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Unexpected Success: The Toyota 4Runner Turned 35 This Year

A decade ago, about two dozen people shivered around a boxy SUV draped in a black sheet waiting to find out what was hidden underneath. It was only about 80 degrees outside, but the air conditioning in the Art Deco hall at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas was on full-blast in anticipation of the huge crowds who would observe, poke and prod the latest cars over the course of the three-week fair that would open to the public the next day.

After a brief talk from a Toyota engineer, the sheet came off. What was hiding underneath was a banged up, silver-painted 2010 Toyota 4Runner Trail with its front bumper and headlights held on with duct tape. It was not a pretty sight. The truck had been dragged over California’s challenging Rubicon Trail, a 4-wheeling route that has featured prominently in advertising for the truck’s arch-rival, Jeep. This was done to prove the vehicle’s chops.

The quiet unveiling of the 4Runner was met with a muted response, both from the handful of media in attendance and from the Toyota executives, who seemed more interested in talking up the high fuel economy and low price on the brand’s redesigned Prius parked nearby. It turns out we all should have been more excited, but who could blame us.

In late 2009, the Great Recession was in full swing, and SUV sales had plummeted. Toyota had sold just 19,675 4Runners in the U.S. by the end of 2009 — about 100,000 fewer than its dealers had moved just five years before. Toyota was wary of re-entering the SUV market, which analysts figured had peaked. The automaker offered the redesigned 4Runner in only four paint colors and hyped up a late-introduction 4-cylinder version available at a lower price.

Pundits questioned why Toyota bothered to redesign the 4Runner instead of simply dropping it in favor of the more popular and far more frugal Highlander. A decade later, the 4Runner gamble has certainly paid off. Last year, Toyota sold nearly 140,000 4Runners for the model’s best year ever. Sales are down this year, but not by much. Toyota may top 130,000 by the time January hits.

It’s unlikely that Toyota ever expected it would be selling 4Runners in 2020 when the model debuted in 1984. The original 4Runner was basically a Toyota pickup with a composite shell over the bed, a minimalist rear bench seat and a small roll bar. By 1990, the SUV movement was picking up steam, and the 4Runner was recast as a family hauler with serious off-road chops. The same design philosophy remains in place today: a boxy body atop a ladder chassis, an independent front suspension and a solid rear axle suspended by coil springs.

Toyota 4Runner

It was the third-generation 4Runner (1996-2002) that really catapulted the model into driveways and onto trails. The just-right combination of serious capabilities to match its rugged looks, bulletproof reliability and a wide variety of configurations has kept resale value very strong. From 2003 to 2009, the vehicle grew considerably and starting coming with a V8 engine and a third row of seats. Good examples can command more than $10,000, which is a lot of money for a 20-year-old SUV.

Five generations later, it’s clear that the 4Runner has serious staying power. The current 4Runner shares much of its structure with the Lexus GX 460 and the global-market Toyota Prado — the shared costs of which certainly helped to justify the 2010 redesign. The 2020 model, which is closely related to the original Rubicon-tested example that debuted in that frigid Dallas convention hall, finally adds adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking and support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Find a Toyota 4Runner for sale

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Andrew Ganz
Andrew Ganz
Andrew Ganz is an author specializing in helping in-market consumers get the most bang for their buck -- and the best car, while they're at it. When not virtually shopping for new and used cars, Andrew can probably be found under the hood of a vintage classic that's rapidly losing fluids.

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