Sport utility vehicles used to refer to rugged trucks that were long on off-road ability, and short on creature comforts. Today, most newer SUVs are just the opposite, being much less capable in the dirt, yet boasting real luxury car amenities. With its 2003 4Runner, however, Toyota claims to have given its best selling, most rugged sport-ute model both “car-like comfort, and improved off-road prowess.” A tall order. Can the new 4Runner deliver?

It better, because the Toyota 4Runner, which has sold over 1.2 million units since its 1985 introduction, is expected to maintain, and even improve, its sales. To that end, the 2003 Toyota 4Runner is all-new. But you might not realize that, since the styling is a subtle evolution. A smoother fender here, a new light there, it’s all very handsome, with more flavor of the larger Sequoia, but not a real stretch. Get out the tape measure, though, and you quickly discover that the wheelbase is greatly stretched, by 4.5 inches, to 109.8, while overall length also jumps to 187.8 inches. The new 4Runner is almost 6-inches wider, as well.

Its new stiffer ladder-style frame , yes this is still a real truck , rides on a front double wishbone suspension, and 4-link solid axle at the rear, with coil springs at all corners. Rear air suspension is available for the Limited V-8, while a Yamaha developed cross-linked shock system is available on a new Sport Edition. Called X-REAS, it reduces body pitch, roll, and bottoming when off-roading by passing some of the front wheel motion to the rear.

There are big changes too in the 4Runner’s engine bay. Last year’s 4-banger is replaced by a new all-aluminum 4.0-liter, dual-overhead-cam V6 with 245 horsepower and 283 pound-feet of torque. To match domestic rivals, the Land Cruiser’s 4.7-liter dual-overhead-cam I-Force V8, with 235 horsepower and a stump-pulling 320 pound-feet of torque, is a first time 4Runner option. V6 4Runners use a 4-speed automatic transmission, while the V8 gets a 5-speed auto. Both are smooth and crisp. All 4-wheel-drive units boast a full-time 2-speed transfer case with a Torsen sensing-type limited slip center differential. With a normal 40/60 torque split front to rear, in slippery conditions a maximum of 70% goes to the rear, or up to 53% to the front. Traction control and Vehicle Stability Control are standard on all models. Also standard are Toyota’s Downhill Assist Control, and Hill-start Assist Control, which use the throttle and brakes to improve stability and reduce slippage on loose surfaces.

We first tried pavement in the new 4Runner in Oregon’s scenic Depot Bay area. Ride quality was almost luxury car smooth, but the soft 4-link suspension produced a lot of body roll in corners. The variable-assist rack-and-pinion steering had a light feel, but still delivered reasonable feedback. Drivetrain performance, from both the 6-and-8, was impressive. The V6 was strong off the line, and yet still exhibited plenty of top end for passing. The V8, a proven unit, pumped out gobs of refined low end grunt.

The long list of mechanical upgrades is matched by new accommodations in the form of a larger, well equipped cabin. The dash is clean and sporty, with straightforward switchgear for everything from the standard automatic climate controls, to the optional GPS navigation system.

In back, the 60/40 split seat offers increased head, shoulder and hip room. No third seat is offered. It’s reserved for the Lexus version, the GX470. 4Runner cargo space has decreased by 2.4 cubic-feet, to 42.2 with the rear seat up. With the seats folded, maximum available cargo space is 75.1, down 4.7 cubic-feet.

EPA fuel economy numbers have increased, however, with the V6 model registering 18 city/21 highway in 2-wheel-drive models, and 17 city/20 highway when equipped with 4-wheel- drive. Final pricing was not available when we went to tape, but look for base stickers to range from $27,000 for an SR5 4X2, to $37,000 for a Limited 4X4.

Sport-utes, and the demands of sport-ute owners, have come a long way. The new 2003 Toyota 4Runner looks well-equipped to meet those demands and deliver both the comfort and true off-road ability needed to grow sales, and make it a serious mid-size SUV contender for many years to come.


  • Engine: 4.0-Liter Dohc V6
  • Horsepower: 245
  • Torque: 283 Lb Feet
  • EPA Mileage: 18 MPG City 21 MPG Highway