As I sit down to write this, it’s dawning on me that I have owned all three of these vehicles at one point or another. The Toyota 4Runner TRD Off-Road is the one that currently shades my driveway. You’ve seen it before. Twice.
But I actually brought my wife and newborn daughter home from the hospital in a 1996 Toyota RAV4, a four-door model with a manual transmission, lockable center differential and a Torsen rear differential. It may have looked like a hiking boot, but it handled like a rally car on my dirt road commute, which was so utterly deserted I could fully exploit the route’s numerous corners and float over its perfectly-shaped jump.
My 1993 Toyota Land Cruiser was an 80-series with solid axles that made it an obstinate pig on that same washboarded road. But it redeemed itself by being an absolute go-anywhere beast on the rocky trails in the nearby mountains. After some 100,000 miles, I swapped it for a minivan after we moved back to California with two kids in tow, which is not even close to the dumbest automotive decision I’ve made — even if it reads like it in print.
I never had the chance to put those two on a Flex Index ramp, but I can certainly do that with their modern successors. The 2020 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road, Toyota 4Runner TRD Off-Road and Toyota Land Cruiser Heritage Edition occupy the same market slots as their predecessors, so I’m interested to see how the three of them measure up on the ramp.
The RAV4 TRD Off-Road is a new trim level for 2020. Besides being garnished with TRD badging and special interior trim, it is fitted with TRD-calibrated springs, shocks and bump stops, taller fender flares, blacked-out 18-inch wheels and Falken Wildpeak AT Trail tires. The raised sidewall lettering on the tires looks far knobbier than the tread itself, but they do all right.
All RAV4s share an approach angle of 19 degrees, which doesn’t seem like enough to tackle a 20-degree ramp. But that’s measured at the lowest point in the middle of the bumper’s span, and the RAV4’s fascia kicks up out toward the tires. In this case it was just enough to clear the ramp.
The RAV4 TRD Off-Road comes with a forward-facing camera, but the ramp/bumper interface is back behind the lens where it can’t see. I had to stop and get out to make sure that I knew it would clear back under there.
Through it all, the front proximity sensors didn’t know what to make of the looming ramp. But they were easy enough to mute using the OK button on the left-hand steering-wheel spoke once I saw the helpful on-screen message. I normally refer to such a feature as the Taco Bell button because I find them to be an absolute necessity when I’m lined up at a drive-thru.
The RAV4 didn’t climb up terribly far, but it was able to drive right on past the point of tire lift-off without any of the usual tire-squealing drama. That’s because the TRD Off-Road is one of three RAV4 trims, along with the Adventure and AWD-equipped Limited, that has a torque-vectoring rear differential. I had the luxury of backing down to carefully place the vehicle at the exact point of liftoff.
My old RAV4’s Torsen wouldn’t have been able to pull this off because a Torsen needs the lightly-loaded tire to at least offer SOME resistance to transfer torque to the loaded side. In a case like this it’d have spun like an open differential.
In the end, the RAV4 TRD Off-Road generated 11.17 inches of lift, which translates to 32.7 inches of climb. Divide that by its 105.9-inch wheelbase and you get a score of:
308 Flex Index points
The low 300s is indeed the realm of most crossovers I have measured in the past, but this still seems like it’s on the low end. Maybe the TRD Off-Road name led me to expect more. But then I thought about it some and came up with a couple of possible explanations.
For one, the TRD Off-Road and the Adventure are unique in the RAV4 lineup in that they can both tow 3,500 pounds — some 2,000 pounds more than other RAV4 models. The extra tongue weight that comes with that surely requires firmer rear springs, and springs like that would theoretically limit rear flex.
But that’s not the only thing about the TRD Off-Road that’s different. The TRD-tuned suspension also includes unique front and rear bump stops. These are hidden up in the damper boots where I couldn’t get a look at them, but based on past experience, I’m betting they’re longer and more progressive ones that are meant to make contact early to soften rougher dirt-road impacts.
The RAV4 was never going to be a rock crawler, so in the TRD Off-Road, suspension flex wasn’t going to be as critical as the ability to glide over pockmarked and washboarded dirt roads and wannabe rally stages — just like my 1996 RAV4.
Those who want an SUV that can tackle rougher terrain have at least two more choices. The 4Runner is a body-on-frame machine that shares a front suspension with the Tacoma. But its wheelbase is shorter than that pickup, and it has a five-link coil spring rear suspension instead of leaf springs. Its front fascia is severely sculpted not just for looks, but for clearance. The only one I’d avoid is the Limited, which, among other things, has a prominent chin.
As I proved by spending my own cold, hard cash, the 4Runner represents a lot of off-roader for the money — especially if you buy the TRD Off-Road for its locking rear differential, crawl control and multi-terrain select system. KDSS (Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System) is an option you can only get on this version of the 4Runner, and by now you’ve heard me pontificate about how it’s the killer app in the 4Runner lineup that you absolutely must have.
It certainly makes a difference here on my ramp. My 4Runner hiked its front wheel 20.83 inches in the air, which translates to 60.9 inches of climb up the ramp. Compare that to its 109.8-inch wheelbase and you get a score of:
555 Flex Index points
Toyota knows that much of its history rests on the shoulders of the Land Cruiser, so there’s no way they’re going to let a 4Runner eat it for lunch. The Land Cruiser is a big machine next to a 4Runner, but it’s not as much as a behemoth if you park one next to the full size SUVs from Ford and Chevy. It’s still reasonably tidy when it comes to trail dimensions.
The Land Cruiser is built with off-roading in mind, and the design brief insists that it be able to tackle rougher terrain than the 4Runner can. The basic suspension layout is the same as the 4Runner if you merely read the words: five-link coil spring rear suspension, double wishbone front suspension with a high-mount upper arm. But it is a decidedly bigger vehicle, the geometry provides more suspension flex and the pieces are more robust. In reality, they share nothing.
In North America, at least, an upsized Land Cruiser version of the KDSS system comes standard. And now we have the Heritage Edition that adds forged alloy wheels and does away with some chrome trim, the third-row seats and a center-console cooler box that no one much liked. It’s better suited to carrying off-road gear, and it really looks the part.
It also lives up to its position in the Toyota hierarchy on my ramp. The Land Cruiser effortlessly motored to a point where its left front tire was hiked 25.38 inches off the ground, which amounts to 74.2 inches of ramp climb. Divide that by its wheelbase of 112.2 inches and you get a score of:
661 Flex Index points
That the Land Cruiser is significantly more flexible than a RAV4 is no surprise. But this test does demonstrate one thing clearly: If you want to flex and make for the rocks, get a truck-based body-on-frame SUV. The Land Cruiser is the king of this particular artificial hill but, if you’re like me, you might conclude that the 4Runner TRD Off-Road with KDSS is the better off-road value.
But the opposite is true even if this ramp test isn’t the best way to prove it: Crossovers like the 2020 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road and my own dear-departed 1996 RAV4 might actually have an edge if flex isn’t important to you. Their independent suspensions have low unsprung mass, and that’s sure to make them smoother and more tossable if the only dirt roads you’ll ever drive are graded once in a while.