Toyota 4Runner TRD shows its true off-the-asphalt worth in Elk Valley jaunt
By Jim Bray
If you're heading out to the boonies, away from civilization – or even pavement – a vehicle like Toyota's famous 4Runner can help ensure you get where you're going – and then back again.
And this off-road-averse writer and a trio of others just proved it.
Utility vehicles aren't my favourite type of conveyance (better than public transit, though!), but I recently had an opportunity to learn just how great that utility can be under the right circumstances. And before I get to recounting our adventure, I'd like to thank the folks at Toyota for stepping up and lending me a vehicle for the purpose.
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It was the 4Runner with the TRD Sport option package, a vehicle I had reviewed previously here, a $53,480 atavism that may not be the most compelling or modern vehicle for city or highway driving, but which sure felt its oats when we left the pavement and headed out to recreate a trip we'd made nearly 40 years ago.
That 1985 trip, made when we lived in Elkford, B.C. and owned and operated a restaurant in the area, was to celebrate my 33rd birthday with a lovely family-and-best-friend picnic at the gorgeous Elk Lake Park in southeastern British Columbia.
This beautiful place features a mountain lake below a glacier and is one of the most picturesque places I've ever been. Kind of like a much smaller and less accessible (and unspoiled) version of Lake Louise.
We had a wonderful day there but, on our way out, ended up bottomed out and stuck in a big mud hole, where we were forced to spend the night, listening to the howls of wild beasties while my youngest son, five years old at the time, bleated "can we go home now?" or words to that effect. That tore at our heartstrings but, being stuck and immobile, there wasn't much we could do about it till the next day when my friend and I started walking back out until we found some campers with a winch on their truck and begged them to save us.
Fortunately, they did, and we're here to tell the tale.
That was in a two-wheel drive Chevy S-10 club cab, the type with the two little jump seats in the back. Every time I see such a vehicle today, I laugh and point out that it's capable of sleeping five people. Not comfortably, but in a pinch, which that was.
Anyway, Les, my best friend for more than 40 years, suggested that, with this year's approach of my 70th birthday, we try to do it again, only this time we'd ensure we made it out unscathed. The road, which was basically a dirt and pothole-infested logging route that followed the power lines crossing through the area, had supposedly been upgraded since 1985 and we were assured we'd be able to get to Elk Lake and back.
Having been bitten once, however, I figured we should have something really robust for the trip, a vehicle whose off-pavement performance was the stuff of legend. I thought immediately of the 4Runner and begged Toyota for a review sample that we could abuse for such a journey. And, bless their hearts, they bought it!
So, I got the same 4Runner I'd reviewed on the road earlier, a perfect opportunity to see how the other half of its personality behaved. Perfect, and a chance for me to hone my virtually non-existent off-road credentials.
We packed up and left on the Friday of Father's Day weekend, heading for Elkford, a small town built around the late 1970's or early 80's to serve the coal miners who still work in what has to be one of the most beautiful valleys I've been fortunate enough to see. We had reservations at Elkford's only motel, the Hi-Rock Inn, which bills itself (on its website) as "Elkford's Premier Accommodation!". It didn't exist when we lived there, but we thought it would be better than having to stay in Fernie, about 45 minutes away.
Boy, were we wrong! The Hi-Rock Inn turned out to be a horrible place, dirty and a tad decrepit, and "personned" by total incompetents. I kid you not. The sink's faucets were faulty, the shower curtain was full of black – coal-based, obviously – fingerprints from previous tenants – and when I went to the office to ask for a second wash cloth (there were two of us using the room), it was like trying to talk to Manuel in Fawlty Towers!
"I'd like a washcloth, please."
"A washcloth." I ended up having to follow the English language-challenged employee into the laundry room to show him what a washcloth is! The place should have a "Abandon hope all ye who enter here" sign in front of it.
Anyway, once we'd scrubbed the Hi-Rock from our shoes (avoid this place!), we headed north, toward Elk Lake. It's only about 50 kilometres or so, but you can't drive quickly because the road is pretty darn crude. If the road had been upgraded, it didn't show, but at least we didn't find any big mudholes like the one that caused us so much angst in 1985.
Making things worse, a late Spring storm had blown through the area a couple of days before, dropping about six inches of snow in the area and causing innumerable trees to keel over, either right on the road or a couple of feet over it – a true obstacle course. The 4Runner looked as excited to tackle it all as an inanimate object can.
The drive took about an hour and a half and, as an experiment, I left the 4Runner in two-wheel drive mode to see how it would do. And it did just fine! I left it in 2wd all the way to the entrance to Elk Lake Park, only accessing 4wd for the rather steep hill down to the lake. Oh, the rear end skidded about sometimes, but I don't mind that as long as I can maintain control, which in this case was easy. Bottom line:
We made it!
Except that we didn't. We got to within a couple of hundred metres from our destination, but the storms had washed out the remaining road and the fallen trees were a larger challenge than we wanted to have. But perhaps the final straw was the mounds of fresh bear scat there – which not only proved that the old and cliched question is true, but also told us we might want to stay in the vehicle even if we continued on.
So near, yet so far! Drat! So, we reluctantly headed back. But at least we wouldn't be spending an uncomfortable time either sleeping in the 4Runner or in the tummy of a grizzly, which would have been quite grisly.
Ah, but all was not lost! We'd passed a lovely little picnic area on the way out, a place called "Weary Creek". It's a "user maintained" spot with a clean picnic table and, even better, an unusually clean outhouse. So that's where we eventually held our picnic and it was simply lovely.
I'd left the 4Runner in 4wd mode to see how different it felt from the trip up and, despite how well it had done in 2wd, I was amazed by just how much more confident it felt – and it made me feel – with all wheels working as a team.
It was as if the vehicle had come into its element, which of course it had. It was quite something: when driving the 4Runner on the highway or in the city it's more than adequate, but not particularly inspiring. Its four litre V6 engine is fine – Toyota claims 270-horsepower and 278 lb.-ft. of peak torque – but the five-speed automatic transmission, which seems more than a tad old tech in 2022 (but better than those 10 speed ones that are always up and down shifting), seems to be a reluctant tool on the highways.
That's because it didn't seem to enjoy pulling out to pass, though I must admit I never had an issue with completing passing – it just seemed as if the 4Runner would rather just cruise along in its proper lane. My wife agreed with it.
It probably didn't help that we'd loaded the thing with enough stuff for the four of us to spend a week away, despite it being a two-day trip. But the 4Runner swallowed everything we gave it and still gave us enough room that all four of us were comfortable.
Some other things seemed a tad behind the times, too, such as the lack of a three-blink lane change feature on the signal lights (which meant I had to keep remembering to do it myself, God forbid!), no heated steering wheel (which didn't matter for this trip anyway) and no power for the tailgate (not a big deal, but kind of unusual in this day and age). None of this mattered off the pavement, but I missed it during my previous review and that carried over to the highway parts of this one.
The 4Runner also came with all the safety crap carmakers are inflicting – or being forced to inflict – on us, stuff like lane keeping assist and the like. Toyota, however, in its wisdom, allows mere mortals to shut the stuff off and, unlike some competitors' vehicles, they stay off. Well done! I left the blind spot monitoring on and that was about it. The back up camera came in really handy, too – not just in parking lots where I usually use such things, but when backing through the trees and around puddles and the like. It was very useful.
The TRD Sport package isn't really particularly sporty, but in the Elk Valley, it really showed its mettle. This $3,210 option brings such important off-road stuff as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, an eight-inch touch screen, engine immobilizer anti-theft system, Softex seats (though my soft ex was nowhere around), smart key system, eight speaker audio, a full colour display in the instrument cluster, dual zone automatic climate control, integrated garage door opener, and a power
Even more important for off-roading (and "off-asphalting") is stuff like this:
Toyota Canada's sample 4Runner came, as I noted in my original review, with a Lunar Rock exterior paint scheme. It also comes with Active Traction Control (A-TRAC), a Class IV Towing Receiver hitch (the vehicle is rated with a 5,000-pound towing capability), hydraulic power steering (a throwback, but a nice one) and there are also front and rear ventilated disc brakes on the 20-inch wheels.
Inside, you get an eight-way power driver's seat, leather-trimmed tilt/telescopic steering wheel, air conditioning with rear seat vents and pollen filter, and a power-sliding tailgate window.
Toyota also "throws in" (it's included in the price, whether you want it or not) Toyota Safety Sense P (Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection, Lane Departure Alert with Sway Warning System, Automatic High Beams, and High-Speed Dynamic Radar Cruise Control). There's also Toyota's Star Safety System that includes Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) with traction control (TRAC, or A-TRAC with 4WD) and Anti-lock Brake System (ABS) with Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), Brake Assist (BA), and the Smart Stop Technology (SST) brake-override system.
The trip back to Calgary was uneventful – and though the 4Runner can hardly be considered an economy vehicle, its combination of efficiency and decently-sized gas tank meant we had the opportunity to fuel up in Alberta before heading into the highly-priced gasoline area of the People's Republic of British Columbia and still have enough left in the tank after our adventure – and the side trip to Fernie – to get us back to civilization so we could refuel in Alberta. That let us dodge an approximately 30 cent per litre bullet.
Of course, that wouldn't have been possible if our trip had been longer, but we were grateful it worked out this time.
In all, the Toyota 4Runner TRD Sport ended up being the perfect vehicle for our adventure. As mentioned, we didn't really go seriously off road, but its "off asphalt" performance on a road that boasts as maintenance the fact that it hasn't yet been overgrown completely by alpine forest was inspiring enough that if I knew the first thing about really going off road, I wouldn't hesitate to take a 4Runner there.
At an as-tested price of $53,480 (not counting the extra kilograms of flesh such purchases bring these days) it ain't cheap, but it's competitive with even less robust competition. And it is definitely robust!
I guess that's why it has been successful for so many decades.
Copyright 2022 Jim Bray