Sometimes when it comes to choosing a family vehicle it can be a case of "go big or stay home."
If going on weekend outings involves finding stowage for various siblings and their stuff plus towing a trailer load of snowmobiles or all-terrain vehicles or perhaps a big-ish power boat that has to be launched and hauled out on a lakeside concrete ramp, you're going to need something with capabilities today's trendy crossovers aren't up to.
Which means you're going to have to "go big" - purchasing either a full-size pickup with rear cab seating, that leaves your gear exposed in the open bed and which may not suit your through-the-week driving requirements. Or opt for an at least a mid-size version of the traditional-style SUV. Mid-size pretty much became the new full-size years ago, while full-size was expanding into behemoth-class.
This leaves you with little more than a handful of options today, among them an old favourite, Toyota's 4Runner, which has been the choice of more than 100,000 Canadians since it was launched as a quick and dirty response to growth in this category back in the mid-1980s.
The first 4Runner was little more than a rejigged pickup fitted with rear seats and a removable fibreglass top, but there's nothing impromptu about the 2011 4Runner Trail edition.
The rationalized 4Runner lineup is now based on a single V-6 SR5 model starting at $36,820 (with part-time AWD), but can be ordered with a $5,600 upgrade that adds leather, third-row seats, sunroof and other upgrades, or in $7,310 Trail (with heavy-duty AWD), $11,195 Limited and $12,845 Limited with Navigation versions (with full-time AWD).
Over the past three decades, the 4Runner has been developed into something considerably more sophisticated than a pickup and cap combination. But importantly to those with heavy hauling requirements, it still retains the bone structure and musculature - although not quite as much of the latter - needed to capably handle the tasks described above.
Or tackle just about any gnarly terrain the owner of a vehicle he or she has just paid $40,000-plus for might risk bumping uglies with - which would be nature's big rocks and ruts and the dangly bits beneath the 4Runner.
The latest fairly major revision of the 4Runner, enough to give it fifth-generation status in Toyota marketers minds, was introduced for 2010 as a slightly longer, taller and wider vehicle. Styling is still "boxy" but in a kind of "progressive" way, according to Toyota. And it is a big handsome vehicle despite the gratuitously outsized power bulge in the hood.
The 4Runner is very civilized inside with a lengthy list of features. It is nicely finished, quiet at speed and roomy for four, but you can carry seven employing the third-row seat if comfort isn't an issue. Fold all its seatbacks and you can stack a whack - 2,500 litres - of your belongings in its cargo hold.
Perhaps more important to those looking at buying a vehicle of this type because they need it - rather than because they like driving around in something this cumbersome and thirsty - is that Toyota stuck with the separate frame approach, with independent front and live axle rear suspension, which can't really be matched for ruggedness.
The Trail edition's AWD system gives it the low-range gearing for rock-crawling or mud-plugging but enhances this capability with some very clever technology it calls Kinematic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS) and electronic Crawl Control - sort of cruise control for mud.
KDSS hydraulically links front and rear stabilizer bar, automatically disconnecting them to improve axle travel and response to off-road obstacles. I didn't test the 4Runner Trail off-road but from past experience it is very capable and almost certainly more so due to this system. On-road the 4Runner feels big, weighty and ponderous as you'd expect, but is pleasant enough to drive if you keep those factors in mind.
Toyota has dropped the 4Runner's V-8 option, perhaps in a nod to planetary preservation, but the 4.0-litre V-6 makes 270 hp and 274 lb-ft of torque (a bit more power but less torque than the V-8), delivered via a five-speed automatic transmission.
It can't tow as much - the V-8 version could drag along 3,175 kg - but it can still tug quite a lot. Its 2,268-kg rating is likely as much as most part-time-trailer haulers will be comfortable with anyway.
The 4Runner's fuel economy ratings are a reasonable 12.6 litres/100 km city and 11.1 highway, but all my bets are off if you're making use of the plentiful power. Reality check? About 16 litres/100 km in small-town driving and about 13 litres/100 km at four-lane highway cruising speeds.
Despite its primordial SUV roots, don't dismiss the 4Runner as a dinosaur, rather think of it in Darwinian terms as a thoroughly evolved example of a specialized species.
2011 Toyota 4Runner V-6 SR5 Trail
Type: Mid-size SUV
Base Price: $36,820; as tested, $45,825
Engine: 4.0-litre, DOHC, V-6
Horsepower/torque: 270 hp/278 lb-ft
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 12.6 city/9.2 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Nissan PathfinderReport Typo/Error
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