YOUNTVILLE, CA – Although it has been on the market for seven years and its SUV brethren are on the chopping block, the 4Runner still has life left in it, a top Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. executive says.

“There are plans (for a new 4Runner),” says Bob Carter, Toyota Div. group vice president and general manager.

He declines to provide details on timing, but a Ward’s product-cycle forecast indicates a new 4Runner is due for the ’10 model year.

The midsize SUV last was overhauled in 2002 for the ’03 model year. In the seven years since, the market for traditional body-on-frame midsize SUVs in the U.S. has collapsed.

The Ward’s Middle SUV segment, where the 4Runner resides, has declined from 1.53 million units in 2002 to 436,587 in 2008.

In the same time period, sales of car-based cross/utility vehicles, such as Toyota’s own Highlander and the new Venza, have skyrocketed. Demand in the Ward’s Middle CUV sector, where the Highlander and Venza are positioned, rose from 800,911 units in 2002 to 1.46 million in 2008.

“(The 4Runner) is an important nameplate that’s been with us since ‘84,” Carter says. “We’re fortunate that just like Prius, it carries a lot of brand equity. (The) 4Runner is right there with it; it’s an important part of the franchise.”

While he acknowledges the “market has definitely shifted toward” CUVs, Carter says Toyota still sees an opportunity to capture buyers who want a rugged, off-road-oriented midsize SUV capable of towing.

In fact, Carter says Toyota could gain market share as a result of moves by some auto makers to swap their midsize SUVs for new CUVs, such as General Motors Corp.’s elimination of its Chevrolet TrailBlazer in favor of the Traverse and Ford Motor Co.’s plans to go unibody with its next-generation Explorer.

Sales of the 4Runner skyrocketed in the mid-1990s as the SUV phenomenon exploded and demand reached 128,496 units in 1997. But last year, Toyota moved just 47,878 4Runners, little more than half the 87,718 delivered in 2007, Ward’s data shows.

As with nearly all of Toyota’s light-truck nameplates, 4Runner sales in the first two months of 2009 have contracted sharply, down 51% through February.

Other long-in-the-tooth models Carter promises will continue to have futures include the Avalon large sedan and Sienna minivan.

The current-generation Avalon debuted in early 2005 as an ’05 model and the Sienna last was fully revised in 2003 as an ’04.

Toyota had hoped to attract younger buyers to the Avalon, its largest sedan, but Strategic Vision Inc. data released last year indicated median age was increasing.

Carter says Avalon’s shrinking demand is only a recent trend “reflective of the stage of its lifecycle.” However, he admits Toyota will need a different approach with the next-generation model.

Contrary to rumors that surfaced last year, the new Avalon won’t be simply a long-wheelbase version of the Camry, Carter says. “Just taking and stretching a Camry and calling it an Avalon is not a concept I would be after,” he says.

In January, Toyota named American Randy Stephens of the Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, MI, as chief engineer for the upcoming Avalon.

In the case of Sienna, Carter believes higher gas prices will cause buyers to return to minivans. Toyota’s fullsize Sequoia SUV has one of the youngest buyer demographics, at 40 years old, in the Toyota lineup, and Carter says those buyers now are looking for an alternative.

“Fullsize SUVs were historically about 350,000 (units annually in) sales,” he points out, before spiking to about 750,000 units in 2005 and 2006.

“Today, the fear is (the segment’s) contracting,” Carter says, appealing only to buyers who need a large vehicle to tow trailers or boats.

“In today’s world, with volatility of fuel prices and environmental concerns and societal changes, young families (might not migrate to fullsize SUVs). But young families still might benefit from having 3-row seating.”

While some 3-row midsize and large CUVs, such as Toyota’s Highlander, could fill the bill, “the minivan certainly has the opportunity for resurgence, because where are those young buyers going to go? But execution is important.”

Ward’s forecasts a new Avalon will arrive for the ’11 model year, while a new Sienna is due in ’10.

Asked if the current economic environment causing new-vehicle sales to collapse is delaying the introduction of certain models, Carter says only that a “reprioritization” is afoot at Toyota. He cites parent Toyota Motor Corp.’s announcement it will bring out 10 new or next-generation hybrid-electric vehicles in 24 months as evidence of this tactic.

“We need to stay in front of where the consumer wants to be,” Carter says of Toyota’s decision to pull forward hybrid plans in expectation of higher fuel prices.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com