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Old-school spirit: 2021 Toyota 4Runner upholds traditional SUV values

2021 Toyota 4Runner Trail

By Ed Piotrowski and CarPreview staff

What changes will make the 2021Toyota 4Runner different?

A Trail trim level with accessories designed for those who spend time in parts unknown. Otherwise, this old-school midsize SUV should return unchanged, offering seats for up to seven and rugged capabilities that match its muscular look.

Part of Toyota’s lineup since 1984, 4Runner is one of the industry’s longest-running SUV nameplates. Today’s fifth-generation design bowed for model-year 2010, was significantly freshened for 2014, and received only minor tweaks since. Expect it to continue with no major changes until the next generation arrives, for model-year 2023 or ‘24.

The 4Runner is the only entry in its segment built like a truck, its body attached to a separate frame and its powertrain rear-wheel-drive based. Others in the class, like Toyota’s own Highlander, use lighter-duty front-wheel-drive car-type construction that integrates body and frame. Toyota’s premium division sells an upscale version of the 4Runner as the Lexus GX.

Should I wait for the 2021Toyota 4Runner or buy a 2020?

2020 4Runner Nightshade

Got wanderlust? Don’t have $41,000 for a 4Runner TRD Off-Road model? Wait for the 2021 4Runner Trail edition, slated for a fall-2020 introduction. Based on the entry-level SR5 trim, the Trail includes a Yakima-brand rooftop cargo carrier and a custom-designed 40-quart cooler mounted to a sliding cargo tray. It won’t have the off-pavement prowess of a TRD but will be a more practical picnicking platform at a grand or two less.

In fact, you could make an argument for waiting for any 2021 4Runner because you’d take advantage of unforeseen updates while paying not much more than you would for a ’20. Toyota is reluctant to incentivize the 4Runner. Loyal buyers sustain demand, so transaction – and resale — prices are strong and sales generally steady. That reduces chances of deep discounts on the 2020.

Expect the ’21 Trail model to join a lineup carried over with little change from model-year 2020: SR5, SR5 Premium, TRD Off-Road, TRD Off-Road Premium, Venture, Limited, Nightshade, and TRD Pro. Four-wheel drive (4WD) will remain standard on TRD versions and optional on the others in place of rear-drive. The sole engine will remain a 270-horsepower V-6. The SR5, SR5 Premium, Limited, and Nighshade should again be available with a small third-row seat, increasing capacity to seven.

Will 2021Toyota 4Runner styling be different?

2020 4Runner TRD Pro

No. All 4Runners will retain their purpose-derived design, with 4WD models riding high on 9.6 inches of ground clearance, half-inch more than rear-drive versions. All will again include protective underbody skid plates for engine, front suspension, fuel tank, and 4WD transfer case. Trail, TRD Off-Road, Venture, and TRD Pro grades will return unique 17-inch wheels. TRDs will again have a hood scoop, the TRD Pro getting a specific grille, blackout trim, and thicker skid plates. Limiteds will return with exterior brightwork and polished 20-inch wheels, Nightshades with black versions of the same.

2021 4Runner Trail

The ’21 4Runner’s cabin will continue to emphasize durability and function over delicate design and fancy materials. Expect all ’21s to return with a leather-wrapped steering wheel. The base SR5 will retain fabric upholstery, the Limited perforated leather with heated and ventilated power front seats, all others Toyota’s imitation-leather SofTex. A less cluttered gauge cluster introduced for model-year-’20 will carryover, as will the newly standard 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system with support for Apple CarPlay, Google Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa.

2021 4Runner Trail with custom cooler and sliding cargo deck

Room and comfort are fine in the first two seating rows. The optional third row is a child-sized afterthought. There’s 9 cubic feet of cargo volume behind it, with space behind the second row varied if you select the slide-out platform, up to a maximum 89.7 cubic feet. All models come with cool power up/down liftgate glass, the available sliding cargo deck adds a dose of extra practicality, and Trail grades include a built-in 40-quart cooler with lockable lid and tie-down brackets.

Any 2021Toyota 4Runner mechanical changes?

2020 4Runner Limited

Very unlikely. Expect the ’21 4Runner to rely again on a 4.0-liter V-6 that should again make 270 horsepower and 278 pound-feet of torque. Acceleration is adequate, but the engine struggles to move this 2.5-ton truck with any verve in highway-speed merging and passing. It gets little help from the sole transmission, a five-speed automatic way behind the times in an era were more efficient eight-, nine, and 10-speed automatics are the rule.

Off-road, however, expect the ’21 4Runner to remain atop its competitive set, challenged only by the likes of the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk and Overland. 4Runner TRD versions will again have part-time four-wheel drive (4WD) not intended for use on dry pavement. That system would be optional in place of rear-wheel drive on all but the Limited. The Limited’s optional 4WD is a more convenient full-time system that can remain engaged on dry pavement without risking powertrain wear. All these 4WD systems have low-range gearing.

2020 4Runner TRD Pro front skid plate

TRD stands for Toyota Racing Development, but here it applies to serious off-road chops. All ’21 4Runner TRD models will again come with an electronic locking rear differential and Toyota’s Crawl Control off-road cruise control. TRD Off-Road models can be ordered with Toyota’s Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS), which allows extended wheel travel at slow speeds for greater off-road capability and control. On pavement, KDSS is designed to reduce body lean when cornering.

Still, any ’21 4Runner’s on-pavement driving dynamics will remain a product of its truck-like construction. Sharp bumps don’t filter through much, but this SUV suffers far more bound and jiggle over uneven pavement than a unibody crossover. Steering feel is nearly lifeless. The TRD Pro exacerbates these characteristics, and its chunky tires and free-flowing exhaust amp up the road roar and wind rush present to varying degrees in every model.

Will 2021Toyota 4Runner fuel economy improve?

Expect the ’21 4Runner’s EPA ratings to repeat those of 2020. They’re sobering, but not surprising: just 16/19/17 mpg city/highway/combined for both 2WD and 4WD models.

Our 2020 TRD Pro review sample average 16.3 mpg in our suburban test loop on the recommended regular-grade 87-octane gasoline.

Will the 2021Toyota 4Runner have new features?

2020 4Runner TRD Pro with TRD coil springs and Fox internal-bypass shocks

Don’t count on it at this advanced age. Laudably, the Toyota Safety Sense P (TSS-P) suite of driver-assistance features became standard equipment on all 2020 4Runners and will return on all for ’21. It consists of autonomous emergency braking to mitigate a frontal collision with other vehicles, objects, or pedestrians (the P in the name). It also includes automatic highbeam headlights, adaptive cruise control to maintain a set distance from traffic ahead, and lane-departure warning (but not lane-maintaining automatic steering correction).

The ’21 SR5 and TRD Off-Road models should continue as relatively basic vehicles, although Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa will return as standard. The Trail would build off the SR5 with the addition of the rooftop carrier and built-in cooler. In addition to features already mentioned, expect the ’21 SR5 Premium, TRD Off-Road Premium, Venture, and TRD Pro to return with heated front seats and a power driver’s seat.

Imbedded GPS navigation that doesn’t require a cellular data signal would return as standard on all but the base SR5 and TRD Off-Road models. Limited and Nightshade grades would get driver-seat memory and, along with the TRD Pro, a 15-speaker JBL-brand audio system.

Will 2021Toyota 4Runner prices be different?

2021 4Runner Trail

Year-over-year price inflation, not new features, will dictate modest increases; we’d guess a $400 boost to base prices and no change to options charges. 

For reference, here are 2020 4Runner base prices, including the $1,120 destination fee. The ‘20 SR5 started at $37,240 with rear-wheel drive and at $39,115 with 4WD. Expect the ’21 Trail to start around $39,750 with 4WD. The 2020 SR5 Premium was priced from $40,435 with rear-drive and from $42,310 with 4WD. Base prices were $40,960 for the TRD Off-Road and $43,690 for the TRD Off-Road Premium

The ’20 Limited was priced from $46,105 with rear-drive and from $48,140 with 4WD, the Nightshade edition from $47,845 and $49,880, respectively. The ‘4Runner TRD Pro started at $50,085.

Among standalone options, running boards and the sliding cargo deck and should each cost $350. On the SR5 and SR5 Premium, the third-row seat would continue at $805, imbedded navigation at $1,585. The Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System would be a $1,750 option for the TRD Off-Road. Power running boards for the Limited and Nightshade would cost $1,500. The third-row seat would be available on these grades for $1,365.

When does the 2021Toyota 4Runner come out?

2021 4Runner Trail

Expect a fall 2020 release date for the 2021 Toyota 4Runner.

Best 2021Toyota 4Runner competitors

Chevrolet Blazer, Ford Edge, Honda Passport, Hyundai Santa Fe, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Nissan Murano, Subaru Outback, Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]