Maximum ruggedness, moderate price. That’s the principle behind Toyota’s longest-running off-road model, the 4Runner. Other than the Nissan Xterra and a trio of Jeep models, there’s nothing else like it in the $20,000-$40,000 price range.

The 4Runner is a body-on-frame truck with serious off-road gear – much of it optional – and 9.6 inches of ground clearance. Equipped with the optional third seat, it can carry as many as seven, and it can carry them to places ordinary crossover SUVs dare not go.

Toyota has been building the 4Runner since 1984, and along with the highly stylized, retro FJ Cruiser, it fills the niche between the mild-mannered compact RAV-4 and Highlander, and a brace of big, thirsty, high-priced SUVs – the Land Cruiser and the Sequoia.

Our 2013 4Runner seemed more refined than the 2011 model we drove, possibly because the rotation of test cars didn’t include a Lexus GX 460 for purposes of comparison this time around. Shorter drivers said the 4Runner seemed uncomfortably large, probably because a lower driving position exaggerated the size of the hood scoop. For taller drivers, a different problem surfaced. Owing to its exceptional ground clearance and medium height, access and egress are more challenging than in many SUVs.

The second seat has sufficient knee room and barely enough head room for 6-footers. Very tall passengers – those above 6-2 – will find seating to be claustrophobia-inducing.

The 4Runner comes in a several incarnations, from mild to wild. The base SR5 comes with rear-wheel drive, and the same 270-horsepower V-6 engine and 5-speed shiftable automatic transmission that’s used in higher trim levels. It’s the fuel-economy champ of the 4Runner line, running up as much as 23 mpg on regular unleaded gasoline.

Off-road enthusiasts will gravitate to the Trail model similar to our test car. It truly was ready to hit the trail: part-time 4×4 with a locking rear differential and multi-terrain selection; crawl control; hill-start assist control; front and rear ventilated brakes; front and rear stabilizer bars; and skid plates. Outside, a black utility roof rack with rail system and a towing hitch receiver completed the package.

The all-wheel-drive system reduced fuel economy by 2 mpg, and the Trail model costs significantly more than the base SR5: with about $1,900 in options, the sticker price was $39,871. Those who find this number daunting might prefer the Xterra or Wrangler; folks who are comfortable with $40,000 may find something even more to their taste at the Land Rover dealership, which sells a body-on-frame, off-road performer, the rugged LR4, for under $50,000.

Being a Toyota, the 4Runner naturally boasts excellent reliability, and the 2013 model is an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick. The 4Runner handles competently and offers a fairly compliant ride, but the real strength of this model is its ability to crash through the deepest snow, the heaviest mud and almost anything else that gets thrown into its path.

 

Steven Macoy ([email protected]) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.

 

Price: $39,871

Engine: 4.0-liter V-6, 270 horsepower, 278 lb.-ft. torque

Transmission: shiftable 5-speed automatic

Drive: part-time 4-wheel

Ground clearance: 9.6 in.

Weight: 4,750 lb.

Suspension: double wishbone front, solid live axle rear

Wheels: 17×7.5-in. alloy

Tires: P265/70R17 all-season

Seating capacity: 5

Luggage capacity: 46.3 cu. ft.

Maximum cargo capacity: 88.8 cu. ft.

Fuel capacity: 23 gal.

Fuel economy: 17 mpg city, 21 mpg highway

Fuel type: Regular unleaded