The Smoothest SUV Yet?

Toyota's new 4Runner is sweet but pricey.

Climbing into the well-appointed cockpit of the new Toyota 4Runner, I was reminded of the overall allure of the Japanese carmaker's vehicles: Everything fits together just perfectly. Even though Toyota (TM ) uses plastic trim--not real brushed chrome--on the dashboard, it doesn't feel like the cheap stuff you get in, say, a General Motors (GM ) car. Toyota Motor's craftsmanship is rivaled by few auto makers.

Then I fired up the new 4.7-liter V-8 engine--a first for the historically V-6-powered 4Runner--and I could barely hear it start. At 235 horsepower and 17 miles per gallon in the city, it's not as powerful or fuel-efficient as the motor in GM's midsize sport-utility vehicles, the Chevrolet TrailBlazer and GMC Envoy.


Still, for an SUV, the 4Runner drives like a dream. The acceleration is just adequate, but the transmission is smooth, and the vehicle handles better than any other sport-ute I've driven.

My test vehicle was the Sport Edition, which is fitted with a great new suspension and some stability controls. If you make a too-tight turn, the suspension keeps the truck balanced, letting you stay in your lane. I hit the accelerator on packed snow, and the traction-control system kicked in, slowing some wheels and accelerating others to keep me headed straight. The Sport Edition also slows to four miles per hour automatically when going down a steep hill, though that feature is unlikely to kick in unless you're driving off-road.

The downside to this gadget-packed carriage is price. The 4Runner Sport Edition ranges from $29,800 with two-wheel drive to a $36,135 fully-loaded four-wheel-drive model. Even at that lofty price, you don't get some of the nicer features that a Ford Explorer or Chevy TrailBlazer offers for about a thousand less. Examples: Only cloth seats are available in this price range, and they are controlled with an unwieldy pairing of knob and lever. To recline the seat, I had to wedge my hand between the door and seat cushion and crank a plastic lever. To get goodies such as automatic leather seats, you have to buy the 4Runner Limited Edition, which can cost more than $40,000.

Toyota's newest SUV drives so nicely that it may be worth the money. But you'll pay a fat price for real comfort.

By David Welch

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