Toyota 4Runner: The Car Bible (Third Gen, 1996-2002)
An archetypal modern-classic SUV that's hard to kill and easy to upgrade.
Welcome to the third-gen Toyota 4Runner Car Bible. As you scroll down you’ll learn all about this vehicle’s qualities, features, finer points, and shortcomings. If you’re thinking about buying one of these, want some help maintaining or modifying one, or just want to deepen your knowledge for the next round of car trivia, you’ve come to the right place.
This is a living document that’s updated as we learn (and confirm) new valuable info. Got something to add? Drop a comment! Don’t be shy; the more dialogue we have the better this Car Bible will get.
–Andrew P. Collins, Car Bibles Editor-In-Chief
(Disclaimers; Disclosures: Some Car Bibles will have links to specific forums, groups, brands, shops, or vendors for parts shopping and such. We have no sponsorship deals or official affiliation with any of them unless explicitly stated. We also have to explicitly state that you should work on your own car and follow our advice at your own risk.)
There’s a lot of info packed into this Bible. If you’re looking for something specific, hit command/control-F, type one of these terms, and your browser should bring you straight in.
- The Short Story
- Fast Facts
- Spotter’s Guide
- Check This Car Out If…
- Important Trim Levels and Options
- Year-To-Year Changes
- Obscure Details
- General Reliability and Ownership Costs
- Red Flags and Known Issues
- Where To Buy Parts
- Aftermarket Support
- Popular Modifications
- Key Technical Details
- Fluids, Filters, and Capacities
- Factory Service Manuals
- Other References and Resources
- Professional Reviews
- Owner Reviews
- What They’re Worth Now
- Where To Find One For Sale
- What To Ask A Seller
- Competitors To Consider
- Photo Galleries
- Pop Culture References
- Enthusiast Inquiries
- Downloadable Paperback Car Bible
- Comments Disclaimer
The Short Story
The third-gen 4Runner is one of the most revered off-road trucks you can buy (used) today. It blends excellent simplicity, reliability, and luxury with rugged capability. It is the perfect apex of this: It doesn’t have a ton of vacuum lines, but it still has very few, and there are just enough electronically controlled things that it is unbeatably reliable. It is the center of the Toyota Venn diagram where the center is “easy to find problems, and easy to fix problems.”
Coming from the more agricultural second gen, the third-gen T4R is markedly nicer and more luxurious without compromising capability. It’s just as off-roadable as its predecessor while being a lot less annoying to own for reasons we’ll get into in this Car Bible. As a bonus, the styling of the facelift third-gens still looks fresh and damn near contemporary, especially considering how simple new Toyota trucks are.
Basically, this SUV does everything well. Sure, it isn’t as quirky or whimsical as a Jeep Wrangler, but the charm lies in how unbelievably well thought-out the third-gen 4Runner is. Instead of feeling like that friend you really shouldn’t hang out with, the 4Runner has a steady, homely attitude that helps you fall in love quickly, and realize that there is no substitute for a car that takes zero extra care or thought.
If you’re looking for more images, scroll on down to the Photo Galleries links toward the end of the Car Bible.
The third-gen Toyota 4Runner was the first step in a shift towards luxury-oriented small trucks from Toyota, away from a more utilitarian design mandate.
It is also the first 4Runner to not share body panels or a frame with other Toyota pickup trucks.
It is a true body-on-frame SUV, designed to be rugged and used off-road.
A highlight feature and hallmark of most 4Runners is the full-sized electric window that rolls down. Why? It fully eliminates wind buffeting with the windows down, making for a comfortable windows-down experience.
Every 4Runner since the first gen to the fifth gen has been built in Japan, in Tahara, Aichi prefecture or Hamura, Tokyo prefecture.
The two-door model was discontinued for the third-gen and never brought back since.
In the United States, we never received the 3.0-liter four-cylinder 1KZ or 1KD D-4D turbo diesel engines. Instead, we had our choice of two gas engines.
The Zhongxin Admiral is credited as being a Chinese copy of the third-gen 4Runner, but actually just uses the front fascia licensed from Toyota, and is based on a sixth-gen Toyota Hilux.
It was sold overseas as the Toyota Hilux Surf, with incredible graphics and body cladding to match.
These trucks are very slow but the 5VZ-FE V6 and 3RZ-FE inline-four are claimed, by Toyota, to be designed to run indefinitely with regular maintenance.
Officially, the chassis code for this 4Runner is N180, but can be listed as RZN180, VZN180L, or VZN185L. It follows the normal Toyota convention of having a base chassis code (N180), and added the engine family as a prefix to the code, and changing the number for permutations of the chassis. For example: a 3RZ four-cylinder 4Runner is a RZN180, and a 5VZ V6 4Runner is (generally) VZN180.
You can tell a third gen apart from other 4Runners by its excellent blend of smooth contours and box-like silhouette. It is a logical evolution from the very boxy second gen, and a good in-between for the swoopy and blobby fourth gen. Early third gens look dated and ’90s, while mid to late models look modern and still feel contemporary even today.
Third-gen 4Runners came in three distinct phases: 96-98, 99-00, and 01-02. Each model has their differences and the 96-98 and 99-00 have the most significant aesthetic and general content differences.
‘96-’98s are visually the oldest looking third gens. The chrome front bumper is pretty flush to other features on the front end, and has amber turn signals. On the rear ‘96-’98s are the only 4Runners to have the “4Runner” badge on the rear license plate surround. Inside, ‘96-’97 trucks have the ugly two-spoke steering wheel. ‘98s went to a four-spoke design. All ‘96-’98 trucks have the old style center stack, with the digital clock on the far left of the center stack and twin air vents in the center and right positions. Various switches and functions exist in front of the armrest, surrounding the handbrake.
For ‘99-’00, the 4Runner received a major refresh. A new front fascia, including grill, “fat lip” bumper, multi-parabola headlights, and clear turn signals finished the front end. Out back, the 4Runner badge was moved to the upper left-hand portion of the tailgate. Massive changes carried on to the interior, with an entirely new center stack, gauge cluster, and electrical switch arrangement. Instead of the left-hand mounted clock, it was moved to center, with the vents flanking the clock. The controls were moved from the handbrake area to the radio/HVAC area. A new manual HVAC with knobs instead of sliders was introduced as well.
In ‘01-’02, another small refresh occurred. The “fat-lip” bumper remained, but the grill was refreshed. New, clearer style tail lights complimented the back-end, and the interior remained mostly unchanged, with some different trim levels.
Not rare, even if they are insanely valuable. There are a decent number of third-gen 4Runners for sale at any given time, and you see them all over the road. Total sales are 749,871 units for the entire ‘96-’02 production run, so there are plenty to go around.
4x4s are plentiful, but 2WD models are even more plentiful. However, you will never have trouble finding a 4×4 one near you, even if the one you want sells extraordinarily quickly.
Check This Car Out If…
You love Toyota dependability, rugged off-road capability, and appreciate the apex of modernity and simplicity that the 3rd-gen 4Runner provides.
Important Trim Levels and Options
Across the entire production run of third-gen 4Runner there were three main trim levels: Base, SR5, and Limited. ‘99-’00 trucks received a special trim called Sport/Highlander trim, and ‘01-’02 trucks continued with Sport Edition, because by 2001 the all-new Highlander SUV was introduced to market. Also of note: ‘01-’02 4Runners all received VSC and TRAC, stability control and traction control, respectively. Worst of all: ‘01-’02 4Runners ditched the 5-speed manual entirely.
Rear diff lock is optional in all 4WD ‘96-’00 trucks, and deleted from all ‘01-’02 trucks for a full-time 4WD transfer case with lockable center differential. Basically, ‘96-’00 4Runner Base and SR5 got the “J-shift” T-case with low-range. ‘96-’98 Limiteds got a simpler T-case shifting experience with a button to engage 4×4, and straight shift into low-range. ‘99-’00 Limiteds got a “J-shift” hybrid transfer case with push-button AWD, a position for locked 4×4, and low range. The ‘99-’00 Limited transfer case is most desirable because you can have 2WD, on-road usable AWD, true locked 4×4, and you can still option the rear diff locker, making for the most versatile 4Runner out there.
Base trim 4Runners were as basic as possible, but still standard with power windows, optional 4WD, and optional ABS on four-cylinder models. Available with the four-speed automatic or five-speed manual, a Base 4Runner is usually powered by the 2.7-liter 3RZ-FE inline-four, while the 3.4-liter 5VZ-FE V6 is optional. A Five-speed manual was optional for all models except 2WD V6. Base model exteriors are characterized with unpainted door handles, fender flares, mirror covers, and smaller 15-inch wheels with 225 width tires. Base models also received pretty featureless seats, compared to the nicer buckets of the SR5. Manual climate control only. The rarest 4Runner of them all, even more than Sport/Highlanders, is a Base four-cylinder 5-speed manual 4WD.
SR5 trim 4Runners received a slightly nicer interior with better seats, and expanded option availability for things like sunroofs, leather seats, and six-speaker premium stereo. Standard equipment that the base omitted included intermittent windshield wipers, SR5s received the larger 16-inch wheels with 265 width tires. Options for SR5s and Base model cars remain similar, with optional slim fenders or painted Limited style fenders available for them. Base and SR5 are available in every color the 4Runner was offered with, with color rarity being equal across models. Desert Dune Metallic is the most common by some margin, but not a huge one.
Limited trim 4Runners come standard with much of the optional equipment of the SR5, and only come in V6. 4WD was still optional, but electronic HVAC, leather seats, sunroof, and six-speaker stereo is standard. Limiteds also come with painted fenders, a huge variety of colors, and two-tone color options that the SR5/Base didn’t come with. Limiteds also received exclusive 5-spoke wheels for ‘99+ models. It appears that Natural White over Silver/Millennium Silver is the most common color combo for Limiteds.
Finally the ‘99-’00 Highlander/Sport Package and ‘01-’02 Sport Edition model 4Runners are, perhaps, the most desirable 4Runners. For ‘99 they were only available in Black and Imperial Jade Mica, and Millennium Silver was added for ‘00. For ‘02 they discontinued Millennium Silver and Imperial Jade Mica and replaced them with Stellar Blue Pearl and Sunfire Red Metallic, with the addition of Thundercloud Metallic. The ‘99-’00 5-speed manual with rear diff lock may be the most desirable 4Runner of them all. Highlander/Sport Editions received the mystical (fake) hood scoop, perforated aluminum skid plate, and brushed aluminum interior trim. Technically speaking, the Highlander was considered the SR5 Highlander Sport, but Highlander was only ever referenced on the window sticker. Once the actual Highlander debuted in ‘01, it became the Sport Edition.
The best interior and options land squarely in the ‘99-’00 cars. If you can have one with 4WD and the rear diff locker, you’ll have a great, desirable truck.
These changes reflect the U.S. market.
1996 Model Year:
- Truck debuts
- Introduced with 10 launch colors: Anthracite Metallic, Azure Blue Pearl, Black, Cardinal Red, Desert Dune Metallic, Evergreen Pearl, Lavender Steel Metallic, Natural White, Stellar Blue Pearl, Sunfire Red Metallic
- 2.7-liter 3RZ-FE four-cylinder with electronic wasted-spark ignition, 5VZ-FE V6 are launch engines
- Limited only available in 4WD for 1996
- Cardinal Red only available for 1996
1997 Model Year:
- 3RZ-FE engine upgraded to DIS ignition (coil-on-plug), adopted new hot-wire MAF sensor with plastic housing, batch electronic multi-point fuel injection switched to true sequential multi-point fuel injection, and idle control methods updated.
- 2WD Limited added
- Radiant Red added as exterior color
- SR5 received revised door panel and seat cloth
- 16-inch wheels made optional on SR5 and Base
1998 Model Year:
- 4-spoke steering wheel replaces old 2-spoke design
- Optional passenger side vanity mirror lighting added, and standard coat hooks are added to rear Jesus handles.
- HVAC levers replaced with knobs and levers
- Power steering system revised with one-way check valve to pump and power steering idle adjustment method changed
- Cool Steel Metallic added as color for 1998 only
- Lavender Steel Metallic discontinued
- Seatbelt light switched from static to flashing
- New double-DIN radio head unit
- Revised dampers and front lower control arm bushings
- Revised clutch disk for manual transmission models
1999 Model Year:
- Facelift to “fat-bumper” fascia with new glass “multi-parabola” headlights, new projector fog lights, and clear turn signals.
- Interior facelifted with new center stack, gauge cluster, better cup holders, two power outlets, and revised overhead console with map light. 4WD models receive new cluster with 4WD information
- SR5 Highlander/Sport trim added with brushed aluminum interior trim, perforated aluminum skid plate, and exclusive single-tone color scheme with Limited body cladding
- Anthracite, Azure Blue Pearl, and Evergreen Pearl discontinued
- Autumn Blaze Metallic, Autumn Blaze/Topaz two-tone added for 1999 only
- Black/Topaz Metallic two tone, Desert Dune/Silver two tone, Horizon Blue Metallic, Imperial Jade Mica, Imperial Jade/Jade two-tone, Imperial Jade/Topaz two-tone, Millennium Silver Metallic, Natural White/Silver two-tone, and Sunfire Red/Topaz two-tone added as colors
- Optional water repellent coating added to windshield
- EVAP service port added to 3RZ-FE and 5VZ-FE engined trucks
- 5VZ-FE receives new 4-hole fuel injectors for improved fuel atomization and plug-in type MAF sensor
- Limited receives upgraded VF3AM transfer case with switchable 2WD, AWD, and locked 4×4, from old VF2A T-case
- Limited also receives fully automatic digital HVAC control unit
- Extra sound deadening added to firewall
- Seat belt pretensioner and force limiter added
- Fuel level sensor revised to compensate for inaccuracy in extreme incline and decline angles
- Keyless entry, theft deterrent system, immobilizer, and auto power windows added as optional extras, standard on Limited
- 3-sensor SRS airbag adopted with front collision sensor
- Soft introduction of body control modules in lieu of relay systems
2000 Model Year:
- Daytime running lights added with ABS (still optional on 3RZ-FE engined trucks)
- Color-coded fender flares made optional on SR5 models
- Shaded windshield glass made standard on all models
- Door mirror shape revised for wind noise
- Sunfire Red/Topaz two-tone discontinued
2001 Model Year:
- Base model discontinued, taking 3RZ-FE four cylinder with it
- New grill to express “vehicle strength”
- SR5 Highlander changed to SR5 Sport Package
- Manual HVAC revised to a full knob setup with electronic actuation
- Limited receives updated wood interior trim
- ETCS-i system adopted, basically electronic throttle replacing old-fashioned cable throttle
- TRAC and VSC introduced, traction control and stability control respectively
- Hydraulic brake booster introduced as a result of TRAC and VSC
- Rear diff lock option discontinued
- Manual transmission discontinued
- “J-shift” transfer case discontinued for push-button transfer case
- ABS w/ EBD made standard across entire model range
- Steering rack revised
- LATCH system adopted for rear seat child restraints
- Black/Topaz Metallic two-tone, Desert Dune Metallic/Pearl two-tone, Desert Dune Metallic/Silver two-tone, Horizon Blue Metallic, Imperial Jade/Jade two-tone, Imperial Jade/Topaz two-tone, Millennium Silver/Silver two-tone, Natural White/Silver two-tone, and Radiant Red discontinued
- Black/Thunder Cloud two-tone, Dorado Gold Pearl, Dorado Gold/Gold two-tone, Imperial Jade/Thunder Cloud two-tone, Millennium Silver/Thunder Cloud two-tone, Natural White/Millennium Silver two-tone, Stellar Blue/Thunder Cloud two-tone, Sunfire Red/Thunder Cloud two-tone, Thunder Cloud/Millennium Silver two-tone, and Thunder Cloud Metallic added for 2001
- Glacier Metallic and Glacier Metallic/Thunder Cloud added for 2001 only
2002 Model Year:
- Chrome package added, includes mirrors, grill, fenders, and rear license plate surround for 2002 only
- Sport Package superseded by Sport Edition, only available in Thunder Cloud, Black, Sunfire Red, and Stellar Blue Pearl, with added “Sport Edition” badging and interior cloth
- DTC codes added for 4WD position
- Golden Pearl added for 2002 only
- End of production
N180 = 2WD, N185 = 4WD
Much debate exists over what SR5 stands for, and prevailing commentary suggests it either means “Sport Rally 5-speed” or “Senior Researchers – 5”. I’m inclined to believe that it is the former, and the trim is good-sounding carryover for modern Toyotas.
Nobody knows how or why the third-brake light spoiler is distributed across models. Is it optional? Is it part of a package? Why do some have it and some don’t? We may never know.
Otherwise, what haven’t I covered? Let me know in the comments.
General Reliability and Ownership Cost
I will speak no lies to you, reader, and tell you that the third-gen Toyota 4Runner is one of the least problematic, reliable, and cheap vehicle you will ever own. Sure, the purchase price isn’t so pretty these days, but they cost nothing to maintain, never break, and never need anything beyond scheduled maintenance. Even when abused, it’s hard to break these things. The most costly thing you’ll ever do is a timing belt.
Red Flags and Known Issues
There are two real failings of the 4Runner; one is the dreaded “pink milkshake” issue. Let me explain: The transmission cooler is integrated into the radiator on all automatic 4Runners, and the internal seals of the radiator can fail and cause ATF to mix with coolant and cause a Very Bad time for the automatic transmission. This is incredibly easy and cheap to prevent and inspect. A new radiator will get ahead of the issue. If you pop the radiator cap off (make sure it’s cold!) of any prospective purchase, the coolant will look like a pink milkshake, instead of a clear red color.
The other failing are the admittedly badly designed lower ball joints.
You have to replace them regularly, periodically, and with genuine Toyota parts for peace of mind, or else your rig will pop one and cause a serious loss of control at the worst, and a crumpled fender at the very least. It should be the first thing you do to your 4Runner, and do them every 60,000 miles, or earlier.
The 3rd-gen 4Runner has 10 recalls over its entire lifespan, most of which relating to non-compliant lighting but some more serious. 1996-1998 models have a recall for rear suspension components that may cause a loss of control, 1990-2000 models have a lug nut recall, and 2001-2002 models have a lower ball joint recall.
Key Technical Details
Four-cylinder – 3RZ-FE 16-valve, shim-over-bucket counter-gear driven DOHC inline-four cylinder, longitudinally mounted. 9.5:1 compression ratio. Naturally aspirated, electronic distributor ignition for 1996, 1997+ with DIS coil-on-plug ignition. Iron block with aluminum cylinder heads. Denso batch fuel injection for 1996-1998, Denso sequential fuel injection for 1998+.
V6 – 5VZ-FE 32-valve, shim-over-bucket counter-gear driven DOHC V-six cylinder, longitudinally mounted. 9.6:1 compression ratio. Naturally aspirated, electronic wasted-spark ignition. Iron block with aluminum cylinder heads. Denso engine management
2WD Automatic – Aisin A340E 4-speed automatic w/ overdrive
4WD Automatic – Aisin A340D 4-speed automatic w/overdrive and rear-mounted transfer case
Four cylinder 4WD/2WD – Aisin W59 5-speed manual
V6 – Aisin R150 5-speed manual
V6 4WD – Aisin R150F 5-speed manual with rear-mounted transfer case
Front engine, rear-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive with transfer case, and all-wheel-drive with VF3AM T-case. Live rear axle with 4.10 rear differential gear, or live rear axle with 4.30 electronically lockable rear differential. (RWD 4 cyl ratio: 3.72, 4WD 4-cyl and V6 ratio: 3.90)
Front dual wishbone suspension with stamped steel fully-boxed lower and upper control arms. Cast steel uprights, stamped steel fully-boxed subframe. 26mm sway bar.
Rear live-axle with four-link w/ Panhard Bar arrangement with coil springs. 19mm sway bar.
105.3 in; 2674 mm
178.7 in; 4539 mm (all body styles)
2WD 4-cyl, 5-speed manual – 3440 lbs; 1,560 kg
2WD 4-cyl, 4-speed auto – 3,485 lbs; 1,580 kg
4WD 4-cyl, 5-speed manual – 3,690 lbs; 1,673 kg
4WD 4-cyl, 4-speed auto – 3,735 lbs; 1,694 kg
2WD V6, 4-speed auto – 3565 lbs; 1,617 kg
2WD V6, Limited – 3610 lbs; 1,637 kg
4WD V6, 5-speed manual – 3,850 lbs; 1,746 kg
4WD V6, 4-speed auto – 3,895 lbs; 1,767 kg
Limited – 3,940 lbs; 1,787 kg
OEM tire sizes:
15-inch – 225/75R16
16-inch package – 265/70R16
Fluids, Filters, And Capacities
87 AKI (Regular)
OEM part number 90915YZZG2 (applicable to V6 and four-cylinder), change every 7,500 miles
Cabin Air Filter:
Manual five-speed – 75W-90 GL-4 or GL-5
Automatic – DEXRON III ATF
Manual five-speed – Not applicable
Automatic – Not applicable
Rear Differential Oil:
Toyota Super Long Life Red/Pink coolant
Power Steering Fluid:
DEXRON type ATF
DOT3 brake fluid, DOT4 can be used
DOT3 brake fluid, DOT4 can be used
Four-cylinder – NGK BKR5EIX (6341)
V6 – NGK BKR5EIX-11 (5464)
Where to Buy Parts
Online parts shopping and the local parts store chain is going to be your best friend. Toyota will support your habits, however, and happily provide genuine parts. Parts aren’t exotic for this car, and are cheaply and readily available.
The third-gen 4Runner is heavily supported by the off-road aftermarket, recognized for its rugged dependability and off-road capability.
OME (Old Man Emu), ARB, King shocks, any choice of lift kits, roof racks, tents, exhausts, intakes, snorkels, bumpers, lights, and wheels and tires are available to you with these trucks. They’re popular rigs to use for overlanding and even hardcore off-roading, and some simple mods will get you very far for an okay sum of money.
The most popular mod for third-gen 4Runners is a simple lift kit. Any choice of them will work well, but the OME and Bilstein kits will work best.
A good mod to be aware of is the 13WL or 13WG Tundra calipers. The WG calipers are 199mm and will fit under stock 16-inch wheels, and WL calipers are 221mm and fit under 17-inch wheels. They’re a must-do to fix the flimsy stock braking system from inevitable warpage and vibration, featuring much thicker discs and larger calipers.
Another one would be upgrading the stock wheels with new Tacoma/4Runner wheels which still fit easily, and provide the space needed for the full 13WL caliper upgrade.
Wheels and tires are a must-do for aesthetics and size, but a simple tire setup will get you incredibly far with these trucks.
Factory Service Manuals
Ether3al.com has an excellent free FSM here.
Other References and Resources
The forums for these trucks are shockingly good, with several excellent resources to draw from.
Here is an excellent breakdown of transfer case differences.
Here is an excellent trim level breakdown.
Here are the color charts for all 3rd-gens.
Also of massive help is top4runners.com, which has an incredible trove of factory knowledge here.
“2001 4Runner New Car Test Drive” (Autoblog – 2001)
The Autoblog staff enjoyed the 4Runner’s all around refinement and it’s offroad capability.
“It doesn’t drive exactly like a car, of course, but it’s no truck either. It rides nice, it handles nice, the engine runs great, it’s nimble in tight shopping mall parking lots, and it basically does all the things you’d like it to do in the ways you’d like it to do them… with its high ground clearance, aggressive tire pattern and Toyota’s on-demand shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive system, the 4Runner was practically unstoppable. All four-wheel drive models come with a two-speed transfer case that provides low gearing to slowly creep down steep declines.”
“1996 Toyota 4Runner: More Power And More Room For This Popular Sport/Utility” (Motor Trend – January 1, 1996)
Mac Demere of Motor Trend was similarly impressed with the overall package of the 4Runner, citing improved on-road handling without sacrificing off-road capability for it’s debut in 1996.
“The new rear suspension is much more composed over rough pavement and corduroy roads… Should the fantasy of escaping the work-a-day world come true, the new 4Runner has all the rock-climbing and mud-slinging capabilities you can use. And until then, it will help you endure the wait, no matter how long that may be.”
Chris Rosales (Car Bibles Staff)
2000 Toyota 4Runner Base 2WD 4-cyl, owned from new until 2015 (210,000+ miles)
The third-generation Toyota 4Runner may be the greatest SUV ever made. Show me a Jeep XJ, or a Ford Explorer, or a Nissan Pathfinder with the same blend of unbeatable reliability, bombproof durability, get-you-anywhere off-road capability, 80s Mercedes-Benz level of build quality, legendary Toyota engineering and simplicity, and the perfect apex of serviceability and electronics that places the 4Runner dead-set in the crosshairs of timeless.
Sure, it doesn’t get great fuel economy, and the four-cylinder automatic models (like mine) weren’t the greatest at highway cruising. But what other penalty is there? They’re comfortable, easy to drive, and can drive literally anywhere. The V6 models cruise nicely on the highway, and have enough torque to get around. With the rear diff lock, it is surely one of the most capable SUVs to have ever been produced, just losing to a Land Cruiser. Jeep Wrangler, who?
Full disclosure, my opinion may be biased. I literally grew up in the back of my particular 4Runner. My parents bought it brand-spanking-new in 2000, their first actual new car. You see, my parents have a genuine, god-given knack for choosing things that just work and will never fail. They know where and how to spend their money, because they couldn’t afford a single fuck up with it. They could afford a Base 2WD model four-cylinder with basically zero options. From when I was very young, I recognized the simple excellence of the truck, dependable and requiring nothing but oil changes.
I vividly remembering hanging out in the big ‘ol trunk for fun, being a little shit of a kid and using the rear quarter panel as a road course for my Hot Wheels, running my finger across the 4Runner badge, becoming an actual person from the back and front seat of the 2000 Toyota 4Runner.
This is the kind of truck that can teach you lessons about what you need, what you deserve, and provide the stability and capability to do whatever you want. I inherited it as my first car, learned how to drive in it, did ridiculous things in it, and used it to get to school for 2 years. I tinkered and learned how to wrench on cars with it. I learned how to off-road in it. I learned how weight moves around during maneuvers, thanks to the soft suspension. I learned how to threshold brake thanks to the lack of ABS. All of the basics of driving, from behind the wheel of an old 4Runner.
These trucks will age unbelievably well. I sit here in my mid-20s, and I fully expect these things to be chugging along deep into my 60s. Certainly, I’m looking to replace the hole in my heart that’s existed since my buddy rolled the truck. The 4Runner was the greatest mechanical friend I had the pleasure of meeting and caring for, and it will serve anybody who loves it well. You may see the world behind the windshield of one.
Patrick George (Brookline Media Staff)
2002 4Runner Limited, stock, owned almost two years.
When we think of Japan’s Bubble Era – the period in the 1980s through the early ‘90s when that country’s economic boom made it the world leader in electronics, cars and business – we tend to think of performance cars. Nissan Skylines and Toyota Supras tuned to four-digit horsepower. Bizarre mid-engined kei cars that seemed like concepts that escaped the auto show floor and made it to a dealership. Big, four-rotor racing wins at Le Mans. No costs were spared to make some of the best cars the world had ever seen.
But Bubble Era Japanese over-engineering also gave us one of the most capable off-road vehicles of all time, a car that is equal parts revered and abused on off-road trails today: the third-generation Toyota 4Runner.
I’d wager it’s even more of a poster child for reliability and durability than any sports car. That’s been my experience owning one. Though routine maintenance is as needed as any vehicle, generally, you just don’t have to worry about a “3Runner.” I bought mine after years of headaches with old BMWs and Mini Coopers, and it’s proven to be one of the most unflappable cars I’ve ever owners. (The other was a Toyota Corolla, another poster child for un-killable-ness. Is that a word? It is now.)
A 4Runner can handle anything you throw at it, from bad northeastern weather to genuine trail adventures. It’s bigger, nicer and more well-equipped than its trucklike predecessors were, fitting with those Bubble Era dreams of grandeur. In Limited trim like mine, it’s basically a Lexus. Your main tradeoffs will be speed (it has none) and fuel economy (it has none of that, either.)
My advice: Get a five-speed if you can, but those are exceedingly rare (I’ve never actually seen one in person) and the automatic is perfectly fine. The truck will be slow as a dog no matter what you do. Don’t bother with a 2WD model; hold out for 4WD if at all possible, even if it means you need more time to search. I think it’s pointless to own a 2WD 4Runner, but that’s just me. And watch your wallet. They aren’t making more of these things, obviously, and Craiglist prices are rising with its legend in modern times.
Finally, don’t be scared off by high miles. My 4Runner had over 200,000 miles on the clock when I bought it and I’ve had no issues. Pay more attention to maintenance and the truck will run forever. With some kind of apocalypse surely looming in our lifetimes, it may be the smartest vehicle investment you can make.
1996 4Runner Limited, small lift and tire upsize, owned about two years.
I said to someone recently that Toyota trucks and SUVs are like Budweiser: It’s rarely the best beer on the shelf, but it’s always going to work. Now I’m not quite sure why the Bud of trucks is selling at such a premium these days. The old ones are fine. The new ones are fine. I guess fine is a premium quality in a truck these days.
My third-gen 4Runner was an impulse purchase after I got fired from a job. It wasn’t my first Toyota SUV – I had owned a 100-series Land Cruiser for a couple of years – but at the time they were cheap enough to be a good candidate for the sort of project that takes your mind off of reality for a while.I found the cheapest one on the Eastern Seaboard, hopped on a plane to Orlando, and started driving east in my third gen, my only soundtrack a Pakistani greatest hits cassette tape that the previous owner’s mom had gotten jammed into the deck. I made it to a crap campground on the Space Coast, crawled into a Wal-Mart sleeping bag, and drank myself to sleep.
My third gen was in worse shaped than had been advertised. The electrical ground was a decking screw jammed into the frame with some stripped wire wrapped around it. By the time I got it back to Brooklyn a couple of weeks later, I’d replaced some critical wiring, reinstalled new eBay sway bar links with the help of a Craigslist mechanic whose shop was his driveway, and pried the Pakistani hits tape out and replaced it with one of those trick cassette-tape-to-aux-cable jobbers. (I threw the tape away, since I already knew all the hits by heart.) It was a true garbage vehicle for a truly garbage time, but it almost always started right up. Even when the eBay suspension parts failed a few hundred miles later, forcing a wheel under the truck and tearing a half-shaft along with it, a few weeks under the knife of an after-hours Eastern Pennsylvania Toyota tech got it all stitched up and ready to hit the road again.
I’d already moved on to a lightly used Tacoma, lent the car to some car writer pals who used the Third Gen and its handy roll-down rear window as a camera car while they shot videos to put onto Facebook so they could make one million dollars. They named it the 3Runner, due to its tendency to shed a wheel. When they got tired of it, I traded it to a guy who managed a rich fella’s estate in Costa Rica for a week’s stay. He drove it to Colorado to his brother’s house, where the brother immediately rolled it onto its roof doing donuts in the snow. They flipped it back over and drove away. Last I heard, it’s still running.
This might lead you to presume that I’m a huge fan of third-gen 4Runners. I’m not. They’re fine. The 3.4 is bulletproof, but so are bowling balls, which move much faster. The interior is nothing special. The lines of the exterior, which I once found restrained, now look a little bland. (The higher trim models with all the egregious, bulbous cladding are even worse.) The steering is thankfully vague – it gives you something to fidget with while you wait for the motor to get you up to highway speeds. The frames come standard with typical ‘90s Toyota rust anxiety. If good condition third gen 4Runners cost what they should cost now – $5k for something with around 100,000 miles – then I’d suggest you look past all that to take advantage of an it’ll-do SUV that can take advantage of bewildering vibrant aftermarket ecosystem that will let you turn the vehicle into anything you want. (As long as what you want is juntaesque; you can be the paramilitary dragoon, the rogue, bejewelled colonel, or the UN peacekeeper, as fits your weekend fantasy of what you’d drive through a third-world coup.) But they don’t cost $5k. They’re going up in price, not down. Buy something newer, which if nothing else will have more power. Look at a fourth gen, which for some reason people don’t like, but has two extra cylinders. Buy a Land Cruiser, which at least gets you into a club with only six orthodontists for every four off-roaders. Just don’t pay a premium for Budweiser.
Andrew P. Collins (Car Bibles Staff)
Borrowed Joel’s 4Runner for like six months
A former colleague and friend didn’t have any place to park his T4R in New York City, so I let him stash it at my place upstate in exchange for being able to drive it. Thing was in just-OK condition but rode really nice, seemed to have plenty of power, and I consistently squeezed better than 20 mpg out of it on the highway.
My main memories of it are that the sunroof leaked, which was a real bummer, and that the whole truck felt smaller than you might expect. The cockpit was nice and cozy. I slept in it a few times on camping trips and had plenty of room to sprawl out on a homemade platform (I’m six-feet tall) and generally enjoyed driving it. I think it was running Cooper Discoverer A/T tires which I really like; we did a couple off-road park visits around the northeast and the T4R really did well scrambling up and down huge hills with minimal modifications.
Bottom line: This is a great vehicle for off-road and overland builds. I used to recommend them for people getting into the scene all the time, but now they’re a little too hard to buy to grab casually. You will pay a premium for one of these over something like a Pathfinder or Land Rover, but the reward is a huge community, a
Own or owned one of these and want to share your thoughts? Hit up in the comments or email firstname.lastname@example.org!
What They’re Worth Now
The prime example: You’re looking at about $15,000-$18,000. This is for low miles, one-owner, full service history, and no issues whatsoever. With 4Runners, this is usually around 100k miles or less, and you could afford a 4WD Limited or Sport/Highlander with diff lock.
A very clean driver: Budget about $9,000-$12,000. These trucks have decent miles, but are serviced well, cosmetically 9/10, and well cared for with some road grime. This is what I call the “goldilocks zone” where the car has been driven and sorted, but well loved. Expect around 130kish miles for a good 4Runner in this range. 4WD Limiteds are well within range, and diff lock is still on the table.
An honest car: Budget $7,000-$8,500. These cars will have driver miles, and have some mods. Expect mileage above 170,000 easily, and for it to be a touch rough. 4WD is certainly achievable, but you’ll be looking at SR5s or higher mileage Limiteds.
The budget option: At $5,000-$6,500, you’ll get a rough-ish 4Runner that maybe needs some love. It will run, and you might be able to swing 4WD.
A roach: $4,000 will get you a Base 2WD 4Runner that drives, even if it is a little bit rough. It’s extremely hard to find an actually exploded 4Runner.
Where to Find One for Sale
You’re going to find most 4Runners for sale on Craigslist and FB marketplace. The vast majority will be privately-owned.
Some are more valuable and do end up on auction sites like Bring-a-Trailer, and Cars & Bids. The best examples will go to auction, and the rest are easily found on Craigslist and FB marketplace.
What to Ask a Seller
Go-to questions should include:
“Has the radiator been replaced?” (automatics only)
“When were the lower ball joints done?”
“When was the timing belt last done?” (V6 only)
Competitors to Consider
Primary competitors to the 3rd-Gen 4Runner range from Lexus GX470s, old TJ Jeep Wranglers, FZJ80 Land Cruisers, Mitsubishi Monteros, and Land Rover Discos at the top end ‘99-’02 4WD Limiteds/Sport Edition, and for lesser models like four-cylinders, SR5s, and even 2WDs, you can find Ford Explorers, GMC Jimmys, Nissan Pathfinders, and other random 2WD compact SUVs.
Toyota Newsroom has a fabulous gallery here.
Pop Culture References
The third-gen 4Runner never got any love in any video game besides a single, excellent appearances in 4×4 Evo and 4×4 Evo 2, with customizable ARB bumpers, and factory color options.
Jerry Seinfeld drives a 1996 Limited in an episode of Kings of Queens, and talks about rack-and-pinion steering.
The Internet Movie Car Database has a huge batch of 4Runner appearances in TV shows and movies but almost all of them are arbitrary background spots. There’s a third-gen T4R is in Black Panther as a prop truck in a combat scene, there’s actually a whole convoy of 4Runners in a huge chase battle but they’re fifth gens.
There’s apparently an early third-gen T4R in Season 1, Episode 5 of The Wire.
There’s a song called “4Runner” from a 2021 album, you can listen to and watch the “official visualizer” (I guess that’s not quite a music video) right here:
Every car has a collection of common questions that pop up in forums and Facebook groups whenever new blood joins in. We hope a lot of those have been answered above, but if we start to see specific questions pop up regularly we’ll revisit them here.
Downloadable Paperback Car Bible (Coming Soon)
If you’re old school and like to keep reference notes on paper, or you’re just a completionist and want a free accessory for your third-gen 4Runner, a paperback downloadable Car Bible will be available soon.
Think of it like an owner’s manual supplement. Keep it in your car and your days of waiting for slow internet on your phone at the auto parts store are over!
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