Dear Toyota:

Thanks for lending me your new, improved 4Runner sports-utility vehicle. It's really nice, especially the V-6 engine that provides so much more power than last year's.

The red four-door looked good, too, with more aerodynamic styling and a cleaner profile. However, I believe it lost a bit of identity and individualism in the makeover.

A security guard at our parking garage thought it was a Ford. Ha-ha. Anyway, I know most people never take these vehicles off-highway but buy them for the convenience and image, despite compromises in weight, handling and gas mileage.

And the price, nearly $30,000 in this case; five or six grand more, fully loaded.

But I would never dream of testing one of these sports-utes without at least one jaunt into the desert. Which brings me to the point of this letter. Why the heck would you supply an Arizona car guy with a four-wheel-drive vehicle shod with car tires?

I know, it came from Los Angeles and rides smoother and handles better with car radials than with all-terrain truck tires. But what fun is that?

I admit, I didn't really check out the tires before heading out to Crown King with a photographer from AutoWeek magazine, who wanted to shoot some back-country towns.

As soon as we got off the freeway and onto the dirt road toward Bumble Bee, Cleator and Crown King, I noticed something strange happening in the very first turn.

We were no longer pointed down the road but were traveling sideways, the back end coming around to meet us halfway. I looked out the side window to see where we were going. And where we might end up.

Fortunately, we didn't ditch or squash any cactus (a federal offense). We stopped, got out and scratched ourheads.

"Hey!" the photographer said, crouching down and squinting at our wheels. "These are car tires!" We were unable to set any land-speed records on the road to Crown King that day, concentrating instead on keeping the front end of the 4Runner in front of its backside.

We took a side trip on those tiny trails the cowboys use to round up cattle, which were all over the place. The photographer took great pains to capture their pensive gazes.

Here is where I really got turned on to the 4Runner and what a really nice, sophisticated, smooth-running vehicle it is. Over the nastiest, rockiest stretches of dirt track, the 4Runner was stable, rattle-free and very easy on its payload, which was us.

It just coasted along, making you forget you weren't cruising down Central Avenue but dodging rocks and ditches. Despite the tread-challenged tires, we just rolled on, easy as pie. Nice job, guys.

The 4Runner has always been a class act in the crowded sports-ute arena, but with this, its third-generation makeover, it's better than ever. Especially now that it has some decent power from its 3.4-liter V-6 engine, instead of the previous somewhat-wimpy 3-liter. You could even call it quick.

Back on the highway, t he 4Runner pretty much handled as well as a passenger car, a bit more bouncy with some extra body sway in turns. The steering was quick and direct, and the brakes worked great.

The interior is a trifle small, with an obvious minitruck feel. But it's big enough for most parties of four and their gear, five in a pinch.

I was glad to get a stick-shift vehicle, which I believe enhances control both on or off the highway. Well, actually, I like it because it's more fun. Shifting was smooth and easy, though I stalled a couple of times due to the clutch engaging so close to the floor. Oh, well, I got used to it.

The secondary shifter, which engages four-wheel drive, was tough to use, acting balky and vague. Most of the competition has push-button controls to go into four-wheeling.

But I think you have a winner here, not surprising, because Toyota doesn't hit too many clinkers. Another off-roader you lent me, the new RAV4, also was competent and loads of fun.

T hanks ag ain, but next time, how about some decent rock-climbing, dirt-churning, chest-thumping rubber on those custom wheels? This is Arizona, after all.

1996 Toyota 4Runner

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sports-utility vehicle, rear-wheel/four-wheel drive. Base price: $25,148. Price as tested: $29,718. Engine: 3.4-liter V6, 183 horsepower at 4,800 rpm, 217 pound-feet of torque at 3,600 rpm. Transmission: Five-speed stick shift. Curb weight: 3,835 pounds. Length: 178.7 inches. Wheelbase: 105.3 inches. Safety features: Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes. EPA fuel economy: 17 mpg city, 19 mpg highway.