Rugged, Reliable and Tougher to Roll

This is a review of the 2003 Toyota 4Runner. It is a midsize sport-utility vehicle. Thus, this column might offend SUV opponents. They need not tarry here.

This is for people who are interested in SUVs. They include lovers of sport-utility vehicles and potential first-time buyers. This is a story about one of the best SUVs available.

The Toyota 4Runner entered the U.S. market 17 years ago. It was rugged. You could take it off-road, beat it up, tow heavy loads. It kept running.

People loved the 4Runner for its toughness and reliability. But it had shortcomings. The interior was cramped. Ride and handling were rough. If you failed to read windshield-visor labels warning you to go gently into the curves, you could roll it. If you failed to wear seat belts, you could roll it and die.

You could roll the 2003 4Runner, too. But you would have to work hard to do it. Toyota went to school on this one. The company lengthened the wheelbase — the centerline distance between the front and rear wheels — by 4.5 inches. It widened the track by about three inches, and it added larger wheels. The result is a more stable SUV that takes corners nicely with nary a hint of tipping.

Toyota also did several clever things with the new 4Runner’s suspension and braking systems. Like its predecessors, the 2003 model is built body-on-frame. But there’s a difference. The new frame is stronger, more rigid, endowed with nine cross-members, as opposed to eight in the older versions.

The body atop that nine-member frame is more rigid, too. The whole assembly rides on a four-wheel independent suspension system, which is enhanced by several electronic controls — traction control, vehicle stability control and, on the tested Sport Edition, a diagonally linked shock absorber.

That absorber system diagonally links the compression chambers in the gas-filled shocks at all four wheels. The front-left shock is linked to the rear-right shock. The front-right shock is linked to the rear-left shock through a controlling, central absorber.

That arrangement prevents the corner absorbers from bottoming out, or from pitching and rolling in sharp turns or during panic stops. That means better handling and vehicle control. The system worked perfectly on slalom maneuvers on vacant lots in rural Virginia; and it also worked well in the tailgating mayhem of Interstate 95.

Toyota gave the 4Runner standard antilock brakes; and it added a couple of more braking controls as well. Those include what the company calls “brake assist” and “electronic brake force distribution.” Brake assist is anticipatory. It senses the driver’s attempt to panic stop, second-guesses the driver, and then applies what it construes to be the needed stopping force. I found this feature annoying, although I probably would feel differently if it actually prev ented me from crashing.

Electronic brake distribution makes more sense. It gives more braking force to the wheels that have more traction, thereby reducing the chances for potentially catastrophic weight shifts and the consequent loss of vehicle control.

There are myriad other features, such as Toyota’s “Downhill Assist Control,” which keeps the 4Runner moving straight and steady down steep grades. And with Downhill Assist Control (operated by a button marked “DAC”), there is “Hill-start Assist Control.” HAC helps you to move up steep inclines without fishtailing; or it allows you to stop uphill without sliding backward.

Perhaps it’s my boyish enthusiasm about such things, but I found it all to be very neat stuff. I like machines, especially those that work extremely well, as was the case with the tested 4Runner Sport Edition. If you are in the market for a mid-size SUV, I think you will like it, too.

Nuts & Bolts

Complaint: Some Toyota dealers will demand premiums. Beware.

Praise: The 4Runner is excellent. But the mid-size SUV market is crowded with worthy competitors. This is a good buy — without added premiums.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Very smooth ride. Great stability in panic maneuvers.

Head-turning quotient: People who equate SUVs with evil saw evil. People who love them gave enthusiastic thumbs up.

Vehicle layout and lineup: The 4Runner is a front-engine sport-utility vehicle available with either two-wheel or four-wheel drive. There are three trim levels — the luxury Limited; the off-road-equipped Sport Edition; and the standard-equipment SR-5.

Engines: The 4Runner Sport Edition can be equipped with a 4-liter, 24-valve V-6 or a 4.7-liter, 32-valve V-8. Attention! The V-6 has more horsepower — 245 hp at 5,200 revolutions per minute, compared with 235 hp at 4,800 rpm for the V-8. But the V-8 has more torque — 320 pound-feet at 3,400 rpm, compared with 282 pound-feet at 3,800 rpm for the V-6.

Capacities: The 4Runner seats five people. Cargo capacity is 42.2 cubic feet with rear seats up and 75.1 cubic feet with rear seats folded. It can be equipped to tow a trailer weighing 5,000 pounds. Fuel capacity is 23 gallons. Premium unleaded gasoline is required.

Mileage: I averaged 18 miles per gallon in mostly highway driving carrying mixed loads. Pretty good for a body-on-frame SUV.

Safety: In addition to items mentioned, there are front air bags designed to deploy at speeds appropriate to the speed of the crash, optional side bags up front and optional rear curtain bags.

Price: Base price of the tested 4Runner Sport Edition V-8 is $32,075. Dealer invoice price on base model is $28,546. Price as tested is $34.585, including $2,000 in options and a $510 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: Compare with Chevrolet TrailBlazer, Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Nissan Pathfinder, Nissan Xterra SE S/C V-6 4WD.