2011 Toyota 4Runner Trail review: The off-roadingest 4Runner

2011 Toyota 4Runner Trail

2011 Toyota 4Runner Trail

Toyota, believe it or not, has seven vehicles categorized as crossovers and SUVs, ranging from the Toyota RAV-4, with a starting price of $22,475, to the Toyota Land Cruiser at $68,920 plus options. Along the way are the Toyota Venza—on the car-like crossover end of the spectrum—and the Toyota FJ Cruiser, arguably the most sport-utility at the SUV end.  In between is the Toyota 4Runner, remarkably capable off-highway with off-roading equipment not found on the FJ Cruiser with also with more luxury features than offered on the FJ. And while we’re at it, the 4Runner is bigger as well.

Toyota has resisted the temptation, at least so far, to take the 4Runner to the car side, which of course it doesn’t have to do, what with the Camry platform-based Toyota Highlander in its lineup. So that leaves Toyota free to let the 4Runner be the 4Runner.

2011 Toyota 4Runner Trail dash and center stack

The 2011 Toyota 4Runner Trail dash with the optional navigation system display.

For the 2011 model year, that means a price range from $29,525 for the SR5 4×2 V6 with a five-speed automatic transmission to $39,685 for the Limited grade 4×4 V6 with a five-speed automatic. While the Toyota 4Runner was all-new for 2010 and unchanged for 2011, Toyota added another trim package called Trail. Halfway between the SR5 and Limited in price, the 2011 4Runner Trail has a base price of $35,955 and greater off-road ability than the other two trims.

We tested the 2011 Toyota 4Runner Trail with the optional “Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System,” or KDSS. Despite the rather ostentatious name, KDSS is essentially an anti-roll bar disconnect for use in rough terrain. By allowing greater articulation in the suspension—made possible by disconnecting the anti-roll bars—KDSS keeps the tires on the ground longer, and tires on the ground means more traction. When returning to pavement, the anti-roll bars are reconnected so the 4Runner has more stable handling on the road.

The 4Runner Trail, however, comes well equipped for off-roading even without the $1,750 KDSS. The package includes an electronic locking rear differential and a Torsen limited-slip center differential with locking. Bilstein shocks, special 17-inch alloy wheels with P265/70R17 tires, black front and rear bumpers, grille, “overfenders” are also part of hitting the Trail.

2011 Toyota 4Runner Trail

Seventeen-inch wheels and rear spoiler are standard on the 2011 Toyota 4Runner Trail.

Trickle-down technology means that “crawl control”, once available only highline Lexus SUVs, is now available on the Toyota 4Runner and standard on the 4Runner Trail. Think of crawl control as the off-roader’s equivalent to cruise control. With the twist of a knob, crawl control will maintain a steady speed between one to five miles per hour. We’ve used crawl control in several Toyota/Lexus products and found that the lowest setting was almost always too slow, with the system switching between accelerating and braking, groaning and graunching as the ABS components judderbraked the wheels to try to maintain a constant speed. Save slowest for special conditions, such as steep uphills.

The 2011 Toyota 4Runner Trail is an anomaly in a world of twist-knob all-wheel/four-wheel drive systems. The 4Runner Trail has a manually-shifted transfer case and no full-time system. On pavement shift it into 4×2 mode. It’s a traditional system for the traditional SUV.

The Toyota 4Runner, despite being midrange in size among Toyota crossovers and SUVs, feels big but it also feels substantial. The big squared off hood, however, means that in tight off-road situations a spotter will be especially appreciated.
On road, the ride and handling is dominated by the big tires and wheels. It’s not harsh but the fabled “car-like ride” it doesn’t have. And while Toyota certainly didn’t go out to make the 4Runner Trail truck-like, it is. Anyway, those who buy a vehicle named “Trail” shouldn’t expect the ride one gets in a Highlander, just as one doesn’t expect the same thing off-pavement from a Highlander as from the 2011 Toyota 4Runner Trail. Either way is OK. Toyota, remember, has seven models from which to choose.

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John is a veteran auto writer, first published in Custom Rodder magazine in 1980. Since then, he has been published in all the big car magazines, including Car and Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Auto Week, Automobile, plus a variety of others, including but certainly not limited to Automobile Quarterly, Collectible Automobile, and Special Interest Automobiles. John’s work has also been featured in a number of consumer and general interest magazines such as Consumers Digest, Popular Science and others. John has written four books, including a history of the Mazda RX-7 (selling for more out-of-print than it did new), buyers’ guides for Mazda, Datsun/Nissan and Volvo cars, and is co-author of 365 Cars You Must Drive with Motor Trend editor Matt Stone, and his work has been translated into Italian, Estonian, Portuguese, Russian, and Bulgarian. John is recipient of the prestigious Ken Purdy Award for Excellence in Automotive Journalism, awarded by the International Motor Press Association, and the Golden Quill from the Washington Automotive Press Association. John has three adult daughters and has been married for more that four decades to Mary Ann, Distinguished Professor of Mathematics at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania.