For those of us not quite ready to abandon our sport utility vehicles - the real SUVs, not those carlike crossovers - the fourth generation of Toyota's 4Runner is among the best.
Last completely redesigned for 2003, the 4Runner is one of the original SUVs and has been the stalwart of the Toyota truck-based SUV line since it was introduced in the early 1980s.
I remember seeing one up close for the first time at a Toyota dealership in Phoenix in 1985. I briefly considered buying the 4Runner - with four-wheel drive, because it would have been a fun vehicle to use to explore the Arizona mountains and the Sonoran desert.
But at the time, the 4Runner came only with two doors. It essentially was a Toyota compact pickup with the cargo bed closed in and a rear seat added to create a trucklike station wagon. The term "sport utility vehicle" hadn't been coined yet. Because I had a family and needed more space - and rear doors - I bought a Toyota minivan instead.
It wasn't until fall 1990, when the four-door Ford Explorer also arrived, that Toyota introduced a four-door version of the 4Runner, and the SUV craze began.
With the redesign for 2003, the 4Runner was given a new chassis, and, for the first time, an optional V-8 engine. The earliest models came with a four-cylinder engine; a V-6 was added later.
Today, with gasoline prices topping $3 a gallon in most of the country, truck-based SUVs such as the 4Runner and Explorer are rapidly losing ground to the crossovers, which are based on car chassis and usually offer better fuel economy.
But crossovers aren't made for mountain climbing or desert running, so there still are consumers who either need or want the full off-road utility that a vehicle such as the 4Runner has to offer.
The V-8 engine might not be the best choice in today's market. But the 2007 4Runner V-6 Sport model that we tested for this report has decent fuel economy for a vehicle with this much versatility.
Two-wheel-drive versions of the V-6 powered 4Runner have 2007 EPA ratings of 18 miles per gallon in the city and 21 on the highway; with four-wheel drive, the city rating drops to 17, but the highway mileage remains the same.
In comparison, the V-8 is rated at 16 city/20 highway with two-wheel drive, and 15/19 with four-wheel drive. (All of these figures will be somewhat lower for 2008, when a new, more-realistic EPA rating formula takes effect.)
I had said earlier that I was surprised that Toyota decided to re-do the 4Runner for 2003 rather than dropping it from the lineup after the Camry-based Highlander crossover arrived in 2001.
Not only has Toyota kept the 4Runner around, it also created a Lexus version, the GX 470, and both remain in their respective lineups.
Whether there will be a fifth generation of the 4Runner and a second generation of the GX 470, though, probably will depend on how well these vehicles can weather the latest storm of gasoline-price increases.
The GX 470, which comes only with the V-8 engine, costs about $8,000 more than a similarly equipped 4Runner, but there essentially is no difference other than the name.
For those who love real SUVs, the 4Runner is the genuine article. I never was a big fan of the original 4Runner, primarily because it had limited interior space and a high, flat floor that was not well-suited to a passenger vehicle. That changed with this latest generation, which is roomier and much better equipped than any 4Runner from the past. The current model has a spacious interior with the option of a third seat, giving the vehicle a maximum capacity of eight people. It has a more luxurious feel, especially with the uplevel Limited model that is much like the Lexus version.
The V-8 engine is the same iForce 4.7-liter used in the more expensive Lexus LX 470 and in the Tundra full-size pickup. With 260 horsepower and 306 foot-pounds of torque (in the 4Runner version), this engine will allow the 4Runner to tow up to 7,300 pounds (7,000 with four-wheel drive).
Our vehicle's V-6 engine is rated at 236 horsepower and 266 foot-pounds of torque. It can tow trailers weighing up to 5,000 pounds. This engine has all the power most people need, but for those who want to haul bigger trailers, the V-8 is available.
Both engines are connected to a five-speed automatic transmission, the same one used in the GX 470 and LX 470. No manual gearbox is offered.
Those who like to drive off-road will appreciate that the 4Runner is even tougher than the vehicle it replaced. It's built on a steel truck chassis, with the standard body-on-frame construction of heavy-duty trucks and sport utilities.
The chassis includes a box-ladder frame with nine steel cross-members. As a safety feature, the 4Runner's gas tank is mounted between the steel frame rails.
The current 4Runner is seven inches longer and four inches wider than the previous generation. The added dimensions gave the vehicle room for the third seat, but also helped to improve ride comfort and stability.
Four-wheel-drive versions still come with low-range gearing, with a standard torque split of 60 percent power to the rear wheels and 40 percent to the front. A driver-controlled locking center differential splits the torque evenly between front and rear for off-road conditions requiring maximum traction.
Unfortunately, Toyota didn't provide a four-wheel-drive model for us to test; the company sells mostly two-wheel-drive versions in Texas, so that's what we got.
Among the high-tech features of the 4Runner are electronic brake assist, computerized downhill assist and a computer-controlled hill-start assist system. The downhill assist allows the vehicle holds itself to a speed of about 3 mph on steep downhill grades with no input from the driver (foot off the brake, transmission in low, transfer case in low range).
And the hill-start assist allows the vehicle to stand still on an uphill slope without input from the driver - no brakes needed, although you wouldn't want to walk away from it sitting there like that.
This system helps to prevent the vehicle from rolling backward while you are attempting to climb a steep, slippery hill - a great feature to have while negotiating muddy or sandy off-road trails.
Despite its roots as a truck, the new 4Runner is as luxurious as a car inside, with seating for five adults and ample cargo space behind the second seat. The third-row seat is designed for three people, but is more comfortable with just two. And it's better left to the kids.
Leather upholstery and wood interior trim are standard on the Limited model, which lists for $38,385 plus $700 freight.
But you don't have to spend so much to get a 4Runner.
Two lesser-priced trim levels are offered: the base SR5 model ($27,635 for two-wheel drive) and the midlevel Sport (our test vehicle, $29,975 for two-wheel drive). Toyota has said that the majority of 4Runner sales are of the Sport model.
Standard equipment on our vehicle included 17-inch alloy wheels, variable-rate power rack-and-pinion steering, traction control, automatic climate control, 60/40 split-folding rear seat, manual tilt and telescopic steering column, power windows/mirrors/door locks with remote, cruise control, power driver's seat, AM/FM/single CD audio system with six speakers and an auxiliary jack for iPod or other MP3 player, cargo-area back-up mirrors, center console with storage and cupholders, and an anti-theft system.
Safety features include four-wheel antilock brakes, electronic stability control, and a tire-pressure monitoring system.
Seat-mounted front side air bags are optional, as are side-curtain air bags for the first two rows of seats. Our vehicle did not have either of these options, however.
Extras on our test vehicle included a power sunroof ($900), a double-deck cargo system ($125) and $1,208 in distributor-added accessories (such as a cargo net, first aid kit and wheel locks).
Total sticker was $32, 948, including freight.
G. Chambers Williams III is staff automotive columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and former transportation writer for the Star-Telegram. His automotive columns have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at (210) 250-3236; email@example.com.
At a Glance: 2007 Toyota 4Runner
The package: Midsize, four-door, V-6 or V-8 powered, rear- or four-wheel-drive, five- or eight-passenger, traditional sport utility vehicle. Highlights: This is the fourth generation of Toyota's once quite-popular truck-based midsize sport utility vehicle. There is also a Lexus version, called the GX 470, which comes only with the V-8 engine. This vehicle offers truck ruggedness and reliability in a package that combines great off-road capability with good on-road ride and handling. Negatives: Poor fuel economy with the V-8 engine; third seat is not meant for full-size adults; side-curtain air bags should be standard. Engine: 4.0-liter V-6; 47-liter V-8. Transmission: 5-speed automatic. Power/torque: 236 HP/266 foot-pounds (V-6); 260 HP/306 foot-pounds (V-8). Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock. Electronic stability control: Standard. Side air bags: Front seat-mounted and side-curtain for first two rows are optional. Overall length: 189.2 inches. Curb weight: 4,045-4,555 pounds. Cargo volume: 12.1 cubic feet (behind third seat); 36.6 cubic feet (third seat folded); 42.2 cubic feet (no third seat). Towing capacity: 5,000 pounds (V-6, 2WD/4WD); 7,300 pounds (V-8, 2WD); 7,000 pounds (V-8, 4WD). Major competitors: Nissan Pathfinder, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Jeep Commander, Chevrolet TrailBlazer/GMC Envoy/Buick Rainier/Isuzu Ascender, Ford Explorer/Mercury Mountaineer, Dodge Durango/Chrysler Aspen. Fuel capacity/type: 23 gallons/unleaded regular. EPA fuel economy: 18 miles per gallon city/21 highway (V-6, 2WD); 17/21 (V-6, 4WD); 16/20 (V-8, 2WD); 15/19 (V-8, 4WD). Base price range: $27,635-$38,385 plus $700 freight. Price as tested: $32,948, including freight and options (Sport V-6, 2WD). On the Road rating: 8.7 (of a possible 10).