If you want a preview of the mid-size SUV market over the next three years, take a gander at the new Toyota 4Runner. Now in its fifth generation, the brawny truck has dumped last year's 4.7-liter V-8 and is leaving the V-6 to carry its burden. Want to know what the segment will look like in five years? The 4Runner can show you that, too. New for 2010, there's a four-cylinder engine available.
Opt for the agony of moving 4300 pounds with the 157-hp four-cylinder, though, and you'll be rewarded with little more than the automotive equivalent of a gold-star sticker. Fuel economy climbs only 1 mpg in city and combined ratings, and there's no benefit over the six-cylinder on the highway. The 4.0-liter V-6 is a carryover from last year, with the addition of variable valve timing for both intake and exhaust and a slightly higher compression ratio. Its horsepower beats the old V-8's, but those with toys will lament the loss of 28 lb-ft of torque. Maximum towing capacity drops from 7300 to 5000 pounds, but the 4Runner is one of the first vehicles to comply with the new SAE tow-rating standard.
Still, the 4Runner hasn't gone totally soft. Historically a very capable off-roader, the 4Runner still uses a platform very similar to that of the FJ Cruiser. All four-wheel-drive models come with a low range, downhill assist, and an off-road traction program, while the Trail model adds a locking rear differential, crawl control, and a terrain-selection dial. Our time with a four-wheel-drive V-6 SR5, however, was relegated to suburban streets and highways, where the 4Runner is also quite competent.
The ride is comfortable in most situations, although hitting the right string of roadway patches and bumps elicits a side-to-side toss that reveals the live-rear-axle suspension. There's also an absolute lack of feedback in the steering wheel, but it's refreshing that Toyota hasn't dialed in artificial resistance to compensate. Instead, the steering effort always feels dead but perfectly weighted. And even though the 4Runner has grown in width and length, it's easy to place it in a parking spot.
Ask the V-6 to give its all, and the 4Runner does a pretty good rhinoceros impression, moving with surprising speed and authority. It's unexpectedly smooth sounding, too. From top gear, however, the five-speed automatic will perform two distinct - and somewhat slow - downshifts before the engine is really ready to hustle.
It's an impressive truck with a comfortable cabin and good on-road manners, but the 4Runner may be backing itself into a niche, raising serious questions about its future. The 4Runner's biggest problem just might be Toyota's expansive lineup, where the Highlander crossover and the full-size Sequoia SUV are compelling bookends to the typical buyer's needs. Furthermore, Toyota offers several other vehicles that make a convincing case for any need, whether it's off-roading, fuel economy, or people hauling. For that reason, we're not so sure that the 4Runner has a future ten years out. But for now, it's here, it's new, and it's everything you ever thought a 4Runner should be.
On sale: Now
Price: $28,300/$36,634 (base/as tested)
Engines: 2.7L I-4, 157 hp, 178 lb-ft; 4.0L V-6, 270 hp, 278 lb-ft
Drive: Rear- or 4-wheel