Nemacolin, Pennsylvania — Buried amongst the minutiae about the 2014 4Runner is a reference to additional stiffening around the number-3 frame crossmember. Normally this would be overlooked—see if anyone else mentions it, but it indicates something noteworthy in sport utility vehicles: The 4Runner still has a frame.

When the 4Runner first got four doors the competitors were all built like trucks with frames—Pathfinder, Explorer, S-10/Jimmy, Montero, Rodeo, etc.—and only the Jeep Cherokee lacked one. Now the 4Runner is the only nameplate left true to its roots, rocks, ruts and mud.

Disclosure: Travel, accommodations, meals, and a predetermined route were provided to the author by the automaker.

Vehicles driven were U.S. specification but Canadian versions are expected to be quite similar.

I hopped into the Limited for a trail drive … I couldn’t slip a wheel or get it wrong even when I tried

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Unlike the Trail model (top, red), the Limited is much more subdued in the looks department

The 4Runner’s new proboscis is imposing, as if the brush guard/winch mount/bull bar center section is built-in. Nostrils at the side envision small branches or saplings being inhaled and wood chips spit out the front fenders, but they should also protect the new projector-beam headlamp and LED running lamp housings that protrude from the sheet metal.

Limited models carry a more restrained, less canine visage wholly appropriate to lodge resorts and golf clubs where “approach angle” is your vector to the valet line or lay-up. Throw in new wheel designs, body-color flares on the Trail and miscellaneous body hardware to round out exterior updates. Regardless of what size or how fancy the wheels are, all 4Runners carry a full-size spare.

Unlike pop-open hatches the 4Runner’s rear window lowers into the tailgate, at one touch by switches front, rear and on the SmartKey remote. The wiper parks beneath the spoiler where it’s less prone to damage but could be harder to thaw.

A tow hitch is now standard on all 4Runners, with a max rating of 5,000 pounds. Limited models have power pop-out running boards that conceal themselves well below the doors, but they still get covered in muck and after inadvertently mud-caking my pants I turned them off.

However, cleaning them requires setting a door ajar so the board stays out…they need a switch like German car spoilers that let you extend it manually for washing.

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Even the base model SR5 4Runner sees upgrades for materials and technology

Most of the changes to the 2014 revolve around the center of the dash and packaging of various features by model. The important stuff is you can still get a third-row seat on SR5 and Limited and the party mode sound system that emphasizes bass and rear speakers to better annoy your campground neighbors.

SR5 and Trail models get updated interiors with more soft-touch panels, a power driver seat for the base model and leather wrapped steering wheel and shifter. The 40/20/40 partial-recline second-row seat is one-lever out of the way for loading the third row, front seats have scalloped backs for more middle-row comfort and rear seats can be folded flat without first removing the headrests.

I found the seats suitably comfortable even when only the belt was holding me in place. The Trail’s synthetic SofTex is available on the SR5, while the Limited is cloaked in heated and ventilated cow with driver memory system and offers a dark red interior hue. Un-Limited also brings a moonroof, keyless unlock/pushbutton start and dual-zone climate control.

Trail has a switch console above the inside mirror for its various off-highway driving aids—the last place I looked, but the 4WD controller itself remains next to the shifter.

Trail also comes with a pull-out cargo deck capable of carrying 200 kg; I did not test whether or not that load can be concentrated at the end like a couple of guys enjoying the party mode sound.

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In Limited trim, the 4Runner is not far off Lexus-like luxury and tech

New entertainment systems lead the update list here, with the oxymoronic-sounding “display audio” system optional on SR5 last year now standard: AM/FM/CD/MP3/XM (with 90-day trial), USB port, iPod integration, eight speakers, and Bluetooth hands-free phone and music streaming.

Trail’s AVN system has all that plus navigation and SMS text-to-speech ability, and you can opt for it on SR5. Limited gets a 7-inch screen for voice-recognition navi, nearly double the speaker count and a JBL sound system. We can’t say if a version of Toyota’s App Suite will be available.

A backup camera joins a 120-volt outlet as standard on all 4Runners; the Limited gets front and rear parking sensors as well. Standard cabin lighting has changed from amber to blue, and electroluminescent “optitron” instruments see wider use. All 4Runners come standard with eight airbags including front knee and side curtains, and trailer sway control.

In short, anything you could fit in a 4Runner last year will fit this year.

4Runner comes solely with a 270-hp 4-litre V-6 and five-speed automatic. The combo works just fine, though I can’t attest to towing 2.5 tons with it, and if you like the size of this box but absolutely need a V-8 and six-speed automatic it’ll cost you a litre/100km and thousands to step up to a Lexus GX460.

Limited runs a full-time 4WD system, the others a part-time two-speed system with neutral for towing behind your motorhome. All have traction control, the Trail a locking rear differential, multi-terrain selector, crawl and hill descent systems so those new to off-pavement driving don’t look like it. In all likelihood it will be all-season or street biased tires that become the first impediment off the beaten path.

Since the Trail has all the driver aids and off-road dedicated equipment and I’m a contrarian I hopped into the Limited for a trail drive, where my only worry was not being able to slide around as much as the X-REAS (cross-linked shocks) suspension wanted to turn this into a two-ton rally car. I couldn’t slip a wheel or get it wrong even when I tried, and on the pavement the X-REAS does an admirable job of controlling unwanted motions.

The Trail’s KDSS (kinematic dynamic suspension system) alters antiroll bar connections to maximize axle travel because traction’s always better if the tire is touching the ground. In knee-deep goop my only worry here was wet shoes if I stuck it and had to hook the tow strap.

Trail also has the best clearances in the Toyota line and the only four-doors I can think of that could match it in the field are the Nissan Xterra, Wrangler Unlimited, Grand Cherokee and sibling GX460. With aggressive tires the Trail will go further than most nerves allow.

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The SR5 has some upgraded sheet metal, but it’s not as aggressive as the Trail or chrome-clad as the Limited

No prices have yet been announced, but a “Premium” version of SR5 and Trail have been added to the US line, much like upgrade packages. That helps SR5 value from the added standard features and the Trail to maintain off-road ability with a lower price, but either can be spruced up with equipment, and a third-row seat is still available.

With the Venza, Sienna and Highlander to handle people/cargo missions Toyota is free to keep the 4Runner a genuine truck-style utility.

A 2WD SR5 might be good for small camping trailer duty, the Trail model is the obvious choice if you really need a 4WD ute, and the Limited could be debadged and fobbed off as a V-6 powered Lexus GX substitute that looks better dirty.