GLENEDEN BEACH, OR — The all-new '03 4Runner represents a big shift in perspective for Toyota Motor Corp. Unlike the four previous generations of the 17-year-old SUV, it's designed specically for the U.S., which is expected to be the truck's biggest market and account for 120,000 sales the first year. Earlier versions had a home-market bias. For example, they were designed comparatively narrow, to conform with Japanese tax regulations that limit vehicle width.

The regulations are still there. But because Toyota caters to each vehicle's primary market, the 4Runner now has grown in size to compete in North America. The new focus manifests itself throughout, from 4Runner's completely new 4L DOHC V-6 to various nifty off-road features.

And while the last generation was equipped with either a 4-cyl. or a V-6, the new 4Runner eschews puny 4-cyl. power altogether. The new V-6 is the entry powerplant, with the optional 4.7L DOHC V-8 used in the Tundra/Sequoia/Land Cruiser. The 4Runner will get a new V-8 when the next-generation Land Cruiser bows, replacing the current high-torque, low-horsepower V-8.

4Runners with the V-8 get a completely new transmission — Toyota's first use of a 5-speed automatic in a truck.

The 4L V-6 is totally new, as denoted by its engine code “1GRFE,” the “1” meaning it's the first iteration of an engine family. Usually, the U.S. doesn't get “1s.” In fact, it only has happened twice before. And it won't happen until early next year: until then, all '03 4Runners coming to North America will carry the V-8.

The V-6 is all-aluminum and offers variable valve timing with intelligence — both the first-ever use in a body-on-frame platform, say Toyota engineers. With 245 hp at 5,200 rpm and 282 lb.-ft. (382 Nm) of torque at 3,800 rpm, the V-6 delivers more punch than the 235-hp V-8.

The 4Runner borrows the Land Cruiser's full-time 4-wheel-drive system with electronic traction control and vehicle stability control. It adds a new transfer case boasting the excellent Torsen torque-sensing technology (the heart of Audi's quattro system), new downhill assist control, standard with 4wd, and standard hill-start assist control. Toyota says it makes 4Runner its most-competent off-roader — an assertion that might trouble potential buyers of the $52,000 Land Cruiser.

The SUV also gets a number of first-time emissions-reducing features, including a new carbon filter, which collects and recycles the last bit of fuel that leaves the tank just as the engine is shut off. And a crafty “cranking hold” feature ensures that if the key is released before the starter is fully engaged, the engine will continue to crank until it fires, curbing emissions from aborted startups.

The overall attention to detail makes for one formidable truck. When Toyota launched the Highlander a year and a half ago, some speculated there was no longer room for the aged, body-on-frame 4Runner. But now it acts as a rough-and-tumble counterpart to the Highlander and joins the RAV-4 cross/utility vehicle, Sequoia fullsize SUV and top-of-the-line Land Cruiser in what is fast-becoming an enviable SUV lineup.

Toyota is expecting 4Runner, built at both its Tahara and Hino, Japan, plants, to pull its weight as the cornerstone of Toyota's North American SUV strategy. The 4Runner sold 90,250 units last year.

Pricing only has been released for the V-8, which bases at $28,005 for a 4×2 SR5. The top-of-the-line Limited Edition with 4WD bases at $36,480. Toyota says the V-6/4WD SR5 will start at less than $30,000.

The 4Runner comes in three trim levels, with the Sport trim level being added between the base-level SR5 and Limited Edition.