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4Runner Fits 4x4 Bill for Off-roading

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For 2013, the Toyota 4Runner carries on its longtime role as one of the best (and last) of the true sport utility vehicles.

This quite-capable on- or off-road midsize SUV entered its fifth generation three years ago, and got a few updates this year.

Prices begin at $31,490 for the base SR5 model with rear-wheel drive, and $33,365 with four-wheel drive, which for off-road-driving aficionados like me is the only way to go.

Our tester, the four-wheel-drive Trail model, lists for $37,155, while the top-of-the-line Limited versions begin at $41,030 with four-wheel drive.

In the Toyota U.S. lineup for 28 years now, the 4Runner is a traditional body-on-frame, truck-style sport utility vehicle that began as essentially a Toyota compact pickup with a cap over the bed and a back seat.

Over the years it evolved into a great family hauler with four doors, a refined interior and the same off-road capabilities as the Tacoma pickup trucks when equipped with four-wheel drive and other trail-ready features. The first four-door model arrived in 1990.

For 2013, base SR5 models now come with satellite radio, a USB port (for iPhone/iPod/smartphone connection), and Bluetooth hands-free phone and music streaming. These models also have new steering-wheel audio controls.

Standard on Limited models and optional on the Trail version (and included on our tester) is a display audio system with a 6.1-inch screen, along with navigation, Toyota's Entune system, satellite radio, HD radio with iTunes tagging, and text/email-to-speech capability.

Entune is a voice-activated multimedia system with mobile applications and data services. It connects the car to the Internet through a compatible smartphone, provided by the user. It hooks up by USB cable or a wireless Bluetooth link. I used it two ways _ direct connection of an iPhone via the USB cable, which gave me full screen control of my music; and Bluetooth streaming of audio from the iPhone. Audio streaming was also available for my Samsung Galaxy S3.

The system includes mobile applications for Bing, iHeartRadio, MovieTickets.com, OpenTable and Pandora. Also provided are such services as a fuel-price guide, sports scores, stocks, traffic and weather.

The 4Runner has seating for up to seven passengers with the optional third-row seat, which is suitable mostly for kids or small adults.

There is a long list of available amenities, including leather upholstery. But our tester didn't have the third seat or leather. The Trail version comes with water-resistant fabric seats that are easy to clean if you get a bit of mud on them from the trail.

All models are powered by a 4.0-liter V-6 engine rated at 270 horsepower and 278 foot-pounds of torque, connected to a five-speed automatic transmission. The five-speed transmission is getting a bit dated, as Toyota has six-speeds in many of its vehicles, which helps increase highway mileage.

The 4Runner's EPA ratings are 17 mpg city/22 highway for two-wheel-drive models, and 17/21 for the four-wheel-drives.

Although Toyota has eliminated the 4Runner's V-8 engine option, that engine really isn't necessary. The V-6 had more than enough power for our use of the 4Runner, including some mountain and trail driving. If you need this vehicle with a V-8 _ for additional towing capacity, for instance _ check out the Lexus GX 460 (base price $53,795), which essentially is a 4Runner in Lexus badging. It has a 4.6-liter V-8 with 301 horsepower. It comes with a six-speed automatic, and EPA ratings are 15/20.

The 4Runner's part-time four-wheel-drive system includes the trail-necessary two-speed transfer case for low-range off-road driving. A locking rear differential was included on our Trail model. Limited four-wheel-drive models have a center differential lock.

Among the few true SUVs that are left, the 4Runner remains one of the best choices for those of us who like to spend time off the beaten track. While soccer moms can live with their crossovers, truck-based SUVs are still the choice for serious off-road driving. This vehicle has the same legendary off-road abilities as the Tacoma pickup, upon whose architecture it was originally based.

Those who need a vehicle with a sturdy truck frame that can tow trailers also will appreciate the 4Runner. Towing capacity is 5,000 pounds, which is enough for most boats, horse trailers and small- to mid-size travel trailers. (The Lexus version, with the V-8, can tow up to 6,500 pounds.)

Styling is boxier than that of the previous generation and most of today's crossovers, but the 4Runner's shape is similar to that of its biggest competitor, the Jeep Grand Cherokee. It has a more-rugged look than that of a crossover such as the Toyota Highlander, but because the target customer is the off-road enthusiast, the 4Runner doesn't need to be so carlike.

Other 4Runner features include a sliding rear cargo deck, standard on our Trail model. Designed for tailgate parties or backwoods camping, it can hold up to 440 pounds. It comes with a "party mode" button that pumps up the bass of the audio system and sends the sound mostly to the rear speakers, so you can share it with your wildlife neighbors deep in the forest.

Unique 17-inch aluminum-alloy wheels are standard on SR5 and Trail models, while the Limited comes with 20-inch wheels. A full-size spare tire is standard, as well _ a necessity for trail driving.

Active Traction Control is included on all four-wheel-drive models. Downhill Assist Control, which helps bring the vehicle safely down steep off-road grades without the use of the brakes, is standard on SR5 and Limited four-wheel-drive versions.

Several off-road features were migrated to the 4Runner from the more-expensive Land Cruiser, including Crawl Control, which allows the driver to choose one of five modes to match the terrain on which the vehicle is operating. This is standard on the Trail model.

Hill-Start Assist, which holds the vehicle in place briefly on a hill when the driver takes his foot off the brake pedal, is standard on all models.

Trail models also come with Multi-Terrain Select, which also includes wheel-slip control for the most-rugged off-road situations. In mud or sand, this system will allow more wheel slip than normal, which helps it push the vehicle through. While driving on rock, wheel slip is more controlled, which helps on uneven surfaces.

Optional on the Trail model is the Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (included on our vehicle). It's designed to disconnect the stabilizer bars to allow the axles to flex enough to keep the wheels on the ground on uneven terrain, a great help on difficult trails.

The back seat on our vehicle was roomy enough for three people, and it had a 40/20/40 split that let it be folded down in sections to increase cargo space. Behind the second row, in the absence of the third seat, our vehicle had 46.3 cubic feet of cargo space (47.2 without the sliding cargo deck); that increases to 88.8 cubic feet with the second row seat folded flat. If you have the optional third seat, though, there is only 9 cubic feet of cargo space behind it.

There is also electronic stability control with rollover mitigation, and antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist. Toyota has added its Smart Stop technology, which shuts off fuel flow if the brake pedal is pushed.

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2013 TOYOTA 4RUNNER

_The package: Midsize, four-door, V-6 powered, rear- or four-wheel-drive, five- or seven-passenger truck-based sport utility vehicle.

_Highlights: The fifth generation of Toyota's truck-based midsize sport utility vehicle offers truck ruggedness and reliability in a package that combines great off-road capability with good on-road ride and handling. There also is a Lexus version, the GX 460, which comes only with a V-8 engine.

_Negatives: Optional third seat is not roomy enough for full-size adults; five-speed transmission a bit dated.

_Engine: 4.0-liter V-6.

_Transmission: Five-speed automatic.

_Power/torque: 270 horsepower/278 pound-feet

_Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock.

_Electronic stability control: Standard.

_Air bags: Front; front seat-mounted; side-curtain for all three rows; knee for both front seats.

_Overall length: 189.9 inches.

_Curb weight: 4,400-4,805 pounds.

_Towing capacity: 5,000 pounds.

_EPA fuel economy: 17/22 (2WD); 17/21 (4WD).

_Base price: $31,490

_Price as tested, including destination charge: $40,815

_Rating: 9.3 (of a possible 10).

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ABOUT THE WRITER

G. Chambers Williams III has been an automotive columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram since 1994. He can be reached at chambers@star-telegram.com.

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