When the first-generation Toyota 4Runner was introduced in 1985, it was essentially a modified version of Toyota's compact pickup with an open back and a removable fiberglass camper shell. As the years passed, the bloodlines blurred, and it became increasingly more difficult to see and feel the family resemblance between pickup and SUV.

One is hard-pressed to find any similarity between Toyota's current Tacoma pickup and our decidedly upscale long-term 4Runner Limited 4x4 V-8, completely redesigned in 2003. Have a look at the window sticker, and you'll know why. This isn't an inexpensive SUV, nor does it lack any of the creature comforts of many of today's luxury-SUV offerings.

Standard features for our $36,970 Limited V-8 include leather-wrapped heated seats, tilting/telescopic steering wheel with redundant stereo controls, power windows and door locks with keyless entry, self-dimming rearview mirror, a power up/down rear window, and a 115-volt power port. Our tester also has a host of optional goodies like curtain and side airbags ($650), third-row swingaway seats ($1195), sport pedals by OBX Racing ($79), and an in-dash six-disc CD changer. These, along with a few other items and a $540 destination charge, raised our total cost to $40,514.

The odometer miles are quickly racking up as curious staffers eagerly put this tough luxury 4x4 to the test. Unlike some of the other sport/utilities we evaluate, none of us hesitates to tackle serious off-road trails with the 4Runner. We've gotten down and dirty at numerous OHV parks in Southern California, using the standard downhill assist control to safely descend steep slopes that we'd otherwise shy away from. The winter sport hounds among us have used the Toyota to plow their way to high-country ski resorts in the Sierra Nevadas. A recent trip to the Mammoth Mountain ski resort found blizzard-covered roads that caused many motorists to pull over and chain up. Not so for the 4Runner, as it never skipped a beat and carried on with composure.

So far, the logbook has filled with positive quotes regarding the 4Runner's quiet, mega-posh interior. We're also impressed with the vehicle's overall athletic nimbleness that makes it easier to hustle down the road, as compared with some of its heavier-feeling competitors such as the Volvo XC90 or VW Touareg. A few of our editors have noted that the 4Runner's rather shallow floorpan makes you feel as if you're sitting too close to the floor. The previous-generation 4Runner suffered from a similar seat/floor relationship, and although it's not as bad in this current model, it still feels strange.

As the snow melts and the reservoirs fill, we plan to flex our 4Runner's towing muscle and tug our favorite water toys to the boat launch. Our rig's five-speed automatic coupled with a tow rating of 6500 pounds should haul our watercraft with ease. Also, the third-row seat will allow us to bring a boatload of friends along for the fun. We'll tell you how it goes in our next update.