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Posted: March 31, 2014

Executive wheels: Time for Toyota

To truck or not to truck?

Jeff Rundles

2014 TOYOTA HIGHLANDER LIMITED 4WD SUV

2014 TOYOTA 4RUNNER LIMITED 4X4 V6

As winter was winding down, or not winding down, then winding down again,  I was fortunate to spend two weeks test driving two of Toyota’s mainstay SUVs: the Highlander and the 4Runner.

As with all Toyotas, I was impressed with both vehicles for quality, ride and comfort.  And while they are about the same size and have very similar equipment (except that the 4Runner is a five-passenger vehicle and the Highlander can seat up to eight), they feel totally different. I simply can’t imagine them appealing to the same people.

The Highlander is a comfort SUV with the ride and drive of the sedan Camry. The 4Runner is a truck. It sits up higher, it rides like a truck, it drives like a truck, it feels more rugged – like a truck.

It's a stark contrast. For taking kids to school, grocery shopping and commuting to and from work, the Highlander should be on the shopping list. It is very comfortable, highly versatile, drives very well and has plenty of power (at least with this 3.5-liter V6 featuring 270 hp). If you’re not going to off-road, then the Highlander just might be your cup of tea.

If, on the other hand, you are kind of a pickup truck kind of person – someone who likes to hunt and fish, go off-road, tour the back country, or just view yourself more of a person in a country song, then the 4Runner just might be your mug of beer.

In fact, the 4Runner began its life, in 1984, as a truck. The first few years, it was little more than the smaller Toyota pickup truck with a plastic shell on the back that had been slightly modified. Five generations later, the 4Runner retains its truck heritage, but the package has gone all SUV.

 

It is comfortable in a truck-like way, and features pretty much all of the creature comforts people expect these days, but it’s still a truck. I am not a truck guy – I wish I had a pickup every so often when the need to haul something arises, but I wouldn’t want to drive one around every day. And I felt pretty much the same way about this 4Runner. It features a 270 hp, 4.0-liter V6 engine that, even with an automatic transmission, feels like a truck. It drives a little stiff, it rides a little stiff, and after a few days of hauling around in it,  I felt as though I should get a sprig of tall grass to chew on. And a 10-gallon hat. And a ranch.

This isn’t a criticism; I would recommend a 4Runner to any truck-people who find themselves suddenly needing the more family-friendly features of an SUV but who don’t want to give up on trucks entirely.

I drove the 4Runner Limited, top-of-the-line in eight trims, and they all feature the same engine and basic package, so in this Limited what you get extra is nicer stuff. For some reason, the 4Runner also comes in 2X4 versions, although you be hard pressed to find one out here, and the Trail edition – for just what it sounds like only comes in 4X4. These models start at $32,820 ($34,695 for the SR5 4X4), and the Limited 4X4 features a base price of $43,400.

On my test-drive model, they put in as standard a leather-trimmed steering wheel and seats, a fold-flat 2nd row of seats, a power sliding rear window (really cool; never seen a SUV with that), and all the power stuff. They added on, for $1,155, a voice-activated, touch-screen DVD nav system, plus all the modern connectivity for music streaming, satellite radio, Bluetooth hands-free phone capability, and a back-up camera, and with a couple of other minor add-ons involving car mats and running boards, (and destination) the bottom line is just a tad over $46,000.

To back up my truck story on the 4Runner, where they list it as 4X4, on this new Highlander they go with AWD. The difference is that the AWD system, and the Highlander, aren’t meant for off-road treks. The AWD system figures out where the power is needed and, while full-time, isn’t the macho variety of all-wheel.

I really liked driving the Highlander. It’s basically built on the same platform as the Camry (the same as its close cousin, the Lexus RX), as it has been since they first came out with the Highlander as a 2001 model – and by the way, it was the first car-based SUV or crossover on the market, so once again, Toyota shows its leadership.

It’s much easier to get in and out of than the 4Runner, it rides much more smoothly, and just feels overall much more luxurious. It is also quieter – I think they let the 4Runner have more road noise so that it sounds more like a truck. This Highlander feels like a luxury vehicle with a great deal of extra space. It has three rows of seating for up to eight people, although the third row is really for smaller people (e.g. children), and they made the getting in and out as easy as possible in a SUV.

The 3.5-liter V6 is a great powerplant and very smooth. I never felt that it didn’t have enough power for what I needed, city, highway and in the mountains. And it’s not sedate – the Highlander is fun to drive, easy to park, corners well, and accelerates on cue. It’s not inexpensive – at $41,000 base price you are paying somewhat for the name vis a vis some of the competition, like similar vehicles from both Hyundai and Kia for instance (both of which I like a lot). There are 11 trims in the Highlander lineup, plus a more expensive one ($48k) in hybrid, that start around $29,215 in 2WD with a four-banger. But this Limited comes equipped with all the nice stuff – leather, wood-grain, power everything, a wonderful JBL sound system and all the modern connectivity, voice controls, navigation, Bluetooth, nice sunroof – it’s loaded.

The only add-ons here were a rear-seat entertainment system, a DVD, for $1,760, so the bottom line of $44,500, while pricey, isn’t out of the realm of reality.

Hey, these vehicles are Toyotas. Yeah, they recently paid a huge billion-dollar-plus fine for not reporting some problems with accelerator pedals on some models, but Toyota still makes the most reliable and some of the nicest cars on the planet.

RATINGS:

4RUNNER – 3 ¾ WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR)

HIGHLANDER – 3 7/8 WHEELS

Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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