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Toyota first introduced the 4Runner sport-utility vehicle back in 1984, but in those days it really was little more than pickup truck with a covered back seat and just two front doors.
Through the years, Toyota has made plenty of running improvements -independent front suspension in ’86, a new 3.0-litre V6 in ’88 – but the full-scale major re-makes came in 1990 and then again in 1996.
The 1990 ‘Runner was restyled and re-engineered and for the first time came in both two-door and four-door versions. It was also available in either two-wheel (2wd) or four-wheel drive trim-the latter a shift-on-the-fly operation for the first time.
This thorough revamping of the 4Runner in ’90 had been long overdue. Essentially unchanged since 1984, it had grown a little long in the tooth – especially when compared to, say, Nissan’s Pathfinder with its fully-enclosed metal cab of the day.
Toyota’s engineers saw the writing on the wall and scrapped the old fiberglass cap over the rear, giving the 4Runner a steel one-piece roof in all models. Certainly this added much-needed rigidity to the body.
As for the changes to the body, they were in typical Toyota fashion, more subtle than dramatic. Overall, the 4Runner became rounded, more aerodynamic. But aside from putting a cleaner face to the wind, the aerodynamic styling, combined with extra sound deadening insulation materials, helped reduce wind noise in the 4Runner to a more car-like level.
Ride comfort and handling were also been improved thanks to a number of significant suspension changes, most important of which was at the rear where a four-link coil rear suspension replaced the multi-leaf spring design. As well, low pressure gas-filled shocks and a rear stabilizer bar help smoothed out the cruising.
Before 1990, the 4Runner was criticized for its manually locking hubs. But starting that year, 4Runner no longer were forced to leap out and lock the front hubs. Instead, going from two to four-wheel drive became simply a matter of moving a shift lever.
Engine choices starting in 1990 included a 150 horsepower V6 and a base 2.4 litre four which served up only 116 hp. The four was a power disappointment, to say the least.
In 1996, Toyota again re-did the 4Runner. By then the sport-ute segment had grown unbelievably competitive, so Toyota moved to address the marketplace criticisms of its notably reliable sport-ute. That is, there were upgrades to improve horsepower, ride comfort and overall handling, not to mention ease of entry, cabin space, safety features and what many had said were only adequate off-road abilities.
So, the ’96 4Runner had not only shed some 300 pounds or 136 kilograms, it also boasted:
- more horsepower from two engine choices;
- more legroom front and rear;
- more usable cargo space;
- a lower step-in height, despite very high ground clearance for real off-roading;
- bigger door openings at the side and a one-piece tailgate with a power window;
- car-like steering and suspension designs;
- dual airbags and four-wheel anti-lock braking;
- a locking rear differential (optional on all but the most expensive models) vital for bushwhacking.
What happened under the hood is worthy of a extra mention. Both engine offerings became dual overhead cam powerplants: the base 2.7-litre, rated at 150 horsepower, is as gutsy as the old V6; and the new V6 puts out 183 hp.
A handy pushbutton locking rear differential became optional on SR5 models and you’ll want it if you plan any serious off-roading. The Limited version came for the first time with a one-touch 4WD system with standard locking rear end. And there were design improvements both inside and out.
No matter which version of the 4Runner you’re looking at, remember that through the years this sport-ute has boasted dead-on reliability and above average re-sale values. So there are few bargains to be found out there. If you find one in good shape, snap it up.
Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.