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Buying a Used Toyota 4Runner: Everything You Need to Know

The Toyota 4Runner is legendary among those who truly use their SUV for its intended purpose: off-road adventuring. It has a long history of solid performance and capability coupled with an impressively long life. Since its inception, the 4Runner has employed body-on-frame construction, even though almost all its competition have moved to a unit body similar to how cars are constructed.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both, but the formula works well for the 4Runner, and that is all its buyers seem to care about. If you are looking for a smooth ride, the latest high-tech systems, a wide interior or good fuel economy, you will need to look elsewhere. But if your goals center around driving a rugged 4×4 SUV that can seat five, store lots of gear and go just about anywhere, a used 4Runner may very well be your next vehicle.

Which Toyota 4Runner Should I Buy?

The first 4Runner arrived here in 1984, and this generation ran to 1989. A stretched version of Toyota‘s popular pickup, the 2-door 4Runner featured a removable hard top, second-row seats and a station wagonlike retractable rear window that had to be lowered before the tailgate could be opened. Power came from a 4-cylinder engine that later would see a turbocharger added, and a V6 was offered after 1988.

Early 4Runners featured a solid front axle, but midway through this first generation, the front suspension was changed to an independent suspension. A 4Runner from this generation will be hard to find in good condition, and as they have now become collector cars, the few that are out there are going to be selling for big bucks. Still, if you find one that hasn’t rusted too badly, the mechanicals are known for their ability to go 200, 300, even 400,000 miles. Don’t look for any safety systems or even side-impact door beams, as they weren’t around back then.

The second-generation Toyota 4Runner runs from 1990 to 1995 and was a much different vehicle. The removable roof was jettisoned, while a 4-door version was added alongside a low-production 2-door that was only produced for two years. This 4Runner used much of the same mechanicals as the original, although the V6 versions got a new chain-driven transfer case vs. the 4-cylinder’s gear-driven unit, and a set of coil springs replaced the old leafs.

The 4Runner’s interior was made more civilized, with more luxury features added like available power windows, leather seating and cruise control. Regrettably, as cool as these old 4Runners look, they still lacked even the most rudimentary safety system, although side-impact door beams were finally added in 1994. Given the age and mileage on these models, you’re looking at paying between, $1,000 and $5,000 depending on condition.

The third generation ran from 1996-2002 and is about the oldest 4Runner we’d recommend as a used vehicle. This model got a lot more safety features like dual airbags and reinforced doors that helped it achieve better safety ratings. No longer sharing an exterior or frame with Toyota’s Tacoma pickup, the 4Runner’s platform grew larger in all directions.

The fold-down rear gate changed to a swing-up design, but the retractable rear window remained. The suspension and steering were vastly improved, although the 4Runner’s ride and handling was still very trucklike. Engines grew to a 150-horsepower 2.7-liter 4-cylinder and 183-hp 3.4-liter V6. Throughout this series, Toyota added numerous upgrades, including electronic stability control and A-TRAC active traction assist. All of these improvements make this generation a favorite of off-road enthusiasts, with numerous aftermarket suppliers catering to the 4Runner crowd.

A look at the classified shows prices can range from a low of around $3,000 for a 1999 Limited with over 250,000 miles to a high of around $8,000 for a 2002 4Runner Limited with around 140,000 miles.

The fourth generation Toyota 4Runner ran from 2003-2009 and is probably the best model range to shop for if you’re looking for a low-priced SUV with reasonable mileage and more modern conveniences. The 4Runner again grew in size and capability, dropping the 4-cylinder engine and opting for a standard 245-hp V6, with a 4.7-liter V8 offered as an option on the Limited and Sport trim. A 4-speed automatic came standard but was changed to a 5-speed after model year 2005.

The V8 produced 235 hp, but after 2005, Toyota added a variable valve timing system (VVTi) that increased output to 270 hp. V6 models got a more sophisticated 4-wheel drive system with multi-mode selectable settings, including 2WD. The V8 models used a full-time 4WD system. 4WD 4Runners also included hill ascent and descent controls plus a locking center differential. A new Sport trim added a hood scoop, larger brakes and Toyota’s X-REAS hydraulic shock absorber system designed to reduce body lean in sharp curves. When properly equipped, the V8 model could tow up to 7,300 pounds.

Inside, the 4Runner’s slightly larger cabin now offered an available third-row seat, though legroom in said seat was pretty cramped and the cargo bay was greatly reduced. Feeling the heat from Jeep‘s Grand Cherokee and Ford‘s Explorer, Toyota offered more luxury items on the Limited trim, including navigation, JBL audio, automatic climate control and a dual-camera rearview monitor. In 2008, side curtain airbags were made standard and in 2009, the Trail Edition was made optional on the SR5. It added a locking rear differential, Bilstein shocks, Active Traction Control (A-TRAC), water-resistant seat fabric and a new Tom-Tom navigation radio with Bluetooth, iPod integration and detachable GPS screen.

Pricing for this generation will be considerably higher than a competitor from the same year, as resale remains one of the 4Runner’s best-selling points. We found a range of prices and mileage, from a low of around $8,000 for a 2004 Limited with 150,000 miles to a high of $22,000 for a 2009 Limited with less than 50,000 miles.

The fifth generation and current 4Runner debuted in 2009 as a 2010 model and continues to serve as the basis for the current model. By this point, the 4Runner had grown much larger. It was also heavier. The ride and handling were improved but still very trucklike and nowhere near as comfortable as a Jeep Grand Cherokee. The 4Runner’s price also started to creep up, moving into Lexus and Land Rover territory.

New trims included the Trail Edition that came with Toyota’s Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS), crawl control and a locking rear differential. The standard engine was a 157-hp 2.7-liter 4-cylinder that was only offered on 2WD models and was dropped from the lineup by 2011. Most used 4Runners will have a 270-hp 4.0-liter V6. The previous generation’s V8 did not carry over. Over time, Toyota added more trims and features to the 4Runner, including Optitron electroluminescent gauge cluster and Toyota’s Entune infotainment system. The 4Runner’s interior was made slightly larger, but the integrated third-row seat option was still woefully inadequate for adults.

In 2014, the 4Runner got a major makeover that included an aggressive new front end, HID headlights and a new TRD Pro trim that added TRD-specific springs and Bilstein shocks. Later models would gain more TRD-inspired trims such as the TRD Off-Road and Off-Road Premium. This generation also offered more safety equipment, with the Toyota Safety Sense-P safety tech suite becoming standard starting with the 2020 model. It also got an infotainment update for 2020 with a standard 8-inch screen with Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and Amazon Alexa. For the off-road enthusiast, this is one of the better choices in the 4Runner family.

Pricing for this generation is going to be high, in some cases more than a new Jeep Grand Cherokee or Wrangler might cost. A 2010 4Runner SR5 with 100,000 miles will list on a dealer lot for around $16,000, while a similar-condition Trail Edition sells for around $23,000. A 2018 Limited with 25,000 miles and a CPO certification can top $40,000.

Which year Toyota 4Runners are the best for off-roading?

While all 4Runners are capable off-road vehicles, the third and fourth generation are probably your best bet. They combine powerful engine options with robust 4WD systems yet also offer better build quality and safety features. A late-model 4Runner is equally adept, but the lofty price tag may prohibit many from putting their investment in harm’s way.

Is the Toyota 4Runner a safe vehicle?

The first two generations offer the least amount of passenger protection and are not recommended as daily drivers or as family transporters. Each generation after the third gets progressively better safety ratings and crash test scores as well as equipment like side-curtain airbags.

What kind of fuel economy does the Toyota 4Runner get?

Unlike many of its unit-body competitors, the 4Runner has never been good on gas. Even the 4-cylinder models rank poorly, with most V6 and V8 trims earning in the low to mid- teens for the combined city/highway fuel economy rating.

Why are used Toyota 4Runners so expensive?

The 4Runner has an excellent reputation for durability, reliability and longevity. It’s a solid machine with impressive off-road chops. As such, even high-mileage models are in high demand, which pushes the price up.

What are some known issues with the Toyota 4Runner?

Early-model 4Runners suffered the same rust issues as many of Toyota’s early trucks. The third-generation trucks also have some rust issues, problems with warped brake rotors, sagging rear springs and the possible failure of transmission cooling tubes that allow transmission oil to mix with radiator fluid. The fourth-generation models hold up pretty well but were involved in the massive Toyota recall pertaining to an issue with a possible unintended acceleration situation.

Head gasket failure on the 2003-2005 V6 4Runners are reported in higher numbers than normal, while the V8 models need to have their timing belt changed every 90,000, religiously. The fifth generation has no major issues of concern, although there have been some complaints about the Entune infotainment system freezing up or slow to change screens.

How Does the Toyota 4Runner Stack Up to the Competition?

Used Toyota 4Runner vs. Jeep Grand Cherokee

The 4Runner and Grand Cherokee are both excellent off-roaders, with the edge going to the 4Runner due to its more rugged body-on-frame construction. The Grand Cherokee drives and rides better on paved roads, but it’s nowhere near as reliable.

Used Toyota 4Runner vs. Nissan Pathfinder

The older Nissan Pathfinder was a body on frame truck like the 4Runner, and it was a pretty good off-road vehicle. The two were similar in size and performance, but the 4Runner holds much higher resale values. After 2013, however, the Pathfinder switched to a unit body that made it basically an on-road-only SUV.

Used Toyota 4Runner vs. Land Rover Discovery

The older Discovery (later renamed LR3) may be the only SUV that is better off-road than the 4Runner. Depending on the year, you’ll spend more for a Land Rover both before and after purchase. That is because the Discovery and LR3 are notoriously trouble-prone SUVs that are very expensive to repair and maintain.

Is the Toyota 4Runner a Good Vehicle?

Yes, the Toyota 4Runner is a very good vehicle, provided you’re buying one for its intended purpose. However, if you’re looking for a comfortable, roomy SUV that can seat seven, gets good gas mileage, offers all-wheel drive for snow road conditions and has stellar safety ratings, then a car-based SUV like the Toyota Highlander or Honda Pilot make a better choice. Find a Toyota 4Runner for sale

Joe Tralongo
Joe Tralongo
Joe Tralongo is a longtime contributor who started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2002 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He’s well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to translate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations. Joe has worked for a number of outlets as... Read More about Joe Tralongo

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