The Toyota 4Runner Proves That the Best Car Is the One That Just Works
Crossovers and SUVs come and go, but a 4Runner is tough to beat – no matter which one you have.
The older I get, the more I’ve learned the value in buying and doing things that just work. Things that you can count on every day without thinking about them too much because you know they won’t let you down. Solid black t-shirts you can wear with anything. A good pair of Blundstone boots. Staying out of petty Twitter drama. And in the case of vehicles, Toyota trucks.
Disclaimers, disclosures: Toyota loaned us the 4Runner TRD Pro pictured here, and had it delivered with a full tank of fuel.
After a decade spent in the unreliable European car game – plus one Subaru WRX that could occasionally be a basket case in its own right – and dealing with bad New York winters, a pandemic, a deeply-felt need to escape the city and experience the outdoors, the Toyota 4Runner I bought on Craigslist for a song 18 months ago is quickly turning into maybe the best car I’ve ever owned. Who knew?
For dependability, hauling, off-road capability and generally being the automotive equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife, it’s hard to go wrong with a 4Runner. That’s any 4Runner, too, from the 1980s original that was basically just a pickup truck with rear seats and a fiberglass canopy to the loaded, modern-ish $50,000 2021 4Runner TRD Pro I tested recently. It applies to my own 4Runner, as well – a 2002 4Runner Limited that has since become an indefatigable workhorse that our family counts on daily. Parts are cheap, maintenance is easy and surprises are few and far between. In a year filled with worries big and small, this 4Runner is one thing I know won’t let me down.
No matter what era you’re in, a 4Runner just works. And a chance to drive my ’02 back-to-back with a new 2021 model proved how much these things never change. And if you’ve come to love and rely on them, as I do, then they fall into the “accept no substitutes” category as well.
How a Third-Gen 4Runner Daily Driver Holds Up Today
Like most good decisions in my life, 4Runner ownership was actually my wife’s idea.
She was burned out from years of owning expensive-to-repair Mini Coopers and my own addiction to rad but deeply unreliable 1980s BMWs. She wanted something tough, reliable, no-nonsense and capable of handling a New York City winter and frequent trips upstate.
“We should just get a 4Runner,” she declared in late 2019. “It can be our apocalypse escape vehicle.” A few days later, after seeing some ISIS fighters roll through a battlefield in a Toyota Hilux on the evening news, I was struck by how much I agreed with her. After all, the entire Toyota truck family is famous for its robustness, dependability and availability of parts. “You know, you gotta hand it to those guys,” I said to her. “They know what’s up. I bet they don’t have time to worry about how reliable their trucks are.” I was on Craigslist later that night and found a contender.
The one I found was the last model year of the third-generation 4Runners. Introduced in 1995, it was bigger, more comfortable and better equipped than its predecessors – the one that moved the model past “truck with back seats” and into the then-burgeoning passenger SUV market. Powered by either the 3RZ-FE 2.7-liter four-cylinder or the 5VZ-FE 3.4-liter V6 – both venerable truck engines – and an assortment of diesels in other markets, this edition of the “Hilux Surf” SUV took the concept to new heights and proved to be ahead of its time. It kept all the 4×4 competence of its predecessors and added bigger, truck-ier engine options, anti-lock brakes, a more sophisticated suspension and a nicer interior. In some trim levels, it had near-Lexus levels of appointments, and then as now Toyota realized people were willing to pay a premium for ride height, off-road capability and comfort. My top-of-the-line Limited model even has the soft vinyl dash and fake wood accents you found on almost every ’90s luxury car.
In picking this one up, I seem to have stumbled onto something of a moment for these 4Runners in general. The overlanding trend has been blowing up for years, but it was accelerated by the pandemic as people became desperate to leave their homes in search of safe, socially distant adventures. Even the latest trends around new SUVs are all about “the off-grid life,” as the New York Times recently put it; just look at the Land Rover Defender, Ford Bronco and Bronco Sport and Jeep’s booming profits.
For those of us who instead prefer older cars, this need to escape coincided with the “rad” trend, where a generation of financially empowered (sort of) younger enthusiasts turned their eyes to the ’80s and ’90s cars they grew up with. That was helped along by a newfound appreciation of the Japanese “Bubble Era,” the time of super-overbuilt Japanese cars that can last forever if you take care of them. Right now, clean, rust-free examples of this 4Runner generation are going for $25,000 or more on sites like Bring a Trailer and Cars & Bids. You can really see from their graphs how prices have shot up during pandemic. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. It wasn’t why I bought mine in late 2019, but I seem to have hit on some realizations many other people are having.
I was a bit concerned by the 200,000-plus miles on its odometer, but then I remembered: This is a 4Runner. This is what they’re supposed to do. After a careful inspection, I negotiated with the seller to part ways with it for a bit over $3,000 and drove away a happy camper. I spent the following afternoon lovingly washing it, replacing the windshield wipers with new ones and installing some LED bulbs, only to be told it had a major exhaust leak when I took it to get inspected. This explained why I got such bad headaches when I drove it. (Carbon monoxide poisoning is like being on edibles, except your brain is dying. I do not recommend it.)
About $800 later, I was good to go with a new exhaust, a body with a few battle scars, heated leather seats, a working sunroof and a 4WD system that laughs at blizzards. At the recommendation of Car Bibles EIC Andrew Collins, I threw on a set of Cooper Discoverer AT3 4S truck tires, and they’ve been able to handle deep snow and city driving without sacrificing road quality. Subsequent repairs have been… well, not much, honestly. Just basic, routine maintenance. Most recently, I replaced the battery—the battery on my key fob, that is.
The thing starts every day, drives long distances, handles road trips in the snow, and even served as a moving van not too long ago. My wife’s line about escaping the apocalypse ended up being more prescient than either of us realized, given the disaster that was the following year. And recently, we ended up moving out of the city full-time, where the 4Runner would be far more in its element than my not-so-dearly departed 1984 BMW 733i ever was. The sunroof even still works, although I don’t completely trust it.
It’s not fast; far from it. In fact, it’s the slowest car I’ve ever owned. The V6 was rated at 183 horsepower when it was new, and that’s a lot to task with moving nearly 4,000 pounds. The four-speed automatic isn’t much help either. It’s lethargic on steep hills and won’t run me the risk of getting any speeding tickets. Fuel economy? I’d prefer not to talk about it. It’s not especially fun in the corners, either. On paper, it has none of the qualities I usually go for in a car.
But when bad weather hits, I can handle anything Mother Nature throws at me. I can shift into 4WD low or 4WD high with a lever, lock the center differential with a button on the dash, or shift on the fly into 4WD high with a button on the shifter. I’m not a hobbyist off-roader like some, so I almost exclusively stick to the latter and it works great. It’s as comfortable as any modern crossover with real off-road capability. After moving out of the city and into the upstate wilderness, I’ve been quite glad I’ve had that capability, especially with the record snow we’ve had lately.
Best of all, besides keeping up with the maintenance, I just don’t think about it all that much; it’s not a source of stress or financial strain or headaches. It handles everything I throw at it and it always gets the job done. Today I’m at more than 213,000 miles and more in love with my 4Runner than ever. The best car is one that just works, and this one certainly does.
How a Modern 4Runner Compares
While I didn’t anticipate many surprises, I did need to know if a 2021 4Runner had the same spirit as my car. And the answer, not shockingly, is yes. Mostly.
Frankly, it’s hard to believe that over 20 years, just one generation of 4Runner sits between this car and mine. In that same time period, we’ve had three (soon to be four) new Honda Civics, four Ford F-150s and four Subaru Outbacks. People forget that part of that legendary Toyota reliability is that they use the same engines, transmissions and cars period forever.
To that end, this generation of 4Runner has been with us since 2009, which feels more like 50 years ago for various reasons, and the age shows inside. It’s functional but basic, all knobs and switches and buttons (a good thing by some standards) instead of slick digital displays and computer menus everywhere. The touch infotainment system works fine enough, but menus feel awfully dated. At least it has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but here it kind of looks like you’re trying to run the 2020 edition of Microsoft Flight Simulator on a GameBoy Advance.
It’s also considerably bigger than my 4Runner in every way. It’s taller, longer and wider. I vastly prefer the smaller size of my SUV; coming from sports car ownership I’ve gotten pretty good at hustling it through the corners, but that’s out of the question with a fifth-gen 4Runner. And especially in this trim, it looks so aggro. If my car is an avid outdoorsman who’s happy to give you friendly tips on how to get into fly fishing, the new 4Runner TRD Pro is the guy who marches through the mall in camo pants and a utility belt. Calm down, bro!
But it’s even more capable. To go into high 4WD here, you pull a lever down, and up and to the right to do 4-low. I love how it’s a big, physical shifter you move, not a knob or a button. It’s immensely satisfying to engage in an old-school gearbox way. And in the spirit of any good infomercial, but wait, there’s more. You also have Crawl Control, which automates the speed and braking on a downhill off-road descent; Multi-Terrain Select, a knob that optimizes the SUV for mud and sand, rocks, gravel and more; and A-TRAC, which automatically detects wheel spin and brakes the wheel with no traction to send torque to the one that does.
A TRD Pro also comes with Nitto Terra Grappler all-terrain tires, a very gaudy front skid plate and Fox shocks. As far as modern SUVs go, it’s a very specialized vehicle. You can take your kids to soccer practice in it, but that’s a bit like grocery shopping with your McLaren. You won’t even remotely scratch the surface of what it can do. The TRD Pro especially is for hobbyist off-roaders. Normies like me will probably be totally fine with a standard 4Runner.
The tradeoff for actually performing like the vehicle most crossovers pretend to be is that a 4Runner drives like a truck. It’s big, it’s kind of floppy on the road, steering is vague and it’s rather slow. The 4.0-liter V6 has far more grunt than my car, but it’s nothing to write home about either; similarly, the five-speed automatic is no help.
But what you get is something solid, competent, sure-footed and capable of far, far more than any crossover. I drove this TRD Pro through a few bad snowstorms when I had it, and I can tell you there aren’t many vehicles I’d rather be in. Time will tell if the fifth generation of 4Runner develops a long-term, spend-obscene-amounts-at-auction following like its older brothers did. But it’s off to a decent start. Recent 4Runners hold their value incredibly well. Five- and six-year-old examples can go for $25,000 to $35,000 easily, even as they approach 100,000 miles or more. This model’s age, coupled with legendary Toyota reliability, make it tough for me to recommend a new one in 2021 and beyond. Save yourself a few grand (or 10) and find one with some miles and the proper maintenance instead. If truly desire a new 4Runner, plan on keeping it forever.
The Hellcat-powered Jeeps may get all the clicks, but there’s a sizable contingent of off-roaders who trust nothing else. And let’s be honest: they know which of these is more likely to still be on the road, with minimal repair bills, in 10 years. Or 20, like my car.
Accept No Substitutes
At this point, I’m not sure I imagine myself without one of these in my life—or something from the Toyota off-roading family. Maybe a Land Cruiser next. A 4×4 Tacoma, at the very least. Are people importing weird Hiluxes from other markets yet? I’m from Texas originally, but it took moving to upstate New York to make me a Truck Guy.
To me, a 4Runner proves the best car is the one that just works. We can talk all day about horsepower and style and lap times or whatever, but in my book, there’s nothing better than the vehicle that doesn’t let you down. In a world where too many new cars are treated as disposable toys that will turn into nightmares as soon as the warranty is up or the lease term is over, true, long-term dependability and build quality are underrated attributes.
That “it just works” sentiment is true even for a brand-new TRD Pro, it’s not as flashy as some off-roaders. It doesn’t have a supercharged Hemi V8 and it won’t make you look like a Russian gangster. It’s old and it’s slow. But it quietly and solidly gets the job done as good as any SUV—better, in many cases. It’s hard to go wrong with that approach.
Patrick George is the Editorial Director of Brookline Media, which includes The Drive and Car Bibles. If he ever volunteers to help you wrench on your car, you should quickly change the subject.