by Bob Plunkett

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Automakers with trucks in the product line have scrambled in recent years to produce a subsidiary crop of vehicles that capitalize on America's trendy fancy: the sport-utility vehicle.

Built upon a truck's chassis, the typical SUV measures to medium size and stocks four passenger doors with seats inside for five passengers. It installs a cargo bay behind the second seat with access from a tailgate, then applies some serious mechanical hardware such as a potent engine with optional four-wheel-drive traction system for off-pavement forays into the outback.

Although the market now bulges with SUV rigs of varying dimensions and capabilities, a familiar name returns in tweaked and tuned third-generational design this year to notch a commanding slot at the top of the import charts. Credit Toyota of Japan for producing an impressively updated SUV wagon, the 1999 4Runner.

The mid-size Toyota SUV attracts the eye with sleek yet strong external styling. In base edition, it carries an economical four-cylinder powerplant geared for rear-wheel propulsion, plus nice interior perks but at a competitive price.

In 4x4 mode, it stands high and looks aggressive, like it could scramble over off-road riprap rock and take on the woodland creek beds, mountain slopes or desert dunes.

In the ultimate luxury edition, it piles on cushy comforts and leather upholstery in a limolike package motivated by a hardy V-6, with the muscle sent to all four wheels in a sophisticated and smart multimode four-wheel- drive mechanism. The system also can operate in two-wheel-drive mode.

Recent experience occurred with the latter - a 4Runner Limited loaded with luxe - which one tester retrieved from an airport parking lot, then spent the ensuing week steering through a variety of urban and off-road venues. From curbside at the airport, this 4Runner looked ripe for rough treatment. Its 4x4 equipment pumped up the package high above mere station wagons or minivans.

The exterior form involves an aerodynamically sloped and rounded front hood accented by a new centerpoint horizontal grille set between twin corner, wraparound, multireflector headlamp clusters, then followed around each flank by bold wheel wells and ground-level add-ons.

Windshield A pillars tip rearward in an active line of the raked glass, with B pillars discretely blackened and C pillars pitched forward in harmonious body- color treatment. Opposing forces of pillars A and C enliven the horizontal lines of 4Runner and add unusual tension to the design.

At the rear, a curvaceous, single-piece gate uses a top hinge, so it swings upward overhead when open. The integral glass window of this hatch has an electric-power hoist.

Despite the muscular outward appearance, 4Runner forms an interior nest that feels as comfortable and user-friendly as any luxury sedan.

Current designs, based on a radical reconfiguration in 1996, seem generously spacious inside due to expansions in height and width, with floor dropped for easy step-in entry.

Enhancements of 4Runner's cabin were made possible because the wheelbase was lengthened by several inches over the previous design.

In addition to extending the chassis, more cross braces were added at key points, which stiffened the platform to maintain more stability when steering and also permitted more precise movement of suspension components.

As complement to the stiff platform, 4Runner totes lively suspension elements, including a front coil-spring and double-wishbone setup that lets wheels travel vertically in exaggeration during off-road maneuvers.

At the rear, a coil-spring four-link system also brings good vertical travel for wheels, while the top model gets special big tires plus rebound spring- type shock absorbers that enhance stability in motion.

None of these components will mean much unless you drive 4Runner off-pavement over rough terrain, where the ride feels smooth and the vehicle is easy to control. Quick-to-respond rack-and-pinion steering, a rare asset on a truck, further enhances driver control of the wagon.

Anti-lock brakes for all wheels score as a standard feature for any 4Runner with V-6 engine.

An optional locking rear differential lets the driver select equal torque for both rear wheels, maximizing power in extreme situations of poor traction.

In the power department, a base 2.7-liter inline-four engine drops into 4Runner for the 4x2 dress. With twin cams on top and four valves in each cylinder, the plant boosts output to 150 hp.

If 4Runner's intent remains within city boundaries, such as a commute to office or supermarket or a carpooling run to school, the four-pack may serve adequately with its peppy stoplight accelerations and fuel-economy thriftiness.

The optional V-6 works much better when 4Runner pulls a trailer or heads off- road with 4x4 gear aboard. This powerplant, also configured with dual overhead cams and four valves per cylinder, musters 183 hp.

Transmission choices for both engines include a super-synchro five-speed manual or four-speed electronic automatic with torque-retarding shift timing points that smooth out shift transitions.

All 4Runners pack important safety gear like two airbags for front-seat riders and three-point shoulder belts with adjustable anchors.

The model parade starts at base 4Runner 2WD with four-cylinder engine and interior gear like power windows and stereo sound system.

The SR5 package adds exterior trim elements and inside power for locks and mirrors, plus a tilt steering wheel.

Ultimate Limited gets bigger tires on aluminum alloy wheels, running boards and fender flares, leather and wood trimmings, and those limolike extras.

Limited for 1999 also has a new four-wheel-drive system that brings a full- time all-wheel-drive setting for pavement travel in addition to 2-high, or 4-high and 4-low modes for off-road romps.


© The Car Connection

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