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Budget Buy: Toyota 4Runner vs Ford Explorer

Chris Kaiser

Two all-star SUVs square off. We pit the Toyota 4Runner versus Ford Explorer with a budget of $20,000 for the best used SUV for the money.

The Right Tool for the Job

2012 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com
2012 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com

The Toyota 4Runner and Ford Explorer are two of the most beloved, and therefore best-selling SUVs on the market. Both feature three rows, all-wheel/four-wheel drive capabilities, and load of practicality. They also have their distinct personalities. The 4Runner is a body-on-frame off-roader most at home on the trails whereas the Explorer is the all-wheel drive family hauler that replaced the minivan. Not that the 4Runner won’t cover your bases on the next grocery run or that the Explorer can’t get you there in 6-inches of snow, but these SUVs do have distinct personalities.

New, these SUVs run between $35,000-$40,000, and considerably more at the higher trims. Used however, you can find good examples of either vehicle for around $20,000. At that price you’ll most commonly find 2012 model-year 4Runner with between 100,000 to 150,000 miles on the odometer. At that same price you’ll find 2015 Explorers with anywhere between 70,000 and 100,000 miles on them. That gap in age and mileage can tell you a few things, but they may not be the things you expect.

2015 Ford Explorer - MikesCarInfo on YouTube.com
2015 Ford Explorer - MikesCarInfo on YouTube.com

Age and mileage tend to wear on some vehicles more than others. Higher mileage Toyotas command a greater premium on the used market thanks to that company’s consistent track record of reliability. When comparing these two vehicles you’ll have to consider their expected lifespans (and how you plan to use them).

Here are some other things to consider.

Specs

2012 Toyota 4Runner 4.0L V6 - carsforsale.com
2012 Toyota 4Runner 4.0L V6 - carsforsale.com

The 2012 Toyota 4Runner comes with a single engine option, a 4.0L V6 making a respectable 270 horsepower and 278 lb.-ft. of torque and paired to a five-speed automatic transmission. Fuel economy is one of the 4Runner’s weaknesses with 17 city and 23 highway mpg for the rear-wheel drive version and 17/22 mpg with all-wheel drive. The 2012 4Runner is rated to tow up to 5,000lbs.

2015 Ford Explorer 3.5L V6 - carsforsale.com
2015 Ford Explorer 3.5L V6 - carsforsale.com

The Ford Explorer offers a wider set of options starting with the base 2.0L EcoBoost (turbocharged) four-cylinder making 240 horsepower and 270 lb.-ft. of torque. The 2.0L comes exclusively in front-wheel drive and gets 20 city / 28 highway mpg. For some extra power there’s the 3.5L V6 that ups the output to 290 horsepower and 255 lb.-ft. of torque. Here, fuel economy drops to 17/23 mpg. If that’s not enough for you, there’s the Sport trim and its twin turbo 3.5L V6 that jumps horsepower to 365 horsepower and 350 lb.-ft. That extra power and in all-wheel drive come at a cost to fuel efficiency, down to 16/22 mpg. The Explorer is rated to tow a maximum of 5,000 lbs.

Driving & Performance

2012 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com
2012 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com

As we mentioned at the outset, the Toyota 4Runner is more off-road focused than the Ford Explorer. Its body-on-frame construction, live rear axle, and electronically disconnecting sway bars are complimented by Crawl Control and Hill Dissent Assist modes making the 4Runner a great vehicle for your next overlanding adventure. On pavement the 4Runner behaves about as you’d expect, with truck-like feel and notable body lean in corners. The suspension does better than expected in dealing with bumps and potholes, for a decently smooth ride. The V6 pulls well, aided handily by the excellent five-speed transmission.

The Explorer is quite as well equipped for off-roading but the multiple drive modes, including Snow, Mud and Ruts, and Sand, ensure that this Ford can still live up to its name. The 2.0L four-cylinder is notably weak for such a large vehicle and we recommend seeking out either of the V6s which motivate the Explore with greater authority.

2015 Ford Explorer - carsforsale.com
2015 Ford Explorer - carsforsale.com

While acceleration and fuel economy are closely equivalent, the Explorer is the more comfortable of the two SUVs with less road noise at highway speeds and a more supple ride around town.

Interior & Comfort

The cabins of the 4Runner and Explorer lean heavily on their practical, rather than aesthetic, charms. The 4Runner interior is the essence of function over form with bountiful amounts of hard plastic and chunky knobs and buttons. Everything is designed for ease of use and durability first and foremost. Design gets short shrift. A saving grace is the front seats which are well-bolstered and quite comfortable.

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Passenger space is good in the first two rows but gets much more cramped in the optional third row. Another option is the sliding rear deck, a nice addition for those looking to use the 4Runner for camping excursions. This rear deck does cut into the cargo space slightly, however. Cargo breaks down as follows: 9 cu. ft. behind the third, 46.3/47.2 cu. ft. behind the second row, and 88.8/89.7 cu. ft. in total.

The Ford Explorer also sports an abundance of hard plastics but benefits from a more modern design compared to the utilitarian 4Runner. The Explorer also sports a third row, which likewise is best suited for children than full-size adults. The front seats and second row are fairly roomy and comfortable. The second-row features options for either captain’s chairs or a bench, so know your preference when shopping for used examples. Cargo is much more generous behind the third row of the Explorer at 21 cu. ft. Behind the second you’ll find 43.8 cu. ft. and in total 80.7 cu. ft.

Trims & Features

2012 Toyota 4Runner - carsforsale.com
2012 Toyota 4Runner - carsforsale.com

The Toyota 4Runner received significant updates for the 2012 model year that included items like automatic running boards for the SR5 and Limited trims and the (then) new Entune infotainment system software. The 4Runner also received design updates to both the interior and exterior. With a budget cap of $20,000, most 4Runners you’ll find on the used market will be base, or SR5 trims. The SR5 carries items like skid plates, keyless entry, two 12-volt outlets. The higher Trail and top Limited trims tend to carry a higher price premium but can still be found under the $20,000 ceiling. These offer extra off-road features like the Trail trim’s Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS). The Limited gets goodies like center locking differential and the X-REAS suspension system for improved ride quality over rough terrain as well as comfort items like a sunroof.

The Ford Explorer comes in four trims: base, XLT, Limited, and Sport. The Sport is the sole home of the twin turbo charged version of the 3.5L V6. At $20,000, most used examples you’ll find will be either the base or XLT trims. The base starts out with features like a six-way power driver’s seat and a 6-speaker stereo. The XLT adds items like Bluetooth, satellite radio, and cruise control. The Limited adds an eight-inch touchscreen and leather upholstery.

2015 Ford Explorer - carsforsale.com
2015 Ford Explorer - carsforsale.com

The 4Runner and Explorer are fairly comparable when it comes to features and their spread across their respective trim levels. Our recommendation would be to identify your must-have and negotiable features and shop accordingly.

Not All Miles Are Equal

2015 Ford Explorer - carsforsale.com
2015 Ford Explorer - carsforsale.com

As we said at the outset, when choosing between the Toyota 4Runner and Ford Explorer on the used market it comes down to two factors: intended use and expected life left in the vehicle. This is because as general use SUVs, that is most often making Home Depot runs and ferrying the kids to soccer, these SUVs are quite comparable. The Explorer has a slightly better ride and marginally more attractive interior, but the 4Runner isn’t far behind.

But, if you’re wanting a used SUV for more intrepid journeys like for camping or even overlanding, the 4Runner’s superior off-road chops and extra cargo room make it a clear favorite over the Explorer.

2012 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com
2012 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com

The other factor is age and mileage. At $20,000, the 4Runner will carry more miles and be an average of three years older than a comparably priced Explorer. But, the 4Runner has shown itself to be the more reliable of the two. Even with 150,000 miles on the odometer, a used 4Runner can still have another 100,000 miles or more left. Getting an Explorer to 250,000 miles without a major repair will be more of a gamble. There’s a good reason used Toyota’s carry a price premium that other brands don’t: reliability.

Neither vehicle will disappoint, but for $20,000 we’d recommend going with the Toyota 4Runner.

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Chris Kaiser
Chris Kaiser

Chris’ greatest passions include topiary, spelunking, and pushing aging compact cars well past 200,000 miles on cross-country road trips. His taste in cars runs from the classic and esoteric to the deeply practical with an abiding affection for VW Things, old Studebakers, and all things hybrid-crossover.

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