If you're looking for an SUV and don't want to spend a lot of time running around looking at prospects, you couldn't do any better than to try the nearest Toyota store.

The esteemed fabricator has five variations on the theme, running from the inexpensive RAV4 "cute ute" (starts at $17,035) all the way up to the indomitable Land Cruiser (pretty complete at $53,595).

There are several interesting way stations on the climb through the ranks - the 4Runner (soon to appear in reinvented form), the Sequoia and the Highlander.

In many ways, the most desirable member of the family is the Highlander, rather like Mama Bear's porridge, not too big and not too small. It's roughly comparable to the Ford Explorer / Mercury Mountaineer, GMC Envoy / Chevrolet Blazer, Subaru Outback or Buick Rendezvous in size, though with the proper rigging, most of them would be better choices for going where the road isn't.

But for a machine whose destiny lies mainly on macadam, it's hard to beat. It's based on the Lexus RX 300 platform, which in turn was derived from the Camry underpinnings, and that model needs no introduction. Highlander brings to the table the same combination of dependability and comfort that have so often made Camry the country's best-selling sedan.

But for its profile, Highlander could qualify as a "crossover" machine, offering comfort in foul weather and carrying four adults or two plus a trio of tads with ease, while still being pleasant to drive, even for those who don't carry Teamster cards. It looks more like a tall wagon than a hulking SUV; indeed, it stands only 5-foot-6, exclusive of roof rack.

There's no accounting for tastes, so Highlander is available as a two-wheel-drive, four-cylinder machine. You can also couple an all-wheel-drive mechanism to the four-banger if you're neither hauling much nor in much of a hurry.

But if you want more than the supposed "in" look of an SUV, you'd do well to consider the 6-cylinder engine, which can be paired with either 2WD or 4WD. Once you've made that fundamental set of choices, you can decide whether you want the pretty-nice standard series or the self-indulgent Limited.

The cheapest possibility (2WD, 4-cylinder) starts at $24,390, including delivery. The 4WD/4-cylinder goes for a suggested $25,790. For about that same price, you could have a 6-cylinder 2WD standard-grade specimen. And so it goes, up to the summit, a Limited with V-6 and 4WD, in addition to a raft of functional and aesthetic improvements. That one is $31,305, with hauling. There are still some options, if that isn't enough, things like power moonroof, leather seating, side-impact air bags, towing package, traction control and stability control, heated front seats and upgraded stereo.

The machine I was given to evaluate was a pretty much full-boat Limited V-6 AWD. Estimated total: $35,265. That's getting close to Lexus territory, although you can gild those lilies, too.

I perso nally like the look of the Highlander better - it seems less self-consciously affected, although that of course is exactly what will commend it to many folks, that plus the reputed dealer experience. For such as they, the dealer will be happy also to provide a "gold kit," for a supplemental charge.

For Highlander / RX 300 fall into what the industry refers to as the "low-end luxury" class. (In trying to dissect the burgeoning SUV market, analysts are forced to use such precious terms, self-contradictory as they may be).

I didn't think the Highlander felt particularly luxurious, although it did show its good breeding in its ability to fulfill assigned tasks with aplomb, and the quality of materials and assemblage. The all-wheel-drive system is always on, sending equal amounts of power to front and rear axles. When slippage occurs, varying amounts of power are doled out to the wheel(s) best able to handle it. Such a 50-50 system is a not a performance enthusiast's delight, but results in a confident feeling regardless of road conditions.

That confidence is buttressed by the carlike unibody construction, which, along with tight construction, makes the Highlander feel poised even over moderately nasty surfaces. In ordinary going, road shocks are kept outside the cabin exceptionally well. Free from rattles or creaks or groans, the interior was reasonably quiet for the type, even at freeway speeds over rough concrete.

Despite its thirst for premium unleaded, the 3-liter 6-cylinder engine is a pretty reasonable proposition, considering the 3,880-pound base curb weight. It gives you 220 horses (a 41 percent increment over the 4-cylinder) and 222 foot-pounds of torque (a 36 percent bump). Those are major differences, and transport the Highlander from the slug ranks into the respectable 9-second 0-60 crowd. If you mean to utilize the machine's nominal 3,500-pound towing ability, the four isn't realistic.

The EPA ratings with the six and AWD are 18 mpg city, 22 highway. In fairly intense running I measured 20.5.

The four-speed automatic transmission shifted smoothly and its overdrive top gear was high enough to produce relaxed cruising, without hurting low-speed flexibility.

Not only is the ride of the Highlander superior, so is the handling. With front and rear anti-roll bars, MacPherson strut-type independent suspension front and rear, it cornered flat and hung on tenaciously even when asked to provide G forces not all that congenial to the average SUV, albeit with some whining from the rubber. The 225/70/16 all-season tires laid down an appropriate contact patch.

This vehicle being just off the truck, I didn't subject it to rotor-warping pseudo-panic stops, but in fairly heavy braking, pedal feel was firm and progressive and stopping distances quite comfortable. Antilock is standard.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tested a Highlander when it debuted as a 2001 model. In that crashing, it garnered four stars on the 5-star scale for protection of occupants front and rear, except for the rear, right-side occupant, who received 5-star coddling. It's possible Toyota has improved those numbers, though they're not saying.

Similarly, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gave the Highlander an overall rating of "good", their best, with minor cavils over head and neck protection and dummy kinematics.

In IIHS 5-mph impacts, the bumpers showed themselves more effective than most in the class, though not quite so good as some. Average damage over the four tests was $772, still an expensive proposition for a minor parking mishap, but a damage figure in this range implies that the bumpers sacrificed themselves to protect the vehicle's bodywork. Federal standards do not stipulate any monetary damage limit, but are concerned with protecting safety-related items, like taillights.

Co nsumer Reports says its owner surveys reveal a well-above-average reliability experience, and above-average overall satisfaction.

Apparently the Highlander's reputation now precedes it, for Edmunds.com surveys of transactions nationwide reveal no one typically gets a discount, even on the priciest pieces. Still doesn't hurt to ask.

The tester would entail payments of $715 a month, assuming 48 installments, 20 percent down and 10 percent interest.