The corporate behemoth that is Toyota has little trouble churning out seemingly countless examples of its popular SUVs and crossovers.
Two of them, the Highlander and 4Runner, enjoy a level of success envied by most other manufacturers. The latter nameplate has been around for over 30 years, while the former showed up at the start of the car-based crossover craze and carved a very nice niche for itself while paving the way for a parade of copycats.
Like some fraternal brothers, they could hardly be more different despite being raised by the same corporate parents. The Highlander is a three-row crossover based on a front-wheel-drive platform, while the 4Runner has steadfastly remained a body-on-frame SUV endowed with rear-drive architecture. This produces very distinct personalities.
Which one is right for you? Let’s dive in to find out.
Toyota Highlander vs 4Runner
Highlander: Roughly identical in width and height to the 4Runner, Highlander is a hint longer at 192.5 inches in length. Despite similar dimensions, its packaging allows for several extra inches of legroom in the first and second rows compared to its truckish brother. The Highlander has three rows of seats.
4Runner: Measuring a sturdy 70 inches tall and 190 inches long, the 4Runner nevertheless gives up a smidgen of headroom and shoulder room to its car-based counterpart. This is largely in part to the truck-like construction, which deploys stout but space-consuming suspension bits. Legroom is notably less than the Highlander, especially in the second row. The 4Runner is also available with a third row of seats.
Bottom Line: Even though both machines share much in terms of exterior dimensions, the Highlander is much more spacious than the 4Runner for humans in just about every measure.
Highlander: Behind its third-row seat, this family hauler offers 13.8 cubic feet of volume for your gear. With those chairs folded, capacity increases to 42.3 cu-ft. If you choose to turn the Highlander into a two-seat conveyance, 83.7 cubic feet of cargo space is revealed.
4Runner: As a five-seat rig, the 4Runner can carry 47.2 cu.ft of cargo with the second-row seat up. An optional sliding deck is handy but eats about a cubic foot of space. Folding down the back seat opens up a cavernous 89.7 cubes of room, a vast and yawning chasm compared to the Highlander. With the third row deployed, however, the 4Runner holds just 9 cu-ft in the trunk.
Bottom Line: Despite the 4Runner losing the passenger space competition, it stomps all over the Highlander when it comes to cargo hauling ability, unless you’re using the 4Runner’s third row.
Highlander: Without doubt, this is the more family-friendly option of the two. A rear-seat DVD entertainment system is available, as is a 12-speaker JBL Audio system. An innovative Driver Easy Speak system utilizes a microphone in the overhead console to amplify the driver’s voice and broadcast it through rear speakers like that of a frustrated airline captain. Toyota bakes in all manner of safety gear from pre-collision systems and pedestrian detection technology to lane keeping and dynamic cruise control.
4Runner: All models receive expected features such as a reverse camera, cruise control, and air conditioning plus a wide array of places to charge smart devices including a 12V household plug in the cargo area. A banging JBL stereo is also available. However, the 4Runner’s interior is squarely aimed at the adventure set, not those who like to go on family road trips with grandma, so the 4Runner lacks a lot of the driver assistance and safety tech seen on the Highlander. Hey, at least there are 10 cupholders.
Bottom Line: The Highlander offers much more than 4Runner in terms of gee-whiz tech gadgets and driver assistance features, although it should be noted that the latter is not exactly a barren penalty box. Engineers for that model simply chose to spend their development money on suspension bits and equipment that will be appreciated by the off-road set.
Highlander: Customers can select either a 185-horsepower four-cylinder or a V6 with 295 hp. The latter engine is paired to an automatic transmission with eight gears, while the four-banger only has access to six gears. All-wheel drive is only available with the bigger engine. Base Highlanders are front-wheel drive.
4Runner: Toyota wisely scrapped the four-cylinder engine ages ago, leaving a stalwart 4.0L V6 motor under the 4Runner’s hood. Making 270 horsepower and 278 lb-ft of torque, this 24-valve engine is paired with a (quite old) five-speed automatic transmission. Based on a rear-wheel-drive platform, the 4×4 system deploys a Torsen-type locking center diff in high-zoot Limited trims, meaning one will be able to tackle tough road conditions with ease. SR5 and TRD trims are available with a high/low transfer case.
Bottom Line: The 4Runner is many leagues more agricultural than the Highlander, meaning it’s much less refined. If your mission is to haul people in car-like comfort, go for the Highlander. Those who spend their weekends snowboarding at Whistler or BASE jumping off the Empire State Building will likely enjoy the 4Runner.
Highlander: For such a commodious vehicle, the Highlander acquits itself well at the pumps. Front-wheel-drive examples equipped with the V6 engine are rated at 27 mpg for highway driving; selecting all-wheel drive assesses a meagre 1 mpg penalty. Perhaps surprisingly, the four-cylinder version offers little advantage in this department.
The Highlander is also available as a hybrid model that gets standard AWD and 30 mpg city and 28 mpg highway.
4Runner: Drivers of the 4Runner will be hard pressed to exceed 20 mpg, thanks to a prodigious curb weight and barn-door aerodynamics. Both 4×2 and 4×4 versions are rated at 17 mpg in city driving conditions. Two-wheel drive rigs should be good for 21 mpg on the highway, with the addition of 4×4 taking a 1 mpg bit out of that figure.
Bottom Line: Without question, one’s fuel budget will go a lot farther in the Highlander than the 4Runner. Blame a combination of physics and drivetrain efficiency. Both vehicles are designed to run on 87 octane regular-grade gasoline. If fuel economy is your main consideration, get the Highlander Hybrid.
Highlander: The maximum towing weight of a V6 Highlander is an impressive 5,000 lbs. However, caution is warranted. Payload capacity of a top-tier AWD model is only 1,280 pounds, so a 500-lb trailer tongue weight leaves less than 800 lbs for passengers and cargo.
4Runner: If you’re thinking its burly body-on-frame construction permits a larger towing capacity than its car-based cousin, think again. The 4Runner – either 4×2 or 4×4 – is limited to hauling 5,000 pounds. Four-wheel drive version nudge up against a curb weight of 4,700 lbs, allowing a payload of roughly 1,500 lbs. It is that measure in which the full-frame construction offers an advantage. Those interested in off-road capability will enjoy the TRD Pro trim with its Nitto Terra Grappler tires and front skid plate for gnarly maneuvers. The rear glass in the 4Runner also slides down so your dogs can get some fresh air.
Bottom Line: In terms of outright capability, 4Runner wins hands down. While its towing capacity is no bigger than the Highlander, its stout body-on-frame structure allows it to bear a much heavier load even while hauling a big trailer.
Highlander: More of a people mover than a ground pounder, the Highlander is significantly more of a lightweight when it’s away from the pavement than its 4Runner cousin. With a total of 8.0 inches of ground clearance and 18 degrees of approach angle, drivers will need to exercise caution when attempting to clear that snowbank. The Highlander’s all-wheel-drive system cleverly takes input from various sensors in order to properly govern power distribution on slippery surfaces.
4Runner: With full body-on-frame construction and a strong history in the off-road arena, this truck has built its reputation as an adventure vehicle. Every four-wheel-drive 4Runner regardless of trim boasts a healthy 9.6 inches of ground clearance, along with 33 degrees of approach angle. In particular, the burly TRD Pro edition, back in the game for 2019, boasts some serious off-road cred including a suspension package that includes 2.5-inch Fox internal bypass shocks. An electronic-locking rear diff is found on all Off-Road branded trims as well.
Bottom Line: In terms of traditional off-roading capability, the 4Runner wins this battle hands down. Its truck-like construction is much better suited to gnarly wheeling than the car-based Highlander. The latter is sure-footed when the commute gets slippery, but will not be able to keep up with the 4Runner in a true off-road environment. If you’re looking to do some off-roading, the 4Runner is built for this stuff and will be much more capable than the Highlander out on the trails.
Highlander: Wearing a set of corporate clothing, this three-row crossover is unlikely to offend. Swept-back headlights are a familiar styling flourish, and its somnambulant rear fascia could have been lifted from any number of its competitors.
4Runner: With a frowning face and square jawline sneering at traffic, the 4Runner cuts an aggressive figure. Even though its dimensions share much with the Highlander, its cubist styling makes it look tall and narrow like 4Runners of the past. TRD Pro trim cranks up the belligerence with unique styling cues, plus its owner’s manual is carved into your face with a hunting knife.
Bottom Line: If your desire is to simply drop the kids off at school and run to soccer practice, go for the Highlander. There is nothing wrong with that perfectly safe and practical decision. The 4Runner is, in comparison, the type of kids who wears a Black Sabbath t-shirt to church.
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Highlander: Competing in a murderously competitive segment, the Highlander sets an opening bid of $31,530 for a four-cylinder LE model. All trims are available in either front- or all-wheel drive, the latter adding $1460 to the bottom line. Snazzy Limited models top out at $47,210. The hybrid starts at $37,170.
4Runner: The days of 4Runner being a cheap and rugged way to venture off-road are long gone. Entry-level 4×2 SR5 models start at $35,110; adding power to all four wheel jacks that sum by $1,875. Burly TRD Pro rigs, featuring special tires and a trick suspension, are priced at an alarming $46,615.
Bottom Line: It is possible for Highlander customers to drive out of a Toyota showroom for less cheddar than 4Runner fans but, on average, transaction prices of both machines are markedly similar.
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The Verdict: Toyota Highlander vs 4Runner
Both of these machines from Toyota fulfill their mission quite well. However, their missions are quite different. If a shopper is looking for a family vehicle that seats all hands in comfort with a host of tech features that are sure to delight children and parents in equal measure, the Highlander is the best bet. At the other end of the spectrum, those seeking off-road capability and stand-out, aggressive looks would do well to sample the 4Runner.
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