1996 Toyota 4runner

If Darwin were alive in today's commerce driven world, he would probably be an economist and he would have plenty to say about the evolution of automotive products — natural selection, survival of the fittest and all that.

But, I wonder what he would think of niche marketing, the manufacturers' attempts to carve out a survival zone with their own unique offerings, creating the market equivalent of a protected, enclosed environment like the Galapagos Islands.

Whatever his pronouncement, it wouldn't stop Toyota and the rest from trying. While most of the sport-ute species are being eagerly mutated into something like cars, the latest 4Runner stakes its claim in the auto-ecosystem as a refreshingly conservative take on the down-sized truckwagon concept.

There is no question that this vehicle is a truck, a good truck, descended from a line of trucks. Car-like refinements and luxury appointments come as overlays, more than adequate to coddle the delicate contemporary motorist, but not so pervasive that the truck heritage is masked completely.

Is that good? Depends on what you're looking for. There is no question that Toyota's robust body-on-frame construction and brawny underpinnings will withstand any reasonable abuse. The front suspension is done up with coil springs on this model replacing the former torsion bars. The straight axle at the rear is also under coil springs and is held in place by a system of locating rods. Together they deliver easy, no-surprises handling helped in no small measure by a silkily accurate rack-and-pinion steering.

But, the truck-like ride sends mixed messages. To many, the firm suspension speaks of rugged off-road ability, the romance of the truck, and by extension, some kind of iron-clad impact resistance. To others, the constant bumping and bouncing would be downright irritating.

It is apparent that Toyota's designers share this ambivalence. To my well travelled and experienced butt, the 4Runner's soft suspension and driveline mounting bushings have been adopted to yield serenity on smooth pavement, but the stern spring rates have been chosen for seriously rough terrain. (Interestingly, the shock absorbers, never a strength in earlier Toyota trucks, are bangon.) However, when was the last time you drove on more than 30 metres of unblemished tarmac? And, who out there has actually gone, or will ever go, on a challenging off-road trek? On the lumpy surfaces that constitute our roadways, the bushings allow too much jiggle and aftershock, while the springs give you an intimate reading of every pothole — neither to my taste. Nonetheless, individual taste your taste, for example is what a niche is about.

It's likely we'll all approve of the new styling. While retaining a family resemblance and the look of truck toughness, the '96 4Runner has become sleekly wider, lower and sculptured with handsome curves and creases in the panels. The belly pan is draped more tightly to the frame, eliminating the appearance of a lifted suspension, reducing the stepin height but maintaining ground clearance.

At the back, the tailgate has been replaced by a full-height hatch, which is much more convenient for the loading of grocery bags and the like. The power operated rear window remains.

Up front, I am moved to comment on the integrated, aeroform headlamps that are unique to the 4Runner. Deregulation of the design of vehicle lights has produced some esthetic plusses, but often a strong downside to the amount of glow that reaches a darkened road (like on Chrysler's LH series sedans). A big gold star to Toyota for the best lights I've seen with in recent years. They're powerful and the pattern of illumination covers all the critical areas.

Following the conservative approach, Toyota presents no obvious surprises in the interior. We've seen the features of this cabin and cockpit before, in the Tacoma compact and the T100 mid-size pickups. For that matter, nothing has changed substantially from the previous model.

Is that good? Yeah, actually. Toyota does essentially the same friendly instrument panels and comfy seats in all of its products, car or truck. Why mess with success?

What former 4Runner owners will notice is a change in driving position. The lowered floor drops the legs a bit. Not down to approximate a kitchen chair, but somewhere in between. And, we will all curse the cupholders that demand that we force the cup past spring-loaded mug pincers.

Experienced 4Runner folk will cheer 1996's powertrain options. Engines include a 2.7 L inline four-cylinder rated at 150 h.p., and the 183 h.p. 3.4 L V6 that performs so well in the T100 pickup — the latter engine considerably improving on fuel economy (11.3 L/100 km on the highway versus '95's 12.2) despite a horsepower increase. The new pair replace a bog-slow 2.2 L four and a 3.0 L V6 that gamely struggled and strained but never gave me the impression that it enjoyed being an engine.

Transmissions include an electronic four-speed auto and a five-speed manual, which adds up to four engine/tranny combos in Toyota's press fleet. I couldn't test them all, so I put my name in for one of the most likely combinations, the 2.7 plus five-speed. My luck, that machine wasn't available and I ended up with the least likely, a 3.4 V6 and the stickshift.

I didn't like it. No fault of the smooth engine or the gearing, but the combination had an overbearingly heavy feel, and using the shifter behind all that torque (217 poundfeet) and horsepower was just too much work. The 0-to-100 km/h times were restricted by the balkiness in the shifter operating against the torque, averaging about 10.5 seconds. My highway passing tests were limited to third-gear-only 90-to-120 runs (6.7 seconds) because shifting was too much trouble.

On hearing my concerns, the always accommodating Toyota p.r. office arranged a full slate of four 'Runners for me to take on comparison drives. Performance data and the impressions from my log book quickly discriminate between the models.

The four-cylinder five-speed is very likely indeed. Truly fun to drive, this one has an adventuresome lightness of being that stems from handling enhanced by reduced weight over the front wheels as well as the free running engine and easy shifting.

The 2.7 was not quick off the line, taking 11.7 sec. to get to 100 klicks. I think the engineers sacrificed torque delivery to obtain that magical 150 horsepower rating. However, once this 4Runner got rolling it stayed with the program. Using the same stuck-in-third technique for comparison with the V6 five-speed, I posted an admirable 7.1 seconds passing time.

Mounting an automatic behind the four-cylinder proved less admirable. The brain boxes love fat, broad torque curves, and the 2.7 is underendowed. Without the help of five driver-selected gears, it was fairly slow: 0-to-100 took 12.2 seconds, but the auto's deep kickdown reduced the 90-to-120 run to 6.8. This combination was pleasant, but innocuous. (Who wants a sport-ute that looks bold and rugged but less innocuous?)

There was nothing insipid about the final combo. The 3.4 L and automatic were installed in the 4Runner's new Limited luxo-ute.

Perhaps I should pause and explain the 4Runner's 1996 model structure. All of 'em start out at as a base with an m.s.r.p. of $28,428. To which you add various factory option packages.

For example, the tester with the four-cylinder and manual included Package 1 (tilt wheel, four-wheel ABS, tinted glass, clock, intermittent wipers, cargo cover) at $1,605 for a total of $30,033. Choice of the automatic would up that $1,200 to $31,233.

Our V6/five-speed unit cost $37,063 — $3,530 for the V6 and $5,105 for Package 2, which includes big tires, alloy wheels, power moon roof and a bunch of other stuff.

The Limited is a $14,710 package unto itself that gives you the V6 and the automatic, everything in Package 1 and 2, plus bold fender flares, simulated woodgrain on the dash and a huge bunch of other stuff. Total $43,138.

I liked the Limited. Liked the styling, liked the ostentatious luxo-trim, really liked driving it. The heftier V6 4Runner is not as agile as the four-cylinder models, but the V6 and automatic parcel is a marriage made in truck heaven featuring no-fuss employment, and enjoyment, of all the power that the engine can deliver. Definitely the trailer towing choice: tow rating od 2,268 kg.

As expected, this rig's performance figures easily bested the rest. Only 9.7 seconds to 100 km/h and 6.3 to pull out and go.

There. If you are among the many interested in preserving the 4Runner gene pool, now you know which ones to select.

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