It’s been 40 years since Toyota introduced us to what would become one of the most legendary SUVs of all time. As one of the few models still manufactured as a body-on-frame SUV, the 2023 Toyota 4Runner has stayed true to its roots. If you’re an off-roading enthusiast and a fan of Japanese automobiles, the 4Runner has to be near the top of your wishlist. Perfectly situated between the massive Sequoia and the tame RAV4, the 4Runner can crawl through whatever Mother Nature can throw its way in style, comfort, and ease. While it may be more common these days to catch the 4Runner navigating the suburban jungle instead of trailblazing through the wild, it is still an extremely qualified SUV for whatever outdoor task you think to throw at it. Apart from the grunt of its excellent 4WD capabilities, the 4Runner has an array of other smart technologies that will get you to wherever your destination might be.
For serious off-roading enthusiasts and 4Runner fans, there really are only three out of the eight trim levels to consider. The TRD Off-Road Premium is an excellent blend of brawn and sophistication, while the TRD Pro is an off-roading tank. Since it is the 40th anniversary of this powerhouse of a vehicle, Toyota has seen fit to add a special trim level: the 40th Anniversary Special Edition. We’ll delve deeper into this in a bit, but suffice it to say Toyota has outdone itself on the heritage and capability front.
For each of these trims, we’ll do a deep dive into their off-roading features, showing you how each caters to a multitude of different off-roading needs. First, though, we’re going to take a trip down memory lane, reminding ourselves of the origins of what some would say is the only proper, old-school SUV left on the market.
The 4Runner’s 40-Year History
Over the past 40 years, Toyota has sold over four million 4Runners. While that’s nowhere near the heights of the Model T or the Beetle, it is enough to qualify this SUV as a legend. In fact, so far this year, the 4Runner has even outsold the Ford Bronco, which boasts some pretty serious off-roading heritage of its own and has been the media darling for the last few years.
Though it carries the Toyota badge, the 4Runner is a distinctly American creation. In 1983, Toyota announced it would no longer sell the rugged FJ Land Cruiser in the United States. However, a replacement was already underway. In 1981 Toyota partnered with Winnebago to create the Trekker, a mutated version of the Hilux pickup with an integrated camping shell over the truck bed. The Trekker sold well, proving to Toyota that there was indeed a market for a larger pickup-based off-roader. In 1984, it introduced the 4Runner, which was effectively a factory version of the Trekker conversion.
There wasn’t really an SUV market, at least not as we know it, at the time the 4Runner was launched. Yes, the Broncos, Blazers, and Wranglers had been on the market for a while, but the mass appeal of the SUV still wasn’t quite there. The 4Runner became something of a precursor of what was to come. It combined, as it still does, dependability and rugged outdoor capabilities with a comfortable interior and room for families. This was the combination that won successive generations countless awards and accolades. It is this heritage that has inspired the current lineup of 4Runners.
The 40th Anniversary Special Edition
Since we’re on the topic of the 40th anniversary, we’ll look at this Special Edition 4Runner first. On the exterior, it has “TOYOTA” spelled out on the grille instead of the familiar logo. Tricolor graphic stripes run the length of the vehicle, and the 17″ off-road bronze wheels catch the eye. This specialty badging moves into the interior with embossed headrests, SofTex trimmed seats with bronze stitching, and the 40th Anniversary emblem embossed on the dashboard.
As far as off-roading goes, the capability is in the basic body-on-frame structure and the 4WD system. These are hooked up to the standard 4.0L V6 engine that makes 270 hp and 278 lb-ft of torque and is mated to an electronically controlled five-speed automatic transmission. This powertrain is standard across the lineup. The 4WD system is a part-time system, meaning you can switch between 2WD and 4WD, with high and low ranges.
The 40th Anniversary Special Edition also comes equipped with Active Traction Control and Downhill Assist Control. There is a Hill-Start Assist Control also available in this trim, but that is the end of the standard features. This is enough for some decent off-roading, but to buy the 40th Anniversary Special Edition is to buy a small piece of heritage that harkens back to the early days of the 4Runner. For the more serious off-road tech and features, you will want to go with one of the next two options.
The TRD Off-Road and the TRD Pro
The Toyota Racing Development label has become something of a badge of honor for Toyota buyers. You know that with the TRD label comes a commitment to making the best type of vehicle you can get, one that is going to be ridiculously tough and loaded with unique features. Such is the case with these two TRD 4Runner trims: the TRD Off-Road and the TRD Pro. Each comes equipped with a standard set of off-roading features, but they differ in ways that specifically cater to their trims.
Starting with what’s shared, both trims come standard with the part-time 4WD system, Active Traction Control, and Hill Start Assist Control. They differ from the 40th Anniversary Special Edition in that each comes equipped with an Electronic Locking Rear Differential and Multi-Terrain Select. The latter system is similar to other terrain mode systems in that it specifies the balance and power in the drivetrain to cater to various outdoor terrain settings such as snow, mud, sand, and rocks. Crawl Control is also standard on these two trims. This is designed to assist the driver over difficult terrain by controlling the braking and the throttle so the driver can focus on steering.
The differences come in the underbody. The standard suspension system has independent double-wishbone suspension up front and a solid axle in the rear. Now, a Kinetic Dynamic Suspension system is available on the TRD Off-Road, which independently locks or releases the front and rear stabilizer bars to aid with articulation. For the TRD Pro, you have TRD FOX high-performance shocks with rear remote reservoirs and separate TRD-tuned front springs for better handling over rough terrain. With all of this equipment, we can’t help but feel that an opportunity was lost to add all of these TRD specs to the Special Edition. Then it would have been a perfect combination of history and modern off-road tech.
A Beloved SUV
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who has owned a 4Runner and hasn’t loved it. From the old-school 4Runners of the 1980s to the family tanks they are now, few drivers are planning on ditching their 4Runner for something else any time soon. Why would they? It’s a near-perfect combination of a bygone era of SUV grunt combined with modern off-road tech and conveniences. Looking for an off-roader can be tough, but hopefully, you’ll choose wisely, like Indiana Jones, and seriously consider a 4Runner.