On second thought . . .

When last we visited the Toyota 4Runner sport-utility vehicle it was just being introduced as a redesigned 1996 model.

Loved it. A worthy and much-lower-cost alternative to the much larger Lexus LX450 (which has since become the LX470), we said at the time.

But that was then and this is now, and once again we’ve tested the 4Runner, this time the 1999 base four-wheel-drive version with its 2.7-liter, 150-horsepower 4-cylinder engine rather than the top-of-the-line Limited with its 3.4-liter, 183-h.p., 24-valve V-6.

Like night and day.

From passionate to perturbed.

The lack of pep from the underpowered 4-cylinder engine magnifies the vehicle’s shortcomings.

OK, the 4-cylinder is nice when you want a four-wheel-drive sport-utility in the driveway when the snow flies, and when your top priority is decent mileage when the roads are clear.

The 4-cylinder is rated at 18 miles per gallon city/21 highway, respectable figures for a go-anywhere, anytime 4WD vehicle.

But, when we had the vehicle loaded with four adults on a trip through the hilly Wisconsin countryside in search of a restaurant, the 4-cylinder didn’t meet a hill or incline without pausing for a deep breath. The steeper the hill, the longer it needed to draw that breath. Pull out to pass? Better make sure all other vehicles behind you are south of the Illinois border.

A few other problems.

The rear wheel-well openings cut deeply into the back-door openings, deep enough that you run the risk of rubbing your clothes against the well and body side in entering or exiting. The wheel wells must have been designed by a dry cleaner.

Also, the 4WD 4Runner stands tall to provide ground clearance for those who engage all the wheels. That, plus the addition of oversized p265/70R16 all-season rad ial tires means you have a significant step in/out height to cope with.

Our test vehicle came with optional running boards to ease the task, but the running boards are too narrow and the plastic coating becomes super slick with the least amount of moisture–rain or snow. The boards were designed by a doctor specializing in groin pulls. They’re hazardous. Toyota says it hasn’t gotten any complaints. It has one now.

Finally, 4Runner is plenty long to provide seating for four adults and a rather large cargo hold. But it is narrow–too narrow. Leg, hip and arm room suffer as you are squished against the door arm rests. No problem chatting with your passenger because you’re practically in his or her lap.

In winter, when the heavy coats come out of the closet, the lack of adequate cabin room becomes even more pronounced.

4Runner will be redesigned in a couple of years. It needs a bigger cabin. Chevrolet Blazer, Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee offer more room to roam.

Last gripe: the oversized optional tires look very sporty and rugged, but they do little to instill confidence on the open road, especially when that road starts to twist and turn. They help raise the center of gravity and increase the amount of body lean and sway in corners and turns.

For 1999 Toyota made some changes in the 4Runner, including new front fascia, grille and headlamps; treated windshield as well as side door glass to repel ultraviolet rays from the sun; and use of a water repellent glass on the front doors and rear window to keep them clear in foul weather for better visibility.

Also new are a pair of cupholders integrated into the center console, two power outlets in the lower instrument panel (and one in the cargo hold) and digital odometer and trip meter in the dash.

The rear seat bottoms fold forward and the backs fold over, once you remove the headrests, to provide a spacious load floor. New are holders in the seat bottoms so headrests don’t bounce around when you fold the seats.

Other nice touches include large outside mirrors for a panoramic view of what is coming up from the side or behind; wide supportive cloth seats that are most cozy, but would be even cozier if the cabin was wider to allow for increased leg and thigh room; mud guards front and rear to minimize the slop that spits up onto your body panels; larger headlamps for better night vision; anti-chip coating on the rocker panels; and dual air bags.

The 4WD system is a shift-on-the-fly unit that can be engaged using the transfer case lever at speeds up to 50 m.p.h. On the top-of-the-line Limited model, you can engage 4WD by touching a button.

The 4WD 4Runner we tested starts at $24,038. To get the V-6 you must move up to the SR5 4Runner which starts at $27,368, or $3,330 more, and includes more standard equipment, such as four-wheel anti-lock brakes.

Standard equipment in the SUV we tested includes power rear window, remote hood/fuel door releases (under the dash and in reaching without looking you can easily pop the hood when you wanted to p op the fuel door for a refill), sun visors with vanity mirrors and dual tinted mirrors.

Sadly, ABS is a $590 option on the 4Runner with 4-cylinder engine, standard only when you get the V-6.

4Runner can be pricey, as evidenced by looking at the list of standard equipment and being forced to take pen to option check list often to provide such amenities as power windows/mirrors/door locks, air conditioning and rear window washer/wiper/defogger.

And then there’s the $90 charge for the pullout cargo cover to hide packages and $435 for those questionable running boards.

While SUV sales are strong industrywide, 4Runner sales are down slightly from a year ago. Seems that Toyota and its Lexus luxury division have been loading up on the new RX300 sport-ute because it is in such demand at the expense of 4Runner.

The RX300 is more car than truck like, has a more spacious cabin, is available with all-wheel-drive, and after you load on all the options to the 4Runner, is only a few grand more than its Toyota cousin.