4Runner Generation History – Year Differences
All Generations (1st – 5th Gen) of Toyota 4Runner Explained in Real-Life and an Off-Road Perspective
“What 4Runner should I Buy?”
A question commonly asked in the Off-Roading 4Runner world or for 4Runners in general. If you are asking this question, this is the 4Runner On-Road and Off-Road buyers guide for you. We will be comparing the pros and cons of every 4Runner 1984-Present. We will also be going over available Off-Road upgrades for each model (1st-5th Gen) and the benefits of each model.
1st Gen Toyota 4Runner (1984-1989)
A General Overview of the 1st Gen Toyota 4Runner (1984-1989)
1st Gen 4Runner Shot Cred: @Rockymtn4Runner
First, let’s start with the classic 1st Gen 4Runner, first released in May of 1984, and spawned from the from Toyota Trekker (Pre 4Runner – a collaboration between Toyota and Winnebago). The 1st Gen 4Runner was a 2 door SUV based on the Toyota Hilux with a truck mix. It’s commonly equipped with the 22re 4cyl and a 3.0 6cyl with the choice of a manual or automatic transmission.
They have a removable rear top/shell similar to a Jeeps removable top. Stock, the 1st Gen 4Runner has good gas mileage with a 19mpg city and 23 highway but the 22re is pretty sluggish compared to later years. Unless you happen to find the special 22re turbo 1st Gen 4Runner, but that’s an entire blog post on its own. With the 22re 1st Gen 4Runner, you will have a wide range of aftermarket parts as well, which we will get to soon.
They have no real support, body wise, though. So if rot begins to occur, you will have to find another 1st Gen 4Runner for quarters and floors and other common rot areas. There is also not a ton of options when it comes to the interior if your seats become ripped or destroyed.
As long as you can get your hands on a 1st Gen 4Runner that is well cared for, with nice interior/ exterior, they are amazing if maintained properly. While we did say the 22re engines are sluggish, they are “unkillable” if maintained properly.
The 1st Gen 4Runner is a solid all-around choice for an old-school look and feel that provides unparalleled dependability on and Off-Road. The key here is being patient, look around on Craigslist from city to city until you find one that has been “Garage Kept” and “Granny Owned”. If you find one of these, call us, we will more than likely buy it out from under you.
An Off-Road Overview of the 1st Gen Toyota 4Runner (1984-1989)
Possibly one of the most desired Toyota 4runners ever is the 1985 1st Gen 4Runner as it’s the last year they offered a solid front axle and the first year of Fuel Injection. If you are a rock crawler this is the 4Runner you’re looking for.
Now for the fun stuff you’ve been waiting for, the upgrades. For the 1st Gen 4Runners, you can get bolt-on transmission adaptors to easily install a chevy 350 or a ford 302 with ease for more power if you decide against the stock engine on the 1st Gen 4Runners. These v8’s will fit in the engine bay without any major alterations.
Or, you can find a 1st Gen 4Runner for sale with a blown motor that you don’t want to replace or because you have a 350/302 or 3rd Gen 4Runner 3.4l laying around and it would be cheaper.
There are many Straight-Axle Swap Kits available for the later 1st Gen 4Runners as well. But, may we say the factory Independent Front Steering/Suspension (IFS) handles off Road well in 1st Gen 4Runners and all other 4Runner Gens as well. If you decide a straight axle swap isn’t your sort of thing, don’t worry there’s plenty of lift kits available.
Now for body armor, there are a wide variety of steel plate and tube bumpers, skid plates, sliders, and roll cage kits available for 1st Gen 4Runners. Or, you can head down to your local Off-Road performance shop and have something custom done.
Just, try to find a Toyota shop, not a Jeep shop. With a Toyota Specific Off-Road shop, they will care more about what they are doing (more than likely) as opposed to another run of the mill Jeep shop.
2nd Gen Toyota 4Runner (1989-1995)
A General Overview of the 2nd Gen Toyota 4Runner (1989-1995)
Now if the 1st Gen 4Runner isn’t something you fancy but you still want an older 4×4 to go Off-Roading in, the 2nd Gen 4Runner is for you. First released in August 1989 the 2nd Gen 4Runner came with the 4cyl engine again along with the 6cyl, with your choice of a manual or automatic transmission. This is the first generation of 4Runner where they introduced 4 doors. There was a two-door version available, but they are not too common to find anymore. But, the 4-door version is common.
The 4 door 2nd Gen 4Runner was released every year 89-93, so we will focus on these years.
The 2nd Gen 4Runner, now with the more common 3.0 maintained good mpg and had slightly more power than the previous/current 22re 4cyl engine. The 2nd Gen 4Runner no longer has a removable top but it now has the 4Runner-famous roll down rear hatch window which we all personally love putting down outdoors, side streets and the freeway (whoever had that idea should be crowned). This is signature 4Runner.
Like the 1st Gen 4Runners, they lack exterior and interior support for the most part so yet again it’s either find one in good shape or make sure there are part shops and dismantler shops available in your area.
The 22re engine stayed “unkillable” as long as it was properly maintained but the 3.0 has many issues with a common head gasket issue due to the exhaust drying them out. So, if you use this as a 4×4 always be sure to make sure everything is in tip-top shape so you don’t break down your rig or blow a head gasket.
An Off-Road Overview of the 2nd Gen Toyota 4Runner (1989-1995)
2nd Gen 4Runner Shot Cred: @reedhuettlphotography
Now for the 2nd Gen 4Runner fun stuff. You still can get bolt-on transmission adaptors to easily install a chevy 350 or a ford 302 or even a newer generation 4Runner 3.4l v6 for more power. If you decide against the stock 22re or your 3.0 decides it doesn’t want to keep its head intact, consider swapping in a used engine. There are Straight-Axle Swap kits available for them as well, similar to the 1st Gen 4Runner kits.
We will say the factory Independent Front Steering/Suspension (IFS) handles Off-Road well in 2nd Gen 4Runner like it does in the 1st Gen 4Runner and the later generations as well. If you do prefer to leave it with stock Independent Front Suspension versus doing a straight axle swap there’s plenty of lift kits available for the 2nd Gen 4Runner.
Now for body armor and the complete 2nd Gen 4Runner off-road experience. You have steel plate and tube bumpers, skid plates, sliders and roll cage kits similar to the 1st Gen 4Runner but you have more of a variety than the 1st Gen 4Runner.
There are many fabrication companies that make stunning products for the 2nd Gen 4Runner. The 2nd Gen 4Runner is a very popular choice for an Off-Road vehicle for many reasons. With the body on frame combined with a straight axle, the 2nd Gen 4Runnercan climb anything, anytime and anywhere. It’s just beautiful.
3rd Gen Toyota 4Runner (1996-2002)
A General Overview of the 3rd Gen Toyota 4Runner (1996-2002)
3rd Gen 4Runner Shot Cred: @4RunninDownaDream
Now for people wanting a 4×4 that isn’t brand new but isn’t a street princess, we bring you the 3rd Gen 4Runner. First released in August of 1996 the 3rd Gen 4Runner yet again had a whole new design along with a new chassis including new driveline options.
The new driveline options are the not so common 2.7l 4cyl and the well known 3.4l 6cyl. With the 3rd Gen 4Runner, you still have the option of manual or automatic like the previous generations. The 3rd Gen 4Runner only came in a 4 door option unlike the previous generations, so the 3rd Gen 4Runner is 100% SUV.
The 3rd Gen 4Runner did keep the rear hatch with roll down window like the 2nd Gen 4Runner.
The 3.4 6 cyl that came in the 3rd Gen is truly the best motor for offroading in most people’s opinion due to it not having any major/common issues to worry about other than timing belts. The only major problem that we experienced with the 3rd Gen 4Runner was the brakes. For whatever reason on our first 3rd Gen 4Runner (1999 SR5), we replaced the brakes multiple times. And these were all factory brakes, no crazy upgrades. We put 210K miles on our 3rd Gen 4Runner and replaced the drums/ rotors 7 times (that’s not normal). Just a good note to think about.
An absolute beauty of a 4Runner, though. If we were to buy anything somewhat old, it would be a 3rd Gen 4Runner, again. With all my heart and soul, this is where Trail4Runner.com passion started.
An Off-Road Overview of the 3rd Gen Toyota 4Runner (1996-2002)
The 3rd Gen 4Runner has an optional supercharger for more power but without it, the 3.4 still has more power than the 22re and the 3.0. The 3rd Gen 4Runner does not have any support, like the previous two generations if the quarters or rockers rot or are destroyed.
But, there are plenty of them out there for spare parts so it’s not a major concern like 1st and 2nd Gen 4Runners. If you destroy a quarter panel or smash a rocker while Off-Roading, you just need to have a parts shop or dismantlers shop nearby.
Same goes for the interior, aftermarket suppliers make plenty of parts and custom fit products that can be swapped out or head over to your local parts shop or dismantlers shop. You can grab new seat covers, quarter panels, rockers from many places, so it’s not a worry either.
The 3rd Gen 4Runner also comes in a few different models, which some include a factory rear locker, which is great for offroading.
In our opinion, the 3rd Gen 4Runner, as of 2015-2017, is probably one of the go-to off-road 4Runners. This thing can be turned into a beast. The 3rd Gen has many creature comforts of a newer 4th Gen or 5th Gen 4Runer without the headache of pinstripes, bumps, scrapes, and bruises.
For the 3rd Gen 4Runner, there are tons of aftermarket upgrades for offroading.
There are Straight-Axle swap kits, long travel suspension kits, lift kits, skid plates, full undercarriage armor, roll cage kits, drawer systems and more.
There are steel plate and tube bumpers available from many fabrication companies. There are tons of lighting brackets available as well which is perfect if you go trailing/offroading after dark or at dusk.
On many fabrication websites, you will see a 3rd gen category specific set of mods. There are LOTS of upgrades out there for the 3rd gen with many years of experience in the fabrication.
The 3rd Gen offers ARB and other lockers if your 3rd gen did not come with them from the factory.
Overall The 3rd gen 4Runner is where mainstream and mass-produced aftermarket upgrades really started.
4th Gen Toyota 4Runner 2003-2009
A General Overview of the 4th Gen Toyota 4Runner 2003-2009
Now if you’re looking for an offroading rig with a touch of class or a vehicle your spouse can’t complain about, the 4th Gen 4Runner is for you. The 4th Gen 4Runner has a new look yet again along with a new redesigned chassis and driveline.
The new driveline comes in two options like the previous years but the 4cyl engine is now out of the picture completely. Instead of a 4cyl being the smaller engine you now have the choice of a 4.0 6cyl or the sought after 4.7l v8.
That’s right, now the 4th Gen 4Runner has a v8 which is perfect for offroading but now the 4th Gen 4Runner only comes in automatic which may be a downside to some. But don’t let the 4.0 fool you.
Just because it’s now the smaller engine doesn’t mean it’s weak, both engines are powerful and both receive great mpg.
The 4.7l v8 4th Gen 4Runner is perfect if you ever need to tow anything or decide you want to do a massive lift and need the extra power. The 4.0 6cyl 4th Gen 4Runner is perfect if you want a daily driver offroad rig because you can do modifications and still keep the 6cyl mpg, unlike the v8.
The 4.0 6cyl 4th Gen 4Runner does not have any major issues but always be sure to thoroughly look it over. The 4.7l v8 does have a common issue of cracks/leaks forming in the exhaust manifold but otherwise, it is a bulletproof motor along with the 4.0 6cyl.
An Off-Road Overview of the 4th Gen Toyota 4Runner 2003-2009
With the addition of the 4.7l v8, the 4th Gen 4Runner is perfect if you want a beast on the trails. When you are on a trail, the power comes in incredibly handy in almost every situation. For the first time in Toyota 4Runner heritage, the 4th Gen 4Runner now comes packed with an option for the 4.7l v8. This is a HUGE addition to the 4Runner world.
For anyone that is buying this generation 4Runner, automatic vs manual should not be a question. Unless you want to do a transmission swap, you are stuck with automatic for your Off-Road adventures. This for some is unthinkable while some of the newer 5th Gen folk may not even know what manual is. To each their own.
For offroad upgrades, the 4th Gen 4Runner is really similar to all the upgrades the 3rd Gen 4Runner has available. The only difference is there are no longer roll cage kits for sale as commonly as 1st, 2nd, and 3rd gens. Unless of course, you have something custom made for the 4th Gen 4Runner.
5th Gen Toyota 4Runner (2009-2019+Present)
A General Overview of the 5th Gen Toyota 4Runner (2009-Present)
Now if you’re in the market for something that is offroad capable while being brand new or fairly used, the 5th Gen is the one for you. With the newest generation 4Runner comes a whole new look yet again and a new chassis.
Instead of gaining a new driveline the 4.7l v8 is lost and only the 4.0 6cyl stayed paired with an automatic transmission. With the exception of 2010, there was a 2.7l 4cyl auto option available but it is not so common.
Like the previous 4th Gen’s 4.0, the current 4.0 does not have any major issues. The 5th Gen does have a bit more pep in its step compared to the 4th Gen’s 4.0 though.
The 5th Gen 4Runner can be purchased in a variety of models including; classic SR5, Trail, TRD Pro, TRD Off-Road, and Limited which are all great for Off-Road.
KDSS was introduced in the 5th Gen 4Runner.
As I can commonly put this, KDSS (Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System) is a system of hydraulic lines that stabilize your 4Runner on-road and senses when wheels drop or you have slippage off-road. With the SR5, TRD Pro and TRD Off-Road without KDSS, you will likely have more travel in and an aftermarket suspension.
There are GREAT benefits to KDSS and not too many downfalls. Check out an article we wrote on the TRD Pro Vs. the TRD Off-Road 4Runner. We covered KDSS and really praised it.
The downfall is travel. Your suspension will have less travel with KDSS over non-KDSS suspensions. This doesn’t really come into play unless you are looking at long travel suspension lift kits and are seriously looking for a wide range of travel.
An Off-Road Overview of the 5th Gen Toyota 4Runner (2009-2018+Present)
The 5th Gen does not come off-road ready out of the gates. It comes fire-road ready out of the gates. Odds are, if you are looking to prep the 5th Gen for off-road mortal combat, you will need some work.
If you want to buy something upgraded out the gate, you may want to purchase the TRD Pro as it comes with upgraded Bilstein TRD tuned Suspension. With this being said, you are going to need more than a basic suspension upgrade that comes stock on an “off-the-lot” model.
If you really want to step things up with your 5th Gen, you should consider an adjustable suspension system.
If you decide on buying a 5th Gen though, a stock SR5 can be heavily modified cheaper than buying one of the special models but it depends on what you want. With an SR5, you do not have to deal with KDSS. Although, the KDSS is superior on many levels when it comes to on-road performance. Just look our overview of the TRD Pro over the TRD Off-Road and decide for yourself.
The “upgraded” KDSS suspension is nice, but if you are going to swap your suspension, links, add some sliders and skid plate, KDSS can be a little more time-consuming to work with. KDSS with all of these features, though, is handsomely rewarding on-road and general off-road use, it’s just a pain in the ass to work around sometimes. There are also a few tricks to KDSS that make mods easier.
For upgrades for the 5th Gen, it’s like the 3rd and 4th gen options. No roll cage kits are available yet again, commonly that is. But, there are even more aftermarket Bumpers, Lights, Suspensions, Roof Racks, and Lift Kits then the previous two generations of the 4Runner. So, the same type of upgrades with more variety.
4Runner Model History & Generation Summary
My personal conclusion that is if you want something older but with more of a variety of upgrades purchase a 3rd Gen 4Runner. If you’re looking for modern but fully capable, both the 4th and 5th Gen 4Runners are amazing vehicles. Either route would be perfect for serious Off-Roading, Fire-Roads or crawling your favorite mall.
If you’re looking for something with a lot of power and the potential to be fully decked out, buy yourself a 1st or 2nd Gen 4Runner and lift it, straight axle swap it, throw a roll cage on it, or v8 swap it.
I hope whatever 4Runner you choose for Off-Roading or a daily driver or a combination of both, that you have fun in it and enjoy it and stay safe.
If you want to see the best video on 4Runner history, check this video out!
Big Thanks To Everyone Who Helped!
This was a pretty special piece for us to put out. There are so many people who helped out to show each and every generation 4Runner in their true beauty. We received over 200 images for this post on Instagram and selected the ones you see above.
Thank you to everyone who contributed, shared photos, and was cool enough to be cool about what we are doing here on Trail4R.com.
Reputable Companies that Offer Mods for 4Runners
Comment below if we are missing anything and what you would recommend we add to any section. Thank you, Everyone!