An SUV like the Toyota 4runner is often believed to be one of the best “Mommy mobile” options next to a minivan. They sit up nice and tall, have plenty of cargo space, and are very reliable. You’d think they’d also be one of the safest vehicles on the market due to their dimensions but is that actually the case?
Toyota 4runners in general are considered to be safe vehicles. Modern generations have great crash test ratings but that’s only half of the story. Collision avoidance also plays a big role in overall safety and that’s one area the 4runner doesn’t necessarily excel in.
Toyota 4runner Safety Ratings
To start, let’s take a look at the IIHS and NHTSA safety ratings for the 4runner. Unfortunately, there is some data missing from the earlier years where crash tests and safety ratings weren’t as much of a priority as they are now.
|1st Gen (1984–1988)
|2nd Gen (1989-1994)
|3rd Gen (1995-2002)
|4th Gen (2003-2009)
|5th Gen (2010-Current)
It isn’t necessarily fair to pass judgment on the 4runner based solely on its crash test ratings though. These don’t take into account the driver’s skill or the chances of avoiding a collision in the first place.
Based on the data, both the 4th and 5th generations of 4runner are very safe vehicles. That’s assuming a collision happens exactly the way that they tested it. In the real world though, there are many variables that will affect the outcome of a car crash.
“Built like a tank” vs crumple zones: What’s more important?
For the longest time, we believed that the bigger and stronger a vehicle was, the safer it was. People that were concerned with their safety would purchase the biggest “tank” of a vehicle they could find. Being larger than most of the cars on the road made them feel safe and secure.
As with many other things, engineering and technology have advanced the safety of modern cars. More specifically, the introduction of crumple zones has made them much safer.
A crumple zone is a part of the vehicle’s structure that is intended to collapse or “crumple” in the event of a crash. The cabin where the driver and passengers sit is the strongest area but other sections are sacrificed in order to act as a pillow to cushion the impact.
Have you ever seen a Formula 1 racecar with the suspension and bodywork ripped off and wonder how the driver walked away? Those things were meant to break easily so the cockpit can remain rigid. Exotic sports cars are another example – there are tons of photos and videos online of crashed Ferraris and Lamborghinis with the engines ripped right out of them. Once again, this is by design.
Modern cars crumple and the visible damage makes the crash look much more violent than it actually was for the people inside. Older “tanks” don’t have this and the result is the passengers feeling the full impact of the crash regardless of how big and tough the truck is.
In the end, you’re probably more likely to get injured in a big scary SUV from the 80s than you are in a brand new Smart car.
Where do 4runners fall in this scenario? Well, the first 2 generations weren’t necessarily large tanks, but they shared the same safety features as one (which is next to nothing). The newer models (especially the 4th and 5th gens) are much safer with their modern technology and design. They still have some size on their side but the majority of their safety is provided by their modern crumple zones.
Collision avoidance and why the 4runner could be considered unsafe
So far, we’ve been focused on how a vehicle like the 4runner behaves in the event of a crash. We know that the 3rd Gen and newer models have good crash test ratings. That’s not the only way to decide whether it’s safe or not though. What’s even more important is the ability to avoid a crash in the first place.
Being able to maneuver, swerve, and panic brake can make all the difference in staying safe on the roads. Just think, if your vehicle is great at being able to avoid a crash, those safety ratings will never need to come into play, right?
Unfortunately, the Toyota 4runner is not exactly the most nimble of beasts. Newer models do have improved handling but the fact is, they’re top-heavy, sluggish, and more likely to roll over than the average sedan. Those same characteristics that make them so great off road are also what hinder them when it comes to avoiding something in an emergency situation.
You might be surprised to find out that in this regard, the 4runner is really not that safe of a vehicle. While other cars might be able to swerve abruptly in order to avoid a crash, the 4runner is more likely to end up on its roof or be unable to stop in time.
How the 4runner’s dimensions make it safer
Although its top-heavy nature makes it more prone to rolling over, it also offers a benefit. Take for example, a collision where the 4runner gets rear-ended by a sedan. The good news is that the front end of the sedan is more likely to wedge underneath the rear bumper due to its taller ride height. This is bad news for the sedan driver but helpful for the 4runner driver.
Another 4runner attribute that helps to make it safer is the level of visibility all generations offer. Part of the classic 4runner styling also happens to offer large windows with very few blind spots. The more you can see, the more chance you have of avoiding a crash. 4runners are very easy to drive thanks to their visibility.
The 4runner’s weight and its advantage
Although the Toyota 4runner is certainly no heavyweight when compared to large SUVs and pickup trucks, at roughly 4400 lbs (4th gen) it is indeed sure-footed. There’s less chance of a 4runner being “rag-dolled” and tossed toward other vehicles or oncoming traffic in the event of a collision.
Electronic safety assists in modern 4runners
Another way that technology has helped to make vehicles safer is with electronic safety assists. Originally, these included basic things like anti-lock brakes and airbags. Newer 4runners have introduced things like traction control, stability control, automatic emergency braking, lane departure alert, and blind-spot monitors.
These things all add to the 4runners level of safety in a big way. Do they make up for its shortcomings in the collision avoidance department? That’s a tough one. They are meant to make up for some of the mistakes that are made by bad drivers but they don’t completely eliminate the risk of a crash. Relying on these systems too much can give the driver a false sense of security.
In the end, it seems that a little less safety is the price you have to pay for something so rugged and capable off road. It’s comforting to know that other off road vehicles like the Jeep Wrangler are in the same boat so it isn’t a 4runner specific issue.
There’s no need to be too concerned about the Toyota 4runner’s safety though. Any downsides in terms of accident avoidance can easily be made up for with safe driving practices. Pay attention to the road and don’t assume the vehicle will handle like a sports car when you need it to.
Should the worst happen, keep in mind that the crash test ratings for the 4th and 5th gen 4runners are actually quite good. If safety is a big priority for you, make sure to stick with a newer model.
Tim is the creator of Canadian Gearhead. His experience with auto detailing and working for Toyota shows through all of the articles posted here. He runs the Canadian Gearhead site and YouTube channel full-time now and currently owns a 2007 4runner, 2006 Tacoma, and 1991 MR2. Read more about Tim: