Which 6 passenger AWD Toyota?

So I’ve been asked this question a few times in the last year by people who know my experience with Toyotas. Some of the answer can be applied universally to other makes and some is specific to Toyota. Which 6 passenger AWD Toyota should I get?

Usually the conversation starts like this. I have a Toyota Sienna or Toyota Camry and I’d like to upgrade to an SUV. I need something that will hold at least 6 and be either AWD (All Wheel Drive) or 4WD (Four Wheel Drive).

Typically they are asking because Toyota, as well as other manufacturers, have several options that would fit those requirements. I’ll stick with Toyota for this article for simplicity, but I’ll give you some generic categories that each of these Toyotas fit in so you can apply the knowledge to other makes.

There is the Highlander, the 4Runner, the Sequoia and to go backward a little there is an AWD version of the Sienna.

The AWD Toyota vehicles (or What's the difference?)

I’ll start with the 4Runner and then go from there. The 4Runner is built on a truck chassis. There is a ladder frame under it that the engine and axles are attached to. The body is then set on the frame. This makes it more rigid and tougher. This also makes it heavier and it typically has a higher towing rating than say a Highlander. Heavier also means lower fuel economy, so take that into consideration.
The 4Runner came with a third row seat as an option in the mid 2000s (about 2006). This option is not something where you can just go get a set of 3rd row seats out of a junkyard 2006 and throw them in your non-3rd row equipped 4Runner. The whole body pan is different. All 4Runners from this date forward have automatic transmissions and some came with a V8 engine.

Next lets discuss the Sienna. It’s built on car technology and employs a unibody. (See the dictionary for unibody) The simple way to describe that is that it doesn’t have the truck ladder frame and that the engine and axles are attached directly to the body. Not as much torsional strength, but typically driving on the highway doesn’t require that.
The non-AWD version of the Sienna has the spare tire under the middle of the vehicle. It’s there because there is no longer room under the rear of the vehicle since the fold-n-store rear seats now take up that room. The AWD version has no spare tire and utilizes Run-flat tires.
The Sienna has more room in it than a 4Runner. Leg room, head room and cargo space. Sienna’s are wonderful for long trips.

The Highlander is another of the AWD vehicles that fit six or more people as well. Like the Sienna the Highlander is built on car technology. Unibody structure, but with larger tires and more clearance than a Sienna.
To create the clearance underneath they raised the body pan (floor of the vehicle) so that there is less interior room (floor to ceiling) compared with a Sienna. It has more of a nose on it and therefore ends up having a little less legroom in one or more of the rows of chairs.
The Highlander is a compromise between the 4Runner and the Sienna. Better fuel economy than the 4Runner and better ground clearance than the Sienna, yet less interior space than either.

The last one I’m going to cover here is the Sequoia. It’s a full size truck equivalent and has much more room in it than the 4Runner. Like the 4Runner it’s built on a ladder frame and therefore has the strength, rigidity and towing capability as well.
Due to it’s larger size it has a larger towing rating. All of this space, and capability come with a price though. The there will be more stops at the gas pump for the same number of miles in any of the others.
Personally I would stay away from the ’01-’02 due to a poor transmission design flaw that was fixed in ’03.

The Conclusion

Personally I have owned one Sequoia, a few Sienna’s and at least 20 4Runners. I keep going back to a 4Runner for myself, but I don’t require seating for 6. What you need to do is to make a list of your requirements, check out some, drive several and then make your decision.

Sequoia is a full size ladder frame SUV. Others in it’s class are Nissan Armada, Chevrolet Tahoe, Ford Excursion, Jeep Commander etc.

4Runner is a small to mid-size ladder frame SUV. Others in it’s class are Nissan Pathfinder, Nissan Xterra, Chevy Blazer, Ford Explorer, Jeep Cherokee, etc.

2001 4Runner

2001 4Runner was one of the last of the smaller 4Runners. In 2003 the 4Runner was redesigned longer and wider.

Highlander is a small to mid-size unibody SUV. Others in it’s class are the Honda Pilot, Chevrolet Equinox, Acura MDX, etc.

Sienna AWD is a minivan. Others in it’s class are the Honda Odyssey, Dodge Caravan, etc.

2004 Toyota Sienna minivan.