2020 Toyota 4Runner Venture Special Edition Doesn't Deliver For Modern SUV Fans
The Jeep Wrangler takes a lot of heat for being an anachronism, a body-on-frame off-roader in a world that's largely transitioned to car-based crossover platforms as the de facto choice for most new vehicle buyers. And yet, with each passing year the Wrangler has made a significant effort to update where it can—particularly under the hood, and in the cabin—while retaining the aspects of its rugged past that make it most appealing to hardcore 4x4 fans.
The Toyota 4Runner, on the other hand, has seen no such evolution. Perhaps the only true, similarly-sized competitor to the Wrangler in terms of capability and trail cred, the 4Runner has been coasting for nearly a decade on the perception that it's the more civilized of the two adventure-mobiles.
While that may have once been true, a week spent bashing through the snow in the 2020 edition of Toyota's popular go-anywhere option reveals that the 4Runner's claim to modern manners has begun to wear thin.
It's Got The Off-Road Goods
There are two ways to look at the Toyota 4Runner. For those who plan on leaving the pavement behind, but who can't justify owning a dedicated trail rig, there's a lot to like about the Venture Special Edition model that I drove.
Positioned near the top of the 4Runner's trim hierarchy, the Venture combines the locking differential, A-TRAC traction control system, and terrain management and crawl control systems found on the TRD Off-Road Premium model with a host of comfort gear (heated leatherette seats, a moonroof, automatic climate control, upgraded infotainment) intended to smooth out the drive to work on Monday morning after a solid weekend collecting mud.
My tester also came with the optional Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS), which surprisingly isn't available on the ostensibly more hardcore TRD Pro version of the 4Runner, as well as a Yakima cargo hauler basket to the roof. KDSS is notable for using hydraulics to actively adjust its stabilizer bars on pavement for better body control, while softening response on the trail in order to improve individual wheel articulation.
While the Toyota might not offer a solid front axle to match the one it boasts out back, you won't find another Wrangler rival with the same low-range four-wheel drive capability and legitimately capable suspension package at this price point anywhere outside a Jeep showroom.
Seen from another perspective, that independent front setup and updated-for-2020 list of features (adaptive cruise control, improved safety systems, larger touchscreen, Android Auto/Apple CarPlay support, keyless entry, snazzier gauge cluster) might also have you thinking that the Toyota 4Runner is at the very least competitive with the crossover set when it comes to daily comfort.
Unfortunately, the SUV is hamstrung by two important oversights that see it lagging the field. Under the hood lurks an ancient V6 (similar to that found in the mid-size Tacoma pickup), and its 270 hp and 278 lb-ft of torque are begrudgingly extracted from its 4.0-liters of displacement in rough and noisy fashion. The truck's sluggishness is further compounded by an equally-dated five-speed automatic gearbox—truly a museum piece in a world where some transmissions offer double its ratios.
Together, this makes for disappointing sub-20-mpg fuel economy in all situations, and while the vehicle's IFS might improve its handling on the highway its drivetrain package is shamed by both the V6 and the turbocharged four-cylinder currently available with the Wrangler. It's not enough to sink the 4Runner as an option, but its definition of 'lackluster' when compared against the current state of the art.
Next up? An interior that doesn't come close to matching the expectations of my Venture model tester's $46k window sticker. Clunky control surfaces and ample black plastic are the order of the day for a vehicle that was clearly last designed a decade or so ago. The revised instrument cluster and fancy infotainment touchscreen do dress things up, but it's not enough to overcome the truck's overall impression. The noise of the Yakima rack howling away at highway speeds was another unwelcome intrusion into the 4Runner's cabin.
It's Not Too Late
If Toyota had committed to a strategy of continual improvement with the 4Runner, there's no doubt in my mind that it could be a legitimate mid-size SUV alternative for fans of all-terrain driving. The vehicle performed admirably on barely-there snow-covered roads during our time together, and there's enough torque to get the job done should you encounter any obstacles between trailhead and exit. The Toyota also features a respectable level of interior room whether you're hauling cargo out back (up to 90 cubic feet in total) or six-footers stuffed into its ample second row.
The overall experience of living with the 4Runner day to day, however, is loud, gruff and fairly basic. It's an almost-enough solution in a world filled with a seemingly endless array of better-thans, which isn't a good look for a vehicle that asks you to pay a premium. Forget, for a moment, the Wrangler's existence, and you can duplicate nearly every aspect of the Toyota's off-road performance with the $45,000 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk, while simultaneously blowing the Japanese contender out of the water in every other meaningful measure.
The 4Runner's issues are not insurmountable. Toyota has all the hardware required to bring the SUV's engine and transmission into the current decade sitting in a warehouse, as evidenced by the superior performance of the platform-sharing Lexus GX. Likewise, interior upgrades abound in other areas of the company's crossover portfolio. It's going to take a sizeable effort in both of these areas before the 4Runner crosses the line from also-ran to recommended.
Curious about the more hardcore Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro? Check out our review here.