The 2010 Toyota 4Runner (Toyota).

Looking back, the 1990s were something else. The meteoric rise in popularity for truck-based SUVs like the Toyota 4Runner was literally fueled by gas that cost less than bottled water. American drivers always react to relative value, so inexpensive gas made it financially feasible to use huge, roomy, comfortable riding, overly capable, and fuel-swilling vehicles as every-day drivers.

Today, gasoline prices have returned to their historical norm relative to other commodities, our current wars are far from over, and the political climate is vastly different.

Times have changed, but has the SUV?

The 2010 Toyota 4Runner is the company's newest traditional mid-size SUV. The 4Runner is not a crossover, and was designed from the ground up to be an impressively capable off-road truck. You won't find any Camry or Avalon chassis parts supporting this 4,700 pound machine.

Defining the 4Runner as a genuine SUV is critical. If you've never driven off-road, don't own a trailer, or don't know when to use 4WD-Low or lock the rear differential, then you don't need this truck. However, if you're in the minority of drivers who run trails, tow trailers, and understand purposeful technology, keep reading.

2010 Toyota 4Runner - Outside
The 4Runner's new exterior styling shares cues with the Toyota FJ Cruiser and Land Cruiser. Compared to the JF that recently left the AOL Autos' fleet, the 4Runner's smaller exterior mirrors and more expansive glass area greatly enhanced outward visibility. Given the 4Runner's larger exterior dimensions, this is important.

The body of our SR5 test vehicle rode high on its four-wheel drive chassis, providing an impressive 9.6-inches of ground clearance. As one expects from Toyota, the body's fit and finish was tight and solid.

Beyond looking chunky and rugged, there's nothing overtly innovative or aesthetically pleasing about the 4Runner's style. The appearance is unremarkably derivative, which is an honest look for this SUV. After all, it's not supposed to be a Prius.

We did think the high-mounting position of the rear-window wiper was particularly clever; it keeps the wiper arm tucked up and hidden under the rear spoiler, cleaning up the look of the vehicle's flank.

2010 Toyota 4Runner - Inside
It's a good step up into the 4Runner, really. Shorter drivers may want running boards.

Depending on what option boxes are checked, this Toyota seats five or seven with up to three rows of seats. The quality of materials is top notch, but the overall design lacks freshness and verve. There's simply no spark or fun or personality that jumps out at you.

The symmetric center stack that an interior designer surely penned with an artisan's touch doesn't function as nicely as it probably looked on paper (or on the designer's LCD screen). If the controls had been placed for best usability, the layout would have looked different. For example, the two radio knobs are separated by almost a foot, necessitating a good reach for the driver or front passenger. Glare was also a problem off the smallish, combo-function center screen. The legibility was made even worse by the small font size of the digital readout.

Switch placement also defied logic. A couple switches are positioned low down on the reseeding portion of the dash, while a large switch grouping lives awkwardly on the top edge of the front door panels.

Once you get beyond these nicks, the 4Runner is a truly comfortable vehicle. There's more than ample room in the first two rows, with the front chairs providing space on par with full-size SUVs.

The available third-row seats are best left for occasional use, and those relegated to that space should be physically flexible to best manage the climb. An important consideration regarding the 4Runner's third-row is that when stowed flat, it raises the cargo floor nearly five inches above the bumper's already high lift-over height. Fold the second and third rows and you'll have almost 90 cubic feet of cargo room.

Remember how full-size American station wagons from the 50s, 60s and 70s had roll-down windows in their tailgates? The 4Runner is one of few vehicles sold in the US that offers this feature. While we didn't have a chance to hang a surfboard out the back (no good waves in Michigan), that single feature adds an important functional benefit and a bit of "cool" to this SUV.

2010 Toyota 4Runner - On The Road
Compared to past generations, Toyota excommunicated V-8 engines from the new 4Runner's engine compartment. A large 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine is standard with 174 horsepower, and given the truck's heft, doesn't garner our recommendation. As for picking the four-cylinder for better economy, the 1-mpg on the highway hardly seems worth it.

Our test model came with the optional 4.0-liter V-6 with 270 horsepower, a better match. The V-6 produces 10 more horsepower than the optional V-8 from the 2009 4Runner. The SUV is plenty quick and cruises easily at 70 mph and beyond. Engine noise is subdued.

With the six-cylinder, 4 x 4 models achieve mileage of 17 mpg city, 22 mpg highway. Lighter weight crossovers post much higher economy figures (10 to 20 percent), and many full-size trucks with considerably more powerful V-8 engines offer similar economy. Perhaps if Toyota utilized a six-speed automatic, mileage would improve. For now, the 4Runner uses a five-speed.

If you want to tow and want this SUV, your trailer needs to weigh 5,000 pounds or less.

Boulder strewn trails are scarce in metro Detroit, but based on our past experiences with Toyota trucks and SUVs, we have little doubt about the 4Runner's off-road abilities. Just looking at the truck's equipment list gives the casual reader an idea of what the truck is built for:

Locking center differential with low range
A-TRAC torque distribution system
Locking rear differential
Sway bar disconnect (part of the Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System)
Crawl Control (off-road cruise control)
Multi-Terrain Select System
Down Hill Assist Control
Hill Start Assist Control

Explaining each individual feature would take more words than you'd want to read, but suffice it say that if you don't already know what these features do, you probably don't need them.

What we can attest to is how capably and quietly the 2010 4Runner drove over all types of paved roads. The truck's suspension smoothed out rough sections of freeway like a steamroller, making it an exceptional long-distance cruiser.

Toyota's aerodynamic engineers somehow managed to reduce wind noise at highway speeds to limousine-like levels. The SUV's blockish shape makes their accomplishments even more impressive. Road and tire noise is likewise subdued, making it important to pay attention to the speedometer. Testers often caught themselves driving much faster than they thought.

The steering is precise and perfectly weighted. Those who fancy sports cars will miss that certain sense of feel that help drivers know what's happening at the tire. Less Novocain in the steering would be appreciated because the big Toyota will certainly hustle when pushed. The suspension allows for some roll through curves, but one would never question the truck's stability. A sophisticated roll-stability control program reigns in careless drivers.

2010 Toyota 4Runner - The Verdict
If you regularly ford streams, drive on logging trails, or slog through drifts of snow, the 2010 Toyota 4Runner could be your dream vehicle. But if you're not an avid outdoorsman who makes frequent treks into the scenic hinterlands, you need to weigh how badly you want to portray that image. There's a cost to pretending

A group of buyers will use their new 4Runners in ways that will make Toyota engineers proud. These owners know why having sway bars that disconnect is a good thing (it allows more suspension travel that improves off-road performance over the biggest obstacles).

Posing buyers would be better served considering the 4Runner's corporate crossover cousin, the Highlander. Other options include the smaller 2010 Chevrolet Equinox (offering up to 32 mpg highway), the larger Chevrolet Traverse, or one of the other half-dozen other capable crossovers that aren't truck-based.

Times, and vehicles have changed. It's not the 1990s anymore. It's time to make grown-up vehicular decisions.

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