Towing is one of those hot-button truck and SUV issues that seemingly every car-opinion-haver feels the need to weigh in on. But even if you have to move the occasional load, do you really need your SUV to have a full truck frame?
For my family, as I grew up amid the minivan boom and the crossover explosion that followed it, the answer was always yes. My mom and brother were disgusted at the new crop of car-based people-haulers. To them, a full-framed truck-based SUV was superior for hauling gear and towing things, never mind that neither one of them had towed a day in their lives, and their body-on-frame van and trucks only shuttled them to and from work atop paved roads. Even now, as an adult, I still ask myself: Were they right?
My first towing experience was in the unibody, car-like Honda Ridgeline. Would a “traditional” truck offering truly do better? Toyota helped me out with that quandary and lent me a 2022 Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro.
2022 Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro
- Base Price (as tested): $38,820 for a regular 4Runner; ($54,803)
- Engine: 4.0-liter DOHC V6, 270 horsepower, 278 ft-lbs of torque
- Drivetrain: Four-wheel drive
- Transmission: 5-speed automatic
- Fuel Economy MPG: 16 city, 19 highway, 17 combined
- Vehicle Type: Mid-size SUV
- Curb Weight: 4,750 pounds
On paper, the Ridgeline and 4Runner are at opposite ends of the light-truck spectrum. The Ridgeline’s 3.5-liter V6 has more power, its transmission has way more gears, it’s better on gas, and it’s faster. But, the Ridgeline is unibody, and until 2021, could be ordered in front-wheel-drive guise; it’s kind of a big Pilot with a bed.
By comparison, the 4Runner is an old design; the basic guts of the car date back to at least 2009. The powertrain’s 4.0-liter V6 is mated to an old-school five-speed automatic, some four fewer gears than the HPD Ridgeline I had. But it’s a full-on truck, sporting a frame shared with the old FJ Cruiser and Land Cruiser Prado sold outside America. No car-based unibody transverse-mounted engine underneath there.
Curiously, both trucks are rated to tow the same amount: 5,000 pounds. Both companies took two different paths to get the same result, but which was the right one?
While growing up, my mom and brother stayed proselytizing the virtues of buying trucks over cars. Me, the rebellious gay teen wanted nothing of the sort, consciously tuned out the truck evangelism. I’m not a contrarian teenager anymore, so my antagonism toward trucks and SUVs has greatly diminished, but I don’t know if I’ve ever been overtly interested in a 4Runner. My colleague Chris Rosales wrote a whole Car Autance about the now-legendary third-generation model, but until Toyota delivered one to my front door, I had never so much as been a passenger in one.
I know everyone wants 4Runners, though. My tester stickered for an eye-popping $54,800, but it is not possible to get one for that price. Identical 4Runner TRD Pros have markups that push the truck well past $65,000. Wow.
Price aside, I liked looking at the truck. At first, the ostentatious sinus-infection green paint was a bit much. But after a day, I found myself admiring the color, even if I had seen it used before on the Toyota Prius C. Some would say that the chunky tires, lifted ride height roof rack and try-hard TRD accessories are everything wrong with modern SUVs, but I couldn’t make myself care about those things. I just thought the 4Runner was too cool. Sorry.
Inside, some would call the 4Runner’s interior old, and, it kind of is, but that’s okay. The 4Runner’s interior isn’t a sleek, screen-laden soft-touch plastic layout, like what you’d find in a new Jeep Grand Cherokee. The whole layout is clearly from 2009. Is that so bad, though? The plastic quality and fitment were good, the seats were comfortable, and I had acres of space for me, a few friends, and all our junk. The interior’s insistence on buttons, dials, and switches was refreshing; no reason to get lost in menus or touch-capacitive buttons that don’t always work.
The On-Road Limits Are Low, But That’s Okay
The 4Runner’s beefy V6 engine produces the same 270 horsepower and 278 ft-lbs of torque it made when the truck was introduced for the 2009 model year. Same five-speed automatic, too.
On the road, the truck felt decidedly old-school. The 4Runner was relaxed if a bit wandering and jiggly on the pavement. People have forgotten how maneuverable modern car-based crossovers are; even the most bloated of them are remarkably sure-footed in fast turns. The 4Runner’s solid axle and full-frame design (exacerbated by the knobby tires) meant the truck was explicitly not so confident in faster curves.
And yet, I couldn’t make myself actually care. The more I drove the 4Runner, the more comfortable I became with its actual on-road abilities. Lateral grip and body roll kind of didn’t matter. True, the 4Runner can’t corner or handle as well as any car-based crossover, but it didn’t feel bad or unsafe. It just felt as if the limits of the vehicle are clearly stated, and you must tailor your driving style to suit it. Why would you expect it to be a corner carver? The engine and transmission certainly feel kind of fast, but I knew on paper the actual observed numbers are probably mediocre, at best. If I wanted on-road comfort and handling out of an SUV, Toyota would be more than happy to sell me any number of car-based crossovers.
Still, all that mental soft-pedaling of the 4Runner’s defenses shouldn’t make up for the real reason why we’re here: How does this thing tow?
Towing With the 4Runner Is a Stress-Free Affair
The 4Runner’s 270 horsepower and five-speed auto wouldn’t have been all that impressive for a towing rig, even back in 2009. On paper, the 4Runner should fare worse than the Ridgeline, which has slightly less torque, but four more gears to choose from.
I tasked the 4Runner to tow my broken CR-Z with a dolly from U-Haul. Admittedly, the 4Runner would have an easier test than the Ridgeline. The car dolly and CR-Z together should weigh about 3,600 pounds, about 900 pounds fewer than the Daewoo Lanos and full-car flatbed trailer the Ridgeline towed. The 4Runner’s route was significantly flatter, too.
But I’m not sure if the 900-pound difference would account for the delta in my experience. On paper, the 4Runner should have towed much worse than the Honda Ridgeline, but it didn’t, possibly for the reasons mentioned above. The Ridgeline’s 3.5-liter V6 and nine-speed auto were busy; I constantly found myself winding out the engine, and manually controlling the gears. By contrast, the 4Runner’s transmission was always in the right place. The truck felt stable, with little to no sway, but that could have been because of the different type of trailering.
Remarkably, the 4Runner matched the Ridgeline’s fuel economy when towing. The Ridgeline averaged about 12 to 13 MPG. The 4Runner managed a not-so-bad 13.9 mpg with a car in tow at freeway speeds in cold, wintery driving.
Time To Take Off the Glasses
It wouldn’t be a Kevin Williams car review without me being critical, right? Achieving 13.9 mpg is pretty good for towing, but sans tow rig, I could only manage 16 mpg.
As stated earlier, the 4Runner might have the most egregious markups of any truck in the industry; identical extremely low-mile used and brand new examples sticker for close to $70,000. But this isn’t a $70,000 truck. The powertrain, interior, are not luxury car level, but they weren’t meant to be, either. For the price of a loaded-up old-design 4Runner, you can get a brand new Land Rover Defender. If I have to spend $70,000 on an SUV, I can’t imagine spending money on an elderly design from 2009 with a five-speed automatic.
The 4Runner Is More than a Spec Sheet
The 4Runner costs a lot of money. It’s an old design. The gas mileage isn’t good at all. It’s lifted, kind of loud inside, and on paper, every car in its class and real-world price range should beat it.
Yet, they don’t. The 4Runner’s real-world utility and driving experience still remain remarkably charming. The 4Runner has its loyal fans, folks who want a robust, well-made off-road truck that isn’t overly complicated to maintain, service, or upgrade. To some, or rather, to many given the fact 4Runner prices refuse to come down, that’s well worth a price premium. A 4Runner buyer doesn’t care about touchscreen everything, supermodular platforms, or electrification. They just want a cool-looking truck that can go off-road and haul stuff.
And, the 4Runner fits that bill to a tee. I don’t know if I could ever bring myself to buy one, but after towing with one and living with it for a week, I completely understood why the 4Runner is beloved by so many people.
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