I had a Subaru Outback and sold it for a 4runner TRD Off Road with kdss. They are totally different vehicles as one drives like a car and one drives like a truck. The KDSS helps make turns flat but the nose still dives under braking. I have read that upgraded shocks will reduce nose dive and it is on my to do list. My wife is fine driving it but prefers to drive our bmw 3 series, (but prefers to ride in the 4runner).
The 4runner will hold up to abuse much better than any unibody SUV but if your wife wants car like handling, I would probably check out the new Ford Explorer. Ford designs them to meet durability and performance standards for police departments and they are based on a rear wheel drive platform.
Regarding the size issue, my wife is the same way. She has a Hyundai Tucson and we recently bought a grand cherokee. It rides much bigger than the tucson. It took her a couple of months before she was comfortable driving it at all--with me in the car or her alone. I think it's the commanding feel from behind the wheel that eventually won her over---and of course, the power on tap contributes to feel.
However, for most (IMO), with experience comes confidence. Yesterday when my wife had a choice between driving the hyundai or the jeep, she took the jeep. Doesn't hurt that the jeep is much nicer than the hyundai, but she seems to be over the hump.
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I bought my wife a 4Runner Labor Day 2018 (2018 model year - Offf Road Premium). She already has about 34k miles on it. I am 6'5" with replacement knees and drive a Golf. She is 5'4" and drives a 4Runner. She loves it.
Pretty much the same comments above - I love being able to just step into such a high vehicle. We have running boards, so wife has no problems entering/existing. I find it comfortable as a cruiser on weekend trips.
That said, it absolutely feels and drives like a truck. Engine is adequate, but far from what I would call highly responsive (probably not a fair comparison vs. my DD Golf R). We do have KDSS and test drove with/without. I think KDSS helps on-road performance.
If you are just doing occasional off-roading...maybe something less truck-like with better on-road manners?
Wife is a part time, year round mountain guide - in the White Mountains (NH)...so lots of rough dirt road driving, parking on trail heads in wniter and returning 2-3 days later, etc. With all the rain this year, our 1/4 mile steep, dirt driveway has at times been it's own little offroad experience with all kinds of deep, 12" run-off ruts, etc.. Contractors working at our house with burly pick-ups were even complaining. 4Runner always exuded confidence.
Also worth driving/shopping Limited vs. SR5/off road versions. Limited, although lots of chrome, has more creature comforts, dummy proof 4WD.
2013 4 Door Golf R - CSG
Yeah Id rent a 4 runner and look at leasing a Grand Cherokee and turn that in after 3 years before the Jeep repairs kick in.
I have an Outback, I love the space, size, comfort and ability to throw my fishing kayak on top. Its been leas than reliable, needs oil every 1,000 miles, and the 2.5L + CVT are horrendous. Id def look at the 6 cylinder or New Turbo option.
Use cases like yours are the reason that crossovers were invented. Light offroading, but want the handling of a car. Check out the usual suspects for the CUVs, Outbacks, Foresters, CR-Vs, Rav4s, CX-5s, etc. We have a similar lifestyle, and haven't been held up by our Nissan Rogue at all.
I think that if you got a 4Runner for your wife to drive, you'd hear a bunch of complaining about the ride, handling and gas mileage.
Had an Outback, was a fine car, pretty reliable but it's also boring, I did A/T tires and 1" lift, it was good but it was also boring, it was an appliance.
Traded for a truck, I enjoy every minute of it, I've gone on multiple trails that I just couldn't do, yea parking is a pain in the city but I'm alright with it, I really wanted a Sequoia too but the costs just didn't make sense and I needed a bed to haul random stuff.
Just like that!
I think the 4Runner has it's faults, but it's faults are far outweighed by it's simplicity. People always reminisce about the simplicity and straight forward nature of older cars and how they wish they could buy xxxx car today new. Well the 4Runner is that. And I actually think it's fairly refined for what it is... I have a 2006 and the only thing I wish I had was a better infotainment, and I can do that, just haven't upgraded with aftermarket
All in all, I really like have a 4Runner, I love the reliability, which I think offsets the 'bad' fuel efficiency. As mentioned before, for a vehicle this size, the engine which is 'bullet proof', it just comes with the territory.
Here's my take.
If you ACTUALLY want to go over landing or off a fire road and real SUV/Truck is what you want. So 4Runner, Jeep, etc.
If you want to go soft roading meaning there's an actual road you drive on. Pretty much any SUV will fit the bill. Forster, Crosstrex, Smaller jeeps etc Or the larger Highlanders, CX9's etc. My parents bought a highlander and the manual basically says only drive off road in an emergency.
For 4Runner money you could buy a Gladiator. I bet if you buy a soft roader your going to be concerned with every scratch or ding on it. A Wrangler has metal bumpers and is meant to driver over what evers in its way confidence be damned.
But for someone (the OP's wife) who is already a bit apprehensive going to a 4Runner. the Wrangler is further in the direction of driving something that has even less car like characteristics.
I think thus far the best alternative to the 4R is Grand Cherokee as Smooremin recommended. Personally, I don't think KDSS 4Runner drives poorly. It's ride comfort is pretty damn good, and it steers and handles just fine. I daily mine on a 110 miles round trip, and it's very comfortable. It's only drawback in daily driving is the wide turning radius when parking.
that being said we insisted on either the 'runner or a used Pro4X xterra and after driving the 'runner it was a no brainer for us. however, for the vast majority of 4Runners i see around town that are sparkly clean and driving back and forth to work on highway tires, its way more expense than necessary and the likely the wrong tool for the job, objectively speaking. obviously people like what they like, and that's cool. but that said, these are legit trucks underneath - they're simple, rugged, drink fuel and drive like a burly animal compared to something like a crossover....although IMO for what they are, they drive really nicely. for better or worse, they are pretty unique in that way.
they're wider and ride taller than you realize once you get up close. if your wife isn't good with blind spots or parking maneuvers, you're in for a bad time. i'd echo what others said - get yourself an outback with the H6 engine, or maybe a Pilot or Ridgeline. unless you intend to really get into some dicey terrain, at most an SR5 4Runner is all you'd probably need. at this point they are probably trying hard to move leftover 19's to make way for the updated 20's.
As for squirrelly under braking, yes, by all means that's true. I'm hoping a set of 5100s or perhaps the Eibach kit will reduce that nose dive and give it overall some more stability.
Overall, with vehicles like the 4Runner and Wrangler, if you don't take them off road enough times, go camping in harder to reach areas, or use them on less than ideal roads, it may be hard to appreciate them as much as others might.
I really don't have any driving dynamic complaints on my 4Runner. And mine is on 120k mile original XREAS with a 2.5/1.5 spacer lift and 265/70 Nitto Grappler G2 A/T's. It's not a sports car, but it handles fine
Only negative mine has (my own fault) is that it wanders some above 80mph and is kind of shaken about if there's crosswinds, but this is due to my caster being off with the lift. If I replace upper control arms, this would be corrected.
I love the idea of the 4Runner, to the point where I've been "I'm going to buy one" at least 3 times now. But everytime I actually drive it, it's just not special enough to be truly interesting, and the idea of "Well it's going to last forever" just doesn't excite me. Like the Taco, I'd love to have owned a 4Runner for the last 10 years and now have a funky old one I've put a zillion miles on, but the idea of buying one and driving it for the next 10 years has zero excitement for me.
And yeah, I'm the guy who needs the capability it offers about 10 times a year.
Not sure if it has been said yet, but the resale value of 4runners is stupid high. Especially the TRD Pro.