Thirty seconds had barely passed before the concierge at my apartment left the front desk and ran outside. “Is this the new 4Runner? I love it! My dad has a 1996 and I have a 1984. I want one of the new ones too!”
The Toyota 4Runner has been a relative legend since its introduction in 1984. The 4Runner is known for being dependable, go-anywhere capable, and pretty durable. People who love them really love them, and plenty more at least respect them. Toyota sent me the flashiest version of their 2020 4Runner, the Nightshade Edition, so I could see what’s what with the newest model year of the fifth-generation 4Runner.
What Is It?
This is a 2020 Toyota 4Runner Nightshade Edition. Toyota offers the Nightshade package on several models besides 4Runner, and the formula is simple. Take the nicest trim level, black it out, and boom! Nightshade. So, the 4Runner Nightshade is effectively a blacked-out 4Runner Limited, featuring 20″ black wheels, black mirrors, roof rails, badging, rockers, and door handles, and black chrome bumper accents.
All 2020 4Runners, regardless of trim, are powered by the same drivetrain. First introduced in 2002, Toyota’s 1GR V6 is still under the hood so many years later. It produces 270 horsepower and 278 lb-ft of torque and is paired to a long-standing 5-speed automatic transmission.
Most 4Runners run in rear-wheel-drive, with selectable four-wheel-drive, but the Limited and Nightshade are equipped with an all-wheel-drive system. Similar to some Jeep and Land Rover products, the system is always engaged, but can be locked in to 4 High and 4 Low. Toyota includes both “A-TRAC” (off-road traction control) and Downhill Assist Control with the Nightshade. Buyers looking for Crawl Control will need to choose a different trim.
All 4Runner Limited and Nightshade come with “X-REAS,” which stands for Cross Linked Relative Absorber System. The system links the shock absorbers diagonally (front left to right rear) with a hydraulic cylinder between them. The cross-linked shocks can “borrow fluid” from each other and send it to the corner with the most force applied. This helps, in theory, with pitch, roll, and cornering.
The 4Runner Nightshade has, on paper, plenty of luxurious and modern touches. New for 2020 is an 8″ touchscreen for Toyota’s Entune infotainment system. The setup supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which is great news for folks who aren’t the biggest fans of Entune’s navigation software. Fifteen speakers of JBL-powered audio push out whatever you choose on that screen. The Nightshade has standard leather seats with a heated and ventilated set up front, and my test car had the optional $1,365 third-row seats.
Aside from the third-row option, my 2020 4Runner Nightshade also had $1,500 of power running boards. Toyota is offering a $1,000 rebate on 4Runner Nightshade, which brought my test car’s MSRP to $51,645.
Driving the 2020 4Runner Nightshade
I mentioned the drivetrain was rather uh, experienced. It also bears mentioning that the 2020 Toyota 4Runner is a ten-year-old vehicle. The fifth-generation 4Runner was released in 2010 and received its last facelift in 2014. So, while Toyota has continued to make small changes year over year, the bones aren’t new. And behind the wheel, you notice.
The 4Runner is a body-on-frame SUV, in a world where most midsize, five-passenger SUVs have become unibody. Its closest competitor (to me) in size, off-road capability, and chassis setup is the 2020 Jeep Wrangler. The Wrangler is also body-on-frame and has serious off-road chops, though 4Runner enthusiasts will claim Toyota offers superior durability and longevity.
You’ll never describe the 4Runner’s driving characteristics as “carlike,” though it’s generally good for a body-on-frame offering. Handling and body control are solid, no doubt helped by that fancy X-REAS setup. Hydraulic power steering is heavy, but offers good stability at highway speeds. The Wrangler is a handful by comparison, but easier in the city.
The 1GR V6 engine offers enough power and torque, but the transmission’s five long gears make it feel more soupy and laggy than it is. On-ramps and highway passing both take some effort as the engine labors to get into the powerband. A sixth ratio may help the 4Runner feel a bit punchier.
Brakes were a weak point of the 4Runner Nightshade, with a soft pedal that inspired little confidence around town. With the radio off, I could hear a noticeable squick of fluid noise every time I pressed the pedal. Brake feel got better with a trailer attached.
The 4Runner Nightshade’s interior feels substantial and durable, with more of a functional focus than outright luxury. That’s fine, that’s the point of the 4Runner. But given its age, certain buttons and controls appear to be placed wherever there was room. Off-road controls are next to sunroof controls on the ceiling, for example.
JBL audio in the 4Runner Nightshade was the best from any Toyota I’ve reviewed to date. Tundra engineers, in particular, should take notes from whatever’s been done in 4Runner.
Seating is a subjective rating, so my thoughts here come with the caveat of “go try it for yourself.” The leather seats in this 4Runner Nightshade were flat-out uncomfortable. The 4Runner isn’t a luxury vehicle, but owners will spend plenty of miles on the highway and off-roading. Good seats are a must and these miss the mark. Perhaps the cloth seats on lower trims are better. That optional third row is useful for kids only, as the raised floor and low roofline limit who can truly fit back there. I’d skip it and buy a Highlander if frequent seven-passenger transport is at the top of your list.
Towing with the 2020 Toyota 4Runner Nightshade
Despite its smaller size, we do see a good number of 4Runners used as tow vehicles in the amateur motorsport world. The 4Runner Nightshade’s 5,000 lb tow rating allows for nearly any car to be pulled on an open trailer. I borrowed my friend’s open trailer and “FC” Mazda RX-7 to see how the 4Runner would do pulling about 4,600 lbs.
Toyota does not offer an integrated trailer brake controller on the 4Runner, though the wiring pigtail is included should you wish to install your own. I elected to use a Tekonsha Prodigy RF, which does not require any vehicle wiring and plugs in-line, between the truck and trailer.
With the 4Runner loaded up, I took a tour of both local highways and suburban roads. The body-on-frame construction leads to a quieter towing experience than that of a unibody (the hitch banging around in the receiver is isolated from the floor) and the 4Runner was very stable no matter the speed.
Brakes, mentioned earlier as an unloaded low point, felt much better with the trailer connected. My feelings about the V6 mated to the long-in-the-gears five-speed were magnified here. The V6 had to wind all the way out to reach highway speeds, and adding weight to the hitch only makes it harder to keep in the powerband with limited gears to choose from. Toyota does not offer a “Tow mode” to change shift points or other characteristics, though you can manually choose gears with the shifter.
I’ll Just Dance for Myself, Back on My Beat
Although the Toyota 4Runner Nightshade may appear to be “yet another five-passenger SUV,” it really sits in a class with minimal competition. Similar body-on-frame construction and off-road chops will only be found in a Wrangler, and 4Runner feels older yet quieter and slightly more refined. It’ll tow more, too.
But for those who aren’t off-roading regularly, the $51,645 MSRP is a really tough pill to swallow. Yes, with that cost comes Toyota’s famed durability, but it can be had in cheaper 4Runner SR5 or TRD Off-Road trims – both of which come in below $40k.
The $50k price point is home to countless unibody crossovers that seat five, are far more modern, do fine for what most owners will consider “off road,” and can tow similar amounts of weight.
The 4Runner is long in the tooth. It does still have a very significant place in this world, though I’d consider lower trim levels over the Nightshade. Even considering the Wrangler, the 2020 4Runner is a bit of a party for one in a world of “good enough” crossovers.