"Sometimes you feel like a truck, sometimes you don't."

That's how Toyota division general manager Don Esmond explains why the Highlander sport-utility vehicle joins the 4Runner in the lineup for 2001.

4Runner is built off a pickup platform and as such acts more truck-like with firm ride and handling. Highlander is built off the Camry platform and behaves more like a sedan in terms of road manners.

"For those with a bias toward rugged use, we have 4Runner; for those demanding the image and versatility of an SUV but who prioritize the ride, handling and comfort of a sedan, we have Highlander," Esmond said.

With Highlander, the Toyota lineup expands to include the compact RAV4, Highlander, 4Runner, Sequoia and Land Cruiser. The Lexus sport-ute lineup includes the RX300 and the LX470, which shares platforms with the Land Cruiser.

Highlander is the Toyota version of the RX300 from its Lexus luxury division at about $5,000 less. But don't expect an RX300 with a Toyota logo on it or you might be disappointed.

For starters, the RX300 looks like a cross between sedan, wagon and SUV, one of those hybrids that borrows the best features from a variety of vehicles. RX300 is what you want it to be.

Highlander looks like an SUV. It's what Toyota wanted it to be. Styling is night and day different from the RX300. No sheet metal is shared.

That's how Toyota wanted it. No way was Toyota going to rile Lexus owners by giving the blue-collar crowd an RX300 clone with a different grille for $5,000 less. No way was Toyota going to diminish the prestige image of the RX300 to add another SUV to its lineup.

In addition to unique design, dimensions differ, too. Highlander is built on a stretched Camry platform and sports a four-inch longer wheelbase, four-inch longer overall length and a half-inch more in width than the RX300.

The added length gives it the traditional massive cargo hold. Open the hatchlid, and you have a wealth of room to haul things; RX300 stowage room is more petite.

Perhaps the most telling difference between the two, however, is in ride and handling. Highlander and RX300 feature car-like ride and handling. But Highlander is Toyota Camry sedan-like ride and handling, and RX300 is Lexus ES300 sedan-like ride and handling--softer, plusher, more lay-back-and-enjoy-the-journey.

The two share the same 3-liter, 220-horsepower, 24-valve, V-6 mated to a 4-speed automatic (18 m.p.g. city/22 m.p.g. highway).

But Highlander also offers a 2.4-liter, 155-h.p., 16-valve 4-cylinder and automatic as the mileage (22 m.p.g. city/27 m.p.g. highway two-wheel-drive; 19/24 four-wheel-drive) and price ($23,515 2WD, $24,915 4WD) leader. No 4-cylinder in an RX300. No call for one. Actually, not much call for a 4-cylinder in the Highlander, either; only about 10 percent of the build for now.

The Highlander we tested offered the V-6, and like the RX30 0, it is a spirited engine with good low-end torque for alert moves away from the light. Kick the pedal hard and you'll detect some engine noise that doesn't seem to come back into the cabin in an RX300. But, you can't expect the same quiet in a vehicle that runs about $5,000 less than the Lexus.

Highlander, built in Japan with no current plans for U.S. output because Toyota's plants here are full, is offered in front-wheel- and four-wheel-drive. The 4WD is full time with no buttons to push or dials to turn to activate. But there isn't a 4WD low mode for heavy-duty off-roading. Of course, like Esmond says, sometimes you feel like a truck, sometimes you don't, so if looking for off-road adventure, you'll have to look at the 4Runner.

If your adventures will be limited to maneuvering in the Snow Belt, a key Highlander option ($850) is vehicle skid control teamed with traction control. VSC puts sensors at all the wheels. When wheel slippage is detected in making a turn or taking a corner, it will decrease fuel flow to the cylinders or apply the anti-lock brakes, or both, to the slipping wheel to bring the vehicle under control. Traction control sensors detect wheel slippage when taking off from the light and use ABS to bring the vehicle back in line.

Other safety features include dual front air bags as standard, side air bags a $250 option.

Noteworthy features include a pair of enclosed stowage compartments in the rear cargo floor; a plastic spare-tire cover under the floor with enough space to hold wet items, such as swimsuits; a pull-out cargo shade to hide packages; and several grocery bag holders.

Base price of the Highlander 4x4 we tested is $26,495. Standard equipment includes four-wheel independent suspension; four-wheel, power disc brakes with ABS; 16-inch, all-season radial tires; color-keyed bumpers/grille/side moldings/mirrors/door handles; rear-window washer/wiper; front captain's chairs/rear split, flat-folding seats; power plugs in the instrument panel and cargo hold; cruise control; digital clock; AM/FM stereo with cassette/CD player and six speakers; power windows and locks; tilt wheel; and air conditioning.

Options can run up the bill, such as the $1,100it will take to add skid/traction control ($850) and side-impact air bags ($250). You can cover that cost by taking a pass on the $220 roof rack and $890 appearance package with aluminum wheels, color-keyed mudguards and privacy glass. You can get an eight-way, power driver's seat in a preferred package that runs $645 and includes garage-door opener and illuminated vanity mirrors, or you can play it smart and get it as a stand-alone option for $390.

Toyota forecasts sales of 70,000 Highlanders for 2001, which would compare with 80,000 RX300s, the best-selling model for Lexus.

Toyota estimates Highlander sales will consist of 90 percent V-6s and 60 percent 4WD, slightly less than the 70 percent 4WD order rate on the RX300, which is offered with V-6 only.