The Toyota 4Runner and Jeep Wrangler are survivors. They stand as rugged counterpoints to the high-riding, high-roof, curvaceous passenger cars that are now commonly termed crossover utility vehicles; and for the most part they favor proven mechanical hardware over electronics, ground clearance and wheel articulation over handling stability and ride comfort.
Both of them are glorious throwbacks, an extreme of the U.S. passenger-vehicle spectrum that, like a focused performance car is meant for the track, is purpose-built for the rugged path.
These two models take a different path to get there, though. The Toyota 4Runner has evolved to remain just enough of a family vehicle to meet day-to-day needs; meanwhile it’s likely you’ll consider the Wrangler just too rough-and-tumble for carrying strollers and child seats.
They represent that division in their designs. While the Jeep Wrangler has the aerodynamic qualities of a utility shed, with its upright, box-on-wheels design, flat sheetmetal, and external hinges, the 4Runner has more of a chunky, utility-wagon design; the proportions are a direct callback to the models going back three decades or more, but the design details have been kept updated over the years.
The Jeep Wrangler family drives more like a vintage car than a modern SUV or family car. Its powertrain is the most refined part of the experience; with Chrysler’s latest 285-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6 and a (hand-me-down) Mercedes five-speed automatic transmission, it’s smooth and willing. But dull recirculating-ball steering and jittery on-the-road ride quality don’t complete the impression. The 4Runner is a decent performer on the road, with a 270-hp, 4.0-liter V-6 and five-speed automatic also offering strong, smooth performance; its ride and handling are far more road-oriented—and 4Runner Limited models get a special, more road-oriented full-time four-wheel drive system.
Off-road ability is the reason why you’re probably considering these two models. And in each respect they’re immensely talented and capable. If you want to make the most of the 4Runner’s off-road talents, you should consider the TRD Pro Series, which gets a special suspension with Bilstein dampers, Nitto all-terrain tires, skid plates, and additional TRD performance parts. Meanwhile, if your needs involve a mix of surfaces but not rock scrambling and the most serious off-roading, the Limited models and their X-REAS adaptive suspension might be the better pick.
Head to the trail—just about any trail—and all the other sacrifices that the Wrangler makes will all seem well worth it. There’s a tough body-on-frame layout and solid front and rear axles, as well as protective skid plates, awesome ground clearance and approach and departure angles—and it all adds up to terrific boulder-scrambling, stream-fording, and trail-crawling prowess. Over some of the most precarious situations, the Wrangler will continue to surprise and delight—if your idea of that involves being able to get where no other stock off-road SUV can.
Between the two-door Wrangler and the four-door Wrangler Unlimited, the key difference is back-seat access and space; but we should note that the few inches of wheelbase can make the Unlimited a little more pleasant-riding over choppy road surfaces.
In any case, expect gas mileage that’s very low by today’s standards. The 4Runner earns 17 mpg city, 21 mpg highway in its four-wheel-drive forms, while the Wrangler rates down to 16/20 mpg. In everyday city/commute driving, those are optimistic numbers.
The interior of the Jeep is bare-bones in look and feel. Some switchgear dates back to the DaimlerChrysler era, and you simply can’t expect a high level of fit and finish here. Meanwhile the interior of the 4Runner is much better—it incorporates a rather simple, businesslike dash layout of a pickup yet trims the rest of the cabin with good-looking details and materials. And it’s well ahead in terms of back-seat comfort as well as general cargo convenience.
The Jeep is often overlooked as a convertible, but it provides all of the low-speed avenue-cruising thrills of one, with a rugged twist. It comes in a multitude of top arrangements, although none of them so a great job (by modern standards) of sealing out wind, noise, or weather.
In the Wrangler, you have to deal with some eccentricities because of that; the power-window switches, for example, are in the middle of the dash—so you won’t miss them if you decide to completely remove the doors, which have quick-release hinges and retainer straps.
The Wrangler is one of our lower-rated vehicles for safety, as it lacks modern accident-avoidance features and side-impact airbags remain an option. Its crash-test ratings aren’t good either, with a “poor” rating in side impact and a “marginal” rating for small overlap frontal protection from the IIHS. The 4Runner doesn’t earn top-notch scores either, but it does better.
Prices for both of these models are probably higher than you’d expect, given the lack of luxury. A well-optioned Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon can top the $45k mark, while the 4Runner TRD Pro costs around $42k. The Wrangler’s also offered in various special editions, which tend to keep near the high end of that price range.
With the recent discontinuation of the Nissan Xterra and Toyota FJ Cruiser, this field of serious off-road SUVs has dwindled to two, if you don’t count pickups.
In this match-up, for many shoppers, the question is probably best distilled to: If you want a focused, off-road-capable SUV, how much are you willing to sacrifice for it? If you’re okay with some obvious safety and comfort sacrifices, the unparalleled off-road performance and style of the Wrangler are unparalleled. If you want most of that capability, with more of a family-friendly package, the 4Runner is the smart pick.