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.