The past five years have seen more rapid and drastic changes to the SUV market than perhaps any other time in recent memory. The once-predominant body-on-frame midsize SUV has been slowly but surely displaced by the unibody crossover. Notable recent examples have been the Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder, and before that, the Kia Sorento. For day-to-day use like commuting and taking kids to sports and activities, the more fuel and space-efficient unibody, transverse crossover design fits the needs of customers better than the high-riding and more cramped traditional body-on-frame concept.
And although Toyota has plenty of crossovers in its lineup in the form of the Highlander, Venza and RAV4, it has not abandoned the model that established it in the midsize SUV market, the 4Runner. Not only has the name been maintained over the course of 30 years, but by all indications, the redesigned 2014 model, which will be revealed this weekend at the Stagecoach Music Festival in Indio, California, will continue to be a body-on-frame, rear-drive midsize SUV, same as it was since its 1984 introduction. Here's a look at the history and evolution of Toyota's tried-and-true, and still popular midsize off-roader.
First Generation: 1984-1989
The first-generation followed the SUV convention of the mid-late '80s in being offered in a two-door configuration. Its removable rear roof made it look like one of Toyota's ubiquitous 4x4 pickups with a camper shell on the back. That perception was not far from the truth. Aside from a combined body that joined the front and rear seats, the first-gen 4Runner shared its 103-inch wheelbase and trim 174.6-inch length with the regular-cab, short-bed pickup. Also shared was its standard 22R 2.4-liter I-4 engine, and later 3.0-liter V-6. For two model years, the 4Runner was offered with a rare turbocharged version of the 22R, producing 135 hp and 173 lb-ft of torque. Once the 3.0-liter V-6 was offered in 1988, the unique turbo four was dropped from the lineup. Sold as the Hilux Surf in other markets, the 4Runner made a mid-generation switch to independent front suspension for 1986 from a solid front axle.
Second Generation: 1990-1995
The second generation of the 4Runner changed along with the rest of the midsize SUV market in the early '90s, by offering a four-door version. A two-door model with a fixed rear roof continued to be offered through the 1993 model year, but the four-door dominated overall sales by a significant margin. The fuel-injected 22R and 3.0-liter 3VX V-6 carried over, with the V-6 producing 150 hp and 180 lb-ft of torque, both available with a choice of a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual transmission. Although relatively lightweight and not particularly powerful, the 4Runner was not at all fuel-efficient, achieving 14 mpg city and 18 mpg highway with the EPA test protocol of the time, subsequently re-adjusted to an even worse 13 city and 17 highway on a 4x4 with the V-6 and automatic transmission using today's standards, worse than the then sales-leader Ford Explorer, which got 15/20, or 14/19 by current standards.
Third Generation: 1996-2002
The third generation of the 4Runner brought about the most extensive changes to date. The wheelbase grew from 103 to 105.3 inches, and overall length went up by a few inches. Displacement increased on both the base four-cylinder and optional V-6, and both engines got four-valve heads. The base 2.7-liter 3RZ-FE produced 150 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque, nearly as much power as the old 3.0-liter two-valve V-6. The new 5VZ-FE V-6 produced 183 hp and 217 lb-ft of torque in this application. Both engines were still offered with a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual. The third-generation model also saw the installation of dual front airbags, standard anti-lock brakes, four-wheel coil spring suspension, and an optional electric locking rear differential. Fuel economy improved slightly, but at an EPA rated 17 city and 19 highway using the EPA standards of the time, it was still not remarkably efficient.
Fourth Generation: 2003-2009
The fourth-generation 4Runner grew substantially over its predecessor, with a 109.8-inch wheelbase, an overall length of 189 inches, and for the first time in a 4Runner, optional V-8 power. The 4Runner continued to move upscale, finally dropping the manual transmission option with a five-speed automatic being the exclusive transmission for both V-6 and V-8 models. Curiously, the standard 4.0-liter V-6 actually produced slightly more horsepower than the optional V-8, 245 hp to 235 hp. But the optional 2UZ-FE V-8 had a solid advantage in torque, with 320 lb-ft, which also gave it an edge in towing capacity over the V-6, 7300 lb to 5000 lb.
Limited models offered an optional air suspension, and an innovative X-REAS suspension that linked the hydraulic dampers diagonally for improved stability off-road. The retracting glass rear tailgate, made popular on prior generations of 4Runners remained. New luxury and convenience features emphasizing the 4Runner's new upwardly-mobile positioning included an optional DVD navigation system, 10-speaker JBL audio system, and an optional backup camera.
Fifth Generation: 2010-Present
The fifth-generation 4Runner made a bit of a return back to a more basic, economical configuration, with the V-8 option being dropped from the option sheet, and the 2.7-liter I-4 briefly being added back to the lineup for 2010 on 2WD models. But with only a minimal 1 mpg gain in city fuel economy with the four-banger, and 111 fewer horsepower, the I-4 was dropped from the lineup after one model year, and the 4Runner's sole engine offering soon became the 4.0-liter V-6, mated exclusively with a five-speed automatic.
As always, the 4Runner maintained its off-road credentials, and included Toyota's Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System, an evolution of the X-REAS inter-connected damper system, as well as Crawl Control, a feature only offered on the more expensive Toyota SUVs like the Land Cruiser. The optional locking rear differential returned once again.
The 2014 model that will be revealed this weekend is expected to be a refresh of the current fifth-generation model, with more aggressive front styling, and LED taillights. Mechanical changes are unknown, but may include a six-speed automatic transmission for greater fuel efficiency, and possibly a power increase on the 4.0-liter V-6, either in the form of tuning, or the possible addition of direct injection. We expect the biggest changes to be on the inside in the form of a redesigned interior with the latest generation of Toyota's Entune multimedia and mobile interface, and added comfort and convenience features. Some may be disappointed that the 2014 4Runner is not a ground-up redesign, but we're thankful that Toyota still makes a model for SUV fans that has stayed true to its off-road capable roots and heritage.