What Makes the 1st-Gen Toyota 4Runner So Rad?

Killer period-correct graphics, a rare, turbocharged version, and legit off-roadability make the first-gen Toyota 4Runner an ‘80s classic. 

‘80s Alternative Classic 

1985 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com
1985 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com

‘80s and ‘90s nostalgia has become a thing, a big thing. And it extends far beyond Stanger Things, the return of synthesizers in pop music, or the suborn persistence of the mullet. As ‘80s and ‘90s cars age into “classic” status, their prices have soared, and rare iterations have become prized among the Radwood set.

Of particular cachet are old school Toyotas. These paragons of durability command outlandish prices thanks to nigh indestructible engines, legit off-roadability, and period specific decals. Prices on classic Land Cruisers hover in the $30,000 to $45,000 range, even when carrying in excess of 200,000 miles. The toughest of the tough, the Toyota Hilux never officially made it to US shores, and though has been eligible for importation, it’s still hard to find here in the States.

The first-generation Toyota 4Runner lies a little lower on the classic Toyota depth chart (though prices indicate it’s gaining recognition). As Toyota’s answer to the Bronco II and S-20 Blazer, the 4Runner adapted the Toyota pickup’s architecture for a unique take on the nascent SUV market of the early to mid-1980s.

Engines and Evolutions 

1984 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com
1984 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com

Toyota developed the 4Runner from the Toyota 4×4 pickup, itself a North American version of their Hilux light pickup. Toyota had already dabbled in the emerging truck-based SUV segment with the pickup-based Trekker starting in 1981. The Trekker was the result of a collaboration with Winnebago and basically gave the Toyota pickup a fiberglass bed topper.

The 4Runner represented a more earnest effort when it debuted for the 1984 model year. The two-door SUV featured a removable fiberglass top and roll bar along with an optional rear seat in the top trim SR5. Like the Blazer and Bronco, the 4Runner was built with off-roading in mind and thus came equipped with standard four-wheel drive, locking front hubs, 7.7 inches of ground clearance, and skid plates. Unique features included a second door handle on the passenger side for easy rear seat egress and a power retracting tailgate window (retraction being necessary to access the tailgate handle). The 4Runner came in two trims, the base DX or the SR5. The SR5 got more than just an optional back seat. It also came with chrome wheels, an altimeter and inclinometer, and a distinctive graphics package.

1985 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com
1985 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com

The 4Runner thrumming heart was the 22R, a 2.4L carbureted four-cylinder paired with a five-speed manual and making 96 horsepower. If you’re wondering, did that make the 4Runner grossly underpowered? Why yes, yes it did. Updates began in 1985 with the addition of fuel injection which raised horsepower to 116. An automatic transmission was also made available for the SR5 trim and all trims now had the option of a back seat.

1986 Turbo 4Runner 

1986 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com
1986 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com

The most significant updates for the first-gen 4Runner came in 1986. That year saw the debut of a turbocharged 22R-TE, netting the 2.4L a full 135 horsepower and coming equipped with an automatic transmission only. The SR5 turbo was graced with an upscale digital dashboard, a rare feature in contemporary Toyotas. The turbo option raised the price on the 4Runner significantly, from around $11,000 to over $16,000. As a result, it’s estimated just over 2,000 were built over their short two-year run (’86 and ’87), and turbo versions are exceedingly rare and prized today.

Other ’86 updates included a new independent front suspension over the prior solid front axle and a three-inch wider track. The latter allowed for more room in the engine bay, setting the stage for larger engine options to come. The change in suspension improved the 4Runner’s on-road handling and ride, but collectors and off-road enthusiasts now seek out those early ’84 and ’85 model years specifically for that solid front axle. Notably, the North American Toyota pickup received the same suspension upgrade while the international Hilux retained the more rugged solid front axle set up.

1988 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com
1988 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com

The turbo option was dropped for 1988 in favor of a new 3.0L V6 for the SR5 trim, giving the 4Runner 145-150 horsepower. A new heavy-duty rear diff and auto-locking front hubs were also added. While the horsepower was welcomed, the V6 has proven to be less reliable than the rock-solid 22R four-cylinder.

Today’s Market 

1989 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com
1989 Toyota 4Runner - pressroom.toyota.com

The first-generation Toyota 4Runner is currently cheaper than trying to get into a Land Cruiser of the same vintage, but that doesn’t make it cheap. In fact, the first-gen 4Runner tends to be more expensive than its newer, more modern, more plentiful successors. Today, the market for ’84 through ’89 4Runners offers up prices averaging between $15,000 and $25,000 depending on mileage, condition, and rarity.

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Chris Kaiser

With two decades of writing experience and five years of creating advertising materials for car dealerships across the U.S., Chris Kaiser explores and documents the car world’s latest innovations, unique subcultures, and era-defining classics. Armed with a Master's Degree in English from the University of South Dakota, Chris left an academic career to return to writing full-time. He is passionate about covering all aspects of the continuing evolution of personal transportation, but he specializes in automotive history, industry news, and car buying advice.

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