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Project 4Runner Back Country Part 1

Posted in Project Vehicles on December 1, 2010
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A few months ago, we found ourselves wandering the vendor showcase at Overland Expo-the annual consumer show for backcountry recreation enthusiasts that's held each year in Arizona-surrounded by lots of cool old Toyotas and Land Rovers sporting the newest parts and products aimed at this fast-growing segment of the 4x4 marketplace. We've always been big fans of the "backcountry lifestyle," but as we spent more time at the Expo, we realized that we'd never actually built an overlanding project for this magazine, or at least one that we could recall. We thought of several vehicles that could serve as a credible platform for such a project build, but one that we'd driven recently leapt readily to our minds for a few different reasons:

To our way of thinking, an overlander should be reasonable in size, deliver respectable mileage and an acceptable on-road ride (where it will spend a great deal of its time), and be based off a platform that's known for its off-pavement ruggedness and which enjoys a generous level of aftermarket support. To us, that seemed to describe our current Four Wheeler of the Year-the 2010 Toyota 4Runner-to a tee.

When we approached the folks in Toyota's marketing department with a proposal to build a 4Runner for overlanding, they loved the idea, and shortly thereafter, a brand-new 4Runner Trail Edition arrived at our offices-not to be used as an unmodified test mule as our FWOTY winners usually are, but as a project-in-progress which we'll build in stages to tackle the demands of overland driving.

Defining Our Terms
What is "overlanding"? Loosely defined, it's the act of using your truck (or Jeep, or quad, or dirt bike) for exploring, and living in, the backcountry-often for prolonged stretches of time. And while overlanding may subject your rig to some rigorous wheeling duties on occasion, an overlander's not a single-purpose trail machine, the way a rockcrawler or a sand rail is; in other words, the ideal overlander is a vehicle that can carry you, your buddies, and a week's worth of camping supplies into the most rugged and remote stretches of outback and home again safely, while still remaining street-legal and daily-drivable for the morning commute: A vehicle that's versatile enough to handle a variety of terrain, and able to carry all the comforts of home (give or take). Think "mini-Earth Roamer," and you'll catch our drift.

The great thing about building a vehicle for overlanding is that it doesn't necessarily involve a lot of custom fabrication or hard-to-find components; most of the modifications we'll make to our 4Runner will involve off-the-shelf parts that nearly any shade-tree mechanic can install. Also, just about any truck, SUV or halfway-trailable crossover rig can be transformed into a credible overlander (Subarus make very good candidates, for one), so you don't need to trade in your Explorer for a JK to get in the overlanding game. Most of the parts you need to build an overlander are also well within the budget of the average weekend wheeler-no LS7 crate motor, Rockwell axles, or Atlas transfer case required. And finally, overlanding is just plain fun to do.

Our Guinea Pig
Our silver 4Runner Trail Edition came from the factory slightly de-contented from the unit we tested for our Four Wheeler of the Year test (April '10). While our project rig retains the factory Torsen rear locking differential and Active-Trac (traction control) and Crawl Control (hill-descent) systems, the normally-standard Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System-with hydraulically actuated swaybar disconnects-was deleted from our vehicle, as was the factory onboard navigation system. That's okay with us on both counts since (a) the KDSS would have likely been disabled in order for us to lift the vehicle (which we intend to do), and (b) we're now free to explore the aftermarket for myriad options in onboard/portable navigation systems.

Otherwise, our 109.8-inch-wheelbase 4Runner's powertrain and running gear are identical to our Four Wheeler of the Year winner: 4.0L DOHC V-6, Aisin five-speed automatic transmission, two-speed lever-shift (!) transfer case, 8.2-inch corporate axles, and P265/70R17 HTS radial tires on 17x7.5-inch aluminum wheels. Trail Edition 4Runners also get tubular sidesteps and a roof rack (both of which will go away), Bilstein shocks, MP3 and Bluetooth capability, iPod hookup, and water-resistant fabric seats.

What We'll Do
The number of ways to build an overlander, and the parts required to do it, are as numerous and varied as the types of overlanding you may prefer-desert outback, wooded mountains, snowy tundra, tropical rain forest, deep water crossings, you name it. We're still researching our possible buildup options, and canvassing potential parts suppliers for this project, but here's a brief rundown of what we already know we want to do (and not do).

Switchgear for the traction-aid systems, such as Multi-Terrain, Crawl Control and locker, are placed in an unusual location: On the roof of the cab, in a pod that includes the vanity light switches. We'd love to relocate them to a spot where they're more directly in our line of sight-though it may be more trouble than it's worth-and we'll also need to find a home for the switch for the selectable front locker that we plan to add.

Engine/transmission/transfer case:
The 4.0L V-6 is perfectly acceptable in stock form, though it generates its peak power near the top of the powerband, has a kind of "dead spot" in its torque curve between 1,500 and 2,500 rpm, and sudden-burst acceleration-such as when passing slower traffic-can be sluggish and unpredictable at times. Since we're certain to add several hundred pounds of weight to the vehicle before we're finished, we'll look into perking up the 4.0L's performance parameters via a free-flowing aftermarket air intake, a less restrictive after-cat exhaust, and possibly a tuning chip with the aim at providing a little more oomph at lower revs. To better cope with the miles of dirt and dust we'll see, we'll look to improve our rig's filtration of fuel, oil, and air.

Other stuff:
we're still mulling over the addition of a snorkel-style intake, since we don't plan to submerge our project in six-foot-deep water, and the design of most aftermarket snorkel kits could cause interference problems for the roof rack/fold-out tent system we plan to install. The stock transmission and transfer case will be left unmolested for now, though we will look into cooling and skidplating upgrades for these gearboxes, and for the fuel tank as well. One last underhood modification will be the installation of an auxiliary battery to provide extra juice for the winch, lights, compressor and other amp-sucking add-ons we plan to install; we may also choose to upgrade the alternator as well.

As it's generally not built for hardcore four-wheeling, your typical overlander doesn't run an inordinate amount of suspension lift. Our 4Runner's wheelwells easily accommodate 31.6-inch-tall tires, and could probably clear 33s by simply removing the plastic fender trim. However, we'd lose some much-needed up travel as a result, so we'll be looking to mildly lift our overlander to fit 33x12.50 tires. To achieve the modest amount of lift we'll need, we'll probably opt for one of the many aftermarket kits that are available for this truck that feature longer-than-stock, medium- to heavy-duty coil springs; longer-travel shocks are on the wish list, too.

The 270hp 4.0L V-6 is more than adequate for the 4Runner in stock trim, but since we'll be adding several pounds of weight, we'll look to perk up the motor with freer-flowing intake and exhaust components. The fuse box is located right where we'd normally stick a dual battery, but we'll find a way to get more juice underhood.

As mentioned, our 4Runner's already equipped from the factory with a rear locker, which works well and which we're happy to retain. For the IFS front, we'd normally be satisfied with adding a limited-slip-type differential, but we're leaning instead towards installing a selectable locker since we're not going to overstress the front axle assembly with a too-massive tire size. Also, with only a four-percent overall increase in tire diameter, we probably won't need to re-gear the axles, which will save us time and (a lot of) money.

Tire and wheel brands are still being debated, though we all agree that ditching the weakish OE P265 HTS treads currently on the vehicle in favor of a set of 33x12.50 radial Mud-Terrains will be a substantial upgrade in itself. Wheels will likely be in the 17x8 size and made of aluminum instead of steel to keep weight gains at a minimum.

Exterior: If beauty is only skin-deep, an overlander is a gorgeous rig indeed since many, if not most, of its upgrades are readily apparent on the outside. Up front, we'll install an aftermarket bumper and integrated winch, probably with a 9,000-pound rating. We'll probably want a bumper that can integrate a pair of aftermarket driving lights for added lumenage during those rare but sometimes-necessary night excursions. We'll also replace our stock rear bumper with a combination bumper/swing-out spare-tire carrier, which will include heavy-duty attachment points and accommodate jerrycans and (possibly) racks for bicycles or other gear; nobody makes one of these for 4Runners at present, so this is one area where we'll need to have a custom part fabricated.

The 4Runner's slide-out rear deck is very handy for loading and unloading bulky cargo. We will likely use this as a template for a sliding multi-shelf storage system for organizing all of our onboard camp and survival gear.

Also to be upgraded will be the factory side steps, which will be dispatched for some rock sliders, and the roof rack, to be supplanted by a sturdier aftermarket unit that will be used for either extra storage or as a base for a roof-mounted camp-tent system. We also plan to rig up some sort of portable solar panel to our exterior, so it can absorb the sun's rays during a day of wheeling, then power our laptops and recharge our SLRs when we blog from the deep in the wilderness at night.

Interior: For a midsize SUV, the 4Runner is relatively spacious, but we will create even more room for interior storage, most likely by removing the rear seats and constructing a custom platform for the rear of the interior. That's because we will be stuffing our project with all manner of trail necessities such as a fire extinguisher and first-aid supplies, a source of onboard air, a full battery of tools and handy replacement parts, sleeping bags and blankets, all of the culinary goodies we'll need (fridge/freezer, food and water, portable stove, utensils and cutlery, Cuisinart and espresso maker-okay, maybe not those last two, but you get the picture), and a system for organizing all of this stuff into easily accessible compartments, most likely utilizing storage boxes and some sort of sliding-shelf system. We'll have plenty of room to improvise here: we're researching the possibility of including things like a portable shower system-and heck, we may even find room somewhere to bolt up a gun rack for Holman's Mossberg (gotta keep the employees happy, y'know).

Up front, we'll keep the factory seats and stereo, and as mentioned, we'll scour the aftermarket for a reliable GPS/nav system. We may or may not replace the stock center console with a lockable storage box; we may choose to add some extra gauges or switch banks, too; and we're fairly certain that in the coming months, we'll find all sorts of new gadgets and gizmos that we hadn't seen before but which we simply can't live without now. Stick around for all the details-our overlander buildup starts two months from now.

Quick Specs

  • Vehicle/model: 2010 Toyota 4Runner Trail
  • Base price: $35,700
  • Engine: 4.0L DOHC V-6
  • Mfg.'s hp @ rpm: 270 @ 5,600
  • Mfg.'s torque @ rpm (lb-ft): 278 @ 4,400
  • Mfg.'s suggested fuel type: Regular unleaded
  • Transmission: Aisin A750F 5-spd ECT automatic
  • Transfer case: VF2A part-time 2-spd
  • Axles, f/r: S20BD 8.2-in/Solid BD21BN 8.2-in, Toyota electric locker
  • Axle ratio: 3.73:1
  • Low-range ratio: 2.57:1
  • Crawl ratio: 33.7:1
  • Suspension, f/r: IFS, double-wishbone, stabilizer bar/ four-link, coil springs/
  • Steering: Power variable gear rack-and-pinion
  • Brakes, f/r: 13.3-in vented disc, four-piston calipers/12.3-in solid disc, single-piston calipers
  • Wheels (in): 17 x 7.5
  • Tires: P265/70R17 Bridgestone Dueler HTS
  • Fuel economy, EPA city/highway: 17/22
  • Observed city/highway/trail: 18.4
  • Weight (lb): 4,750
  • Wheelbase (in): 109.8
  • Overall length (in): 189.9
  • Overall width (in): 75.8
  • Height (in): 71.5
  • Minimum ground clearance (in): 9.6
  • Approach/departure angles (deg): 33/26
  • Breakover angle (deg): 24
  • GVWR (lb): 6,300
  • Payload (lb): 1,550
  • Maximum towing capacity (lb): 5,000
  • Seating: 7
  • Fuel capacity (gal): 24.0
  • RTI: 491

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