2003 Toyota 4Runner Reviews and Ratings

Utility 4D Limited 2WD

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2003 Toyota 4Runner
Mitch McCullough, Editor-in-Chief

Completely new from the ground up, the 2003 Toyota 4Runner shares almost nothing with last year's model. In spite of that, its basic mission has not changed. The new 4Runner offers serious off-road capability. While other SUVs are becoming more and more like cars, the 4Runner is, as Toyota says, the real deal.

It's loaded with the latest off-road electronic technology. Electronic traction control and Downhill Assist Control improve capability off road, while other features improve comfort and handling on the highway. Yet the new 4Runner is built on a rugged ladder frame and uses a live rear axle, a design considered dated as many SUVs move toward unit-body construction and independent rear suspensions. Toyota felt this design offered better off-road capability.

The new 4Runner is much larger and roomier than last year's model and ride quality has been greatly improved. Order the base 4Runner and you have a comfortable, well-equipped, highly capable SUV that can get things done. Order a 4Runner Limited model loaded with leather and it feels like a poor man's Range Rover. Actually, it's more like a poor person's Land Cruiser.

A new Toyota V6 delivers more power than last year's engine for exceptionally good acceleration performance. And a V8 is also available for the 4Runner for the first time. The V8, an option for all models, delivers better acceleration than the V6 when fully loaded, but you won't need it unless you plan to do a lot of towing.

While the new 4Runner may seem old school to people who want an on-road sport-utility, it's the hot ticket for drivers who want genuine off-road capability, but don't want to be punished for it on the way to work every day.

Model Lineup
The 2003 Toyota 4Runner comes in three trim levels: SR5, Sport, and Limited. Each trim level offers two engines and a choice of two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive.

Standard on all models is a totally new 4.0-liter V6 that delivers 245 horsepower at 5200 rpm and 283 pounds-feet of torque. Optional for all models is a 4.7-liter V8 that generates 235 horsepower at 4800 rpm and, more important, 320 pounds-feet of torque.

SR5 is the most popular trim level, primarily because it's the least expensive. SR5 comes with 16-inch steel wheels, the roof rack (120-pound capacity), and gray metallic bumpers, fender flares and lower cladding. It comes with a nice cloth interior. As mentioned, the 4Runner is available as an SR5 V8 4x2 ($28,005) and an SR5 V8 4x4 ($30,280). (Prices for the V6-powered models were not available at press time.)

The Sport Edition comes with Toyota's new X-REAS shock-damping system, a clever yet simple hydraulic setup that improves stability and handling in sweeping turns. The Sport comes with a special cloth interior and is distinguished by its hood scoop, a silver painted grille and roof rack, fog lamps, color-keyed outside mirrors, and 17-inch alloy wheels. The 4Runner Sport Edition V8 retails for $29,800 for the 4x2 and $32,075 for the 4x4.

Limited gets leather trim, power seats with seat heaters and is distinguished by silver painted running boards, and color-keyed bumpers, cladding, fender flares and door handles. It comes standard with the V6. MSRP for the 4Runner V8 Limited is $34,205 for the 4x2 and $36,480 for the 4x4 model.

A Class III receiver hitch is standard on all models and is mounted to the rear frame crossmember. The 4Runner is rated for a 5000-pound towing capacity.

The 2003 Toyota 4Runner is substantially larger than the 2002 model. It is 4.5 inches longer in length and wheelbase, and more than 3 inches wider. It has larger wheels that are space farther apart. The roof is no higher than before, but the floor is lower through better integration of frame and body mounts. The floor is still relatively high, however, so loading groceries or gear demands some lifting.

The exterior styling is all new for 2003, but the new 4Runner is easily recognized with its low roof and high floor. The styling is muscular, if not distinguished, and conveys ruggedness. A wide, rounded front end features an aggressive horizontal grille and wide headlamps. Chunky overfenders and cladding on the rocker panels make the 4Runner look ready to go off road. Backing up that contention are skid plates for the engine, transfer case and fuel tank. At the rear are large tail lamps and a clunky-looking rear spoiler.

The non-functional hood scoop on the Sport Edition does not, in our opinion, enhance the look of the Toyota 4Runner. In fact, we think it does the opposite.

4Runner's windshield, side windows, and side mirrors are hydrophilic glass and repel water like a waxed car or a window that has been treated with Rain-X. The glass causes water to form large drops, which are quickly shed by gravity or wind. The side mirrors are angled out to increase the driver's field of view. The available moonroof includes a two-stage wind deflector designed to reduce wind noise when traveling above 55 mph.

The back hatch is equipped with a power window. The hatch itself comes with a power opener that's especially useful in icy weather along with a power closer for a weather-tight seal.

The larger exterior dimensions of the all-new 2003 Toyota 4Runner translate to an interior that's roomier by every measure. Shoulder room, hip room, and cargo capacity have grown.

Our overriding takeaway impression of the Toyota 4Runner interior is its quietude, impressive given its ruggedness and off-road capability. Wind noise is the only sound heard because there is virtually no driveline or tire noise.

The cloth seats in the SR5 and Sport models are comfortable, with side bolsters to keep the driver in place when cornering or driving off road. The driver's seat adjusts eight ways. All five seating positions offer adjustable headrests and three-point seatbelts. About the only negative we noted was that the storage lid on the center console was flimsy. Otherwise, this is a quality interior. Storage bins are provided in all four doors.

A two-tone dashboard houses the instruments. Gauges with orange illumination are set in three deep binnacles and can't be read by the front-seat passenger. The fuel gauge uses an inclinometer for accurate readouts when the 4Runner is tilted on an incline. Automatic climate control is standard on all models. The Limited grade comes with a his-and-hers dual-zone temperature control. A display located just above the climate control reveals time, ambient temperature, and trip data. An optional 115-volt AC power outlet means you can bring all the electrical conveniences of home with you, a great feature.

An unusual feature is a pair of small convex mirrors at the rear corners of the interior designed to help the driver see vehicles approaching when backing out of a parking space. It works on the same principal as one of those big convex mirrors mounted at a corner in an underground parking garage. They may prove helpful when backing up in a busy parking lot because they help the driver pick up on movement. Using them effectively takes some practice, however, and it's hard to distinguish details.

The optional Navigation system calculates routes six times faster than previous systems, according to Toyota. The touch screen display flips up for CD/cassette and tilts in four positions to vary viewing angles for drivers of different heights.

The rear doors offer a relatively narrow opening to get into rear seats, but it's not as tight as, say, a Land Rover Discovery. The rear seat is roomy, but the bench itself is uncomfortable; it's raised slightly in the center position. The rear seat features a wide center armrest that folds down to provide two cup holders and a tray for French fries or whatever. An unusual feature, but perhaps a good idea, is a small trash bag holder for rear passengers. More appreciated are the rear ventilation ducts that bring comfort in the form of warm or cool air.

Cargo space is well designed. The rear seats can be folded down with the headrests in place, though we sometimes found it easier to pull them off. Then, pull the seat bottoms up and fold the seatbacks down. The rear seats fold nearly flat, flatter than a Ford Explorer's, and the seatbacks are reinforced to support heavy loads, again better than the Explorer. The cargo area includes structural steel tie-down hooks on the floor with additional hooks on the sides. A clever double-decker rear storage shelf helps organize cargo in two levels. Using just one hand, the collapsible shelf can be folded flat or lifted up easily with one hand. When deployed, the sturdy shelf is rated to 66 pounds. A large storage box is provided on the right.

The back hatch comes standard with a power rear window that can be operated from the key fob. If it senses a small hand in the way, the power rear hatch window will reverse directions and open. The rear hatch door also comes with power opener, great for icy weather. An electric power close function ensures the back hatch closes securely.

Driving Impressions
The Toyota 4Runner handles very well for a live-axle truck. We drove various models very quickly down twisting back roads along the Oregon coast and found the 4Runner is easy to drive and the suspension damping is excellent. We could tell it uses a live rear axle rather than an independent rear suspension, but the 4Runner handles better than a Chevy TrailBlazer. Rack-and-pinion steering gives the 4Runner quick steering response.

On unpaved roads, the 4Runner provides a very smooth ride quality, thanks in part to well-tuned damping and progressive-rate spring bumpers. However, the 4Runner really comes into its own when it gets gnarly. There's lots of suspension articulation for climbing over boulders and gullies, and a host of technology for handling steep, slippery grades.

The smooth V6 engine that comes standard on all Toyota 4Runner models is so good that we can't see a reason to get the V8 except for towing. The V6 provides responsive performance and a pair of lead-footed automotive journalists never felt lacking. The 4.0-liter V6 is a totally new engine with the latest in Toyota technology, including variable-valve timing with intelligence (VVT-i) and a new linkless electronic throttle control system with intelligence (ETCS-i). The lightweight all-aluminum V6 is rated at 245 horsepower and 283 pounds-feet of torque. Fuel economy has been improved and the V6 4x2 model is expected to get 18/21 mpg city/highway (17/20 for 4x4s). The V6 is paired with an electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission.

Optional for all models is a 4.7-liter V8 that generates 235 horsepower at 4800 rpm and 320 pounds-feet of torque. Torque, not horsepower, is the key when pulling trailers and the 4Runner's V8 was designed to provide better low-rpm pulling power without compromising highway fuel economy. It uses a steel block and aluminum head. V8 models weigh about 125 pounds more than V6 4Runners. The V8 is expected to get 17/19 mpg on 4x2 models (16/19 for 4x4s).

The V8 delivers better performance than the V6, but we didn't notice a huge gain. The difference will be noticed primarily after hooking up a trailer. Both engines feature a cranking system that keeps the starter engaged until complete combustion is achieved, freeing the driver from holding the key until the engine turns over. Both engines also feature the aforementioned drive-by-wire electronic throttle.

We found the two-wheel-drive 4Runner impressively capable off road, but ultimate traction comes from the four-wheel-drive models. For starters, 4WD 4Runners are equipped with a two-speed transfer case, giving the driver a low-range set of gears for creeping over rugged terrain.

V6 4WD 4Runners are equipped with Toyota's Multi-Mode shift-on-the-fly system with a Torsen-type limited-slip center differential. The driver can shift between 2WD, 4WD High, and 4WD Low. The Torsen center differential is open in 2WD mode. It applies a rear bias in four-wheel-drive mode, splitting torque 40/60 front-to-rear in normal driving conditions, providing the driver with a traditional feel and better stability when accelerating. The 4WD mode may be used in all types of driving conditions on all types of roads, from dry pavement to wet or snow-covered roads. The system gives the 4Runner a sure-footed feel because power is applied to all four wheels, improving traction. When the front wheels slip, up to 70 percent of the power goes to the rear wheels. When the rear wheels slip, up to 53 percent of the power goes to the front wheels.

V8 engines are mated to a new five-speed automatic transmission that improves responsive and efficiency. The transmission is equipped with Artificial Intelligence Shift control, which changes gear-shifting patterns according to driving conditions and driver intent. It works well and seems to understand when you want to cruise and when you want to get with the program. V8 4WD 4Runners operate in full time four-wheel-drive; unlike V6 4Runners, the V8 4WD models do not offer a 2WD High mode. V8 4WD models come standard with the Torsen sensing type limited-slip differential with a locking feature.

All 4WD 4Runners come with Toyota's Downhill Assist Control (DAC) system. It works similarly to Land Rover's Hill Descent Control to control the speed and progress of the vehicle down steep grades. Shift into 4WD low-range, check to make sure Downhill Assist is activated, pull to the edge of the nearest precipice, take your feet off the pedals, and steer your way slowly down the trail. Downhill Assist works very well and is easy to control. Touch the gas or brakes to slow or speed up your progress, then take your feet back off the pedals and the system comes back on, the ABS making a noisy dunk, dunk, dunk sound as it lowers the 4Runner safely down the grade. Downhill Assist will keep the 4Runner pointed in the direction you steer it as it prevents the vehicle from getting sideways on steep descents by using the anti-lock brake system. The system will work continuously for three minutes, but Toyota officials say it only needs the shortest of breaks to continue.

All 4Runners also come with a new Hill-start Assist Control (HAC) designed to prevent the vehicle from rolling backward or slipping sideways when starting off on a steep ascent. The system controls the brakes to stop the individual wheel or wheels, preventing the vehicle from rolling backward or slipping sideways.

The Toyota 4Runner is a truck, not a car. Rather than using a unit-body like the Toyota Highlander or RAV4 or Jeep Grand Cherokee, the 4Runner is built on a new ladder frame that features full-length boxed section frame rails. Toyota also steered away from using an independent rear suspension like the one on the Ford Explorer and many cars. An independent rear suspension offers better ride quality and allows for a roomier interior. Toyota said it used a live rear axle because it offers more suspension travel, and because off-road capability was a high priority. The 4Runner suspension uses a four-link rigid type suspension in the rear and double wishbones in front. Coil springs over gas shocks are used front and rear.

V8 Limited models offer an optional rear air suspension for improved ride and performance when towing or hauling heavy loads. The air suspension automatically adjusts the ride height according to vehicle load. The driver can raise the rear suspension when driving off road to increase the ground clearance and improve the rear departure angle.

A new damping system called X-REAS (standard on Sport, optional on Limited models) improves the handling dynamics on the road with no compromise in off-road articulation. In reduces the tendency of the vehicle to bob up and down in corners and improves handling by damping body pitch and roll. The system links the shocks diagonally through hydraulic lines (e.g., the front left shock is linked to the rear right shock). A central control absorber helps balance shock damping.

Anti-lock brakes (ABS) with brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) come standard on all 4Runners. The four-channel ABS helps prevent the wheels from locking during severe braking conditions, improving driver control. The 4Runner's ABS has an off-road algorithm to improve stopping performance in slippery conditions. Brake-force distribution automatically balances the braking force front to rear for shorter stopping distances. Brake assist helps a driver who may not be pressing the brake pedal hard enough during an emergency stopping situation; brake assist generates additional brake force to assist the driver.

Vehicle Skid Control comes standard on all 4Runners. Vehicle Skid Control (VSC) utilizes the braking system to help the driver maintain control in adverse conditions. 2WD models come with traction control, which reduces tire slippage for enhanced stability under acceleration. 4WD models are equipped with active traction control (A-TRAC), which uses sensors and software to deliver smoother power application in all conditions.

A plastic fuel tank offers better protection against leaks than metal tanks, which tend to leak over time at connections. The plastic tank is surrounded by a steel case for protection.

The 4Runner has grown up. The all-new Toyota 4Runner is bigger, smoother, and more comfortable than last year's model. It has moved toward the Toyota Land Cruiser in terms of size and technology. Yet it hasn't lost its original intent as a highly capable off-road vehicle. If you want serious off-road capability with Toyota quality, durability, and reliability, then the new 4Runner is an excellent choice. If you rarely venture off-road (and by off road we don't mean dirt roads), then you'll find the Toyota Highlander smoother and more comfortable.

Model as tested
Toyota 4Runner SR5 V6 4x4
Basic Warranty
3 years/36,000 miles
Assembled in
Destination charge
Gas guzzler tax
Base Price
Price as tested
Options as tested

Model Line Overview
Model lineup
SR5; Sport Edition; Limited
Safety equipment (standard)
dual-stage front airbags, three-point seat belts in all seating positions, front seat belt with ALR and ELR pretensioners and force limiters, rear seat belts with ALR and ELR, soft upper interior trim, child protector rear doors, anchors and tethers for child safety seats; anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and Brake Assist; Vehicle Skid Control, traction control
Safety equipment (optional)
4.0-liter dohc 24-valve V6
4-speed automatic

Specifications as Tested
automatic climate control, power door locks and windows with driver auto up/down, power back window with auto up/down, power door locks, remote keyless entry with rear window power down feature, electronic rear hatch locking system, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, cruise control, sun visors with sliding extensions, overhead console with map lights and holder for sunglasses, two 12-volt power outlets, cargo cover, eight-way driver's seat, 60-/40 split folding rear seats, downhill assist control, hill-start assist control, deluxe 3-in-1 audio system with six speakers, skid plates, integrated towing hitch

Engine & Transmission
4.0-liter dohc 24-valve V6
Drivetrain type
four-wheel drive
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
245 @ 5200
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)

Brakes, front/rear
ventilated disc/ventilated disc with ABS, EBD, Brake Assist
Suspension, front
P265/70R16 mud and snow
Suspension, rear
four-link rigid axle with coil springs

Seating capacity
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear

Fuel capacity
Trunk volume
Turning circle
Towing capacity
Track, front/rear
Ground clearance
Curb weight

J.D. Power Rating
Overall Quality Not Available
Overall Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Powertrain Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Body & Interior Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Features & Accessories Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Overall Quality - Design
Not Available
Powertrain Quality - Design
Not Available
Body & Interior Quality - Design
Not Available
Features & Accessories Quality - Design
Not Available

Overall Dependability Not Available
Powertrain Dependability
Not Available
Body & Interior Dependability
Not Available
Feature & Accessory Dependability
Not Available

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J.D. Power Rating Legend
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5 / 5
Better than Most
4 / 5
About Average
3 / 5
The Rest
2 / 5

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