’s not a bad thing; the cabin is largely intuitive, spacious, and comfortable. Everything is well-assembled and despite its truck-based pretensions, I don’t think there was a single squeak or rattle from the cabin the entire week.
The chunky steering wheel feels good and solid on one’s hands, and each dial and switch has heft and purpose behind it. There’s a lot of plastic, yes, but it makes the interior easy to wipe down. My biggest complaint about the interior is the amount of black and dark tones, which in low-light makes for a very dark cabin. This is helped by the white headliner of my tester, but like the Highlander Hybrid we’ve reviewed in the past, there’s a lot of black.
Interior pros and cons
+ More than adequate room for some kids, some pets, and some miscellaneous adventure gear.
+ Quiet, comfy, and all-around well-built.
+ Seats are large and comfy, with adjustable lumbar support.
— The glossy black plastic in the dash has a glittery finish, which kind of makes it look permanently dusty.
— There’s no sunroof option to illuminate what’s a very black-happy cabin.
— If you’re going to be using the TRD-Pro as it was intended, it’s worth investing in some heavy-duty rubber all-weather mats.
Tech and safety
You don’t expect a mud-going version of the Mercedes S-Class in a 4Runner, so don’t be surprised when you don’t get one. By modern standards, the 4Runner is old-school — no lane departure assist, blind spot monitoring, forward collision avoidance, or 360-degree cameras. You do get a backup camera (which worked really well), and it comes with Toyota’s Entune app setup in the center stack, but outside of those things, the 4Runner TRD-Pro is delightfully analog.
Tech and safety pros and cons
+ The backup camera is crisp, clear, and works flawlessly.
+ Toyota’s Entune features a nice blend of touchscreen requirements and actual, physical buttons.
+ Toyota left the 4Runner largely devoid of gimmicky tech that does little but add complexity and headaches.
— Toyota hasn’t moved the wireless device charging found in other models to the 4Runner yet.
— The TRD-Pro is high enough that pedestrian detection and blind-spot monitoring might be useful.
When running mundane errands, you have to remind yourself that the TRD-Pro was not designed with asphalt in mind. Like the old FJs, the 4Runner feels its best in a sheep pasture as opposed to the highway. It pitches, rolls, and, due to its weight and girth, doesn’t brake as suddenly as the pressure you’re exerting would suggest. But the ride is comfortable around town, and it swallows small bumps and dips with ease — the same can’t be said for its domestic rival, the Jeep Wrangler, and its two solid axles.
It feels, honestly, like driving a classic car: There’s no effort on the 4Runner’s part to coddle its driver and hide what it was built to be. This becomes increasingly apparent off-road, where the TRD-Pro is in its element; it takes to the dirt and the muck naturally, and makes the driver feel special about what it can do. It doesn’t handle pavement well, but it handles everything else beautifully. And it gives you tons of settings to do it with.
Wrap up and review
There’s a drawback to being so prepared to leave the road all the time: You still have to drive on the road the majority of the time. The soft off-road suspension, large tires, and high ride height that are so great when the asphalt ends do the 4Runner TRD-Pro no favors when on the tarmac. In the turns, the 4Runner leans and sways, there’s ample nose-dive under braking, and although the turning radius is good, the 4Runner will still feel cumbersome in parking lots and tight-knit traffic.
But I’d forgive all of that.
Because when driving the 4Runner TRD-Pro, there’s something inside you that inexplicably wants to mount every small mound of road salt, drive through someone’s lawn just to traverse their drainage ditch, use the rough dirt shoulder instead of the safe, sensible highway just because you know you can. The TRD-Pro was built for rough terrain, and not driving on it just feels wrong.
Other, more civilized 4Runner models are a better fit for 99% of prospective buyers, but you won’t want them. The TRD-Pro spoils you with the sense that every trip could be an adventure, but it comes at a cost: Loaded up, my tester ran $42,450 from the factory, $11,000 more than a base-spec 4Runner. That’s a lot of extra coin for features that many won’t take advantage of regularly.
If you’re in the market for a 4Runner, buy the TRD-Pro if you know you’ll use it for its intended purpose. If you like it for the “TOYOTA” badge and the high ride height, but it’ll spend most of its life in mall parking lots, don’t bother. But don’t test drive the TRD-Pro first — it’ll make your decision that much harder.