Steve and I packed a new 4Runner with all the necessary gear and loaded the Yamaha WR450F and 250F onto the trailer before leaving Dallas, while three buddies were making their way in from L.A. This would be our sixth excursion to our backwoods log cabin, deep in the Rocky Mountains of Clark, Colorado.

We headed due north and made a hard left turn at Salina, Kansas, onto I-70 westbound toward the mountains. This 4Runner Sport was equipped with the 4.7-liter i-Force V-8, five-speed ECT-i (Electronically Controlled Transmission with Intelligence), and full-time four-wheel drive. The two-speed transfer case includes a Torsen torque-sensing limited-slip center differential that can lock if necessary. The on-road ride and handling is a step up from the previous-generation 4Runner, and its high-speed stability is a strong asset when towing.

We were inspired to test the Toyota and Yamaha vehicles in unison because of the engineering link between the two. The X-REAS suspension system was developed by Yamaha. It comes standard on the Sport and is optional on the Limited 4Runner. Briefly, it diagonally links the shock absorbers and controls damping by means of a central control absorber.

Once on the road, we did find a slight driveline vibration transmitted up through the steering column at highway speeds beginning at about 1500 rpm under light acceleration. This was the same condition noted in the Lexus sibling GX 470. It was originally thought to be isolated to the GX, but now seems to be an issue in both 4WD SUVs. Toyota/Lexus engineers are in the process of diagnosing the problem.

The weather held up better than expected, and darkness set in as we reached the twisting mountain roads and gained elevation. As we'd seen in the Toyota Tundra a few years back, the 4.7-liter demonstrated minimal power loss in the thinning atmosphere as we climbed deeper into the mountains.

The first morning, we saddled the 4Runner up for a short trip to a fun climb not far from the cabin. I took a shot at the rocky dirt hill with a mild approach after engaging four-wheel-low and locking the transfer case. We easily reached the summit in first gear. Then I turned around and activated the Downhill Assist Control, which comes standard on all 4x4 4Runners. The DAC system, along with the ABS, traction control, and Vehicle Stability Control, utilizes a hydraulic control assembly to pulse brake pressure at each wheel after the ECU analyzes traction conditions using data received from the wheel-speed sensors. I tapped the gas to initiate the trip downhill. The DAC performed as promised, while the hydraulic actuators clicked away and maintained a low-speed controlled descent at about 4 mph.

Next on the list was the Routt National Forest, so we headed for Hahns Peak, which tops out at over 10,800 feet. The 4Runner's front coil-over-spring gas-shock suspension did a respectable job of absorbing gullies, roots, rocks, and hard turns. We stopped and evaluated the target climb after reaching the mountain peak's base ledge. The main boulder-covered route, angling up the north face of the mountain, was awkward but not a problem. Once on top, I became a little gutsy and made a sharp turn off the path into a severe descent--but not before triggering the Downhill Assist. The crew became anxious, but we made a safe landing, thanks to the electronically controlled hydraulics. The real test was to make an about-face to go back up the way we came. Taking no chances, I hit the accelerator hard and began the ascent with a convincing head of steam. The 4Runner scaled its way back up to the main trail.

The following day was Yamaha's turn in the Rockies. We prepped the bikes for a preliminary ride. The first thing you notice when dealing with the WR's four-stroke, five-valve, liquid-cooled one-cylinder "thumper" engine is the increase in power as compared with its air-cooled predecessors. We fueled up and hit the pavement to do a quick side-by-side drag race, pitting the WR450F against the reliable Honda XR600R. The Yamaha emerged victorious, technology winning out over engine displacement.

The first Honda/Yamaha ride was through a semi-tough trail on the way up Farwell Mountain. As we neared the crest, a lightning bolt struck close to our location. On hearing the fierce crack of thunder, we thought it might be a good idea to steer toward lower elevations to avoid a direct hit.

The subsequent trek was westbound into the Elkhead Mountains. A few years ago, a rider friend of ours was seriously injured in this area. We paused at the site for a moment before advancing north to Whispering Pine Lodge, an isolated getaway. We stopped to visit the proprietors who'd been kind enough to help transport our wounded friend to the nearest hospital. We washed up and replenished our water supplies before starting our long ride home. As soon as tires hit the trail, we noticed smoke pluming off the horizon. It was a forest fire ignited by a lightning strike after we had started out that morning. It was hard to judge from our distance, but we hoped the flames were far from the cabin. We returned to find our lodging secure, but the valley was overtaken by the dense cloud of smoke.

After that, we navigated the trails with both the truck and bikes. I drove the 4Runner first and attempted a respectable climb in Reverse. It required some aggressive maneuvering, but the midsize SUV pulled it off. Another useful feature was the Hill-start Assist Control. It locks all four wheels when moving your foot from the brake pedal to the accelerator, after coming to a stop at a steep angle or slick surface. This can be an advantage when a backward roll of a few inches may cost you big-time.

Then we found some engaging intermediate terrain at Trail 1203, where we could further judge the muscle and agility of the new Yamahas. The lighter weight and advanced suspension systems made maneuverability through hard-line, steep, narrow trails less demanding than anticipated. The WR450F actually had more power than necessary for our purposes, and this bike was responsive when pitching back and forth to navigate tight crevasses. Both bikes had firm seats, which can make it tough to sit down after a long day on the trails. But the electric start seemed to compensate by eliminating the difficulty of kick-starting a four-stroke engine.

Steve and I were the last remaining of our team, determined to make a first-class run out of our final day in the wilds. We prepped the off-road Yamahas one more time and proceeded north on Ellis Creek Trail. There was a wide variety of motivating topography the closer we came to the Wyoming Rockies. Then our course took a broad sweeping U-turn southbound onto Trail 1101, following the Continental Divide.

There were all kinds of challenging obstacles and a couple of falls by the time we made it back, but it was a nice finish to another great expedition. Come to think of it, Chevy came out with a new midsize pickup fittingly christened Colorado, and Honda has developed a WR competitor in the CRF. Wouldn't that be an exciting combination the next time out?

4WD+Off-Road Runner=4Runner
by Alex Steele

That was Toyota's equation for the 1985 model year. Its new SUV was the result of attaching a fiberglass top to the bed of a Toyota 4x4 pickup. The five-passenger SR5 package added a folding rear seat, spruced-up interior, and a larger fuel tank. The hard parts behind it all were solid axles and leaf springs front and rear, the durable 22R 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, and a five-speed manual transmission bolted to a two-speed transfer case. It wasn't exactly a luxury ride, but a great idea in keeping up with the emerging midsize-SUV market.

The first generation grew in upgrades, beginning in 1986 with Toyota's Hi-Trac independent front suspension and an optional turbocharger. The 1988 4Runner brought the big news of a 150-horsepower 3.0-liter V-6 engine. In 1990, Toyota completely redesigned the 4Runner, giving it a fixed roof, a forceful demeanor, and choices between two or four doors, as well as rear- or four-wheel drive. Safety was the focus in 1994 with the additions of side-impact protection and optional four-wheel ABS. Luxury options, such as leather, a variety of sound systems, and power accessories, added up as time went on. The 1996 model marked the birth of the longest-running platform and the first 4Runner chassis unrelated to the Toyota compact pickup.

The front suspension went to a coil-spring double-wishbone design. The twin-cam multivalve 2.7-liter four-cylinder and 3.4-liter V-6 engines were also new to the assembly line. This third-generation 4Runner went on to expand elements of safety and creature comforts up until its 2003 replacement. Now the fourth generation has hit the streets (and the mountains), with amenities ranging from the first available V-8, pushing 235 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque, right down to a high-tech Vehicle Skid Control system. Today's 4Runner has come a long way.

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