Toyota’s Past, Present and Future
By Isaac Bouchard
2020 TOYOTA 4RUNNER TRD PRO
EPA Ratings: 16/19/17mpg 0-60mph: 7.5 sec
Price as tested: $52,147
2020 TOYOTA RAV4 XSE HYBRID
EPA Ratings: 41/38/40mpg 0-60mph: 7.6 sec
Price as tested: $38,074
THE TOYOTA 4RUNNER has become an institution. Not only is it one of the most reliable machines ever made, but it holds resale like few other vehicles. It is also that rare vehicle that ap-peals widely across different demographics. But this iteration is basically over a decade old, having debuted in 2009, and it is starting to show a few gray hairs. Does the new RAV4 Hybrid, despite being a crossover and not a traditional body-on-frame SUV, tell us anything about how the 4Runner can continue to remain relevant?
It certainly does. Start with styling, where the RAV4 (especially in Adventure and TRD Off Road trims) exploits much of the tough-guy angularity of the 4Runner to hide its unibody platform. Inside, the number of soft-touch surfaces is up substantially over older Toyotas like the 4Runner, adding a welcome touch of luxury. And we have already seen the RAV4’s larger touch screen interface, with Android/Apple compatibility, migrate to the 4Runner for 2020. This is one of the most important updates the SUV has received—the other is the inclusion of autonomous emergency braking, adaptive cruise control and lane assist, all of which work great in both vehicles, and makes the bigger rig feel much more modern.
The areas where the 4Runner is showing its age the most are its powertrain and dynamics. Slow steering, ponderous body motions and at times rough ride hearken back to the early days of SUVs. The TRD Pro is about 50 percent better than other 4Runners in these respects, thanks to its custom dampers (see the Shocking Truth About Shocks), but it would never see which way a well-driven RAV4 XSE Hybrid went on a tight, twisty road. That one, like all that Toyota has built on their global TNGA architecture is fun and responsive. They also have good steering accuracy, decent body control and pleasant ride. The new T1 truck architecture, which we should see under all forthcoming Toyota trucks, will hopefully share these traits, while continuing the rep the current Prado chassis—which is under the 4Runner—has earned for being nigh-on indestructible.
About the only knock on the new, revised RAV4 has been its powertrain, which can be harsh sounding and sluggish under hard acceleration. The Hybrid neatly fixes these issues, making it faster and consistently netting low-30s to low-40s mpg, which is quite astonishing. It has two electric motors (one for each axle); combined with the gasoline engine, it can hit 60 mph in 7.4 seconds, over half a sec quicker than the gas-only RAV4 at sea level. At Colorado’s altitude, the improvement is even larger. And it mutes the machinations of the CVT-style transmission and thrashy engine to a large degree. Independent tests show the Hybrid to be 3 decibels quieter at highway speeds than the normal version, which subjectively is half as loud. The 4Runner does the 0-60 dash in about the same time, but you know how hard it is working to do so. A brief comparison with a new Jeep Wrangler Unlimited illustrates this quickly. The Jeep’s V6 is more sonorous, and hooked to a gearbox with three more gears than the 4Runner’s antiquated five speed auto, making it less stressed. And you can get the Jeep with a turbocharged four that is much faster in Colorado or a cool V6 diesel for hybrid-like economy and massive towing torque. The single biggest improvement Toyota could do would be to offer the next 4Runner with combos like that, or even a hybrid one, since they have never sold diesel 4Runners or trucks Stateside. Otherwise the 4Runner remains a modern classic. And on a nice day when you power down the rear window, open the large sunroof and let it all hang out, you’ll have no doubt that choosing it was a wise decision. Likewise, the RAV4 Hybrid, whose combination of fun to drive chassis, frugal and potent powertrain and stylish, quality interior stand it apart from many crossover competitors.
The Shocking Truth About Shocks
The improvement in the TRD Pro’s ability to shirk off bumps of all sizes, handle with more predictability and simply kill it off-road, comes mainly down to its use of custom-valved, internal-bypass, 2.5in Fox shocks, with external reservoirs on the rears. But just what does all that mean? Basically, a shock (which should properly be called a damper), controls the movement of the vehicle’s body that happens when it turns into a corner or hits a bump, causing its springs to compress and then rebound. Normal vehicles’ dampers cost roughly $20-50 each, and their internals reflect this. High-end aftermarket dampers for serious off-roading, such as those from Fox, can cost ten to twenty times that. That’s reflected in their ability to keep the body of an SUV or truck from moving too much on big hits or tight corners, or pogoing around when the bumps come one right after the other. The remote reservoirs allow the oil that flows through the dampers’ various valves and orifices to have a place to go if it gets hot or aerated. And the bigger, stiffer pistons and bodies of the Fox dampers give it more strength.
2020 BMW 228i xDRIVE
EPA Ratings: 23/33/27mpg 0-60mph: 5.1 sec
Price as tested: $47,845
2020 LEXUS GS F
EPA Ratings: 16/24/19mpg 0-60mph: 4.7 sec
Price as tested: $89,510
BMW’S REPUTATION FOR great drivers’ cars began in the states with the upright 2002. Though its comparatively small 2-liter engine lacked power compared to American V8s, it steered better and outhandled the portly domestic dinosaurs of the day. In contrast, Lexus began as a luxury company in 1989, dedicated to making the finest attainable cars one could buy and own.
My how times have changed; while the idea of a front-wheel drive BMW was anathema for decades, now it is here, in the form of the 2-series. Never mind that the test vehicle has xDrive AWD hardware; it’s still built on a front wheel drive component set, shared with BMW’s Mini division. The 228i, especially in M Sport trim, looks sharky and svelte, but has ample room in front, extremely supportive seats and decent trunk capacity. The angled trapezoids that are its defining style motif are the epitome of modernism and this theme continues inside a cockpit comprised of some really avant-garde materials, including incised (as opposed to leather texture) for the dash molding, all highlighted by trim that has blue backlighting at night. The iDrive infotainment screens respond instantly to input and are the bar by which others should be judged.
The Lexus GS F commemorates when CEO Akio Toyoda, chairman of parent company Toyota, decided all Lexi should be good to drive as well as reliable, durable and comfortable. An accomplished racer, he oversaw the transformation of the company into one that embraces steering feel and response rate, body control and balance, brake linearity and power, and engines that are technological masterpieces, and which boast very high specific output—which means the amount of power they make for their size. In all these areas the GS F excels; it is superb dynamically, with an adjustable rear differential that lets the driver dial in the amount of sideways action they might want to indulge in, multi-piston brake calipers grasping expensive, slotted rotors and other race tech that allows this Lexus to dance like a BMW M5 of a few generations ago. Also like that machine, the Lexus’ normally-aspirated 5-liter V8 lacks low-end torque, meaning accessing the 467 horses takes copious revs and empty roads on which to wind it out. Ironically, the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown, which dramatically thinned traffic, allowed the GS F to really stretch its legs. There was bittersweet irony indulging in its talents, though, as word came down that it was going to be discontinued for the next model year. This wasn’t really a surprise; the age we live in prizes turbocharged low end oomph and fast processors for our user interfaces more than the minutiae of steering feel and burgeoning, linear power from atmospheric engines. Also, the GS F doesn’t offer AWD like its competitors; engineering this low volume car for it just wasn’t in the cards. Those of us who relish the kind of talkative helm, bellowing high-end induction howl and gratuitous power slides that the GS F lives for will miss it. A future classic.
Sadly, many of those same traits don’t apply to the BMW 228i. It is fast—thanks, Mr. Turbo!—with its 228hp/258lb-ft engine getting it to 60mph in 5.1 seconds. And its chassis allows one to pummel a twisty road into submission, with ultrafast—but slightly numb—steering, rigid body control and even an exploitable amount of rear end rotation to set the BMW where one wants. The 228i lacks polish though; its ride can be punishing and noisy over some roads. Its brakes don’t feel up to task either, though in this one way, it reminds of older BMWs, whose stoppers never matched their performance. This isn’t to say the 2-series isn’t a good car; it undoubtedly is, with performance and tech that would humble that 2002—and even the original Lexus LS—and all weather, all-season bandwidth that the Lexus doesn’t serve up. The BMW also has a much better electronics suite, which is more and more important these days. And now that we are returning to more normal conditions full of distracted drivers and congested roads, its merits fit the times better. But we probably won’t see it sharing lawn space at a concourse (or even cars and coffee) with a 2002—or Lexus GS F.
This article was also featured in the July 2020 issue of Colorado AvidGolfer.