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2003 Toyota 4Runner

Gleneden Beach, Oregon— The third generation of Toyota's 4Runner lasted seven model years, which is a long time in the cutthroat sport-ute arena. Now that its successor has arrived armed with a stouter frame, more interior room, and an optional V-8, the old goat seems all the more decrepit. The 2003 Sport model's phony hood scoop and high-contrast cladding, and the Buick Rendezvous-esque roof pillars used on all models, give us pause, but hidden within the new 4Runner's unflattering wrapper lies the soul of a Lexus.

Oregon coastal-route and logging-trail preview drives proved that chief engineer Junichi Furuyama took his work seriously. Only the sacred body-on-frame blueprints were saved. To accommodate a grander load of play toys and people, all dimensions are greater and the new chassis is substantially stiffer. The supersized 4Runner is longer than a Hummer H1, wider than a Ford Explorer, and heavier than a Cadillac DeVille, but don't hold that against it. Canny engineers have blended a half-track's off-road sure-footedness with a family sedan's pavement poise.

You'd expect the 4.7-liter V-8 borrowed from the Lexus LX470 to be well mannered, but it's upstaged by a fresh 24-valve, 4.0-liter, mostly aluminum V-6 that delivers 245 horsepower (10 more than the V-8). This upstart is dead quiet, and it makes up for its torque deficit (283 pound-feet versus the V-8's 320 pound-feet) with an ambitious charge when you leg the throttle. Regrettably, no manual transmission is offered, and you must take the thirstier V-8 to get Toyota's new five-speed automatic. Both engines slurp premium fuel.

Two new transfer cases spread the power around by means of a Torsen-type limited-slip device in the center differential. The V-6 version is shift-on-the-fly with a 2wd mode, while the V-8 version is permanently engaged in 4wd. Both offer low range and a center-diff lock.

The new 4Runner's chassis boasts enough electronics to stock a Best Buy. ABS, traction control, stability control, and up- and downhill assists are standard. Rear air springs are optional on the Limited edition. The most interesting tech tidbit is a set of cross-linked dampers, which are standard on the Sport version and included with the aforementioned air springs. Developed by Yamaha and KYB, Toyota's X-REAS system connects opposite-corner dampers with a fifth center damper to diminish diagonal pitch and roll motion. It's very effective at calming aggressive-driving-induced body bobbles without ruining ride quality.

Spreading out the walls and sacrificing some cargo space yielded ten percent more passenger volume. There are air bags galore, cloth and leather upholstery choices, a hinged double-decker shelf to divvy up the cargo hold, and an optional touch-screen-controlled navigation system. A third row of kiddie seats may be added later. Miniature inside mirrors mounted on the rearmost roof pillars are handy for spotting tricycles while backing up.

The wealth of tantalizing features and a loaded sticker price of less than $40,000 make the new 4Runner seem like a half-priced Range Rover. With genes like that, the fourth generation's longevity is ensured.