If you think off-roading, your mind might gravitate towards a Jeep Wrangler or a Land Rover. Maybe even a Ford F-150 or Chevy Silverado appears at the back of your head. And why not? They’re some of the best off-roaders that you can buy today. Though if you ask me, I have one better – Toyota. To be more specific, the 3rd Gen 4Runner may be one of the best underrated 4x4s that you can find.
It might come as a no-brainer to some, of course. As the oh-so-popular Land Cruiser’s smaller sibling, the 3rd Gen 4Runner carries many of its famed traits. It’s a do-it-all SUV-slash-4×4, with a lot of room for activities in the back, and is comfortable enough for day-to-day driving. Yet, it’s driven atop a very rugged, robust, and powerful drivetrain, which is as endlessly reliable as any Toyota deserves to be.
The 4Runner is more than capable of hitting a rocky pass or a mountain trail any day of the week. It’s quite easy to modify and tune the 4Runner to become an even beefier off-roader, too. In all, there’s a bucket load of capabilities hiding underneath this seemingly ordinary sports utility vehicle. So, here’s all you need to know if you’re planning to get a 3rd Gen 4Runner, a hidden modern classics gem.
How Did The Toyota 3rd Gen 4Runner Come To Be In The First Place?
Before we can get into our buyer’s guide and a quick look at a Toyota 3rd Gen 4Runner, it’ll be helpful to try and understand more of what it is. So, how was the 4Runner born? The name itself came from a copywriter, Robert Nathan, who worked at Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency. ‘4Runner’ was a play on words on the term, ‘forerunner’, as the Toyota 4Runner is a first-of-its-kind for the brand.
For starters, it had a unique form factor within Toyota. You can think of it as – in its early iterations, anyway – not much more than a pickup truck with a fiberglass shell over the bed. Additionally, it was the first such sports utility vehicle (or SUV) within Toyota that was built from the ground up with an emphasis on 4×4 capabilities. All the while, it still needed to be a cozy everyday SUV, too.
The first-generation 4Runner started production for the 1984 model year and remains with us until today. Although, its roots came much earlier, with the Trekker back in 1981. Although, the Trekker wasn’t strictly just a Toyota. Underneath, the Trekker is a short-wheelbase, two-seat, Toyota Hilux pickup truck. It was then converted into a Bronco-like SUV by Winnebago Industries.
It was the first of such complete conversion kits that Toyota themselves had approved. Clearly, they like the idea so much, that they decided to make one of their own – the 4Runner. All 4Runners today are built in one of two factories. This being Toyota’s plant in Tahara, Aichi, or the Hino truck plant at Hamura, Tokyo. In Japan, the 4Runner was sold as the ‘Hilux Surf‘, which was canned in 2009.
What Is The Toyota 3rd Gen 4Runner All About, Anyway?
So, let’s skip a few generations to the 3rd Gen 4Runner, made from 1996 up to the 2002 model years. Its development started much earlier, with prototypes circling around from 1990 until 1995. The project had Toyota chief engineer, Masaaki Ishiko – who’s also the one responsible for the Hilux marque for more than 18 years – at the helm. The 3rd Gen 4Runner (N180) was a major redesign.
It had an all-new chassis and body shell compared to the outgoing second-generation 4Runner, the N120/N130. Granted, most of its underlying componentry – including major parts like the engine and transmission – are shared with the brand-new Tacoma pickup truck. Still, it was a unique evolution of the 4Runner nameplate. In addition, the 4Runner now occupied a unique market position.
By the late 1990s, most of its competitors were eschewing hardcore off-roading prowess and rugged build quality for more upmarket, lux, and comforting SUVs. However, the 4Runner retains its trusted utilitarian design ethos and dependable character. Nevertheless, it had more than a few premium gadgets to appease a new audience. It was much larger than its predecessor, sitting on a longer wheelbase.
This meant increased interior and cargo space. It also had new safety kits such as dual airbags, ABS, and an easy-to-use lift-up tailgate. Mechanically, it had a more modern rack-and-pinion steering, as well as comfy coil-spring suspension, and swooping aerodynamic bodywork. Later on, electronics are a basic inclusion on every 4Runner, such as digitalized gauges and techy climate control.
Here’s a more thorough breakdown of the changes between the model years…
1996-1998 Model Year Toyota 3rd Gen 4Runner
On top of what we’ve discussed earlier, there are several other neat little extras in the earlier 1996 to 1998 model years. For instance, the mostly Japan-only exclusive Hilux Surf versions had – for the first time in a 4Runner – central-locking differential. This meant drivers could easily switch to its all-wheel-drive (or 4WD, to be precise) setting on harder surfaces and tarmac without difficulty.
Paired to that is the old 4Runner’s tried-and-tested system for on-the-fly shifting from being a rear-wheel-driven vehicle to a full four-wheel-drive. It then included a selectable locking rear differential, which is another first for the 4Runner. Albeit, this latter piece of kit has been included in the Land Cruiser since 1993. Moving on, the 1997 and 1998 model years gave us more cosmetic upgrades.
1999 Model Year Toyota 3rd Gen 4Runner
Most of the changes in the 1999 model year for the 3rd Gen 4Runner are purely cosmetic, which has some interior updates, at least. On the exterior, the bumper has been enlarged for a more absorbent crumple zone. The parabola-style headlights, projector-type fog lamps, redesigned side markers, and turn signals are new for 1999, too. You can pick the 1999 3rd Gen 4Runner in a few trim levels.
The higher-end ‘Limited’ and ‘Highlander‘ (the latter was renamed to ‘Sport Edition’) had some color-matched trim panels. These included body-colored running boards, bumpers front and rear, as well as the flares, side skirts, and elsewhere. Inside, most of your controls have been moved to the center console for comfier ergonomics, with a new partially-digitalized instrument cluster.
In the higher-end ‘Limited’ trim, Toyota splurged on a new electronic temperature and climate control, as well as added sensors to monitor all the moving parts. The most significant mechanical change is the inclusion of a multimatic (or ‘multi-mode’) gearbox. This is exclusive to only the 4WD (four-wheel-drive) 4Runners as an option for the 1999 model year, which could enable you seamless all-wheel-drive operations.
2000-2002 Model Year Toyota 3rd Gen 4Runner
The 3rd Gen 4Runner’s rounded looks became more apparent once the 2000 and 2001 model years came around. The front grille and lighting signature was redesigned. You could also get a handsome set of five-spoke wheels. The silhouette of the 4Runner, at this point, became sleeker and elegant. It was slightly more aerodynamic too, which no doubt made it more appealing.
The climate control unit was enhanced, as well. One major update is Toyota’s addition of Vehicle Stability Control as standard in the 2001 model year. All 4WD variants came by default with that multimatic transmission. This does come at the cost of the electronic ‘e-locker’ locking rear differential, which was dropped from the options list in the 2001 and 2001 model years.
That locking differential was prized among off-road enthusiasts. But there’s good news, as there’s another system in its place – Toyota’s A-TRAC traction assist. Combined with electronic stability control, and its multi-mode four-wheel-drive system, the later 3rd Gen 4Runners were just as good off the beaten path. Yet, it’s made the 4Runner that bit more compliant on a billet-smooth tarmac.
Toyota 3rd Gen 4Runner Specifications
Toyota’s 3rd Gen 4Runner is classed as a mid-sized SUV, slotting between a larger crossover from a full-sized SUV like the Land Cruiser. For those of you who are wondering, here’s a quick look at the dimensions of the 3rd Gen 4Runner:
- 105.3 inches (2,675mm)
- 178.7 inches (1996 to 1998 model year)
- 183.2 inches (1998 to 2000 model year)
- 183.3 inches (2000 to 2002 model year)
- 66.5 inches (two-wheel-drive versions)
- 70.9 inches (‘Limited’ four/all-wheel-drive variant)
- 66.5 inches (1996 to 1998 model year)
- 68.7 inches (1996 to 1998 model year, ‘Limited’ trim)
- 67.5 inches (1998 to 2002 model year)
- 68.5 inches (1998 to 2002 model year ‘Limited’ trim)
- 3,930lbs (1,783kg)
As for its engines, the 3rd Gen 4Runner came with a variety of different powerplants, with gasoline and diesel versions available. As for transmissions, you can choose between either a 4-speed auto or a 5-speed manual.
- 2.7-liter ‘3RZ-FE‘ inline-4 (replacing the old 2.4-liter ’22R-FE’ inline-4), with 150hp at 4,800RPM (an increase of 38hp), and 117lb-ft of maximum torque at 4,000RPM (an increase of 35lb-ft)
- 3.4-liter ‘5VZ-FE‘ V6 (replacing the old 3.0-liter ‘3VZ-FE’ V6), with 183hp at 4,800RPM (an increase of 33hp), and 217lb-ft of maximum torque at 3,600RPM (an increase of 37lb-ft)
- 3.0-liter ‘1KZ-TE‘ turbocharged inline-4 (1996 to 2000 model year), with 130hp at 3,600RPM, and 212lb-ft of maximum torque at 2,000 RPM
- 3.0-liter ‘1KD-FTV‘ turbocharged inline-4 (2000 to 2002 model year), with 170hp at 3,400RPM, and 260lb-ft of maximum torque at 1,800 RPM
So, How About That Buyer’s Guide On An Old Toyota 3rd Gen 4Runner?
A study done in 2019 showed that the Toyota 4Runner is one of the most long-lasting vehicles in the US market. Many of its owners are happy to keep driving it for upwards of 200,000 miles, while others have kept their 4Runners going for nearly 10 years or more. This trusted dependability is why the 4Runner is a top-seller for Toyota USA, and used examples retain their resale value rather well.
It’s been 25 years since the first 3rd Gen 4Runners left the production line. Therefore, it might prove challenging to find a pristine one from a second-hand lot. But let’s say that by happenstance, you’ve come across a shiny Toyota 3rd Gen 4Runner for sale. Just before you pull the trigger, what should be the best spec and combination of the 4Runner that you should be gunning for?
After all, they made quite a few of them in varying trim levels and specifications. Well, here’s a few pointers to get you started…
The Best Specifications For Getting A Used Toyota 3rd Gen 4Runner:
- Get the 3.4-liter ‘5VZ-FE’ V6 engine, if you can. While the 2.7-liter ‘3RZ-FE’ inline-4 is quite able on its own, the performance can leave you wanting, especially after 25 years.
- If you’re planning to go off-roading to the extremities, look out for the pre-2001 model years. Those earlier 3rd Gen 4Runners can be had with an electronically locking rear differential and a manual gearbox. Together, that should make it a more approachable vehicle in rougher terrain. While A-TRAC is decent enough, it can’t be compared to locking diffs.
- Should off-road performance be a priority rather than on-road driveability, the top ‘Highlander’ trim of the 1999 to 2000 model years are most suitable. They had a full four-wheel drive (4WD), as well as additional mechanical enhancements over the base SR5 trim. This is the most desirable pick of the bunch for off-roading fans.
- If you’d prefer to have an automatic gearbox instead of a manual, then try to find a 1999 to 2000 model year in ‘Limited’ trim. These should offer you just as much for maximal off-roading abilities. Plus, they still carry the “multi-mode” 4WD system, where it can perform with full 4WD even when off the road. Those living in wet or snowy climates would especially appreciate the difference.
- When on-road ease of use is a priority – with some occasional off-road driving – then the 2001 to 2002 4Runners in ‘Sport’ or ‘Limited’ trim are great options. They’re not as hardcore. However, the improvements over the years have made the later 4Runners a highly refined daily cruiser. Moreover, they include nice-to-have amenities such as automated climate control and heated seats.
What Are The Toyota 3rd Gen 4Runner Problems To Look Out For?
Since you’re already looking at the classifieds, do bear in mind that you’re buying a very old machine, up to 25 years old. As such, you should be prepared to accept some potential repairs or restoration work to be done before you can thoroughly enjoy it. As we mentioned, the 4Runner – of any year or generation – is practically bulletproof. It’s a Toyota, so you can expect that top-notch reliability.
When cared for and serviced regularly, a 3rd Gen 4Runner could easily last 200,000 miles or more without significant issues. Although, do remember to get a closer look at the service history when you’re taking a peek at one. It’s not a good idea to cheap out, as fixing up a broken-down one could cost you dearly. Thus, do pay close attention to how it’s been maintained these past decades.
That being said, there are a few common reliability quirks and issues that affect 3rd Gen 4Runners, no matter how well-maintained a particular example may be. Here are the most prevalent ones that you ought to be on the lookout for:
1. Corrosion In The Chassis And Body Frames
As with any older vehicle from this time period, your anti-corrosion treatment starts to wear down as it ages. Over time, it’ll start to introduce rust into the chassis and bodywork. This is especially a point of concern if the particular 3rd Gen 4Runner that you’re eyeing after is regularly driven in wintery or icy conditions. The amount of road salt exposure for 20+ years is more than sufficient to rust.
Thankfully, it can be fairly easy to spot and identify the rusty bits on a Toyota 3rd Gen 4Runner. Just clamber underneath the 4Runner, and take a closer look at the running gear up above. If what you’re seeing is significantly more than simple surface corrosion on the chassis and frame, we’d recommend that you walk away. The rust has likely penetrated deep, and only a heavy restoration will fix it.
2. Transmission (Automatic) Damage
Here’s a problem that plagues the 4-speed automatic versions of the 4Runner. This issue has been penned by owners of old Toyotas as the “strawberry milkshake“. This is just about the same color and consistency as what happens when coolant and transmission fluid mix. A frothy pink solution appears. It’s somewhat related to that aforementioned corrosion issue with an old 3rd Gen 4Runner.
Rust penetrating the radiator can allow for engine coolant and automatic transmission fluid to start mixing. Remember that the ATF (automatic transmission fluid) is cooled in a separate chamber in the lower portion of the radiator. So, when there’s rust, it’ll likely be in the seams and welding that keep the two fluids apart. The first signs of rust will likely appear in the coolant overflow reservoir.
If you don’t fix it in time, that engine coolant will make its way into the gearbox itself. The result can only be a failed transmission, which will require a costly rebuild to mend it. While this is a rare issue to come across, it can still happen. We’d recommend being diligent when looking over its service and maintenance records. Did the owner replace the radiator and flush the transmission fluid at once?
This is a red flag, as it means the previous owner(s) possibly had this issue. If so, there could be some residual damage in the gearbox, which might cause complications down the line. As a prevention, we noticed that a few owners of old 4rd Gen 4Runners pre-emptively replaced the radiator every 8 or so years. It rounds off to a cost of around $150 (including labor), along with regular fluid changes.
3. Brakes (Discs/Rotors) Warped
The OEM (original equipment manufacturer, i.e. from factory) brake discs/rotors on the Toyota 3rd Gen 4Runner are infamously thin. Thanks to the lack of disc material on there, the brakes can easily warp due to excessive heat under hard braking. After 20+ years, it’s probable that the rotors have been swapped out numerous times already due to this warping issue.
In a worst-case scenario, the warped brakes can be so bad, that it’ll cause the entire vehicle to shake and shudder under braking. The best way to notice this is to pay close attention on your test drive. As the 4Runner gets up to speed, press the brake pedal gently. Now, can you feel if the brake pedal is pulsing beneath your foot? If so, it means that the brake rotors/discs are warped.
The only permanent solution is to replace the brake discs/rotors outright. However, and if you plan on keeping your 3rd Gen 4Runner for a few years, replacing them with the OEM brakes might haunt you again. So, it’s probably a good idea to avoid swapping out the warped brakes for the original as-standard set. Doing so will repeat this problem later on, especially if you drive it hard.
Our best suggestion would be to consider investing in upgrading the brakes all-around. We’ve read in the forums that many 3rd Gen 4Runner owners recommend using brake rotors/discs, calipers, as well as pads from the first-generation Tundra (2000 to 2006 model year). These should fit snugly for around $300, which is a small sum to pay for long-lasting brakes and reliable braking performance.
4. Suspension Failure (Lower Ball Joints)
Toyota’s 3rd Gen 4Runner had some issues back in the day with its suspension. In 2005, they recalled some 3rd Gen 4Runners – long after their production had ended, mind – due to an issue with its lower ball joints. Worst comes to worst, the ball joints could be so badly worn, the front wheels might just fall off. The good news here is that these faults have most likely been addressed.
You should bear that in mind as you probe the seller. Have they followed through with that recall of the lower ball joints, and had them replaced? You should be able to check this rather quickly with the service manual, or a quick call with the local Toyota dealership. Otherwise, you can either walk away from the deal or get a discount and use those savings to have the ball joints replaced, pronto.
Otherwise, you might also be able to feel the ball joints in action during the test drive. Try to keep an ear out for peculiar noises emanating from the front suspension. Any sounds should be amplified as you drive over potholes, lane markers, or speedbumps. While you’re there, you should also feel if the steering has any play or roughness in it. Aside from that, the rear suspension can sag, too.
You can immediately notice this as you’re walking around the car. Replacing them should be simple enough. Owners have suggested swapping them out for the same springs used in the 1999 SR5 4WD V6 model of the 3rd Gen 4Runner. These have been known to be the tallest and most robust. If your ball joints are the issue, then you’ll need to consider an overhaul of the suspension and steering.
5. Timing Belt And Fluids Changes
Since you’re already peering at the service records of a potentially good 3rd Gen 4Runner, do have a look at the consumables, too. These are the parts that often require service or replacement. The larger 3.4-liter ‘5VZ-FE’ V6 engine, in particular, uses a timing belt. These have to be replaced every 90,000 or so miles. Often, a replacement of the timing belt entails swapping the water pump, too.
They’re connected together, so it makes sense to do them at the same time. Therefore, ensure that the previous owner has been managing this regularly throughout their ownership period. If you need to replace these yourself, it ought to set you back around $700 at a dealership. When looking at the service records, be sure to analyze the fluid changes too, and whether they’ve been done routinely.
The motor oil should be swapped out every 5,000 miles or thereabouts. While the dirty oil’s draining, the oil filter needs to be replaced before the fresh oil goes in. The differential fluid – or gear oil – has a usable lifespan of roughly 30,000 miles. Meanwhile, the transmission fluid – or gearbox oil – ought to have been flushed and changed every 40,000 or so miles.
Toyota 3rd Gen 4Runner – Final Thoughts
Many consider the 4Runner to be among the last of its kind. It’s a practical, dependable, and rugged do-it-all go-anywhere SUV. However, it’s still a simple vehicle and lacks the complexities of the SUVs and off-roaders that we have today. We can see the 3rd Gen 4Runner as a wonderful sweet spot, as it carries notable enhancements from the two generations that preceded it.
That’s not to mention how much cheaper, simpler, and more accessible it is compared to the newer 4th and 5th-generation 4Runners. There’s a good reason why plenty of people are flocking to find one while they still can. They’re easy to take care of and make for fantastic off-roaders. Even better, these 3rd Gen 4Runners can be found for the low-low price of $10,000 to $15,000 for a decent one.
This price range would likely consist of the 4WD V6 models, with roughly 150,000 miles on the clock. Granted, the prized options such as that 5-speed manual and electronic locking rear differentials will cost you more. We’ve seen these desirable 4Runners go for at least $20,000 or more. But you could also net a 3rd Gen 4Runner for less than $10,000. These are commonly the 2WD inline-4 variants.
They lack the extra off-road goodies like that multi-mode 4WD and could carry a few minor cosmetic or mechanical issues. At this low sub-$10k price point, you can also expect high mileage of 200,000 miles or higher. But as a whole, and if you tread carefully, the 3rd Gen 4Runner remains a hidden gem among modern classic SUVs. Get one, and you’ll assuredly enjoy it for another 20 years.
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