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2003 Toyota 4Runner Review - First Look

Posted in Vehicle Reviews on November 1, 2002
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Contributors: The ManufacturersJon Thompson
Photographers: The Manufacturers
Bigger and better? For sure, the '03 4Runner is bigger, and it's equipped with some clever electronic and mechanical features that help to enhance its ability to articulate, as seen here.

You know the 4Runner, right? It's that capable, willing midsize SUV built on the Toyota Tacoma platform, with all the Tacoma's same charms and weaknesses. But in spite of those weaknesses, which include its smallish interior dimensions, the 4Runner has been the conveyance for many a family backcountry adventure, and even has provided the basis for many a capable trail rig.

But that was then, and this is now. If the 4Runner originally sprang from a 4WD pickup and was based on the truck chassis from its introduction in the early '80s through 2002, for 2003 it is a completely separate vehicle with its own larger dimensions, its own larger engines and its own chassis. Here, briefly, are the features of the '03 4Runner.

Most noticeable is a traditional but completely restyled body-on-frame design that is 4 1/2 inches longer overall than the '02 4Runner on a wheelbase also 4 1/2 inches longer. There is 2 inches more front leg room, 1 1/2 inches more rear leg room, 1/2 inch more head room, 2 1/2 inches wider track, 3 inches wider overall, 5 1/2 inches more hip room, and 4 1/2 inches more shoulder room.

What this all adds up to is a new 4Runner vastly more comfortable and roomy than the vehicle it replaces, with easier entry and exit.

As noted, two new engines are on tap for '03. Well, that's not quite correct. One engine, the 1GR-FE, a DOHC 4.0L 60-degree V-6, is all-new. Of an under-square design, it builds 245 hp at 5,200 rpm and 283 lb-ft of torque at 3,400 rpm on 91-octane fuel, and is about 130 pounds lighter than the V-8. A note here: Toyota's engineers are to be commended for doing this V-6 the right way. First, it's under-square design-its stroke is longer than its bore, hence the under-square description-means it's fully able to crank out the torque required to allow it to tow up to 5,000 pounds. Second, it's 60-degree spread between banks is ideal for minimal vibration, just a 90-degree spread is ideal for V-8s. Those V-6 engines that use a 90-degree spread do so because they can be machined on the same assembly line as the V-8 blocks. This is purely a cost-saving measure and is of no other benefit. So, way to go, Toyota! This is a very willing engine and would be the one we'd specify if we were about to buy a new 4Runner.

PhotosView Slideshow

That's not to toss rocks at the 2UZ-FE V-8, a DOHC 4.7L unit. It's the same Lexus-derived unit that powers the Sequoia and the Tundra, but upgraded this year to produce 235 hp at 4,800 rpm and 320 lb-ft of torque at 3,400 rpm. It also tows 5,000 pounds. This is a smooth, powerful engine. But so is the V-6-just compare the numbers. Adaptation of this engine to the 4Runner seems as much a marketing decision as anything else. Some buyers just have to have a V-8.

The V-6 drives through the A340F four-speed transmission, which also is used in the Land Cruiser 100 and Lexus LX470. The V-8, meanwhile, drives through an all-new A750F-I five-speed transmission. Both are controlled electronically and both are very smooth. Low range in the transfer case for both is 2.566:1, and these cases are shorter and stronger than that of the old 4Runner. Both use a Torsen limited-slip center diff that can be locked up. When it's not locked, the Torsen sends 60 percent of the engine's torque to the rear axle and 40 percent to the front. One important difference between the two is that the V-6's transfer case is completely selectable between 2-High, 4-High, 4-Low and 4-Low-locked. The V-8's transfer case is a full-time unit, with 4-H, 4-High-locked, 4-low and 4-Low-locked available. Both are shifted via a rotary switch on the dash, and the center diff also is locked via a dash-panel switch.

One of the things we've loved best about the Tacoma/4Runner family is the capability that its optional locking diff provided. That diff is gone, replaced by a series of electronic systems designed to provide traction and to control vehicle stability. Called TRAC and VSC, they use new solid-state wheel-speed sensors to control wheelspin on slippery surfaces by applying braking force and reducing throttle opening. The same system operates the Downhill Assist Control, which limits, when activated, speeds to within 2-4 mph. It seems to us that what these systems do, in addition to relying on dreaded wheelspin for activation, is to assume the worst about the driver's skills and capabilities. At a time when other manufacturers are adopting electric lockers for their vehicles-GM, with the Hummer HS, and Jeep with the Rubicon-this may not be the best solution, at least for enthusiasts.

Aiding all this traction-enhancing equipment is a clever shock absorber system that crosslinks left-front with right-rear, and right-front with left-rear, so that when one wheel is deflected, the opposing one is pushed down into the driving surface. And there's an optional rear air suspension that links both rear airbags to do basically the same thing.

The interior of the 4Runner is completely new, as you'd expect. There are some curiosities there, such as the oddball heater/air conditioning controls, and some high points as well, such as a clever double-layer rear cargo space. Overall it works well and provides high levels of comfort.

Pricing for the new 4Runner hadn't been released at press time, but Toyota officials say they recognize the need to keep its pricing in line with that of the vehicle it replaces. So it might be a little more expensive, especially considering its high levels of upgraded content, but perhaps not a lot more expensive. We shall see.

Most importantly, how does the 4Runner work? We'll tell you as soon as we know. That should be along about the February issue, when this vehicle competes against several others in the Four Wheeler of the Year comparison.


Vehicle model ’03 Toyota 4Runner
Estimated price N/A
Type DOHC V-6 std/DOHC V-8 optional
Displacement (liter/ci) 4.0L (246ci)/4.7L (289ci)
Mfg’s power rating @ rpm (hp) 245 @ 5,200/
235 @ 4,800
Mfg’s torque rating @ rpm (lb-ft) 283 @3,400/
320 @ 3,400
Transmission Corporate four-speed
automatic (V-6),
Corporate five-speed
automatic (V-8)
Axle ratio 3.909 (V-6), 3.727 (V-8)
Transfer case Corporate VF4AM (V-6),
VF4BM (V-8)
Low-range ratio 2.566:1
Front Double A-arms, coil springs,
antiroll bar, cross-linked tubular shocks
Rear Solid axle, four-link with Panhard rod,
antiroll bar, crosslinked shocks
Front 12.6-inch ventilated disc, 13.3-inch
ventilated disc with Sport edition
Rear 12.3-inch disc
Wheels (in.) 7x16 steel, 7.5x17 alloy (optiona)l
Tires P265/70R16., P265/65R17 (optional)
Estimated EPA city/highway 17/20 (V-6),
16-19 (V-8)
Weight (lbs.) 4280-4450
Wheelbase (in.) 109.8
Overall length (in.) 187.8
Overall width (in.) 73.8
Height (in.) 68.5, 71.2 with roof rack
Minimum ground clearance (in.) 9.1
Maximum towing capacity (lbs.) 5000
Seating 5
Fuel capacity (gal.) 23.0

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