Toyota 4Runner Road Test

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Toyota took a perfectly good truck and made it as quiet and smooth riding as a car.

After finishing my first drive of the all-new 2003 Toyota 4Runner, I had to take a quick peek underneath in order to believe what the Toyota people were telling me. This new 4Runner is most definitely still truck based with all the ruggedness and stump pulling capability that goes along with the breed. But the ride, comfort and quietness, not to mention the handling, of this 4th generation 4Runner is as good as a sedan (a good sedan).

Source: Motor Trend
Category:$30,000 – $40,000 Mid sized Sport Utility Vehicle
should buy
this car:
A person who wants a REAL SUV that is equally at home climbing mountains as it is cruising the highways
and byways
cars in
this class:
Chevrolet TrailBlazer, Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, GMC Envoy XL,
Nissan Pathfinder

I have often recommended that if a person had no desire to venture off-road any further than their driveway, they should be looking at one of the many car based SUV’s that are currently available. When I say “car based”, I’m talking about a vehicle that looks like an SUV, but is built on a car platform with all the comfort, smoothness and fuel economy that comes with that type of vehicle. These “crossover” vehicles have that SUV look and room and may even have all-wheel drive to help you keep your footing in rain and light snow, but they are meant for pavement and are no more capable of going off-road or pulling a large trailer than a minivan.

While Toyota has succeeded in making the new 4Runner feel more like a car, there is still a big difference between the two architectures. A truck based vehicle is built with more rugged components and separate body on frame construction. Ground clearance is greater to allow them to clear obstacles that would cause real damage to those SUV pretenders should their owner be foolish enough to follow a real SUV into the backwoods. Driveline pieces are also heavier duty as are engines that must be larger to move all that extra weight around. All this means unavoidably higher fuel consumption, the Achilles Heal of truck-based SUVs. This is the real price you pay for a vehicle that is based on a truck platform with all the strength and ruggedness left intact.

Even though this redesigned 4Runner is truck based, Toyota has succeeded in almost completely eliminating road noise. Wind noise is pretty much a thing of the past as well. Engine noise only becomes noticeable at more than half throttle on the two engine choices that are available, but more on the engines in a bit.

Behind the wheel, I got the feeling I was sitting in a cockpit, and a snazzy one at that. The high-tech look is enhanced even further in the Limited trim level by the use of dash accents made, not of wood as you might expect, but a material that looked like polished granite.

I found the 8-way power seat to be comfortable and supportive and equipped with a power adjustable lumbar support. Rear seat comfort was also up there with plenty of room for three abreast seating. There is noticeably more hip and shoulder room front and rear then in the previous 4Runner. A third row seat is not available.

I was never crazy about the styling on previous 4Runner models, but I really like the look of this one. The base SR5 and Sport models use grey bumpers and body cladding for a rugged, sporty look, while the Limited uses body colored bumpers and cladding for a more elegant look. The sport model has a prominent hood scoop to set it apart from the SR5. Either way, Toyota stylists are to be commended for creating a very attractive package.

I’ve often heard journalists complain that body cladding takes away from the styling of a vehicle, but I don’t think that is always the case, especially on this new 4Runner. Besides, the first time you see someone slam their door into the side of your beautiful new car in a parking lot, you will love body cladding. Consider it a 360 degree bumper.


This 4th generation 4Runner is built on an all-new platform that starts with a ladder-frame chassis featuring full-length boxed frame rails for added stiffness and strength. A stiff unitized body structure is attached to this chassis with large diameter body mounts that serve to isolate the cabin from road noise and vibration. A standard tow hitch receiver is mounted to the rear frame crossmember and includes: a draw bar, 7-pin electrical connector for trailer wiring and pre-wiring for easy installation of an electric trailer brake controller. Towing capacity is 5,000 pounds.

The front suspension is a conventional independent double wishbone setup. The rear is also conventional with a four-link solid axle. Steering is power-assisted, variable-gear, rack-and-pinion. If you have a Limited with a V8, you can opt for an automatic leveling rear air suspension system. This option provides for better ride and control while carrying heavy loads or when towing.

Judging by the way this new 4Runner drives, I can tell you unequivocally that Toyota got the basic structure right, but they also threw in plenty of technological sophistication as well. Let’s talk about some of the fancy stuff they crammed into this beast.


First, we need to add a couple more 3-letter acronyms to our vocabulary. The first is DAC, which stands for Downhill Assist Control. This system is standard on all 4Runners with 4WD and relies on a new technology called Active Wheel Speed Sensors. The DAC system assists a driver attempting to negotiate down a steep, slippery slope. When the vehicle is in 4WD Low range with DAC turned on, if an individual wheel is spinning faster or slower than the other wheels, the DAC system will control the throttle or individual wheel brakes to ensure the vehicle stays in a straight line. When moving down the hill, speed is kept at or below 4 MPH as long as the driver keeps his foot off the gas and brake. If either pedal is touched, DAC de-activates giving control back to the driver.

Then we have HAC or Hill-start Assist Control. This is a system that comes as standard equipment on all 2003 4Runners and keeps the vehicle from rolling backwards when beginning an ascent of a steep hill. When you take your foot off the brake and move it onto the gas to begin climbing the hill, if the vehicle begins rolling backward while the transmission is in a forward gear, the brakes will be applied.

Of course, all 4Runners come standard with ABS (Anti-lock Brakes), EBD (Electronic Brake Distribution), VSC (Vehicle Skid Control) and BA (Brake Assist). (Yeah, I know that BA is only two letters)

In my opinion, the most significant new feature is the optional X-REAS, or Diagonal-Linked Relative Absorber Sport Enhanced System. Quite a mouthful, but in essence, it is a system that is designed to keep the vehicle amazingly flat when cornering hard without messing up the ride quality when driving sanely. This is one of those systems that is so simple in concept, that I’m sure it has suspension engineers slapping their head (behind closed doors, of course) saying to themselves “Why didn’t I think of that?”. (or their bosses saying “why didn’t YOU think of that?”)

Here’s how it works: Normally, when you take a vehicle into a hard turn, the front outside corner dips down as most of the vehicle’s weight is transferred to that corner. Let’s say we are taking a hard left turn. This will cause the right front to dip. Obviously, while this is happening, the diagonal corner, in this case the left rear, is lifting up. With me so far? What this X-REAS system does is to simply connect the diagonal shocks together through a series of hydraulic tubes. The bottom of the left front shock is connected with the top of the right rear shock while the bottom of the right front shock is connected with the top of the left rear shock. Now, when one of the front shocks is compressing due to cornering and the opposite rear shock is expanding, fluid from each shock is being forced through the same channel to a device that causes the two shocks to cancel each other out and stop moving. So in a nutshell, a front shock can’t compress if the diagonal rear shock is trying to expand, which has the effect of preventing the vehicle from leaning into the turn. Ingenious. This is a purely mechanical & hydraulic system with no computer involvement at all. This system is also very effective in controlling brake dive since whenever you stop short, vehicle weight is transferred to the front causing the front end to dip and the rear to lift up.

I had a chance to drive an X-REAS equipped 4-Runner and pushed it into a few corners with enough speed to lift a rear wheel off the ground on a lesser SUV (the preamble to a rollover) and let me tell you… I was amazed at how flat this truck cornered. This system works as advertised. X-REAS comes standard on the 4Runner Sport and is an option on the Limited.


One of the complaints that I had with the previous 4Runner was its lack of power. Well, that has been addressed with a new all-aluminum 4.0 liter V6 engine that produces 245 horsepower at 5,200 RPM and a healthy 282 lb.-ft. of torque at 3,800 RPM. That’s a far cry from the previous model’s piddling 183 HP and 217 lb.-ft. of torque. Now if that is not enough power for all you Tim Allen fans, Toyota is also offering an optional4.7 liter i-FORCEV8 engine (haw, haw, haw) which raises the torque to 320 lb. ft. Horsepower for the optional V8 on the other hand, is actually lower than the V6 at 235, but that peek horsepower comes in at a lower 4,800 RPM. The net effect of a larger engine producing power at a lower RPM is that real world performance seems more effortless with the engine seemingly loafing while you feel the surge of power pushing you back into the seat. Good enough for a 0 to 60 time of 7.9 seconds. The V6 had plenty of power but, unlike the V8, you can hear the engine working harder to deliver that power.

This new V6, even though it’s larger and more powerful than last year’s 3.4 liter engine, gets better fuel economy than the old model with 18 mpg in city driving and 21 mpg on the highway for two wheel drive models with one mpg less in both city and highway for the 4WD models. The V8 with 4WD gets 15 city and 19 highway and is LEV (Low Emission Vehicle) certified. The old model with its 3.4 liter V6 got 16 city and 19 highway.


All 4WD 4Runners are equipped with a two-speed transfer case with increased torque capacity and a Torsen sensing type limited-slip center differential. The 4WD 4Runners equipped with the V6 engine use a Multi-Mode shift-on-the-fly 4WD system while V8 models are equipped with full-time 4-wheel drive. The Multi-Mode 4WD feature on the V6 is an open center differential with locking capability that provides a full-time 4WD system with the ability to select 2WD mode. You can safely use 4WD mode in normal driving conditions on all types of roads from dry pavement, to wet or snow-covered roads.

All 4Runners come with automatic transmissions. The V6 models get an electronically controlled 4-speed unit while the V8 gets an all new 5-speed automatic with an Artificial Intelligence (AI) Shift control.

There is one more feature on the new 4Runner that I just have to tell you about. It’s another one of those “Why didn’t I think of that?” ideas that I just know will catch on. How many times have you jumped into your car in a parking lot only to fine yourself between two large vehicles so that you can’t see what’s coming as you back out. So you slowly creep back hoping that any traffic will see you and slow down to allow you to exit the space. Well, Toyota put a small mirror on the inside of each rear pillar that you can see from the inside rearview mirror. It allows you to see any traffic coming as though you were sitting in the rear load floor and looking out the back window.

There are tons of other intelligent, well thought out features, like adjustable and ILLUMINATED cup holders. (huh?) This is actually a great safety feature that keeps you from groping in the dark to find the cupholder in order to put your coffee down so you can answer your cell phone, or maybe even steer with both hands. There is also a neat two level cargo shelf in the rear that either sits flat on the floor or can be lifted to align with the folded down rear seatbacks to form a full-width platform for loading sheets of building material.

I am still reluctant to recommend a truck-based SUV unless you have a reason for needing one. Some people believe that an SUV is safer in an accident because it is heavier and you sit higher up. This way, if someone hits you, you are more protected. This may be true, but realize this. If you are the one that is doing the hitting, you will do a lot more damage to the other guy who might be in a small car.

In general, truck-based SUVs get poor gas mileage, have a high center of gravity which reduces stability (unless you opt for the X-REAS system), have a high step-in height which makes it difficult for older people to climb in and and out, and they are more expensive to maintain and repair.

While Toyota has solved a number of these issues with this very competent 4Runner for 2003, I still think that, in the long run most perspective buyers would be happier with a car-based vehicle like the Toyota Highlander.

However, if you must have a REAL SUV and not one of the many pretenders that keep popping up, this is your ride. And if this new 4Runner is so smooth and quiet riding, I can’t wait to try the new Lexus GX470, which is the same vehicle as this 4Runner, but with the Lexus penchant for making quiet, good riding vehicles even quieter and better riding. I’ll keep you posted.

How would I improve this car?

How does the 4Runner fit your driving style?

Conservative drivers will feel very comfortable and at-home in this SUV. Its smooth and quiet demeanor, responsive steering and substantial feel will give you a feeling of security that is hard to find elsewhere.

Sporty drivers should opt for an X-REAS equipped 4-Runner for a good on-road as well as off-road experience. Despite the flat cornering ability, the tall off-road tires will curb your enthusiasm for high-speed cornering

Fast drivers while this vehicle has flat cornering and plenty of power, the tires are not up to the challenge of fast on-road driving and hard cornering. Off-road is where this vehicle is in its element.




Engine Type4.0-liter, 6-cylinder, DOHC, 24-valve, aluminum alloy block with aluminum alloy heads4.7-liter, 8-cylinder, DOHC, 32-valve, steel alloy block with aluminum alloy head
Horsepower245 @ 5,200 RPM235 @ 4,800 RPM
Torque282 @ 3,800 RPM320 @ 3,400 RPM
Fuel Recommended

Premium 91 Octane Unleaded.

Transmission4-Speed ECTi Automatic5-Speed ECT Automatic with A.I.
Drive TypeRear-wheel 2WD or
multi-mode 4WD
Rear-wheel 2WD or
full-time 4WD
Tires – Standard
Tires – Optional

P265/70 R16 Mud and snow radial
P265/65 R17 Mud and snow radial

Overall Length






Steering turns

3.04 Lock to Lock

Turning Diameter

36.7 ft Curb to Curb

Curb Weight
Towing Capacity

5,000 lbs.

Fuel Tank

23 Gallons

Miles Per Gallon 2WD
Miles Per Gallon 4WD
EPA city 18, hwy 21
EPA city 17, hwy 21
EPA city 16, hwy 20
EPA city 15, hwy 19
Acceleration 0 to 60N/A7.9 sec.
Base Sticker Price

V6 models will be available in the 1st. quarter of 2003


Add $510 Destination charge

2003 Toyota 4Runner

Standard Equipment

Standard Equipment for the SR-5 Includes…

The Sport Has All the SR-5 Features Plus…

The Limited Has All the SR-5 Features Plus…

Major Available Options

For more information on the 4Runner, visit

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Charles Ofria

Automotive Expert

Charles Ofria was an automotive journalist who was active in the automotive industry for over 40 years. During the '70s, he was owner-operator of Ofria Automotive, a thriving auto repair shop in Brooklyn, NY. During that time he became involved with auto mechanic training when he set up courses to help prepare mechanics to take the then new A.S.E. (Automotive Service Excellence) mechanic certification exams.

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