The No-Apologies SUV

Toyota's redesigned -- and much improved -- 4Runner rises to the challenge.

JUST A YEAR AGO, Toyota should have considered renaming its venerable 4Runner sport-utility vehicle the AlsoRanner. Competitors outgunned the 4Runner under the hood by more than 50 horsepower, and their 6 to 10 inches of additional width made the 4Runner's passenger cabin seem downright cramped by comparison.

But last fall Toyota rose to the challenge with the new, fourth-generation 4Runner. Following a tried-and-true formula among car companies, Toyota made the 4Runner lots bigger and plenty more powerful, and packed it with more features, ranging from creature comforts to performance enhancers.

And, no surprise, the formula works. The new 4Runner feels cavernous if you are used to the old model — which my family is, since we happen to own one. Thus Toyota has moved the 4Runner squarely into the mainstream of the midsize SUV segment, competing directly against such stalwarts as the Ford Explorer, the Honda Pilot, the Chevy TrailBlazer and the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

But here's the catch. All those vehicles, along with several others in this burgeoning category, add up to pretty tough competition. So while it's hard to find any major fault with the new 4Runner, it's also hard to distinguish this newcomer from the crowd. Except in price, unfortunately, where the 4Runner carries something of a premium.

The 4Runner's makeover eliminates some of the vehicle's distinctive quirks, some of which — such as a taut steering feel — were endearing, and some of which weren't. Among the latter was a driving position that made you feel as if you were seated on the floor with your legs stretched forward, a legacy of the old 4Runner's roots as a spinoff from Toyota's Tacoma pickup truck.

The new 4Runner, in contrast, really is an SUV, not a modified pickup. Nor is it a wannabe minivan, as the absence of a third-row seat — a standard feature on the Honda Pilot and optional on the Ford Explorer — testifies. If you want the third row in a Toyota-built SUV, you'll have to trade up to the mechanically similar Lexus GX, which will cost you an extra 10 large or so, or opt instead for the bigger Toyota Sequoia. Also, unlike many competitors in this class, Toyota shunned an independent rear suspension for the 4Runner, opting to retain the more truck-like single-beam suspension. The 4Runner is a no-apologies SUV.

The new 4Runner comes in three trim versions: the basic SR5, the midlevel Sport Edition and the upscale Limited. All are available in either rear-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, and also offer either a muscular new V-6 engine or, for the first time in this model, a V-8. Only the V-8 was available at the launch last fall, with the V-6 following in December. The V-8 is paired with a five-speed automatic transmission, long standard in luxury cars but a Toyota first on one of its light trucks. The V-6 gets a four-speed automatic.

The new 4Runner is 5.7 inches longer and more than 5 inches wider than the previous model. Those are big differences, to be sure, but perhaps the biggest changes lie under the hood. The new 4.0-liter V-6 engine churns out 245 hp, more than 55 hp higher than its petite, 3.4-liter V-6 predecessor.

In fact, the new V-6 actually produces more peak horsepower than the 4Runner's optional 4.7-liter V-8, which has ÒonlyÓ 235 hp but produces more low-end torque (for faster starts and more effortless towing) than the new V-6.

The V-6, of course, is easier on the gas gauge, although in a vehicle of this size fuel economy is mediocre at best. The V-6 is rated at 17 mpg in the city and 21 on the highway, while the V-8 gets only 15 in the city and 19 on the highway.

My advice after trying both engines: Take the V-6, unless you want to tow a heavy boat or a trailer. The V-6 is so smooth and powerful that, on a recent test drive, I thought Toyota had mistakenly provided me with a V-8 instead. Only after I stopped and looked under the hood was I convinced it really was a V-6.

The new 4Runner drives and handles with ease. The added size makes it less maneuverable in tight quarters than its predecessor, but the extra interior space is worth the tradeoff. On a recent family mini vacation, the 4Runner comfortably accommodated four adults and a toddler in a child seat, along with loads of luggage in the rear. The previous model wouldn't have been up to the job.

The 4Runner's two side-view mirrors are about as big as small satellite dishes. But they provide a great view, and are angled so they don't protrude unduly. The two front cupholders can adjust to hold various-size cups, but don't easily accept coffee cups with handles.

The dashboard is well designed, with controls that are easy to operate. There is no separate inside button to open the back hatch; instead you just use the door-panel button that locks and unlocks the four side doors. It's efficient, but a little counterintuitive. Likewise, the gas cap's release button is tucked well under the dash, in a Òfind me if you canÓ position.

Shifting among two-wheel drive, highway-speed four-wheel drive and off-road four-wheel drive is easy. You simply adjust a dial and press a button. There's a veritable alphabet soup of off-road features, including DAC (downhill assist control) to handle steep descents, HAC (hill start assist control) to negotiate upgrades, VSC (vehicle skid control), TRAC (traction control) and more.

How does the 4Runner compare with rivals? On the engine front, the Honda Pilot's 3.5-liter V-6 produces 240 hp, 5 less than the 4Runner's V-6, but the Ford Explorer's 4.0-liter V-6 trails at just 210 hp. In fact, the Explorer's 4.6-liter V-8 rates only 239 hp, a tad less than the 4Runner's V-6. The Pilot doesn't come with a V-8.

Given the different trim levels and engines, as well as the choice between rear drive and four-wheel drive, the 4Runner covers a broad price range. The least expensive is the rear-wheel-drive SR5 with the V-6 (base price $27,715). The four-wheel-drive SR5 with the V-6 starts at $29,990. (All prices include destination charge.)

If you want something fancier and opt for the four-wheel-drive V-6 Limited, the base sticker price is $36,190, while the four-wheel-drive V-8 Limited starts at $36,990. The V-6 Limited that I drove carries a sticker of $37,514, including a $900 power moonroof, a $200 rear spoiler and a couple of other minor options. Leather heated power seats, a CD player, dual-zone A/C and other items are standard on this model.

Those prices are higher than the competition's. Ford's least-expensive Explorer, the rear-wheel-drive XLS with a V-6, starts at $26,930. And the upscale, leather-trimmed Eddie Bauer Explorer with a V-8 engine starts at $36,570 — without the optional third-row seat.

Meanwhile, Honda's upscale Pilot EX with leather seating and four-wheel drive (the Pilot doesn't come in rear-wheel drive) starts at just under $31,000. That's a relative bargain in this league, unless you want or need the enhanced off-road capability that the 4Runner provides.