If ever a truck had started to show its age, it was the Toyota 4Runner.

With its high step-in height and cheeseball interior, it hardly matched theOlympian heights of its price sticker.

Toyota knew it, too, because the completely redesigned 1996 4Runner is aclass act.

Available in two-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive configurations, three trimlevels (base, SR5 and Limited) and two powertrains (a 2.7-liter four cylinderor 3.4-liter V-6) with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic,this truck comes in a few distinct flavors. The test vehicle was the luxuriousLimited model with V-6 and automatic transmission, and had enough power tomatch rivals foreign and domestic.

Four-wheel-drive is engaged though a button on the transfer lever. Thislever engages different modes of four-wheel-drive, depending on conditions.When it’s dry, this truck runs in rear-wheel drive. When traction is poor,there’s a convenient locking center differential, also activated at a touch ofa button.

There’s some engine noise, but overall, it’s well-suppressed. The automatictransmission supplies seamless shifts and the power train has the silky feelyou expect from Toyota. Anti-lock brakes are standard on V-6 models andstopped the truck faithfully.

Steering response is better, now that it’s been upgraded from recirculatingball to rack-and-pinion. Handling is good for a truck, meaning you won’t getplastered against the door zinging through corners. Suspension is a doublewishbone design up front, replacing the torsion bar suspension of the previousgeneration, and coil springs out back. Ride is about par for a modern-daysport utility, although the large tires can find bumps and ridges in the roadyou never thought existed. But this is a truck, something that’s easy toforget when you climb into the sumptuous cabin.

It’s certainly easier to get there. The previous generation’sMatterhorn-like ride height has been lowered 2.4 inches; the cargo area, awhopping 4.3 inches. Couple this with a longer wheelbase and larger dooropenings, and you have a much more accessible truck.

Once inside, you’ll find lots of grab handles to haul yourself into thesupportive front bucket seats. The bolsters are aggressive and the bolster onthe door side seems susceptible to early wear. Leather seating surfaces arestandard.

Aesthetically, the dashboard is a big improvement, with elegant flowinglines and good quality plastics, including the test-tube wood trim. Dual cupholders can handle up to 20-ounce beverages, but do block the stereo andventilation controls when in use. An AM/FM-cassette-CD stereo is standard onthe Limited and provided great sound, thanks to its adjustment for themid-range, in addition to those for bass and treble. Dual airbags arestandard, and front seat belts have height adjustment.

The rear seats are split, which allows cargo-carrying flexibility. Thereare tie-down hooks on the floor and an optional t onneau cover keeps your loadfrom prying eyes. The full-size spare rides underneath the vehicle. The rearcargo door has an intermittent wiper and a power sliding rear window that,coupled with the power moonroof, allows lots of airflow on warm days.

The bottom line is that the ’96 Forerunner is much improved over previousversions, a better value than the one it replaces. That said, some consumersmight find lack of such features as four-wheel disc brakes, an automaticclimate control system, rear-seat heating ducts, or heated seats off-puttingin a $36,000 vehicle. For this, you can thank the ever-escalating yen.

But you don’t have to pay that much to get Toyota’s legendary quality in atruck. Prices start at $19,488 for the two-wheel drive, four-cylinder,five-speed base model. A nicely equipped sample can be had for about $25,000.Our fully loaded test model topped out at slightly more than $36,000. At thisprice, it competes against other fully loaded trucks, such as the J eep GrandCherokee Limited, and makes a nice alternative to its bulkier brother, theLand Cruiser.

What ends up making this truck so ingratiating is that, despite its newlyfound refinement, it is still a truck. With enough ride height to avoidhitting small house pets and toughness enough to handle nasty conditions onand off road, yet refinement enough to shuttle you to The Four Seasons onSaturday night, it’s a big improvement over the previous version and anotherhit for Toyota.