Used Cars: Toyota 4Runner Then and Now

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2014 4RunnerRising from humble beginnings (as a compact sport utility vehicle) the mid-sized SUV, known as the Toyota 4Runner has carved out a niche for itself among North American consumers. From a mid-year after-thought to an independent model with sales topping 100,000-units, the 4Runner has seen measured success in markets on every continent in the world and is now in its fifth phase of production. Sales of the 4Runner began in 1984 when Toyota felt pressure to offer a competitor to the new Chevrolet S-10 Blazer, Ford Bronco II, and Nissan Pathfinder, which were selling like wildfire around the country. Toyota answered by adding a fiberglass shell and removable rear seat to their standard pickup truck body. The rest, as they say, is history. The tradition of innovation, reliability, and performance for which 4Runners are recognized is available in used 4Runners at a fraction of the cost of a new model. Honestly, there is much to be said for the older and more rugged models. You can count on used car websites like to help you locate precisely the right used 4Runner for you, at the right price.

The Early Days — 1984 through 1989

1984 4RunnerThe first 4Runners were identical to the Toyota pickup trucks because they were, in fact, modified pickup trucks. They were equipped with either a black or a white removable fiberglass top. Initially, all 4Runners were 2-door SUVs that were extremely durable and had the tools to carry consumers into hard to reach places, including a four-wheel drive system with a solid front axle. All 1984 4runners were equipped with the “bullet-proof” 2.4-liter 22R engine, which used a carburetor for fuel delivery.

In 1985 the 22R-E (with an additional 16-hp) was added alongside the 22R, to the 4Runner lineup. Despite the added horsepower, fuel efficiency, and smoothness of the fuel-injected engine, the 22R remained an option until 1988.

Major improvements were again in store for the 1986 model 4Runner. An independent front suspension took the place of the solid front axle. This, along with a track width increase of 3-inches, made the 4Runner more asphalt friendly but stole some of its off-road prowess. Select colors received matching fiberglass tops, as well, although black and white tops were still available. Additionally, a turbocharged version of the 22R-E was made available to the U.S. domestic market. All turbocharged 4runners were sold with automatic transmissions but pickups were available with the turbocharged engine and a manual transmission. Diesel powered pickups were also available from 1984 through 1986 but no diesel powered 4Runners were imported into the U.S. Many 4Runners produced during these two years were shipped sans rear seating, in order to avoid paying higher tariffs placed upon “pleasure vehicles.” Without the presence of rear seating, 4Runners could be imported as work vehicles which were afforded more lead-way regarding custom duties. Rear seating was added as a dealer installed option on numerous 4Runner SR5 units.

In addition to the 22R-E power plant, a larger and more powerful engine option was offered for the 1987 4Runner. It was a 3.0-liter V6, coded as the 3VZ-E. It was noticeably more powerful and arguably more reliable than the four-cylinder engine. V6 equipped trucks were sold with the more durable rear differentials that were offered in the turbocharged four-cylinder trucks. A newly designed transmission and chain-driven transfer case reduced noise in the passenger compartment but were largely considered less durable in nature. With a total re-tooling of the 4Runner line scheduled for 1989, the 1988 model 4Runner was virtually unchanged from the 1987 model with the exception of a few minor cosmetic changes.

A Body of Work — 1990 through 1995

1990 4RunnerDue primarily to the undeniable popularity of the mid-sized SUV, the 4Runner was introduced with its very own dedicated chassis for the 1990 model year. Nearly all 4Runners produced from 1990 through 1995 were of the four-door configuration. Although some two-door models were sold from 1989 until 1993, they are very rare. The two-piece body design of the original 4Runner was replaced by a more sleek and modern one-piece unit with a more comfortable interior. Engine choices remained basically the same with the 2.4-liter 22R-E and 3.0-liter 3VZ-E V6. The independent front suspension was also carried over as was the chain driven transfer case in four-wheel drive models. Between the years of 1990 and 1995 only minor cosmetic changes were made; upgrading the outdated sealed beam headlights with modular headlights along with very minimal styling improvements.

Moving on Up — 1996 through 2002

1996 4RunnerThe third production phase of the Toyota 4Runner took a distinctly more elegant approach. Instead of being on par with a camper equipped pickup the 4Runner more closely resembled a small Land Cruiser and was marketed in some countries as the Land Cruiser Prado. Although the exterior appearance was similar to the phase two 4Runner, the phase three was equipped with a new chassis and body-shell. The third phase 4Runner had a larger body with a longer wheelbase, which provided increased interior comfort and cargo capabilities. It was also outfitted with antilock brakes, rack-and-pinion steering, and coil spring suspension; all of which were a vast departure from the very basic Toyota pickup design of its predecessor. Engine options were also changed. The 22R-E was replaced with the 2.7-liter inline-four-cylinder and the 3.4-liter V6 replaced the 3VZ-E. From an appearance standpoint, the 4Runner remained unchanged until 1999 when a new “fat lip” front bumper, new more aerodynamic lighting, and projector fog lamps were added. Certain trim levels, including Limited and Highlander, received body colored running-boards, bumpers, mud-flaps, and fender flares. The interior was totally redesigned with more centrally located controls and upgraded audio and climate control functions. A new front grille design, five-spoke alloy wheels, updated side view mirrors, and electronic stability control were all offered as standard equipment for the 2001 model year. The 2002 model was a virtual carbon copy of the 2001, with major changes coming for 2003.

A Smarter 4Runner — 2003 through 2009

2003 4RunnerThe fourth phase of production saw sweeping changes to the chassis and body of the 4Runner. A double-wishbone front suspension with a solid rear-axle configuration was selected to maximize riding comfort while retaining off-road capabilities. The X-Relative Absorber System (X-REAS) was introduced in 2003. This system links the hydraulic dampers diagonally to reduce body roll during hard cornering. Sport and SR5 trim levels also received an auto leveling air suspension system for the rear. The hill-start assist system and downhill assist control system were added in 2003. These two systems are standard equipment on four-wheel drive models and use electronically computer controlled servos to automatically apply brake pressure and throttle for smooth vehicle response even during extreme variations in vehicle elevation. The 4Runner, now marketed as a mid-sized SUV, was no longer offered with a four-cylinder engine. The 3.4-liter V6 was replaced with a 4.0-liter V6 and a 4.7-liter V8 engine was offered. Initially the V8 engine produced only 235-hp but the introduction of variable valve timing helped to bump that up to 260-hp for the 2004 model year. Remote keyless entry, tilting and telescoping steering wheel, rearview camera, a GPS navigation system, automatic climate control, power moon roof, and third row seating were all available options on these fourth phase 4Runner models.

Today’s 4Runner — 2009 through Present

2010 4RunnerToday’s 4Runner displays a renewed commitment by the Toyota Motor Corporation to manufacture a mid-sized SUV that can provide premium passenger comfort, including excellent ride quality, with outstanding off-road capabilities. Today’s Toyota 4runner owners are more loyal than ever — with great reason. Late model 4Runners look fantastic, they offer more than adequate performance with industry-leading reliability, and they get very reasonable fuel mileage. The fifth phase of production did not retain the V8 engine option, however the 2.7-liter four-cylinder was available for one year (2010) in two-wheel drive models only. The 4.0-liter V6 engine is the only available option after 2010 and it provides more than adequate power; producing 270-hp and 278 lb.-ft. of torque. In 2014, Toyota Racing Development (TRD) introduced a specially tuned and equipped TRD Pro package for all Toyota four-wheel drive trucks. The 4Runner TRD Pro package offers TRD badging, bead-lock rims with off-road tires, and Bilstein remote reservoir shocks.

Toyota 4Runner sales peaked in 2004 when just over 114,000 units changed hands. The struggling economy was to blame for the worst sales year to date; in 2009 less than 20,000 units were sold as all automakers experienced unprecedented declines. Since 2010, sales have gradually crept upward with 2014 expected to be no different.

If you are in  the market for an off-road vehicle that can brave the elements and go virtually anywhere that you have the fortitude to take it, as well as feel right at home being valet parked for a fancy dinner in the city, then the 4runner is the vehicle for you. It offers a load of curb appeal with all of the rugged reliability and off-road capability that you have come to expect from a Toyota truck. You stand to save thousands of dollars by choosing a used 4Runner through a used car website like

S.M. Darby

S.M. Darby

I am a freelance author with over 25 years of experience as a professional, ASE certified automotive technician and shop owner, muscle car enthusiast, avid street racer, and classic car restoration specialist.