Battle of the Off-Road SUVs: JL Rubicon vs. 4Runner TRD Pro
These days, adventuring off the grid is easier than ever. Long gone are the days of buying a four-wheel drive vehicle, spending thousands of dollars equipping it with off-road-ready parts, then hoping you got things right the first time you go off the pavement. Auto manufacturers lately have taken aim at a market of consumers who want a ready-to-run off-road vehicle they can drive from the showroom to the dirt, without doing so much as topping off the tank. In 2019, two of the most prominent off-road ready SUVs are the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon and the Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro. But which stands above the other? The Toyota vs. Jeep rivalry is nothing new, as these models have dueled it out since the 1980s, but the latest models are, without a doubt, the most impressive renditions of each we’ve seen thus far. Follow along as we discuss six key topics of each vehicle, comparing and contrasting each against the other so you can decide which comes out on top.
The engine and transmission play a major role in a reliable and powerful off-road vehicle. While Toyotas are known for their reliability, Jeep has really stepped up its game with multiple engine and transmission offerings. The current model year TRD Pro comes with the standard 1GR-FE 4.0L V6 with dual VVT-i technology, producing 285hp and 289 lb-ft of torque. The 4Runner only comes with a five-speed automatic gear box, with no manual option. Toyota also stuck with the same manual transfer case as previous models. While this combo is proven, having been in the 4Runner since 2002 with little change, it’s certainly out of date.
The 2019 Rubicon comes standard with an updated version of the Pentastar 3.6L V6, also producing 285hp and 260 lb-ft of torque, but with a turbocharged inline-four-cylinder option now available (and a diesel option available next year). While not as reliable as the Toyota V6, the Pentastar has proven itself over the last eight years as a workhorse that can be trusted miles away from the nearest road. The Wrangler also has an available six-speed manual transmission for those die-hard stick shift guys. The 2019 Rubicon model, as with previous Rubicons, comes with an upgraded manual transfer case (now part of the Rock-Trac 4x4 system), with an unmatched 84.2:1 crawl ratio.
One of the most important parts of an off-road vehicle is the axles. They must be able to withstand the constant abuse from both the driver’s right foot and the terrain beneath them. Toyota switched the 4Runner to independent front suspension in 1986 and has never looked back. While the IFS 4WD system works very well in the 4Runner, it simply cannot articulate over obstacles the same way a solid front axle can. The rear axle is also a largely unchanged 8-inch solid axle design that also has its roots in the '80s models. The 2019 TRD Pro model comes standard with an electronic locking rear differential, but no locker option up front. We have to mention, the IFS front end on the 4Runner does have a smoother, more comfortable ride, and handles more like a car than an off-road SUV.
However, this is one area where Jeep clearly has the higher ground. The 2019 JL Rubicon comes standard with front and rear Dana 44 axles, upgraded from the proven axles found in the previous JK platform. While these axles don’t hold up to oversized tires very well, they are more than capable of taking any abuse on the stock Rubicon tires. In addition to their strength, the front and rear of the Rubicon comes standard with electronic locking differentials, pushing you up and over virtually any obstacle in your way.
Off-road suspension seems to be an area of focus for many OE manufacturers who are looking to entice this new market of enthusiast-consumers. The TRD Pro lineup has always featured performance-based suspension components, and the 2019 4Runner is no exception. With all new 2.5-inch Fox internal bypass (IBP) shocks with seven bypass zones, specifically tuned by TRD, the 4Runner handles the terrain with ease and comfort for all passengers. TRD-specific coil springs provide an extra inch of wheel travel and ride height over the base models, as well. The matching rear shocks have eleven bypass zones inside the shock body, and are also paired with TRD-specific coil springs. Overall, the 4Runner’s ride is extremely comfortable, both on the pavement and off. It handles rough terrain with relative ease, and ranks among the top performing factory off-road suspension packages of any stock vehicle.
Conversely, the 2019 Rubicon comes with a rather bland suspension setup. The shocks and springs are largely carried over from the previous JK platform, and don’t really offer any performance perks like the 4Runner, which is clearly the winner in this category.
In addition to the hard parts, both models come from the factory with a host of features geared towards the off-road way of life. The TRD Pro has its own crawl control system, designed to keep the vehicle's movement consistent over rocks, a multi-terrain select knob that makes adjustments for dynamic driving styles and hill start assist control to make those steep grades a breeze. We already mentioned the electronic rear locking differential, but the TRD Pro also comes with a quarter-inch thick aluminum skid plate up front to protect the IFS system. The 4Runner also comes with a TRD-specific roof rack for extra storage.
The Rubicon has a few more perks in the way of an off-road vehicle. As previously mentioned, a flip of the switch on the dash locks both differentials, but the Rubicon also has an electronic disconnecting front sway bar to give you the maximum articulation over taller obstacles. Additionally, in true Jeep fashion, the doors and top are removable, and the windshield folds down easier than its JK predecessor’s, giving you the ultimate feeling of off-road freedom.
Having driven thousands of miles in each vehicle, we’ve got a pretty good gauge on how each vehicle fares against the other both on and off-road. The Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro has very mild street driving characteristics. Nitto Terra Grapplers come standard, giving you a smooth, quiet ride with all-terrain grip for venturing further. The steering feels tight, and body roll is minimal and controlled, allowing you to make abrupt turns knowing the car is stable. But in true Japanese SUV style, it’s no rocket ship. Even with the same horsepower numbers and even more torque than the Jeep JL’s Pentastar V6, the 4Runner just seems sluggish. Largely due to the five-speed automatic transmission’s lazy shifting, 3.73 final gear ratio and its propensity to make most of its power in the low-end of the RPM band, driving this sporty SUV just doesn’t feel all that…sporty.
The opposite can be said about the JL Rubicon. The Pentastar loves revs, and makes power almost to redline. The available eight-speed transmission is as modern as it gets for a Jeep, with crisp, fast shifts that are reminiscent of driving a European sports car. The 4.10 gear ratio gives the Jeep a little more pep in its step off the line as well. Hill climbs, sand and fording water, the Rubicon just seems to excel without even really trying. Although it has a solid front axle and basic suspension components, the Rubicon drives like a modern vehicle. Some freeway bumps can give a little more steering input than other SUVs, but it’s all part of the Jeep experience. A small sacrifice for the benefits of a solid front axle.
Of course, all of these features come with a price. The 2019 TRD Pro 4Runner’s MSRP starts at $46,615, and has limited options from Toyota to add on. The 2019 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon starts at $41,445, but comes with a soft top, manual gearbox, halogen lighting and no creature comforts like heated seats or steering wheel. Adding the eight-speed automatic transmission, color-matched removable hard top, LED lighting inside and out, and heated seats and steering wheel brings the price up to $51,620.
That brings the difference to just over $5,000. Given most consumers will finance whatever vehicle they decide on, the difference in monthly payment between the two could be as little as $80 depending on the loan terms. Not exactly a deal-breaker for us.
Without a doubt, both the 2019 Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro and 2019 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon are forces to be reckoned with in the off-road SUV segment. Their capabilities and performance make them worthy adversaries, even in one of the most hotly debated conversations led by brand-loyal enthusiasts. But after having driven thousands of miles in each, across many different kinds of terrain off-road, utilizing every feature, putting each aspect of both vehicles to the test against mother nature and the urban jungle alike, our editorial staff had to decide between the two.
The Jeep won. The biggest reason behind our choice is Jeep’s willingness to innovate and produce a vehicle with options and features that reflect the consumer’s demand. Jeep took the time to listen to what their buyers wanted from the next generation Wrangler, and they took their words into heavy consideration, modeling the 2019 JL Rubicon into a Jeep for the people. Plus, driving without a roof and doors is really, really cool.