In the eighties, Toyota wanted to replicate the success of its Land Cruiser SUV but in a smaller and more affordable package. Cue the 4Runner which debuted in mid-1984 as a 1985 model. Instead of developing an entirely new model like the Land Cruiser, Toyota used the Hilux chassis to create the 4Runner (sold as the Hilux Surf in other countries). The first generation was nothing more than a pickup truck with a roof over the bed. The purpose of the 4Runner was to provide the versatility and the go anywhere ability of the Hilux truck while giving the comfort and utility expected of an SUV. I reviewed a third generation, a 1997 4Runner which was the first generation to be built as a separate model, not sharing any body parts or frames with the Hilux. I liked it very much, but I never really thought of reviewing the original 4Runner at all. I asked my friend if I could review his old Volvo 242 or something like that. It was a really cool old Volvo in burgundy and with a manual transmission. However, when I contacted him, he sold it and got this 4Runner. How could I say no to reviewing the original 4Runner with only two doors and a manual transmission?
The first thing that catches my eye when I see the 4Runner is the lack of Toyota symbols. Instead you get Toyota spelled out, and for some reason I like this detail. Even though I usually favor older designs, the 4Runner’s isn’t anything special. The front resembles any other pickup truck from the 1980s, although the grille with three segments is an interesting feature. The side profile is the most interesting aspect. If you look at the front doors, you can see where they inserted the fiberglass top. The roof does add an interesting element to the design with its sloping window line and third quarter windows. The rear is just as ordinary as the front with generic lights and bumpers.The interior is as simple as the exterior albeit a little dated.
Surprisingly for an old truck-based SUV, the 4Runner handles well. Sure, it leans considerably, and if you turn at really fast speeds, it feels ready to tip over, but for the most part, its handling is sound. There is some slop in the steering, and feedback could be better. It could be more precise as you have to turn the steering with more effort than anticipated when making a turn. However, the steering is light enough, and it is somewhat quick. What really surprises me is the way it handles. It feels relatively nimble, and it responds eagerly. With a body on frame structure, it feels solid and unfazed by huge bumps and dips in the road. However, the stiffness of the structure and the suspension ensures that there is a firmness that never really goes away. The 4Runner is also fun when it comes to its forte: off roading. With excellent ground clearance and responsive suspension, it takes rough terrain in its stride. Never during our test drive in the desert did the 4Runner complain, and tackling steep dirt hills was not a problem. You can just drive fast and carelessly over anything, and it will not complain. This thing is a beast.
When it comes to horsepower, most people will complain about old cars being too slow nowadays. I usually don’t care as long as the car has adequate power, and I focus more on the handling instead. However, I do have to say that this 4Runner is slow. I am not kidding because the four cylinder engine in this supplies…wait for it.. 116 horsepower and 140 lbs of torque. Granted, there is some torque that can be accessed at some parts of the engine’s powerband. Merging in traffic takes a lot of thinking as I found myself wondering, “Okay, if I downshift and floor it, would I have enough room to squeeze in? Or if I slow down, how long will it be till the driver in the next lane passes me by?” In old cars with manual transmissions, I prefer a tachometer so I can accurately shift just to to be on the safe side. The lack of a tachometer meant I had to rely on the engine sounds which is hard to do if the cabin is noisy (more on that later). The five speed manual transmission shifts smoothly , although some gears felt slightly rubbery. The clutch has long travel, but it is forgiving. As for fuel economy, it performs surprisingly well. Credit goes to the four cylinder as it can get around 23-25 mpg overall according to the owner. A four speed automatic transmission is available, and so was a 135 horsepower turbo four cylinder.
By modern car standards, the 4Runner fails in refinement. The cabin is a cacophony of noises stemming from the engine, tires, and the windows. The removable top lets in considerable wind noise, and the constant tire roar can be tiring, especially on a long journey.
While the interior may not be anything special, there is no doubt that it displays typical Toyota quality. The interior feels impressively constructed, and the buttons click with an assuring heft, but the thing that impresses me the most is how well the interior has stood the test of time. It is the little things that matter, like how the AC sliders have a stripe on them, or how on the passenger dash, there is a diagram labeling the functions of the low range/high range lever. This 4Runner is full of those “oh my gosh, remember when…?” For starters, you can actually open the little triangle window in the front doors. And it has crank windows! And the key doesn’t have any buttons on it! Anyways, the parking brake operation is a bit confusing. You have to pull out a lever near the steering wheel to release the parking brake, but if you want to engage it, you have to depress a separate pedal. The gauges are simple, with just a speedometer, and an engine temperature and fuel readout. The front seat is a bit squishy, and there is barely any lumbar support. The steering does not tilt or telescope (if it does, it wasn’t that accommodating), so I was closer to the steering wheel than I would have liked in order to be able to reach the clutch. This generation was available in two models: regular and passenger. The regular model had only two seats whereas the passenger model included a rear bench for seating up to five passengers. The rear seat is mounted low, and there is not that much room to stretch your legs out. Considering that this is a pickup truck with a roof bolted on the rear, the cargo area is large although the wheel arches can intrude on space. The roof can be removed for open top motoring. Visibility is decent, and the rear window can slide up and down which would become a 4Runner trademark. My major gripe with the interior is that there is not that much cabin storage, and the radio controls are mounted too low.
As I mentioned in the 1997 4Runner review, The Toyota 4Runner was one of my favorite cars ever when I was growing up. Granted, I was thinking about the third generation, but with this in mind, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would like the first generation as well. When I read car magazines, I notice how their reviews about SUVs constantly mention this ground breaking technology to make it handle better, or this technology that makes it go off roading better. This 4Runner has no such thing. rather, it proves that you don’t need modern technology to make a great SUV. True, it is spartan, noisy, and slow, but the feeling when you drive this is incomparable. There is an analogue feeling to it, and its back to basics approach allows you to enjoy, and even more importantly, appreciate it better than if it were bombarded with fancy gizmos. Throw in typical Toyota reliability and the fabulous removable top, and you’ve got something truly special. I’ll be blunt, I would choose the third generation over this, but if I ever see one of these on the road, I am more likely to compliment the driver than someone driving a Porsche Cayenne or a brand new Range Rover Sport. That is how cool this 4Runner is.