By the time the fourth generation of Toyota 4Runner made its debut as a 2003 model, the company clearly understood the model's place in the world. It needed to nestle between the carlike Highlander and the upcoming -- and very trucklike -- FJ Cruiser. Where Nissan went minimalist chic with the Xterra, Toyota moved the 4Runner upmarket. For starters, the 2003 4Runner was underpinned by a substantially revised chassis -- still body-on-frame, like all good trucks -- that allowed it to grow in just about every dimension. The newly upsized wheels, from 15-inchers to 16s, were 109.8 inches apart, a 4.5-inch wheelbase increase. Similarly, overall length was up by 5.7 inches, and width grew 7.3 inches. No third-row seat was offered until the 2004 model year.

To haul the 4Runner's newfound mass, Toyota upgraded the base V-6 and offered a V-8 for the first time with this platform. Bumped to 4.0 liters, the DOHC V-6 turned out 245 hp and 282 lb-ft of torque, distributed to the rear axle through a four-speed automatic only. For all engine and trim options, 4WD was available -- a conventional 4WD system with low range for the V-6 and a more sophisticated full-time AWD setup for the V-8. The 4Runner's new big engine -- a super-smooth DOHC 4.7-liter driving a five-speed automatic -- was familiar to Tundra owners. While the V-8 cranked out 10 hp, it made more torque at 320 lb-ft, a 13 percent boost over the V-6. Boat owners take note: The V-8 raised towing capacity from 5000 pounds to 7000. The difference in EPA-rated fuel economy was minimal, with the V-6 scoring a 15/19 combo over the V-8's 14/17 (4WD models, using today's post-2008 calibration).

Toyota gave the V-8 some extra poke for the 2005 model year. Peak power shot to 270 hp, while torque came up by 10 lb-ft. Also that year, the V-6's sole transmission picked up another forward gear, now with five. For a mid-priced, midsize SUV with modest luxe pretensions, the 4Runner packed a lot of tech. ABS and traction control were standard, but so was Hill-Descent Control and Hill-Ascent Control for the 4WDs. A backup camera was optional, as were side-curtain airbags. We take it back about luxury aspirations: A full-gussied Limited is a fairly swanky SUV.

Per online surveys, this generation earns high marks for reliability, with the only callout on MSN Autos being the A/C compressor clutch relay on the 2003s. Perhaps the 4Runner's value can be attributed to the Toyota's glittering service history. Comparing 2005 models roughly apples to apples (V-6 engines, 4WD, top trim spec), the 4Runner is valued $2800 more than a Nissan Pathfinder LE and a whopping $5500 more than a Ford Explorer Limited, according to the Kelley Blue Book. Toyota's mission for the fourth-gen 4Runner might well have been build the right-size SUV, and build it well.


2003-2009 Toyota 4Runner
Body type 4-door SUV
Drivetrain Front engine, RWD/4WD
Airbags Driver, passenger, side
Engine 4.0L/245-hp DOHC V-6;
Brakes, f/r Disc/disc, ABS
Price range, whlsl/retail (KBB) $6964/$11,104 (2003 RWD SR5 V-6) $28,407/$33,737 (2009 4WD Limited V-8)
Recalls Too many to list; see motortrend.com
NHTSA frontal impact rating, driver/pass Four stars/four stars