Darth Vader, your new SUV is ready

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With so many Sport Utility Vehicles all looking the same, Toyota has kept its 4Runner moulded in its squarish style. The overall look comes off as strong, muscular and menacing. It is the just the vehicle for Darth Vader when he’s visiting Earth. Although not so big looking on the outside, the 4Runner has gobs of interior room especially with the rear seats folded down. This allowed me to easily toss in eight tires and four rims so my local service station could mount and balance a set for summer use on the family sedan. The 4.0 litre V6 under the hood sorta-kinda feels lively on city streets. Acceleration is not neck snapping when you floor it. It should be with 270 horsepower. When you do reach highway speed, the engine doesn’t convey the smooth, quiet sounds I would expect from a Toyota engine. I noticed granularity to the drive feel. It was nothing annoying, just a slight graininess in the drivetrain below your feet. It’s also a thirsty engine; keep it steady at 100 and you might get around 10 L/100km. Any faster and it gets much worse pushing 15L/100 km. The V6 works well with the smooth-shifting five-speed automatic. Once at highway speed though, the engine seems to run out of breath. Other than the loud, rushing sounds the engine makes under throttle, the 4Runner is surprisingly quiet – there’s a bit of wind noise at 100 km/h but it’s minimal.

The ride is good on decent roads but it becomes a bit of a kidney-jostling adventure over anything irregular and ends up bordering on harsh when it’s something like a rutted back road I travelled during a run to the Barrhead area.

My top-of-the-line Limited model had the big 20 inch wheels and was certainly capable of going off-road as ground clearance is about 244 mm. Wheeling around town I notice the steering is quick and rather accurate for an SUV. No sporting pretensions, just nice to be able to steer quickly around hazards or whip into a parking space. If you have to tow, the 4Runner is rated up to 2,268 kg (5,000 lb) and all models come equipped with a hitch receiver, wiring harness and supplementary transmission oil cooler.

As the 4Runner was in my possession during a period of cold and snow it quickly became apparent the engine takes its time warming and providing heat to the passenger cabin. At least the heated seats did their job in a hurry. But there is no heated steering wheel! On a $50,000 plus SUV?

Owners need strong arms to swing up the rear lift gate. This is a heavy piece of steel and glass and also takes muscle to close it. At least someone at Toyota thought to include a power rear window in the liftgate if you just want to toss an article in the back. Then there are the so-called running boards on this rig. Not wide enough for normal sized shoes, you might slide off and take a tumble if the running board is covered in ice. Still, they are handy, as climbing in is quite a step up. Make them wider Toyota!

The 4Runner does have many good attributes. The cooled and heated leather seats offer good support and comfort. There is certainly no issue with workmanship. This rig is well put together and the interior design is refreshing in that it doesn’t really mimic other truck or SUV interior styles out there.

You get a huge glove box and plenty of other storage nooks. Rear passengers get two 12V plugs and the middle seatback folds down to become a nice armrest with a couple of cup-holders. The centre NAV screen and HVAC controls are easy to use and are logically laid out. The large knobs are appreciated if a person is wearing gloves on a cold winter day. The stereo system lacks a quality of sound I’ve come to expect in other high-end Toyota vehicles. What’s with that? The design of the gauge faces for speed and engine rpm could use a more legible font with less fancy business.

A full-time 4×4 system in the Limited trim lets you choose between two 4-Hi modes (splitting the power between front and rear either variably or equally), or a 4-Lo mode for low-speed manoeuvres. Hill-descent and hill-start modes are standard, as is A-TRAC (Active Traction Control). After being in production for over three decades, the 4Runner is a proven body-on-frame SUV engineered from the ground up to be capable for on and off the road transportation.

The 4Runner comes in five distinct configurations starting at $38,310. My well equipped Limited model stickered at $49,502 not including GST and freight.

Garry Melnyk is a St. Albert resident and lifelong car buff who has written about new cars and trucks for radio and print publications since the ’70s.

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