From rugged, off-roading adventures in the Rockies, to long family road trips down to the Gulf of Mexico, the Toyota 4Runner is a sport-utility vehicle (SUV) with a little something for everyone.
The name 4runner embodies Toyota’s vision of versatility for the vehicle — the “4” represents four-wheel drive, and the “runner” refers to being able to run “off-road”. Since it’s release in 1984, the 4Runner has gone through five generations of evolution and improvement.
Read on for a brief history of the Toyota 4Runner and how it’s improved and changed over the past 30 years.
First Generation: Focus on Utility
The 1985 model of the 4Runner was all about utility. The frame of the vehicle was modeled after a pickup truck, with the addition of a covered rear cargo area. The only seats in the vehicle were two in the front of the cab, leaving room in the rear for camping supplies, bicycles, luggage, or any other gear you might use.
To differentiate themselves from competitors coming out with similar vehicles, Toyota advertised the 4Runner as having the highest ground clearance of any small to midsize SUV. But what really differentiated the 4Runner was not necessarily its clearance, but its unique convertible features. Removable fiberglass shells over the rear and top of the vehicle allowed for open-air driving — perfect for off-road, backcountry adventures.
Over the next three years, the 4Runner saw improvements in power, ride, and appearance. In 1986, the addition of Hi-Trac independent front suspension and a fuel-injected engine gave the 4Runner even better clearance, and more off-road power. Toyota also released a turbocharged version, available on SR5 models.
The turbocharged version of the 4Runner was created to make a lighter 4-cylinder engine seem more powerful. However, by 1988 this turbocharged engine was discontinued, and instead was replaced by an optional 3.0L V6 engine: a better suit for the off-road design of the vehicle.
Second Generation: Better Than A Minivan
In the spring of 1989, Toyota introduced a 4Runner with a fresh, new look. Tough and rugged, the SUV was modeled after a line of completely redesigned pick-up trucks. SUVs, however, were no longer just for off-road, adventure junkies. More and more families began to seek an alternative to the mini-van. An SUV was a more modern, stylish way to get outside with the whole family on board. As a result, Toyota began to cater to this new market.
While still maintaining its off-road, outdoor capabilities, Toyota added a touch of upscale design to 4Runner Limited models. Leather seats, wood trim, a sunroof, and a high-quality 8-speaker stereo system were all available features for those who wanted a bit more luxury on the road.
The early ‘90s models of 4Runners rounded out the second generation with a lineup of new safety features. Catering to the demands of families looking for high-star ratings, Toyota added side-impact protection, a third brake light, and the option of four-wheel anti-lock brakes on V6 models.
At this point, the 4Runner’s price was nearing $30,000 — a major increase from its entrance to the market. No longer just a glorified pickup truck, the 4Runner had secured its place as a family-worthy investment, while still ready and capable for rough, back-country handling.
Third Generation: Total Redesign
By 1996, the 4Runner was Toyota’s most popular SUV. The constant improvements to the vehicle, along with Toyota’s increasingly well-respected reputation as a reliable vehicle manufacturer resulted in a 30% increase in 4Runner sales that year. So in response to quality customer feedback, Toyota prompted a major redesign of the vehicle.
Toyota 4Runner Off-Roading, image source: www.toyota-4runner.org
A new body and chassis were two major changes to the 4Runner. These new designs began to distinguish the 4Runner from its original truck-inspired look. In fact, the 1996 model of the 4Runner was the first to share neither body panels nor frame with any of Toyota’s trucks.
Keeping the 4runner updated for growing families and the booming popularity of SUVs continued to be an emphasis for this generation of 4Runners. More room in the interior, side-step rails, improved center console, and a new lift-up tailgate appealed to families and car-buyers looking for a rugged SUV that was still convenient for everyday life.
Safety also continued to be a key focus for Toyota. Dual airbags, along with four-wheel ABS, side-door impact beams, and ALR/ELR seatbelts came standard in all models. Toyota also continued to develop their anti-lock brake systems. A-Trac (Active Traction Control) technology, Vehicle Skid Control, and Electronic Brake Force Distribution made the 4Runner safer and easier to handle in tough weather conditions.
Fourth Generation: New Editions to the 4Runner Lineup
Once the high-end model, the SR5 was now (in 2002) the base model of 4Runners. And in its place, a new Sport edition was added to the line in 2003.
This edition was marketed to be the best option for people looking to really take advantage of the 4Runner’s true back-country capabilities. With a hood scoop, a liquid shock system, and larger front brake calipers and rotors, the Sport edition was an homage to the 4Runners roots as an aggressive backcountry vehicle.
The new Limited edition of the vehicle came stocked with luxury features. Improved navigational technology, memory seat cushions, and an optional third-row seat were just a few examples of the possible add-ons.
Just before the fifth generation of 4Runners came to market, Toyota added two new additions the lineup: a Trail and Urban Runner edition
The Trail edition reasserted the 4Runner as a tough, trail-ready package for the outdoor enthusiast. With water-resistant seat covers, “Trail Edition” badging, and a detachable TomTom® navigation system, this edition of the SUV was offered an extra edge to those car-buyers not looking for the overly family-friendly SUV.
The Urban Runner package was an add-on to the Sport Edition of the 4Runner. Adding value, style, and luxury to this already well-equipped model, this package included a number of interior enhancements. Bluetooth® integration, power driver and passenger seats, leather and wood trimmings, and steering wheel controls were major technological improvements.
Fifth Generation: The 4Runner Today
In 2010, Toyota released the largest 4Runner to date. Other manufacturers were focused on making bigger, family-friendly SUVs. While Toyota did increase the size of the 4Runner, they managed to keep the body looking rugged, versatile, and still a mid-size vehicle. Instead, Toyota used the Highlander to deliver a large carrying capacity and a soft ride for families.
2012 saw major changes for the 4Runner in the means of audio technology. SiriusXM™ Satellite Radio came standard in SR5 and Trail models. A USB port with iPod® connectivity and hands-free Bluetooth® capabilities were new included features, as well.
Limited editions were stocked with all of the above features, plus a new display-type audio system including a navigation system, HD Radio, text/e-mail-to-speech, and Toyota Entune™ services.
Today, the Toyota 4Runner lives by the motto, “Keep it wild.” The 4runner heads into 2015 with a new, yet still very rugged, look and feel, and a new TRD Pro edition will offer even better off-road capabilities.
For thirty years, the 4Runner has remained one of the most versatile SUVs in the market. Whether you’re a family of five, or a single adventurer, there is a 4Runner for everyone who wants to get out there and have some fun on the open road.