4Runner vs. Highlander: Comparing Toyota’s Midsize SUVs
The midsize SUV market is ever-expanding, with a new model or revision debuting seemingly every six months. While most new chassis are relatively green and untested, some have existed for decades, denoting legendary reliability, performance, and resale value. Two such models come from legendary Japanese automaker Toyota: the 4Runner and Highlander.
Both platforms are likely on your radar if you’re in the market for a midsize SUV, but which is right for you? In this guide, we’re comparing and contrasting these two top-selling models from Toyota, highlighting the key characteristics of each model, including their history, specifications, intended buyer, and the differences that set them apart.
So buckle in and gear up for a midsize SUV showdown!
Every vehicle has its history, whether a recent release or a long-running staple in a company’s lineup. In this section, we’re covering the histories of each model, including the when, where, why, and significant revisions along the way.
Debuting at the New York Auto Show in 2000 and slated for a 2001 release, the Toyota Highlander filled a void in the Japanese manufacturer’s lineup between the RAV4 and 4Runner.
In a time where most similarly-sized SUVs were built on pickup platforms, featuring body-on-frame constructions, solid axles, and truck-like handling, the Highlander set itself apart, paving the way for comfortable, quiet sports utilities. The Highlander’s midsize, unibody design utilized a modified Camry chassis, offering car-like driving characteristics with its four-wheel independent suspension yet far more cargo space than the popular midsize sedan.
Throughout the years, the Highlander experienced four generational updates, with each growing considerably in size to compete with its domestic competitors. The second generation, stretching from 2008–2013, marked the last years of the Highlander sharing a chassis with the Camry, as both the third and fourth generations switched away from this design to grow further.
The 2020+ fourth-generation Highlander finally adopted Toyota’s New Global Architecture, which has shown success since its release aboard the 2015 Prius. This modular chassis is far more rigid than previous generations, offering improved handling and overall performance. This generation, currently in production, shifted its consumer audience from families to youthful buyers, adorning stylish, sporty styling and modern technology.
The 4Runner has been a staple of Toyota’s lineup for nearly forty years, stretching five generations without a single hiatus or discontinuation. The model has a unique history, as its conception stemmed from the actions of a private dealer in the Northern United States. In the late 1970s, Toyota opted to discontinue sales of the FJ40 Land Cruiser in North America, which posed an issue for hunters and weekend wheelers operating in the harsher parts of the nation.
The FJ40 Land Cruiser was a staple in the Northern United States, offering legendary Toyota reliability, exceptional off-road performance, and ample cargo space for weekend adventures. Upon hearing of the model’s removal from the market, Jack Safro, owner of Jack Safro Toyota in Wisconsin, dreamt up his ideal Toyota SUV: a modified Toyota Pickup (Hilux) with a walk-through cabin and integrated fiberglass shell. After bringing the idea to RV manufacturer Winnebago, the concept gained traction and was eventually approved as a collaboration between Toyota and Winne, resulting in the 1981–1983 Toyota Trekker!
The limited run garnered nationwide attention, resulting in the sales numbers necessary for Toyota to add a permanent version of the SUV to its lineup: the 1984 Toyota 4Runner.
After five generations and nearly 40 years, the 4Runner remains a top-selling member of Toyota’s lineup. This chassis has retained its roots across all generations, maintaining its body-on-frame, truck-inspired design. First pulling inspiration from the Toyota pickup, the model eventually shifted to share elements of the midsize Tacoma, which it still does to this day!
While the Highlander and 4Runner feature similar dimensions, both falling under the midsize SUV class, they offer significantly different features and designs. Let’s get into some of the key characteristics of each platform.
The Toyota Highlander was and has always been, based on a car chassis. This model originally debuted atop a Camry chassis and later adopted Toyota’s New Global Architecture, which focuses on on-road comfort and handling characteristics. The Highlander launched with the primary goal of introducing a platform that blended the convenience and cargo space of a sport utility vehicle with the refined driving characteristics and efficiency of a sedan.
The Highlander offers sleek, car-like styling that, until recently, was marketed toward larger families, seeing as crossover models offered class-leading seating for eight! However, marketing shifted for the fourth generation, as the Highlander adopted a large grille, faux vents in the bumpers, and sweeping body lines resembling Toyota/Lexus’ performance offerings.
By contrast, the 4Runner is precisely what Toyota attempted to stray from with the introduction of the Highlander. Since conception, the 4Runner has been built on a pickup platform, based first on the Toyota Pickup (Hilux) and later on the Tacoma. Its’ body-on-frame build, truck powertrain, and robust 4WD suspension offer outstanding utility, durability, and off-road performance; however, comfort and on-road handling characteristics suffer in the process.
Aesthetically, the 4Runner shares several styling cues with Toyota’s pickup lineup; the model is often considered a Tacoma without a bed, which isn’t too far from the truth! This platform offers aggressive, off-road-inspired styling, especially on TRD Pro models. Its large, gaping grille, angular headlights, and tall ride height provide an aggressive appearance in any trim, typically appealing to the adventure-types.
While we’ve covered the design qualities that set the two models apart, let’s get into the facts, on paper, that differentiate the models from one another. Check out our specification showdown below; for simplicity's sake, we’re limited to the latest model year examples.
Toyota New Global Architecture
Independent MacPherson Strut
194.0” x 76.0” x 68.1”
4.0L DOHC 24-Valve V6
270 HP / 278 lb-ft TQ
Coil-Spring Independent Double-Wishbone
Coil-Spring 4-Link with Lateral Rod
190.2–191.3” x 75.8” x 71.5–72.0”
Which Platform is Right for You?
So, which platform is right for you? Ultimately, your choice comes down to a few factors, including your planned vehicle usage, budget, and personal preferences.
Beginning with planned usage, are you taking your SUV on the trail or sticking to the street? With body-on-frame construction, truck-like suspension, and available selective 4x4, the 4Runner is the obvious choice for wheelers and overlanders. However, if you’re planning to keep to the streets for commuting and running errands, it’s tough to beat the Highlander's comfortable ride and efficiency.
Next, let’s touch on your budget. Both models come at different price points, with the base Highlander starting at around $36,000 and the base 4Runner coming in at around $40,000. However, if you’re looking into a Hybrid Highlander or a spec’d-up 4Runner, expect these prices to jump considerably. Ultimately, there is a massive jump in price from one model to the other. And with such different experiences, we wouldn’t let the price influence your selection too drastically.
Lastly, personal preference plays a huge role. Considering the 4Runner is essentially a Tacoma with a third-row seat while the Highlander is essentially a roomier sedan, both offer significantly different experiences. Whichever you prefer is the right choice for you.
Top Products to Protect Your New Toyota SUV!
Whichever SUV winds up in your driveway, it’s best to take the necessary precautions to protect your investment. Luckily, RealTruck carries a wide selection of parts and accessories to do that! Check out some of our favorites below.
No matter your vehicle’s use, the like-new upholstery likely won't retain its showroom-fresh appearance for long. From spilled morning coffee to messy kids and muddy dogs, it only takes one exposure to contaminants to stain your new Toyota’s seats. Why risk unsightly staining and damage when you can protect your upholstery and your Toyota’s resale value with premium seat covers from RealTruck? We offer all the top brands, patterns, and colors for the 4Runner & Highlander, keeping your upholstery in tip-top shape for years.
Your Toyota’s upholstery isn’t the only damage-prone area of the interior; your SUV’s factory carpets are also highly susceptible to stains, wear, and tear! To combat unsightly damage, consider investing in premium floor mats/liners for your Toyota! We offer all the top brands and styles, including laser-formed, weatherproof liners that trap moisture and dirt, preventing spillover and staining. Shop mats & liners today!
Don’t stop at the carpets in the passenger cabin! Your Toyota’s rear cargo compartment is also susceptible to stains and wear from transporting abrasive cargo, dogs, and more! At RealTruck, we offer several high-quality cargo liners that provide outstanding durability and protection.
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