Mud and Memories: 2018 Toyota 4Runner TRD Off-Road Premium Review

The Toyota 4Runner has been transporting families and friends down highways and up trails for the past 34 years. I’ve wanted to drive one off-road for the past 25, and it’s all because of my father.

When I was a kid, he had a 1987 4Runner with the removable hard top and four-wheel drive. For years, he would take me and my brother to Boy Scout meetings, Pizza Hut, and the video store in that simple machine. Not once did he ever remove his 4Runner’s top or go off-road. Back then, I was too young to appreciate that 4Runner for being anything more than way to get the newest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figures.

Make it look cooler. That’s what brown can do for the 4Runner.

Now that I’m older, I look back on that 4Runner as wasted good times my father could have had in it (perhaps I should blame my younger self for that). It was meant to go topless in the summer and be driven over surfaces more challenging than the speed bumps in a grocery store parking lot.

That’s why when I got the chance to drive a 2018 Toyota 4Runner around Austin, Texas for a week, I knew what I had to do. It didn’t have a roof I could take off, but it sure as hell had a transfer case I was going to use, and a paint job I was going to get dirty.

The Rig

I wouldn’t have felt that way about just any 2018 4Runner. Toyota offers its mid-size body-on-frame SUV with two- and four-wheel drive. Trim lines range from the base SR5 to the upscale Limited to the desert-running, rock-crawling TRD Pro. Although my test vehicle didn’t feature some of the trick hardware of the TRD Pro, it made it clear what I had to do with it. I had the keys to a 4Runner TRD Off-Road Premium and an off-highway vehicle park only an hour away from me.

The standard part-time four-wheel drive, locking rear diff, and Multi-terrain Select and Crawl Control systems were enough to make me happy, but Toyota also equipped my press loaner with several options, giving it an as-tested price of $42,690. The most notable of those was the Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS), designed to reduce body roll on-road and increase wheel travel off-road.

Exterior

An SUV with a try-hard face for die-hard off-roaders.

For the most part, the 2018 4Runner is not a flashy vehicle. Its sheet metal is dynamic and muscular, but its upright profile is that of an SUV, not of a soft-roader or track-scorching family hauler. If only Toyota’s designers had kept things that straightforward with the front end.

The hood scoop is a welcome sporty touch. The one-bar, body-colored grille that connects the projector headlights conveys solidity and strength. Ditto for the silver front bumper. Too bad the foglights spoil the whole look. The angled slashes they sit inside make it seem as if Toyota’s design team either ran out of ideas or were trying too hard to make the 4Runner look macho.

The good news is that the rest of the 4Runner is easy on the eyes. The trapezoidal wheel arches sit above sprocket-like 17-inch wheels wrapped in P265/70R17 rubber. White C-pillar “TRD OFF ROAD” badges serve as targets for runs through mud bogs. In the back, LED tail lights flank a power liftgate with a retractable window. A full-size spare sits below the silver rear bumper… which doubles as a high-water mark at the OHV park.

Interior

The inside of the 4Runner is a place full of surprises.

Standard equipment inside the 4Runner TRD Off-Road Premium includes two rows of SofTex seats (heated in the front, reclinable in the back) and HVAC vents, metallic and carbon fiber-like trim, and a 6.1-inch touchscreen connected to an eight-speaker audio system, SiriusXM satellite radio, navigation, and a suite of apps such as Destination Search, iHeartRadio, MovieTickets.com, OpenTable, Yelp, and Pandora. I didn’t really care about those; I just wanted the ability to connect my iPhone to Apple CarPlay, which the 4Runner didn’t offer. On the other hand, I did appreciate the old-school nature of the large, easy-to-grip knobs for the stereo and HVAC system.

In addition to the optional KDSS, Toyota upgraded my media vehicle with a power moonroof with sunshade, as well as a handy sliding rear cargo deck, which made loading groceries and camera gear in the back easier.

Powertrain

An oldie, but a goodie.

The fifth-generation 4Runner’s powertrain is a dated sign that it’s been on the market for nearly a decade. In today’s world of smaller, forced-induction powerplants with auto start/stop and transmissions with up to 10 speeds, the 4Runner’s combination of a naturally aspirated 4.0-liter V6 and a five-speed automatic stands as an absolute relic. The big six generates 270 horsepower and 278 lb-ft of torque. I found that to be enough to get the 4Runner down the road at a satisfying pace. The 4Runner’s primitive hardware mainly affected its fuel economy: 17 city, 20 highway, and 18 combined.

To get down trails and over rocky obstacles, the 4Runner TRD Off-Road Premium has a part-time four-wheel drive system connected to an old-fashioned manual transfer case lever. A shift-on-the-fly dial may be easier, but it’s not nearly as fun.

On-Road Driving Impressions

It hurt taking this to the car wash.

There was no denying that the 4Runner is a body-on-frame vehicle when I drove it over rough pavement. Its ride quality was close to that of other similarly constructed pickups. The front end dipped noticeably under braking when I was in the 4Runner by myself, although once my friend Austin was in the shotgun seat and our girlfriends were in the generously sized second row, that brake dive vanished.

Given that the 4Runner is a relatively old-school, four-wheel-drive SUV, I expected its steering to be hopelessly vague and loose. I was pleasantly surprised when I felt how tight and focused it was.

Off-Road Driving Impressions

Who needs tire shine when you have dusty trails?

Once my girlfriend, our friends, and I arrived at the Hidden Falls Adventure Park in Marble Falls, Texas, I shifted into neutral, easily slid the transfer case lever to its L4 position, engaged the Multi-terrain Select system’s Mud, Sand, Dirt mode, and headed straight toward the first body of water I saw.

The light brown pool of rainwater quickly filled in the 4Runner’s 9.6 inches of ground clearance as the Bridgestones rolled us through without a problem. We climbed the bank on the other side without scraping either end of the 4Runner, thanks to its approach angle of 33 degrees and departure angle of 26 degrees.

Ah, the creature comforts of a 2018 SUV are something to behold.

If there’s a red button in front of you, you have to push it. If you’re in an SUV and there’s mud in front you, you have to drive through it.

Soon after that, we came to the beginning of a rocky downhill path that was going to require careful throttle application, precise steering, and Austin’s utmost attention as my spotter. I could’ve left the gassing and braking to Crawl Control, but I wanted to do things the old-school way.

I rolled the front windows down, bumped the TRD shift knob to the left and down to select first gear, and turned a ceiling-mounted dial to put Multi-terrain Select into Rock mode. Even with its Bridgestones full of slick gunk, the 4Runner tip-toed its way down without slipping. No scraped skid plates. No sickening thuds. Just exhales of relief. Crawl Control carried us up the mild, bumpy incline that awaited us at the bottom.

Final Verdict

Taking a 4Runner through mud and over rocks was a long-overdue experience for me. It was worth the wait. The 2018 4Runner TRD Off-Road Premium may have been behind the times in terms of engine and transmission tech, but its convenient dimensions and off-road equipment were fit for 2018. Now it’s just a matter of waiting for Toyota to come out with an all-new model. Until they do, I’ll be marking the days off on my calendar…and blaming my dad.

About the author

Derek Shiekhi

Derek Shiekhi is a native Texan who grew up loving cars because of his father, who took Derek with him to buy early Mustang convertibles and Post-WWII pickups from GM. Throughout high school and college, he dreamed about cars, and returned to college to earn a second degree in journalism. After writing for the Austin-American Statesman newspaper, Derek joined the Texas Auto Writers Association, and is a member of the organization's board of directors.
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