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First Drive: 2003 Toyota 4Runner

Fourth-generation midsizer

David Newhardt
Oct 19, 2002
Photographers: David Newhardt
In 1985, Toyota introduced a midsize sport/utility vehicle meant to address the growing desire for a rugged four-door that could take a beating and still get its occupants home in one piece. The 4Runner was targeted to a wide variety of world markets, and in order to slip below some country's vehicle width/tax formula, its width was limited to 1.7 meters. While that restriction helped ensure sales in many lands, the narrow cabin rubbed broad-shouldered Americans the wrong way. Yet the 4Runner sold well in the U.S., to the tune of 1.2 million vehicles since '85. For 2003, Toyota has set aside the thin-is-good approach and presented a proper-size entry for the hyper-competitive midsize SUV market.
2003 Toyota 4Runner Rear Passenger Side View On A Dirt Trail
  |   2003 Toyota 4Runner Rear Passenger Side View On A Dirt Trail
2003 Toyota 4Runner Interior View Steering Wheel
  |   2003 Toyota 4Runner Interior View Steering Wheel
Available in both 2WD and 4WD models, the original 4Runner had a beefy frame under a separate body, and the newest version is no different. The full-length boxed section frame rails are connected with nine fully welded crossmembers, while a Class III tow-hitch receiver is built into the rear-frame crossmember. The rigid frame is a good place to mount a substantial suspension, and Toyota has installed a double A-arm setup in the front, while a four-link solid axle holds up the rear. A new feature to the midsize-SUV market is the X-REAS (Diagonal-linked Relative Absorber System). Available on Sport and Limited models, what it really means is that the four oil-filled shock absorbers are cross-linked to their diagonal mate using tubing. The result is dampened suspension motion, as well as better transitional feel.
Unlike past 4Runners that offered a six-cylinder engine as top-of-the-line, the newest version starts with an all-new 4.0L DOHC V-6 powerplant. This all-aluminum engine develops 245 hp and 283 lb-ft of torque. Attached is a four-speed automatic transmission. As might be expected from a twin-cam, it delivers most of its power in the upper-rpm range. Yet this new engine has impressive punch right off idle. Keep your foot planted to the carpet, and it sails to redline like mechanical silk, cleanly shifting gears. It's more than sufficient for the majority of buyers.
If you need even more power, the newest 4Runner now offers a V-8 for the first time in its history. Essentially the same engine as in the Sequoia, Land Cruiser, and Tundra, the DOHC 4.7L delivers 235 hp and 320 lb-ft of twist, ideal for serious towing duties. While the V-6 is rated for pulling 5000 lb, the V-8 can haul 6500. Mated to the larger engine is Toyota's first use of a five-speed automatic transmission in a 4Runner.
The fourth-generation 4Runner wears a new body, a husky design that fits in well with the entire Toyota SUV lineup. With its bluff grille, traditional C-pillar treatment, and high-lift rear hatch, the 4Runner exudes a no-nonsense presence. Opening the door reveals a roomy, well-crafted interior that benefits from increased vehicle width as well as the 4.5-in.-longer (from 2002) wheelbase. No longer do occupants feel like they're sitting on the floor; the seats have good support and range. The rear hatch is fitted with a power rear window and power-assisted latching.
2003 Toyota 4Runner Passenger Side Headlight
  |   2003 Toyota 4Runner Passenger Side Headlight
Three trim levels are on the menu, starting with the SR-5. Exterior cladding visually distinguishes it from the other two tiers. Standard on the SR-5 are 16-in. wheels, with 17s on the option list. Next up the ladder is the Sport Edition, with slightly different cladding treatment, a hood scoop, and standard 17-in. wheels. At the top of the list is the Limited, replete with special 17-in. alloy wheels, body-color cladding, 115-volt AC power outlet, and illuminated running boards.
Behind the wheel, the new 4Runner is light years ahead of its predecessor. Noise, vibration, and harshness are significantly reduced to achieve sedanlike levels of ride quality. Yet when the road ends, the ride isn't over. Toyota has fitted the 4Runner with just about every electronic assist in its portfolio to give this SUV mountain-goat-like manners. Technology includes a Torsen sensing type limited-slip center differential (4WD), vehicle stability control, and Downhill Assist Control (DAC). Similar in operation to the Hill Descent Control on BMW's X-5 and the Range Rover, DAC uses selective wheel braking as well as engine braking to control vehicle speed. On the trail, it takes the drama out of heading down a scarred trail.
All these changes, improvements, and technology have resulted in an SUV that can tackle the brutal wilds or the showroom with confidence. The competition is on notice: Toyota might not have been the first in this segment, but it's come to the party with one of the best offerings.
Back before there was a need to distinguish compact from subcompact SUVs, the Toyota family of vehicles birthed a new SUV, the 4Runner, from its rich 4x4 midsize-pickup heritage. From austere beginnings, it grew more sophisticated with each incarnation.
1st Generation (1985-'89): Basically an open-backed pickup with a removable fiberglass cover over the cargo area. Passenger models had a folding rear seat. The solid front axle was replaced by Toyota's new Hi-Trac IFS after the first year. The base engine, a 2.4L 22R four-cylinder, got a supercharger option for '86. By '88, the 3.0L V-6, a more practical off-road powerplant, replaced that option.
2003 Toyota 4Runner Old And New Comparison
  |   2003 Toyota 4Runner Old And New Comparison
2nd Generation (1990-'95): New, sleeker styling coincides with the redesigned pickup line. An integrated steel roof replaces the removable cover. Driver- and passenger-friendly features like leather and four-door options add to the growing list of creature comforts.
3rd Generation (1996-'02): This iteration marked a ground-up rebirth of the mark that broke direct ties to the pickup line. A new front coil-spring suspension sat beneath two new twin-cam engine offerings: the 2.7L four-cylinder or a 3.4L V-6. A more rigid chassis and longer wheelbase aided vehicle stability. Sophisticated drive systems evolved to allow multimode 4WD with a 2WD/4WD selector switch. By '99, a standard interior featured a complement of conveniences comparable to most sedans. The 2.7L engine was phased out for '01, leaving the 3.4L as standard equipment.
Thomas Voehringer



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