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    Putting the Toyota Highlander and the 4Runner to the Butch/Femme Test

    auto2Butch or femme? People usually have strong preferences either way, but something on the opposite side can still catch your eye. That’s the case with these two seven-seat Toyotas: the Highlander and the 4Runner. They do many of the same things, but they appeal to very different buyers.

    And buyers have embraced them. Sales of the redesigned-for-2014 Highlander are up 28 percent over the previous April, and the restyled 4Runner is up an astonishing 64 percent. Prices start at $30K for the Highlander and $33K for the 4Runner, and the tested Highlander Limited V6 AWD rang in at $44,450, and the 4Runner Trail Premium 4×4 V6 came to $42,175. These prices are in line with what Toyota’s competitors charge, so it seems the company is delivering what buyers want.

    I was surprised that the 4Runner is so popular; truck-based SUVs had left my radar in the wake of huge interest in car-based crossovers like the Highlander. Driving the 4Runner again made me appreciate how decorously the car-based Highlander behaves, with some of that femme side coming through. On the other hand, the 4Runner’s brusque and butch demeanor demanded compromises, but it had its charms.

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    The 4Runner’s high driving position is one of those charms. The king-of-the-road SUV view is here in spades, and the flat window sills allow you to see much of what’s going on around you. That’s in contrast to the cocoon-like Highlander, which follows the crossover trend of hiking up the back windows and assigning rear visibility to blind-spot monitors and a camera. It offers a safe, enclosed space versus riding high above it all, which is another difference that attracts a varied clientele.

    Before going further in painting the Highlander as a completely soft touch, I’ll note that my black-on-black Limited tester with its shiny “Chromtec” wheels had a client of mine who was shopping for a BMW X5 pointing and saying, “It’s beautiful! What is it?” followed by shock that it was a Highlander. “They really got the ‘mommy’ out of it,” he said, and he jumped in and was particularly impressed by the elegant instrument panel, tracing his finger along its long curved hood over the eight-inch center screen. Briefly, he considered a Highlander instead of an X5. Previous Highlanders were too maternal to relate to this muscle guy, who wakes up early to box with his trainer. But this new Highlander got him thinking.

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    Just like the 4Runner got me thinking. Its sharp initial response feels sporty, even though the tested 4Runner Trail’s SUV-ness clipped my wings with a body that dipped forward under braking and leaned in corners—you know, like a truck. The Highlander handled with comparative nimbleness and felt lighter on its feet. And it’s more practical, with smaller engines that get higher mileage, and there’s a hybrid version. But, for me, the 4Runner’s overt masculinity resonated more. It’s silly, because my daily driving is exactly zero percent off-roading, but sometimes, you just can’t control what appeals to you.

    Philip Ruth is a Castro-based automotive photojournalist and consultant at www.gaycarguy.com. Check out his automotive staging service at www.carstaging.com