Driver's Seat: 2013 Toyota 4Runner is a rugged ride

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2013 Toyota 4Runner Trail 4x4: Let's head for the hills.

Price: $39,871 as tested. (A two-wheel-drive version can be had for $31,490. But, really, who'd want a 2Runner?)

Marketer's pitch: "Bred for adventure."

Conventional wisdom: liked the "Outstanding off-road capability; pleasant on-road demeanor; strong V6 engine; ample cargo capacity," but not the "disappointing interior materials; no V8 option; cramped third-row seat."

Reality: Retro, old-style mountain climber -- for good and ill.

Catching up: I always kept the Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota 4Runner in the same category of my brain -- tall trucks designed to hit the trail. But as we learned last week, the Pathfinder has grown heavy and is better suited for life on pavement. Now for 2013, its aerodynamic redesign places it more in line with how owners mainly use it.

The 4Runner? It heads for the hills like always, especially in Trail form.

The upside of rugged: Clamber up into the 4Runner's cab and you'll be treated to a nice, functional interior. It's easy to use and easy to clean. The water-resistant fabric seats look and feel as if they'd stand up to any number of wild animals. Even the Limited trim level keeps its simplicity, though it adds dead cow in place of the water resistant fabric.

Outside: It looks like a Land Cruiser. The windshield stands pretty straight. And it feels kind of neat parked in your driveway.

The downside of rugged: The big tires and high profile make it hard to handle. I've logged a lot of miles over the years and am experienced with a wide range of trucks, but I inadvertently pushed this thing to its limits more than once on curves. It feels easy to upset, doesn't handle like a car at all, and it does not slow quickly. On the bright side, the truck does handle waaaaaay better than the Tundra, but that mannerly highway ride may have been what led me into temptation on the curves.

Tuning in: The stereo controls function nicely. Big knobs lend themselves to being easy to spot and feel, just like they should be. Give the tuning dial a good, solid twist and you'll zoom from XM channel 33 to 67 or so. But even with that quick scan ability, the dial still captures each notch without being oversensitive, so changing one station at a time is just as simple.

On the down side, no external stereo buttons change from CD to radio with the $995 Entune option with navigation, and switching out of the map screen is a bear. But the steering-wheel controls also perform the same tasks and, bonus, the display tells you what station or song you've moved to while you're in map mode.

Keeping warm and cool: The heater controls are designed for big paws, too, and are clear and easy to use.

Shifty: The shiftable automatic is completely overridden, so there's no real shift capability here, as the +/- lever might lead you to believe.

Friends and stuff: Rear seat legroom is good -- "Too good," in the words of then-12-year-old Sturgis Kid 4.0. He had lots of room for legs to move around. The rear has a cool slide-out tray for hosting additional outdoorsy tailgating-type fun. Alas, my test vehicle didn't offer the chance to try out a third row, cramped or otherwise.

In and (oof!) out: Getting in and out is a challenge, and the clumsy Sturgis Kid 1.0 mentioned how hard it is to get down from. As the apple doesn't (slip and) fall far from the tree, I had to concur.

The CD bin is big enough for most of your hunting and fishing gear.

Visibility is challenging. It's tough to see a normal-sized car close by from up here on Mount 4Runner.

Crunch: Mr. Driver's Seat confesses his first mishap in three years of car testing -- but not because of its tippy handling. The nifty taillights that jut out at the corners? Let's just say be very aware of them contacting parking garage railings when backing up.

Fuel economy: 19.5 mpg. That's thirsty. Lucky it has an "Eco" light to show me when I'm conserving fuel.

Where it's built: Tahara, Japan.

How it's built: Like the Pathfinder, the 4Runner did not make Consumer Reports' Recommended list for the year.

In the end: Putting the Pathfinder up against a 4Runner? They're working different sides of the street-trail continuum. Perhaps a Limited is more suited to on-road fun, but you lose the superconvenient cleanable seats.

I'd lean toward the 4Runner. The Pathfinder was just ungainly on the highways, though both require some compromise. There are SUVs and crossovers that I like better, most notably the Honda Pilot and Dodge Durango.


Scott Sturgis, a freelance auto writer, can be reached at"Wheels," a special advertising supplement, appears inside today's Post-Gazette.


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