If you’ve been car shopping any time in the past couple of years, there’s a great chance that you’ve seen vehicles with features and technologies that you may not have even known existed. Automotive companies redesign their vehicles every few years with new styling, updated features, and the latest technologies, but they can’t completely overhaul every model every year.
This is where the so-called “mid-cycle refresh” comes into play, which is when automakers upfit the latest entertainment and safety technologies (among other updates) into their existing models. The vehicle’s appearance and performance may remain completely unchanged, but the updates may include revised infotainment systems and new safety tech like blind spot monitors. Changes like these help keep buyers’ interest in vehicles for longer periods of time. The Toyota 4Runner is a great example of this concept, as it was recently updated for the 2020 model year with features that correct many of the issues that plagued the aging SUV.
Barack Obama had just been sworn in for his first term as president when the current generation 4Runner hit the streets, and until very recently the truck was really starting to show its age. Driving any model of the SUV between 2009 and 2019 will net roughly the same experience: An extremely capable off-road vehicle that functions acceptably on the street, while sporting outdated infotainment and safety technology. After spending an extended holiday break in the 4Runner, it became clear that Toyota has achieved something special with one of its oldest models.
The 4Runner is still a wildly popular vehicle, making it hard to find even a used one in good condition for a decent price, but its lack of features like Apple CarPlay had many new vehicle buyers looking in other places for their next purchase. Toyota finally took notice of the issues and updated the 4Runner for 2020 with a host of new tech and safety equipment, but is it enough to keep the SUV relevant for another year? For that matter, do upfits in technology and other equipment keep aging vehicles relevant?
The short answer is that it depends.
It depends on how well the rest of the vehicle performs. If the 4Runner was a slouch or unreliable to begin with, Apple CarPlay wasn’t going to fix those problems. It also depends on the packaging. Toyota included new safety equipment and the infotainment goodies as standard features but adding them along with a hefty optional upcharge wouldn’t have done much to help.
Let’s take a look at how Toyota and other automakers can keep their vehicles relevant as they age:
New safety tech
Adding advanced safety equipment, though not all that exciting on paper, is one of the best ways to freshen up an aging vehicle. Many major automakers have their own “flavor” of safety features, like Honda Sensing, Toyota Safety Sense, and Nissan ProPilot Assist, but they’re all different shades of the same color. In our 4Runner test vehicle, Toyota’s Safety Sense-P came with pedestrian detection, lane departure warnings, automatic high-beam headlights, and adaptive cruise control. Those options were considered luxuries a decade ago and were not all that common until just a few years ago. Upfitting an aging truck like the 4Runner with such technologies doesn’t just make a safer vehicle, it makes a fresher, more desirable vehicle
Apple CarPlay is finding its way into more and more factory head units. (Photo: Apple)
Toyota resisted adding Apple CarPlay and Android Auto to its vehicles for years, citing privacy and user experience concerns, but the flood gates have finally opened – slightly. The 4Runner finally comes with the ability to run the interfaces from Apple or Google, and Amazon Alexa is on board for good measure. This allows users to bypass the proprietary infotainment software in favor of a more familiar system that looks like their smartphones. It also brings navigation, voice controls, and streaming music into lower trims of vehicles that might not get those features otherwise.
Companies like Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz have opted to add gesture controls and special touch controls to their infotainment units in vehicles that are otherwise mostly unchanged. Updates like this helps the vehicles look and feel fresh, and can allow the automaker to include the very latest in weather, traffic, and entertainment features in the dash of an aging vehicle.
USB outlets have been standard for almost a decade. (Photo: Tundras.com)
Bluetooth has been a thing for years now, but it hasn’t completely replaced good old plug-and-play connections between phones and vehicles. Automakers are slowly getting on board with the latest connectivity methods like USB-C, but for vehicles like the 4Runner the addition of extra USB-A (“normal” USB) ports for back seat passengers is a big plus. Anyone with kids can tell you that charging iPads and other devices is a real pain, and having extra connection points throughout the vehicle is a blessing.
Toyota engines during assembly. (Photo: YouTube)
The 4Runner’s V6 engine and transmission remain resolutely unchanged for the 2020 model year, but other automakers have taken to updating powertrains as their vehicles age through model years. As annoying as it can be for some drivers, adding functions like start-stop tech to a vehicle’s powertrain management capabilities can increase fuel economy and help the model keep up with its competition. Other companies tweak their drivetrain management software to optimize transmission shift points and other operations to maximize miles per gallon.
It’s important to note that these slight updates can only keep a vehicle competitive for so long before a substantial overhaul becomes the only option, but even small changes can make a big difference in freshening up an aging model. Companies like Toyota have managed to keep their vehicles somewhat relevant by adding new features, but it will be interesting to see how the strategy pays off as more and more new technologies continue rolling out.