Rugged, Reliable and Tougher to Roll

2003 Toyota 4Runner
2003 Toyota 4Runner
By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 16, 2003

This is a review of the 2003 Toyota 4Runner. It is a midsize sport-utility vehicle. Thus, this column might offend SUV opponents. They need not tarry here.

This is for people who are interested in SUVs. They include lovers of sport-utility vehicles and potential first-time buyers. This is a story about one of the best SUVs available.

The Toyota 4Runner entered the U.S. market 17 years ago. It was rugged. You could take it off-road, beat it up, tow heavy loads. It kept running.

People loved the 4Runner for its toughness and reliability. But it had shortcomings. The interior was cramped. Ride and handling were rough. If you failed to read windshield-visor labels warning you to go gently into the curves, you could roll it. If you failed to wear seat belts, you could roll it and die.

You could roll the 2003 4Runner, too. But you would have to work hard to do it. Toyota went to school on this one. The company lengthened the wheelbase -- the centerline distance between the front and rear wheels -- by 4.5 inches. It widened the track by about three inches, and it added larger wheels. The result is a more stable SUV that takes corners nicely with nary a hint of tipping.

Toyota also did several clever things with the new 4Runner's suspension and braking systems. Like its predecessors, the 2003 model is built body-on-frame. But there's a difference. The new frame is stronger, more rigid, endowed with nine cross-members, as opposed to eight in the older versions.

The body atop that nine-member frame is more rigid, too. The whole assembly rides on a four-wheel independent suspension system, which is enhanced by several electronic controls -- traction control, vehicle stability control and, on the tested Sport Edition, a diagonally linked shock absorber.

That absorber system diagonally links the compression chambers in the gas-filled shocks at all four wheels. The front-left shock is linked to the rear-right shock. The front-right shock is linked to the rear-left shock through a controlling, central absorber.

That arrangement prevents the corner absorbers from bottoming out, or from pitching and rolling in sharp turns or during panic stops. That means better handling and vehicle control. The system worked perfectly on slalom maneuvers on vacant lots in rural Virginia; and it also worked well in the tailgating mayhem of Interstate 95.

Toyota gave the 4Runner standard antilock brakes; and it added a couple of more braking controls as well. Those include what the company calls "brake assist" and "electronic brake force distribution." Brake assist is anticipatory. It senses the driver's attempt to panic stop, second-guesses the driver, and then applies what it construes to be the needed stopping force. I found this feature annoying, although I probably would feel differently if it actually prevented me from crashing.

Electronic brake distribution makes more sense. It gives more braking force to the wheels that have more traction, thereby reducing the chances for potentially catastrophic weight shifts and the consequent loss of vehicle control.

There are myriad other features, such as Toyota's "Downhill Assist Control," which keeps the 4Runner moving straight and steady down steep grades. And with Downhill Assist Control (operated by a button marked "DAC"), there is "Hill-start Assist Control." HAC helps you to move up steep inclines without fishtailing; or it allows you to stop uphill without sliding backward.

Perhaps it's my boyish enthusiasm about such things, but I found it all to be very neat stuff. I like machines, especially those that work extremely well, as was the case with the tested 4Runner Sport Edition. If you are in the market for a mid-size SUV, I think you will like it, too.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company