Last month I had the pleasure of test driving a 2013 Toyota 4Runner Trail Edition for two weeks, first on a trout trip to the Catskill Mountains, then while scouting and competing in this year's Kayak Fishing Classic, a three-day saltwater tournament in New York City. This wasn't a technical test (for a good one of those, click here), but it was an opportunity to use the truck the way it was designed to be driven—to carry lots of gear in challenging conditions both on- and off-road.
Toyota introduced the 4Runner in 1984. The truck's first and second generation models proved popular with hunters, anglers, and off-road enthusiasts (I call the beat-up red '95 in the photo above my "tackle box on wheels"), but the third- and fourth-gen 4Runners, produced from 1996 until 2009, were designed for a wider market that included the soccer mom set. In 2010 a completely redesigned 5th generation brought the model back to its off-road roots. With a hood scoop, over-fenders and a burly roof rack, the trail model in particular bucked SUV trends toward rounded edges and sleek styling, but all trim options (Limited, SR5, and Trail) featured a boxier, more aggressive look that begged you to leave the pavement behind.
The trips I took in the 2013 model gave me a solid sense of the vehicle's performance in a range of conditions. While fishing in the Catskills I took it crawling up and down the steep switchbacks of an abandoned logging road that led to an old bluestone quarry—terrain more suited to a 4-wheeler than a 4Runner. Kayak fishing from the truck took it through deep sand along the beaches of Long Island's Atlantic coastline. And during the kayak tournament I had to race the rig through rush hour traffic on the Belt Parkway in southern Queens and Brooklyn, rushing to submit a buzzer fish on the other side of the city before a 7 PM deadline. The takeaway? While the 4Runner is both capable and comfortable, its emphasis on performance makes it shine in tough conditions, making it an excellent vehicle for the hardcore hunter or angler. And one simple feature in particular makes it ideal for those who fish from kayaks.
Steep Climbs and Descents
Toyota first introduced its CRAWL control system in its 2008 Land Cruiser. It now comes standard on all Trail Grade 4Runners. The system gives you five low-speed settings for electronically managing engine speed and braking power. I found the feature most helpful on the long, steep descent down that abandoned logging road. With CRAWL engaged the truck crept down the mountain virtually by itself, regulating its own speed so well that I literally did not need to touch the brakes (or the gas pedal when going up hill). The system has been called "cruise control for off-road driving," and it made tackling tough terrain so easy I almost felt cheated by the experience.
The Trail Grade also come standard with a Multi-Terrain Select system that lets you match wheel slip to the terrain you're covering. Slipping wheels will eat your momentum when you're crawling over rocks or up other hard surfaces, but in some terrain -- especially in deep sand -- there are times when your tires should spin twice as fast as your truck is actually moving. I consistently targeted the deepest, softest sand I could find when driving on the beach, but the truck paddled through it all without hesitation.
City and Highway Driving
While the 4Runner's strength is clearly off road, the truck was responsive enough on pavement to handle the snarled traffic of a New York rush hour with aplomb. One evening in particular stands out. This was during the Kayak Classic, a Brooklyn-based catch-and-release striped bass tournament held on Jamaica Bay, a large saltwater estuary that cuts into the south side of New York City's eastern outer boroughs. To compete in the tournament you take pictures of the fish you catch, which you must turn in at tournament headquarters before 7 PM each night. The biggest bass I caught on the first day hit at 6 PM. By the time we got the picture and had paddled back to the launch it was 6:45. Fifteen minutes is not much time to cross Queens and half of Brooklyn, especially when you're driving an off-road rig with two 'yaks on the roof. But we kept the truck in third gear for maximum speed control (I loved how you can switch from automatic to manual transmission) and roared through every gap that opened up in traffic. You know you're driving like a maniac when the cabbies call you assholes, but we made it to the HQ tent with less than a minute to spare.
Hunting and Fishing Use
Of course, most new trail-model SUVs will handle similar conditions well, and it's hard not to be biased by the tight, responsive feel of a brand new vehicle with less than 400 miles on the odometer. That said, I did notice a few hunter- and angler-friendly features that made the 4Runner stand out over other new SUVs.
A Wide Open View
The broad trend in SUV styling toward swept-back lines helps improve your gas mileage, but it also gives you smaller windows and a more angled windshield that limit your range of vision. The 4Runner's boxy body means its windows are wider and taller, your view more open, and the large sunroof gives you plenty of room to pop your head out for 360-degree glassing.
Kayak-Friendly Power Rear Window
Almost every modern SUV (including this one) features a rear liftgate for access to the cargo area. Most also have spoiler at the top of that gate. This spoiler improves your gas mileage, but it will bump into your boat if you have a kayak on your roof rack when you try to lift the gate, or open the rear window. This effectively prevents you from accessing your cargo area until you take down your boat. Only the 4Runner has a power rear window that slides down into the liftgate itself - a critical feature that lets you grab rods, tackle, camping gear, or anything else from the back of your truck without worrying about whatever's sticking out on top. NOTE: One solution to this problem -- other than buying a 4Runner -- is to use a higher rack to carry your yaks. Thule's Slipstream rack is a good example. It lifts your boat far enough above the roof of your rig that the spoiler won't bump it when you lift the gate.
Quiet Alarm Chirp
I'm half afraid to post this one, since there's probably an easy way to fix the problem that I'm just not mechanically inclined enough to figure out. But I hate it when the truck I currently own (a 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee) honks its horn every time I push the "lock" button on the key fob. If you're trying to sneak up on a turkey early in the morning, the last thing you want is your horn to beep as you're heading out. Yes, you can lock the truck from the interior before shutting the door to avoid this noise, but for those with wandering minds it's nice to know that you're not going to wake up the woods if you forget. The 4Runner does have an alarm chirp, but it's a sleepy little "cheep" compared to the startled elephant honk I get when I lock the Jeep.
The only thing I didn't like about the trail model 4Runner was the slide-out rear cargo deck. Rated for 440-pounds, it's designed to simulate a tailgate, which is a nice idea, and useful for resting coolers or other gear on when you're hanging out in party mode. But when you're packing a full load, sliding the deck in and out tends to rearrange your equipment in unintentional ways, and hooks, pliers, batteries, or other small items can get lost beneath it. The deck also makes the cargo area more difficult to clean after a sandy day at the beach.
Overall, though, it's very nice to see Toyota putting performance at the top of its list once again with its 4Runner line, and with the power rear window makes this the best SUV I've seen for kayaking. Here's hoping they keep this trend alive when they release the truck's 6th generation.