If your life takes you through the road less traveled, you might wind up on some bumpy dirt roads or driving through a field. You need to make sure your vehicle can keep up with you. Many will look at Toyota’s lineup of SUVs to find the perfect off-roading vehicle.
The 4Runner was engineered specifically to be great at off-roading. The Highlander has more comfort, luxury, and drivability on paved roads, so it’s a better daily driver. The 4Runner has better ground clearance, a more favorable drivetrain, better driving position, and it handles much better on rocky roads.
In this comparison guide, I’ll look at the 4Runner and Highlander. I’ll go through a series of comparisons before deciding which option is the better off-roading vehicle. I’ll also explain which car is better at the end of this guide.
First debuted in 2001, the Highlander is an SUV from Toyota. In 2021, it was the 9th most-sold vehicle in America with over 260,000 sales, and there are a lot of reasons why people love them. All current Highlanders come with three rows of seating and 8 seats.
It’s considered a crossover SUV, which means it’s smaller and sportier than the 4Runner. The Highlander was made for comfort, luxury, and drivability as a commuter vehicle.
The Toyota 4Runner was first launched in 1984 by the same Japanese titan, Toyota. Last year, it was the 24th most-sold vehicle in America, with over 140,000 sold. Even though it doesn’t measure up to the figures from its younger brother, the 4Runner was built for a very specific market: people who want a to off-road, but don’t want a Jeep.
It seats 5 on its entry-level models, and that upgrades to 8 if you spend extra on their high-level trims. It’s considered a midsize SUV.
Key Criteria for Off-Roading
If you want to drive where Google Maps can’t help you, then there are some considerations to make. When it comes to off-roading, there are a few common criteria that people will look into before making the purchase.
The ground clearance of your vehicle is a height measurement between the ground and the lowest part of your vehicle’s undercarriage. With a taller height, your car has more ground clearance — this means that you can go over taller rocks, hills, and divots without bottoming out.
With shallow ground clearances, your car is more likely to get stuck or bottom out and break components on the undercarriage of your vehicle.
If monster trucks didn’t have such a high ground clearance, they would get stuck on every hill they tried to go up.
The drivetrain is responsible for transferring engine power to the road under you, whether that’s asphalt, gravel, or dirt. There are four possible drivetrain configurations, and all four have their list of pros and cons.
For off-roading, you shouldn’t even consider it unless your vehicle is an AWD or 4WD, or an “all-wheel drive” or “four-wheel drive”. These two options offer the best traction and handling, especially when off-roading.
Driving an FWD or RWD car off-road will likely wind up with you calling for a tow truck halfway through your trip.
With AWD and 4WD configurations, all four tires are going to work. Even if your rear axle isn’t touching the ground, the front two tires can claw your way out.
Torque is a scientific term that refers to how well the engine can apply its power to the road while you drive. It is usually presented hand-in-hand with horsepower, but the two values refer to very different things.
The way I like to explain it is like this: horsepower is how much power your engine potentially has (top speed and power), and torque is how much power you actually experience (acceleration and off-roading).
With high torque values, vehicles will perform better where there’s no grip. In my opinion, horsepower doesn’t mean anything when you’re off-roading, because you’ll never be hitting your top speed. It’s all about acceleration and getting through ruts.
It’s a variable that people don’t talk about a lot, but the driving position of the vehicle will determine how well you can off-road. If your SUV is high off the ground, has plenty of glass in the cabin, and offers great visibility, then you can see incoming dangers while off-roading.
Typically, people will just mention the ground clearance of a vehicle when it comes to off-roading. Sure, ground clearance matters a lot, but it doesn’t help if you can’t see around you while you’re driving.
Finally, you should think about the frame construction. Frames come in two different flavors: body-on-frame and unibody. Unibody is a less expensive, not as sturdy option. You’ll typically see cars using unibody frames, but some SUVs decide to do it as well.
Body-on-frame configurations feature huge rails of thick metal that act as the foundation for the rest of the vehicle. The body of a truck is dropped on the frame, which is where the name comes from.
Why does the frame configuration matter? It’s the skeleton of your vehicle. If it is too weak, then it will sway, flex, and buckle while you drive. As a result, weaker frames will hurt your overall performance.
Body-on-frame vehicles historically offer better handling, control through a corner, and control at higher speeds. They also offer much better statistics when off-roading. The downside is that they’re not as good in a crash, so their overall safety is lower.
If you hit a big bump, a unibody vehicle will flex more and deliver less power through the bump. Body-on-frame vehicles will absorb the impact better and continue as if nothing happened.
Full Comparison of the 4Runner and Highlander
Before looking specifically at off-roading, let me talk about both SUVs in general terms. This section will be a head-to-head comparison between the two, looking at key criteria.
The price of a vehicle might be the biggest decision-maker for most sellers. If you have to spend too much money on the car, you can’t even consider it. That’s why I like starting with the price for all of the matchups I do. It gives context for everything else. If one car is much pricier, it makes sense why it would also have more power, more luxury, and so on.
In this comparison, it’s surprisingly close:
The 2023 Toyota 4Runner ranges from an MSRP of $38,805 to $53,270 for their entry-level SR5 to max-tier TRD Pro.
The 2023 Toyota Highlander ranges from an MSRP of $36,420 to $49,075 for their entry-level L to max-tier Platinum.
The difference is barely a few thousand dollars on the low-end and top-end tiers. Even though it’s incredibly close, the 4Runner wins this comparison.
Power and Torque
The 4Runner has one engine configuration, but the Highlander has three to choose from. The 4Runner has a 4.0-liter V-6 that makes 270hp and 278 lb-ft of torque.
The Highlander ranges from a 2.7-liter inline-four to a 3.5-liter V-6. On the low end, it makes 185hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. The pricier option comes with 295hp and 263 lb-ft of torque.
If you’re looking just at torque, the 4Runner gets the win. If you care about horsepower, then the upgraded Highlander wins. For that reason, I have to call this one a tie.
Seating is another deal-breaker for some. If you have to seat a certain amount of people, then there’s no negotiation. The good news about this match-up is that both the 4Runner and Highlander have 3-row seating.
The difference is that the 4Runner requires you to upgrade to a higher trim. It only comes with 2-row seating as a standard on their entry-level trims.
The Highlander has 3-row seating in all of its trims. Their higher-level trims drop from 8 seats to 7 seats to add more luxury and comfort.
Since you need to spend more to unlock the third row of a 4Runner, it loses this match-up.
The drivetrain is a little tricky for both options. The short version is that neither comes stock with AWD or 4WD, but they can be upgraded.
The 4Runner starts with RWD with the option of upgrading to 4WD. The TRD trim and higher have 4WD as the stock option.
An entry-level Highlander comes with FWD as the stock drivetrain. You can upgrade to AWD for a few thousand dollars, but currently, none of their trim levels offer AWD as a stock option.
Another thing to mention is that the AWD system in a Highlander isn’t as robust or complete as others. It’s an on-demand system that gives extra traction on snowy or icy roads. The system itself underperforms in off-roading scenarios.
Comparatively, the 4WD system in the 4Runner is really well-done.
Who doesn’t love a little bit of extra tech in their daily driver? If this is what you’re looking for, then the Highlander is the better option.
It comes equipped with an impressive infotainment system, extra sensors around the SUV, and voice recognition. If you splurge for a higher trim, you will also get an even bigger infotainment system, 12 high-quality speakers, and automatic climate control zones.
The tech in a 4Runner is unfortunately very limited. The entry-level model looks like it’s stuck in the past with the design decisions made in the interior.
If you’re a fan of SUVs, one of the benefits you probably appreciate is the added cargo space. It makes it easier to run errands, go grocery shopping, and help your friend move to a new apartment.
Without putting down any seats, a stock 4Runner offers about 47 cubic feet behind their last row. The Highlander only offers 13.8 cubic feet behind their third row.
To get the same storage, you would need to fold down the third row and sacrifice three seats. When you fold down all the passenger seats in both vehicles, the 4Runner has an extra 6 cubic feet over the Highlander.
Comfort in the Front
For a daily driver or off-roader alike, you want to be comfortable at the helm. An uncomfortable front seat can make a road trip feel like a punishment.
Both vehicles are definitely comfortable, but the 4Runner feels a little cramped, to be honest. It has a lower ceiling, less elbow room, and less leg room than the Highlander.
The other issue I had with the 4Runner is that the interior feels so out-of-date. By comparison, the Highlander feels like a luxury vehicle. The luxurious interior styling and more room around the driver’s seat make the Highlander my pick in this category.
Comfort in the Rear
When you hop to the back of the SUV, it’s the same story. The 4Runner has a big space problem in the back seats. With the optional third row, it becomes even more cramped.
I would argue that these seats are perfect for taking your kids around town, but it won’t work once they grow up.
The Highlander’s rear is a lot more spacious, and the added luxury in the higher-level trim makes it feel even better.
I always get comments on my guides when it comes to my opinions on vehicle styling — but, here I go again. In this matchup, the differences are pretty drastic and obvious.
Both vehicles are made by Toyota, which has been historically pretty awful when it comes to styling (except for the Supra and modern Camry). With the Highlander, it’s more of the same. It looks like the perfect car for a businessman who wants to blend in with everyone else on the road.
There are subtle design decisions that I really like — like the taillights, headlights, and blacked-out A-pillar — but everything else is just bland.
The 4Runner, on the other hand, seems like an experiment from Toyota. It’s aggressive, rough, boxy, and angry-looking. It’s as easily recognizable as a Jeep, in my opinion. The 40th Anniversary Special Edition 4Runner in black is one of the best-looking SUVs on the market.
Just to be clear, this is all my opinion. I have to give the crown to 4Runner in this matchup since the Toyota team took a big swing on the design.
Next, let’s look at the ground clearance of both SUVs. The 4Runner has an impressive 9” of ground clearance, and that number goes to 9.6” if you upgrade to the trims that include a 4WD package. The Highlander comes with 8.0” of ground clearance across its line.
While it might not seem like a lot, the difference of 1.6” could determine whether you get stuck or not. The difference between the two is a matter of 20%, which is pretty significant.
Which Is Better Off-Road?
The big comparison that I haven’t done yet is how well either SUV handles off-roading. Well, the 4Runner takes the crown in this category by a mile.
The 4Runner offers a body-on-frame framework, 9” or more of ground clearance, a higher payload, and a ton of driving comfort on rocky roads.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, the Highlander focuses on drivability and comfort while the 4Runner looks to optimize how sturdy the SUV is.
The 4Runner is better than the Highlander when it comes to off-road driving.
Which SUV Is Better Overall?
If you don’t want to base your opinion solely on off-roadability, then the answer changes a little.
Looking back at the comparison, I reviewed a total of 10 topics. Of those 10, the 4Runner won 5 of them. There was 1 tie, and the Highlander won in the remaining 4 categories.
That means that the comparison is too close for me to definitely say that one SUV is better than the other.
If you want an SUV that looks good, performs great in off-roading, has plenty of space, costs a little less, and comes with 4WD as an option: the 4Runner is the best choice.
If you want an SUV that prioritizes comfort, luxury, tech, and interior space, then consider the Highlander.
Either SUV is a great choice. Since they’re both made by Toyota, you can trust the reliability and longevity of both options.
The 4Runner and Highlander are both great SUVs from Toyota. Of the two, the 4Runner was specifically made to be a great off-roading option. The Highlander is a more comfortable daily driver.