People often think of SUVs as an American phenomenon. And, yes, we do like to drive around the Land of the Free in big, four-wheel-drive trucks, filling our wide-open spaces with equally wide-open vehicles.
It's our automotive manifest destiny.
But did you know which brand has the biggest lineup of crossovers and SUVs? It's not Dodge, Chevy or even Ford.
This Japanese brand, which is better known for making dinky fuel-efficient cars like the Prius, actually offers seven different crossovers and SUVs in its 2011 lineup.
Count 'em: There's the Land Cruiser, Sequoia, 4Runner, FJ Cruiser, Highlander, Venza and RAV4.
That's some great trivia to know if you ever want people to dislike you at a cocktail party.
It also means Toyota has designed an SUV for pretty much everybody on the planet.
That's how we ended up with the newest 4Runner. It's not only designed for off-road driving — the FJ Cruiser, Sequoia and Land Cruiser can all do that, too — but to do it in its own style and with its own distinct driving personality.
Since the Land Cruiser and Sequoia are both significantly bigger and more expensive, you've essentially got to decide whether you'll whet your off-road appetite with the 4Runner or the FJ Cruiser, so the choice is simple.
If you want your SUV to look crazy, you buy the FJ. If not, you buy the 4Runner.
The 4Runner has a heavy, truck-like feeling because it's built just like an American-style truck — a body riding atop a thick frame — that gives it durability for surviving bumpy trails and climbing rocky terrain.
And let's be clear: this is definitely a truck meant for driving off the pavement. If you're going to spend most of your time driving on public roads, you'll be much better served with a RAV4, Venza, Highlander. They get better gas mileage and have a smoother ride.
If you did inherit the G.I. Joe genes, though, and absolutely have to drive an off-roader, the 4Runner isn't a bad way to do it. Toyota's engineers have even come up with two options for the suspension to help you customize your 4Runner even further, like ordering a tailored suit.
The first is designed to make it more comfortable. If you order the fancy Limited grade, you can get it with the X-REAS suspension that's designed to make it more comfortable on the road. Like some high-end luxury cars, it can automatically adjust the shock absorbers as you're driving so that it corners flatter, rides smoother and handles bumpy roads with more grace.
The second is designed for off-road use, and it's available in the Trail grade. Called the Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System, it can automatically disconnect the 4Runner's stabilizer bars when driving slowly over rugged terrain, which basically means your wheels will be able to move more freely so you're less likely to get stuck on a trail in the middle of nowhere.
Other off-road features include some technology seemingly inspired by Land Rover, such as a low-speed crawl mode for driving on difficult trails and a knob that lets you choose different settings for sand, rock, steep slopes or other terrain. It lets the computerized traction control system react differently depending on the conditions you're in.
Inside, you'll find a typical Toyota cabin — which is well-built but uses too much plastic these days — along with some extra-big knobs that make it feel more like a truck.
You can get it with a third-row seat, but that means you'd have to miss out on one of the best features: a sliding cargo deck that can hold up to 440 pounds.
And no review of the new 4Runner would be complete without mentioning the coolest button in the history of the automobile. It's simply labeled "Party Mode."
That device changes the stereo system to sound better for tailgating.
In the end, the 4Runner is an SUV designed for a very specific person: someone who doesn't want the bigger Sequoia, can't afford the Land Cruiser, thinks the FJ Cruiser looks weird, is young enough to want a "party mode" button, and yet still wants a Toyota off-roader.
What was tested?
2011 Toyota 4Runner Trail 4x4 ($35,805). Options: Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System ($1,750), navigation system ($2,420), carpet floor mat and cargo mat ($204). Price as tested (including $810 destination charge): $40,989.
Why buy it?
It's designed for off-road driving, has Toyota's reputation for dependability and doesn't look as strange as the FJ Cruiser.
Why avoid it?
If you don't do a lot of off-road driving, you'd be better off with a crossover vehicle.