Once again, I was one of the few people in town more than 12 years old who delighted in a recent particularly foul stretch of weather. We had it all – sleet, ice, snow, refrozen snow melt, subzero temps – Boreas’s full bag of nasty tricks. But I could hardly have been better armed, equipped as I was with one of the first 4th-generation Toyota 4Runners to hit these shores. And this one, whose main duty is to serve as a “factory official’s car,” had all the goodies.

I might have been totally oblivious to the meteorological mess had I not also been playing host to a pair of 2-wheel-drive machines – but those are tales for another time – suffice it to say, they served as an excellent baseline against which to test the 4Runner.

It has been years since I’ve been able to recommend a 4Runner with much enthusiasm; the last couple of seasons, it was conspicuously the guest who stayed too long, even though the SUV party was just getting into full swing.

The expiation is now complete; Toyota has once again concocted a benchmark in its niche. So eagerly awaited, and so well received is the 4Runner that it is being bid up over sticker price, as if it were some hot little sports car – not the usual state of affairs in the overheated sport-ute market.

Toyota has the luxury of commanding a large fleet of SUV-type machines, and thus can define each of its own offerings with a precision that eludes many of the all-things-to-all-people competitors.

With models ranging from the “cute-ute” RAV4 up through the slick Highlander and the muscular Sequoia, on up to the earth-moving Land Cruiser, Toyota can tailor its products with finesse.

Thus the 4Runner serves as the most serious-minded off-roader in the family, as is suggested by the advertising which shows it in situations on slopes near Mount Everest. In one particularly silly shot in the brochure, a pristine 4Runner is seen on a steep slope, with Everest in the background. The caption tells us it is 1.5 kilometers north of the Everest base camp at 17,262 feet above sea level. (They don’t specify the type of helicopter used to get it there.)

The 4Runner may not be ready to put sherpas out of work, but it has the power, agility and strength to take on some pretty nasty conditions, if necessary. Paradoxically, it can be had as a 2WD machine at all three levels – SR5, Sport Edition and Limited – for those who prefer their station wagons in off-road guise.

In typical service – taking kids to school or Dad to work – the 4×4 4Runner is gloriously overqualified, as are most 4x4s these days. In 4Runner’s case, one would do well to consider what’s being given up to achieve that fantasy of exploring trackless wastes – Highlander or Land Cruiser, to name but two alternatives, are appreciably more comfortable than even the Limited Edition I enjoyed.

Not to say it was unpleasant – ride was very good for a body-on-frame truck design, and the greatly improved torsional rigidity of the chassis takes it to a new level of solidity. The interior of the Limited is slathered with leather of excellent quality, and lacks the merely silly eyewash often confused with “luxurious.”

The former powerplant seemed a bit wimpy to me – a V-6 with 183 hp and 217 foot-pounds of torque. A new 4-liter, 24-valve V-6 addresses that concern nicely. It makes 245 hp at 5,200 rpm, along with 283 foot-pounds of torque at 3,400. The truly power-hungry can now get a 4.7-liter, 32-valve V-8, rated at 235 hp (yes, they gave a little away) at 4,800, and 320 foot-pounds (a 13 percent bulking up).

Oddly, Toyota specifies a 5,000-pound towing capacity irrespective of whether equipment includes a V-6, V-8, 2WD or 4WD. I believe I’d go for the V-8 in any case, at least with a 4×4 Limited, which weighs in at 4,420 pounds. In that worst-case scenario, EPA estimates are 16 mpg city, 19 highway; the best ratings of course go to a 2WD, V-6 instance: 18/21. I won’t cite a mileage figure from my experience this time, because so much of the driving was under rather adverse conditions – or so I was told. I hardly noticed in the Limited I piloted. The V-8 engine adds very little to the up-front price of the machine (a few hundred bucks, varying with trim level) but brings with it a 5-speed automatic transmission instead of the standard 4-speed, as well as a more sophisticated 4WD mechanism.

The V-6 machines have a shift-on-the-fly part-time 4WD mechanism – you’d normally run it as a 2WD rear-drive machine – while those with V-8 have full-time all-wheel drive with a lockup Torsen center differential. The low range setting on both brings a 2.56:1 torque multiplication factor, for creeping or uprooting redwoods.

With the V-8/AWD combo, under stable conditions, 40 percent of torque is sent forward, 60 percent aft. When front wheel spin occurs, as much as 71 percent of torque can be sent aft. If it’s the rear wheels that are slipping, up to 53 percent can be sent forward – virtually instantaneously. If you find yourself in serious doo-doo, you can punch a button and lock front and rear axles together.

In a variety of real-world tests, I found the system worked so effortlessly it was hard to tell it was there – even when stomping on the gas on a slippery slope, I detected only the slightest bit of slewing before the 4Runner nonchalantly proceeded.

All series also have Toyota’s Downhill Assist Control, a kind of low-speed antilock system that takes over on very steep grades, and Hill Start Assist Control, which detects rearward slippage on a grade and applies the brakes to keep the machine from retrograde motion until the driver can switch to the gas pedal.

Beyond that, all series have 4-wheel ventilated discs with antilock, vehicle skid control, traction control, electronic brake force distribution and brake assist. It’s laudable that Toyota makes such leading-edge safety features standard across the line.

The net effect of all the cyber-goodies is to make the driving experience pleasant and relaxed no matter how uncongenial the road conditions. Only some busy-ness and noise from the suspension kept it from earning top marks.

The tester had the optional rear air suspension system coupled with what Toyota calls X-Reas sport enhancement (naming is not their strong suit). With the former, a console-mounted button can raise (1.6 inches) or lower (0.8 inch) the rear end to ease entry or negotiate lumpy terrain. The latter lets diagonally-opposed shocks “talk” to each other. They share a common fluid reservoir and divvy the juice according to the needs of the moment. The brake pedal had a crisp feel, and the large, ventilated discs all around produced the requisite stopping force.

Neither Feds nor insurance people have yet crash-tested the new 4Runner. It comes with mu lti-stage front air bags and can be fitted with side and side-curtain bags, too. The cheapest 4Runner (2WD, V-6, SR5) starts at $29,000. To move to 4WD will up the ante by $2,275. The priciest, Limited, series starts at $36,480, in 4WD, V-8 form. The tester mercifully lacked “gold kit” and front-end mask, but there were a few options which pushed it past the 40K barrier. An upgraded JBL stereo (AM-FM-cassette-6CD, 10 speakers) is $725; power moonroof, $900; the trick rear suspension, $1,400; side and head curtain air bags, $500; rear spoiler with integrated stop lamp, $200; daytime running lights, $40; carpeted floor mats, $184, and a first aid kit, $29. Total, with freight, was $40,968. At that price payments would be $824, assuming 20 percent down, 10 percent interest and 48 installments. You should be so lucky: Edmunds.com pricing surveys show the average 4Runner going for approximately $2,300 over sticker. While officially discouraged, such gouging must be gratifying to Toyota. When doing your bargaining, bear in mind there’s nearly $4,000 worth of markup already in a Limited, proportionately less in lower series.