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Toyota 4Runner Through the Years

There have been five Toyota 4Runner generations, from a chopped truck to a modern SUV capable of off-roading while carrying passengers in style and comfort

Spirit of an Off-Roader

While the generations of the Toyota 4Runner have significantly evolved from their origins, those origins are firmly rooted in an off-roading tradition. In its original incarnation, the 4Runner was offered on a shortened truck chassis, like the Chevy K5 Blazer. And it featured a removable top like the original Ford Bronco (among others). And its off-roading credentials were well-established in racing over the Baja peninsula.

2021 Toyota 4Runner – pressroom.toyota.com |  Shop new Toyota 4Runner on Carsforsale.com

As with all of the models mentioned above, the Toyota 4 Runner evolved to become a more civilized citizen on the highway, though, at heart, it retains its original off-roading spirit.

There are five distinct 4Runner generations. Let’s take a look at what makes each unique.

First Generation (1984–1989)

1985 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com
1985 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com
  • Off-road racing was riding a peak in popularity in the early- to mid-1980s, having added stadium and short course races across the country alongside traditional desert racing. Terms from that exciting sport then entered the enthusiast’s vocabulary. A prerunner is an off-roader used by racers to scope out the course before a desert event. No doubt inspired by that term, Toyota named their new 4WD model the 4Runner (forerunner or 4WD runner, if you will).
  • Introduced in 1984, the first generation 4Runner was based on the N30 Toyota Pickup (Hilux in pretty much the rest of the world). With a shortened wheelbase and removable hardtop, it mirrored many classic off-roaders. It was available only in 4WD with a solid front axle and powered by a 100 horsepower 2.4 L four-cylinder 22R engine mated to a five-speed manual transmission.
1987 Toyota 4Runner 2.4L I4 - carsforsale.com
1987 Toyota 4Runner 2.4L I4 - carsforsale.com
  • An available SR5 trim package upgraded the interior with additional gauges, better fabrics, and a rear seat.
  • The 1985 and 1986 models saw some significant upgrades. In 1985, Toyota upgraded the 22R engine with electronic fuel injection, while in 1986, Toyota replaced the 4Runner’s solid front axle with independent front suspension, increasing track width by three inches.
  • A turbocharged version of the 22R engine was also introduced in 1986, while for 1988, an optional 3.0L 3VZ-E V6 engine replaced the turbo four-cylinder.
1989 Toyota 4Runner ragtop - pressroom.toyota.com
1989 Toyota 4Runner ragtop - pressroom.toyota.com
  • A topless first-generation Toyota 4Runner had a role in the long-forgotten 1997 Sylvester Stallone movie Over the Top.
  • From the very first 4Runner to the latest model, all have been built at the Tahara, Aichi Japan Toyota assembly plant.

Second Generation (1990–1995)

1990 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com
1990 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com
  • While second-generation 4Runner models continued to be based on the Toyota pickup, the newer ones featured an integrated steel body mounted on the carried-over frame.
  • While most second-generation 4Runners were sold as four-door models, two-door versions were available during the 1990 and 1991 model years but were dropped after that.
  • Initial second-generation Improvements included optional shift-on-the-move 4WD, an upgraded interior, increased cargo space and a new coil spring rear suspension system that replaced the old-school leaf spring setup.
  • Turning somewhat from its off-roading inspired origins, the second generation 4Runner was available in a rear-wheel-drive only configuration, though this was dropped after the 1992 model year due to low customer demand.
1995 Toyota 4Runner Limited - carsforsale.com
1995 Toyota 4Runner Limited - carsforsale.com
  • For the first time, leather seating was an option in 1992, along with power steering being made standard on all trim levels. The RWD version was dropped for 1993.
  • More available creature comforts were added for 1994, including an eight-speaker CD audio system, anti-lock brakes, and a sunroof.
  • With Americans shifting their buying preferences from family minivans to family SUVs, Toyota responded in 1995 with the Limited trim, which featured wood trim, leather seating and other upgrades in the final year of the second generation 4Runner.

Third Generation (1996–2002)

2001 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com

2001 Toyota 4Runner – pressroom.toyota.com |  Shop used Toyota 4Runner on Carsforsale.com

  • For the first time, Toyota set the third generation 4Runner on its own chassis, no longer shared with the new Tacoma pickup truck (though much of the running gear was the same). The result was a completely redesigned model with a greater emphasis on suburban utility and meeting higher safety standards.
  • Riding on a longer wheelbase, the new body structure provided more interior passenger room and more generous cargo space.
  • As many new 4Runner customers would never take their vehicle off the road, Toyota recognized the opportunity. It brought back a rear-wheel-drive only configuration, which lowered the price and improved fuel economy.
1996 Toyota 4Runner engine - pressroom.toyota.com
1996 Toyota 4Runner engine - pressroom.toyota.com
  • That said, the 4Runner retained greater off-road capabilities than many of the midsize SUVs with which it competed. For example, Toyota offered two 4WD systems, one a shift-on-the-fly system, the other with a center differential that allowed for full-time use. There was even an electronically-operated locking rear differential offered.
  • A new base 2.7 L 3RZ four-cylinder engine replaced the long in tooth 22R unit., while a new 5VZ V6 replaced the outgoing 3VZ, adding 38 and 33 horsepower, respectively.
  • On the safety side, Toyota added to the 4Runner added Vehicle Skid Control, Electronic Brake Force Distribution, and A-TRAC (Active Traction Control) in 2001.

Fourth Generation (2003–2009)

2003-2005 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com
2003-2005 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com
  • The fourth-generation 4Runner was moved onto the Toyota J120 platform, sold in many global markets as the Land Cruiser Prado and in the US as the Lexus GX 470.
  • Though smoother and more car-like in exterior design than previous 4Runners, the fourth-generation model continued to offer greater off-road capabilities than many competitors, several of which had moved to a car-based platform.
  • Instead, the fourth-generation 4Runner retained a full ladder frame construction with a separate body shell. To further confirm its off-road credentials, all 4runners were equipped with skid plates for the engine, transfer case and fuel tank.
2004 Toyota 4Runner 4.7L V8 - carsforsale.com
2004 Toyota 4Runner 4.7L V8 - carsforsale.com
  • There were two optional 4WD systems: a full-time AWD system on V8 models and a part-time system on V6 models, both utilizing a lockable Torsen center differential.
  • There were three trim levels available in this generation: SR-5, which was now the base, a middle-level Sport and premium Limited edition trims. The new Sport Edition was equipped with larger front brakes and a system called X-REAS (X-Relative Absorber System) designed to reduce body lean during hard cornering.
  • Power was produced by an all-new 4.0 L GR-FE V6 that made 245 horsepower. Optional for the first time was a 235 horsepower 4.7 L 2UZ-FE V8 engine. For the 2005 model year, the addition of VVT-i (variable valve timing) increased output to 268 horsepower. The V6 was coupled to a four-speed automatic while the V8 was upgraded to a new five-speed automatic transmission in 2005.
2009 Toyota 4Runner Limited - pressroom.toyota.com
2009 Toyota 4Runner Limited - pressroom.toyota.com
  • The combination of increased power and its stout ladder frame construction earned the fourth-generation 4Runner tow ratings of up to 7,200 lbs.
  • To close out the fourth generation, Toyota offered a Trail Edition package with an electronic locking rear differential, defeatable traction control and Bilstein dampers for the 2009 model year. It would become a standard trim level in the fifth generation.
  • The independent Consumer Reports magazine commented on the continued popularity of the fourth generation 4Runner, writing that “thanks to near-bulletproof durability … this generation is highly sought on the used market, keeping prices high.” Another site suggests the 2007 model year 4Runner is the best of the fourth generation.
  • A 2005 4Runner was the feature vehicle in an episode of the MTV car-customization television series “Pimp My Ride.” It received a body kit, green wave graphics and enormous chrome wheels.

Fifth Generation (2010–2020)

2010 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com
2010 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com
  • Now, based on the J150 platform, which it again shares with the global Land Cruiser Prado and the Lexus GX series, the recent Toyota 4Runner generation made its debut in the heart of truck country: the 2009 Texas State Fair.
  • With the Toyota Highlander serving the needs of suburban families looking for the utility of a crossover SUV but not needing any off-highway capabilities has allowed Toyota to maintain the rough road prowess in the fifth-generation 4Runner.
2014-2016 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com
2014-2016 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com
  • The 2010 4Runner was Initially available in three trim levels with the base SR5 trim and the top-of-the-line Limited trim available in 2WD or 4WD. The Trail Edition was only available in 4WD.
  • The SR5 and Trail Edition 4WDs were fitted with a part-time 4WD drive system, while the Limited came equipped with full-time 4WD. The Trail Edition featured Toyota’s Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS) and Crawl Control and a rear locking differential.
  • Standard power came from a new 4.0L V6 engine with Dual VVTi that produced horsepower. Optional was a budget-oriented 2.7L four-cylinder engine available in 2WD models, though it soon disappeared due to low customer demand.
  • Missing was the 4.7 L V8 engine available in the fourth-generation 4Runner. To counter, Toyota stressed the increased power output and improved fuel economy of the V6, though it lost 2,000 lbs of towing capacity as a result.
2017 Toyota 4Runner 4.0L V6 - carsforsale.com
2017 Toyota 4Runner 4.0L V6 - carsforsale.com
  • In a first for the 4Runner, the SR5 and Limited editions offer an optional integrated third-row seat.
  • For 2015, the TRD Pro 4Runner trim included TRD Bilstein shocks with remote reservoirs, TRD-tuned front springs and a TRD front skid plate. An exclusive color was made available for each model year of the TRD Pro, including Inferno Orange, Voodoo Blue and Army Green.
  • Given the TRD label’s success in pulling in customers, in 2016 Toyota renamed the 4Runner Trail and Trail Premium the TRD Off-Road and TRD Off-Road Premium, though they do not share the same off-road suspension as the TRD Pro model.
2020 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com
2020 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com
  • In 2017, Toyota set out to prove the capabilities of the 4Runner TRD Pro at the Baja 1000. Teams “chase” their race trucks and buggies over the same route the racers follow in order to provide support in case of a breakdown. With only a change of tires, the 4Runner TRD Pro took on the same 1,130 route as the racers without as much as a hiccup.
  • Added to the 4Runner for 2020 are a suite of Toyota Safety Sense technologies and an eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system that provides easy access to Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Amazon Alexa.
  • Also new for 2020 was the implementation of Toyota Safety Sense, which includes a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert with a sway warning system, automatic high beams and dynamic radar cruise control.

2021 Toyota 4Runner

2021 Toyota 4Runner – pressroom.toyota.com |  Shop new Toyota 4Runner on Carsforsale.com

  • After all these 4Runner generations, the model enters 2021 with a new Special Edition, several TRD Pro upgrades and revised LED headlights across all trim levels (of which there are 14 for this model year).
  • A new Trail Special Edition for 2021 features extra storage and convenience and includes a Toyota branded 40-quart cooler with a sliding cargo tray.
    The most significant changes are to the TRD Pro trim. Most apparent are the new 17-inch flow form wheels and Nitto Terra Grappler tires. Underneath upgrades include re-tuned 2.5-inch Fox bypass shocks, along with new front springs that raise the ride height by an inch.
  • The year’s unique color is Lunar Rock, which replaces Army Green on the TRD Pro options list.
  • Almost unique in the market is a full-frame true SUV with realistic off-road capabilities, the Toyota 4Runner remains surprisingly popular. Since a sales low of just under 20,000 units in 2009, demand has grown steadily from then to a constant level of around 130,000 4Runners sold over the past few years, it’s clear that customer demand will keep this rugged SUV on the road – and the trails – for years to come.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in September 2016 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

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Art Michalik

Art Michalik brings a career full of experience in the automotive industry to his writing. He has guided marketing at two major tire companies, represented some of the biggest names in the automotive aftermarket at an ad agency, built the enthusiast social media presence at a major online retailer and even managed one of the most famous racing schools in the world.

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  1. Mark Marky September 21, 2016

    The 2003-2009 was the nicest the current ugliest !

  2. Rick January 16, 2021

    This is the best 4Runner article I’ve read in a very long time. Most of the current ones you read are written by someone who seems to wish every SUV in existence was a bubble SUV only made for the daily commute. They never seem to get it. 4Runners are obviously not for them. Once again, well done.

    1. Carsforsale.com Team January 18, 2021

      Thanks Rick!

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