There is joy in Mudville.
Sure, Toyota is still working through some issues, and its current lineup of cars and trucks remains largely as exciting as tofu-flavored gelatin. But for fun-seekers there is one bright spot on the lot. That is, if it isn’t covered in dirt.
The fifth-generation 4Runner is part of a dying breed: trucks that are still trucks. The midsize SUV fighting the temptation to become a truckvestite as so many of its crossover competitors have in recent years. Built with body-on-frame construction, it proudly looks the part, too. The exterior could’ve been designed by the Slate Rock and Gravel Company and it has a utilitarian cabin layout with big buttons and knobs that you could easily manipulate with four fat Flintsonesque fingers, let alone while wearing gloves.
Don’t get me wrong, the latest 4Runner makes plenty of concessions to civility. This is particularly true in the top-of-the-line, draped-in-leather full-time all-wheel-drive Limited model, which is perfect for trips to the Grand Canyon Visitor center. But the name of the $36,500 Trail trim level says it all. Its cloth upholstery is water-resistant; there is no soccer mom-friendly third row seating option; and, most important, it comes with a big bag of off-road tricks.
Along with a lever-operated four-wheel-drive transfer case, the Trail has a locking rear differential for extreme maneuvers. The Multi-terrain Select knob above the rearview mirror is used to fine tune the amount of wheel slip allowed under acceleration and braking to match the type of surface you are driving on, while the one next to it controls the CRAWL system which lets you to set the vehicle at a fixed low speed so you can concentrate on steering through whatever remnants of the apocalypse you come across. The operation of the latter accompanied by an unsettling Predator-like “tick tick tick tick” noise as it modulates the brakes and throttle to maintain a steady pace, adding a dramatic soundtrack to your adventure.
All of this is further augmented by the A-TRAC active traction control system which also works at low speeds to further enhance grip on slippery surfaces by directing the power being put out by the 270hp 4.0-liter V6 to whatever wheel can make the most use of it. Hill-start assist is also standard.
Of course, you can’t use everything at the same time. CRAWL doesn’t work when the Multi-terrain System is active; the transfer case needs to be in Low-4 for A-TRAC to work; and so on. It can be confusing for the uninitiated, especially when you’re halfway up an exposed hunk of granite in the pouring rain searching for a button marked “Aw Crap” to press. Instead, there’s a digital display on the dashboard that admonishes you when you try to do something incorrectly, using messages like “STOP THE VEHICLE & SHIFT THE AUTO. TRANSMISSION TO N” to set you straight. A smack on the back of the head is inferred by the capital letters.
It’s all a part of the fun. There’s an old-fashioned simplicity to the complexity. For someone used to today’s modern vehicular appliances and their one-size-fits all operating procedures, driving the Trail is a grin-inducing event akin to sneaking into a construction site as an teen and taking an unattended front loader for a spin.
To give you a sense of how capable Toyota thinks the 4Runner is, it has a button to disable the roll-sensing side curtain airbags in case there’s a nice cliff that you’d like to drive along the side of without getting whacked in the ear by an exploding pillow.
Although I wasn’t able to find an obstacle quite so challenging during my week with the 4Runner, a ride down the roughest ridgeline I know of was no match for its 9.6 inches of ground clearance, 33-degree approach angle and ability to ford 27.5 inches of water. An optional $1,750 Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System automatically uncouples the stabilizer bars to increase wheel articulation when faced with boulders and the gaps between them. Try as I might, I either never needed it, or it worked so seamlessly that I didn’t know that I did.
On paved roads, where even the most devoted off-roaders will spend the bulk of their time in the 4Runner, it’s a surprisingly civilized beast. Wind and tire noise are suspiciously absent considering the El Capitan grade face it presents to world and its wide, knobby mud and snow Dunlops. Helping this is a top gear in the relatively archaic 5-speed transmission so tall that at 70 mph the engine is spinning at a lazy and nearly silent 2,000 rpm.
That said, what in the world were we thinking when we started using these as family cars? The ride quality is far from terrible, but it’s bouncy enough to notice, and side-to side head-toss - exacerbated by the solid rear axle – can be annoying even on mere pothole-laden city streets.
Unfortunately for Neanderthals like the 4Runner, along with offering a better ride, the cross-dressing competition is getting better at swinging clubs around, too. The latest V6 Jeep Grand Cherokee – always and forever a unibody SUV – matches the Toyota’s tow rating of 5,000 lbs and is no slouch off road. The upcoming Ford Explorer – one of the recent crossover converts – can also pull as much. In the 4Runner’s favor, none of them know how to party.
I'm referring to yet another button on the dash, and it has nothing to do with summiting mountains. It’s labeled “Party Mode” and with one touch it shifts the balance of the stereo to the speakers in the tailgate, which on the Trail model is fitted with a slide out cargo tray-cum-beer cooler and BBQ stand. Joy indeed.
Just watch your feet, it might be muddy back there.
2010 Toyota 4Runner Trail
Base Price: $36,500
As Tested: $40,874
Type: 5-passenger, four-wheel-drive 5-door SUV
Engine: 4.0-liter V6
Power: 270 hp, 278 lb-ft torque
MPG: 17 city/22 hwy