Like the canyons and mountains through which it traverses, the Toyota 4Runner is timeless. Mechanically, this latest 2021 edition is pretty much the same truck that debuted 12 years ago – an eternity in car terms. On the one hand, that's great: it has the same rugged truck-based chassis, capable suspension, ample clearances and bulletproof reliability that makes it a darling among off-roaders everywhere (and keeps its residual values sky-high). Its abundant interior space has also allowed it to be a realistic alternative to more family-friendly crossovers.
On the other hand, the 2021 Toyota 4Runner cannot escape the ravages of time. The carry-over engine produces less horsepower than a V6 Camry, the transmission has five (!) fewer gears than a Ford Explorer or Chevy Tahoe's, the fuel economy is a truly dismal 17 mpg combined, and calling the handling "imprecise" would be an understatement. The interior is also closer to the antique end of scale, though substantial tech updates last year at least ushered it into this century.
These are all significant reasons to skip the 2021 4Runner in favor of any number of crossovers or perhaps one of the more civilized Jeep Wrangler variants. Yet, there is another reason the 4Runner has stuck around so long with few changes: people love them. They're chock-full of character, can go just about anywhere, are surprisingly practical and offer a diverse number of models to match your tastes. It won't make sense for everyone and certainly requires some sacrifices, but the 4Runner's appeal hasn't eroded yet.
New, standard LED headlights should correct the 4Runner's rather dim view forward. The TRD Pro trim gets new wheels and Fox Bypass shocks, while its signature color for 2021 becomes Lunar Rock green, replacing the oh-so-cool Army Green. On the upside, that becomes an option on the new Trail Edition. It's basically an SR5 with dark TRD Off-Road wheels, a Yakima cargo basket, all-weather floor liners, the otherwise optional sliding cargo tray and a custom 40-quart cooler available in Army Green or Cement gray.
After last year's updates, the 4Runner cabin's feature content and technology are reasonably consistent with what you might find in cars designed during this decade. That said, this remains an antiquated interior with its blocky design dating back more than 10 years. The plastics quality is also subpar for something that easily crests $40,000 and can top $50,000 – a RAV4 is nicer in some places. The various small bins and cubbies are also just a little too small for modern devices, having clearly been designed when we carried flip phones and iPods. There's even old-school switchgear like the roller heated seat controls and the one-blink-only turn signal that also mark its age.
Nevertheless, it's all put together quite well, controls are logically placed and there's certainly something to be said for a rugged off-road vehicle that has a rugged interior. The standard 8-inch touchscreen is also of a typical size and perfectly up to date in terms of feature content, with standard Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Amazon Alexa integration. Simple tasks like changing radio stations are generally easy to perform, but it's not the quickest system nor most modern in appearance. That's a Toyota-wide issue, though, rather than a 4Runner-specific one.
Here is an area where the 4Runner is perfectly fine as-is. The cargo area floor is quite low for a truck-based SUV, while the space beyond is a big, boxy 47.2 cubic feet. Even when you add the novel slide-out cargo floor that reduces capacity, there's still a gigantic amount of space. We know, we filled it up. Maximum cargo capacity with the back seat lowered is 89.7 cubic feet, which rivals many three-row crossovers (the Highlander has only 84.3), and surpasses the Jeep Grand Cherokee (68.3) and Honda Passport (77.9).
There's also the 4Runner-trademark power rear window that allows you to secure long items like surf boards or lumber out the back while keeping the rest of the liftgate closed. It also allows for freer airflow in the cabin, and dogs typically love it as well (that big boxy area in general is dog friendly).
Human legroom is quite good all around. The standard power driver seat offers plenty of adjustment, while the back seat is mounted at a nice height and reclines to an almost absurd degree. That said, headroom can be a bit tight up front should you opt for the sunroof. There's a third-row seat available, but its space is extremely limited and it reduces cargo space. Really, if you want a third-row seat, crossovers like the Kia Telluride would be a better family-hauling choice.