Unlike Mazda and Honda, Toyota offers both car-based crossovers and body-on-frame SUVs. The wide selection and Toyota’s reputation for reliability is partly why the automaker’s seeing strong sales. But there are some significant differences between passenger cars and body-on-frame SUVs that impact daily-driving. So, with that in mind, which is the best Toyota SUV for you?
The smallest Toyota ‘SUV’ is the C-HR, which competes with the Honda HR-V and the Mazda CX-3 and CX-30.
There are only 3 trim levels: the $21,295 LE, $23,330 XLE, and $26,350 Limited. They all use a 144-hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder linked to a CVT. Unlike the HR-V and CX-3, which can get all-wheel drive, the C-HR is exclusively front-wheel drive. All trims come standard with Toyota’s advanced driver-assistance feature suite, as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. But, if you want niceties like leather-trimmed power-adjustable seats, you’ll need to step up to the Limited.
The RAV4 line goes from the $25,950 LE to the $34,480 Limited. There’s also a TRD Off-Road model, an Adventure trim, as well as several hybrid trims. The standard engine is a 203-hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder with an 8-speed automatic. The hybrid models, though, pair the 2.5-liter engine with an electric motor and nickel-hydride battery to put out 219 hp. Although FWD is standard, every trim can get AWD. AWD models also get selectable driving modes.
Finally, there’s the Toyota Highlander, the only 3-row Toyota crossover, and rival to the Ford Explorer.
The Highlander is available in several trims, from the $34,600 L to the $46,850 Platinum. A handling-focused XSE trim will soon be available. Hybrid models are currently available on every trim except the L; the hybrid powertrain is a $4320 premium on the LE, but roughly $2000 more for the other trims.
As with the RAV4, FWD is standard and AWD optional. The non-hybrid models have a 295-hp 3.5-liter V6 and 8-speed automatic, while the hybrid models have a 2.5-liter four-cylinder and 1 or 2 electric motors (FWD vs AWD), putting out 243 hp.
Toyota’s body-on-frame SUVs
Although the RAV4 may be one of Toyota’s best-selling vehicles, it’s Toyota’s body-on-frame SUVs that are the most reliable.
The smallest is the Toyota 4Runner, which comes exclusively with a 4.0-liter V6 making 270 hp and 278 lb-ft and a 5-speed automatic. The lineup starts with the $36,120 SR5 and goes to the $49,865 TRD Pro.
All trims except for the TRD models and Venture Edition come standard with rear-wheel drive, though 4WD with transfer case is an option. For 2020, the 4Runner finally received Toyota’s ADAS suite as standard, as well as full Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. But this Toyota SUV is more about off-roading, especially the TRD Pro, which features Fox shocks, a skid plate, and a locking rear differential. There’s also standard hill ascent control and a kind of off-road cruise control.
Every Sequoia comes with a 381-hp 5.7-liter V8 and 6-speed automatic. Like the 4Runner, the Sequoia can be had either with RWD or 4WD with a transfer case. The base SR5 starts at just under $50k, while the TRD Pro starts at just over $64k. There’s also a limited-edition Nightshade Edition on the way, but that’s little more than an appearance package
Although the Sequoia TRD Pro doesn’t get all the 4Runner TRD Pro’s features, like the multiple off-road driving modes, it also has Fox shocks and a TRD skid plate. But it does get some exclusive parts like Rigid Industries LED fog lights. And, unlike the 4Runner, the Sequoia has a dedicated driving mode for towing.
The Toyota Land Cruiser
There’s one more Toyota body-on-frame SUV: the Land Cruiser. The Land Cruiser is one of Toyota’s most beloved SUVs, with an amazing reputation for reliability. And the reason it’s listed separately from the other vehicles here is because it occupies a very curious spot in Toyota’s lineup.
Although the Land Cruiser does share some parts with other Toyotas—like its 381-hp 5.7-liter V8—its $85,415 base price makes it significantly more expensive than any other Toyota. And that’s because this 3-row SUV competes not with the Ford Expedition, but with the Range Rover.
In addition to 4WD with transfer case, the Toyota Land Cruiser has multiple off-road terrain modes, adjustable suspension with a disconnecting sway bar, and a locking rear differential. It has an upgraded off-road cruise control that also helps decrease the turning radius. The Land Cruiser even has multiple cameras that help drivers spot obstacles on the ground.
And it’s not just off-road where the Land Cruiser can keep up with the Range Rover. It has heated and cooled leather seats, a standard 14-speaker audio system, and available rear-seat DVD entertainment.
Choosing the best Toyota SUV
Honestly, the simple answer is the Land Cruiser. Consumer Reports not only recommends it, it’s ranked above SUVs from automakers like Mercedes, BMW, and Lincoln. But, the $85k+ sticker price might be a reason why it’s not exactly flying out of the dealer lots. The V8 is also fairly thirsty, although the upcoming hybrid may resolve that.
Looking over the rest of Toyota’s SUV offerings, the C-HR falls from contention. The C-HR is just as expensive as the HR-V and CX-3 but doesn’t offer AWD. The Straight Pipes found the CR-V more comfortable, and both CR and US News found the C-HR unrefined in many ways. If you need AWD, get a Camry or Avalon.
Motor Trend had much the same to say about the RAV4. MT did praise the RAV4 for its off-road capabilities but found the engine coarse and transmission occasionally missed shifts. And both Throttle House and Edmunds ranked the Mazda CX-5 and Honda CR-V ahead of the RAV4, specifically a wheezy engine and a lack of overall comfort. It might be a best-seller, but it’s not the best.
Moving onto the body-on-frame SUVs, unfortunately, the same old-school features that make them great at off-roading and towing also mean they lack some daily-driving refinement. MT ranked the Sequoia dead-last in its recent 3-row SUV comparison: it had a lot of room but felt old and cheap.
The remaining two Toyota SUVs, the Highlander, and 4Runner aren’t perfect, either. MT found the Kia Telluride was simply an all-around better SUV than the Highlander: roomier, with better handling and noticeably higher-quality interior materials. And although the 4Runner can keep up with the Jeep Wrangler while being more refined on-road, Car and Driver did note the SUV’s design was showing its age. And the best off-roading 4Runners can’t get a 3rd-row.
To sum it up
So, here’s how this all breaks down. If you want a Toyota SUV built for off-roading, go for the 4Runner. If you spend more time on paved roads and regularly carry more than 5 passengers, the Highlander is the SUV for you.
But, if you can afford it—or find a cheaper used one, which is just as good—the Land Cruiser is truly the best Toyota SUV.
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