The Toyota 4Runner Generations Explained

Toyota 4Runner is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and of course, Toyota used the occasion to launch a special edition to celebrate the first of the 4Runner generations on the current model. Over the past four decades, the 4Runner has continued to evolve through five generations, from the basic two-seat first-gen to the modern seven-seater you can buy today. It’s gone from, basically, a weird version of Toyota’s truck to one of the go-to benchmarks of the SUV world and holds its value. Today’s 4Runner certainly leans on the heritage of the first generation, will a new sixth-generation version do the same?

The Origins of the 4Runner

A Toyota FJ40 in the Baja 500 off-road race.
Toyota Land Cruiser FJ40 | Pat Brollier, The Enthusiast Network via Getty Images

When Toyota stopped importing the original FJ40 Land Cruiser to the U.S. in 1979, there was a huge gap in its product line. That two-door Jeep Wrangler lookalike was a stout, fun, and capable off-roader that seated five. Toyota sold thousands of them because they could take a family camping or deep into the woods. According to Toyota, the company realized it needed to design something new.

Interestingly, Winnebago Industries came with the answer. Winnebago, the RV manufacturer, decided to add a fiberglass camper to the bed of Toyota’s Hilux truck and called it the Toyota Trekker. The Trekker directly inspired the first generation of 4Runner, which also was a Hilux truck with an integrated fiberglass camper on the bed.

What years are the 1st generation 4Runner?

1984 Toyota 4Runner in gold and blue
1984 Toyota 4 Runner | Toyota

Toyota produced the first generation of the 4Runner from 1984 to 1989. We didn’t call the first 4Runner an SUV. We didn’t know what to call it at the time, and the original 1984 4Runner (introduced in the fall of 1983) is a far cry from what we know today. It had two vinyl or cloth seats in the front, none in the back, and the fiberglass roof panel popped off to give it truck utility.

The base engine was a dumpy 115-horsepower four-cylinder. Honestly, it was simply a pickup truck with a factory-installed camper shell. And, in some cases, it was worse than a pickup truck. The internet is littered with pictures and stories of the original 4Runners rear suspension giving out due to the extra weight of the shell.

What years are the 2nd generation 4Runner?

 A red-and-gray second generation 4Runner.

The second generation premiered in 1990 and ran through 1995. In 1990 the 4Runner ditched the fiberglass shell and finally earned a full SUV-style body.  The second generation of the 4Runner added seats in the back. Really, the first version didn’t come standard with any. Also, it added one critical feature: air conditioning.

The second generation of the 4runner still had that underpowered four-cylinder motor, but it did offer a 150-horsepower V6 as an option. Also, the second generation earned two rear doors, a few more creature comforts, and modern styling that made it look like what we think of today as an SUV.

What years were the 3rd generation of the 4Runner?

a silver 1999 4Runner
1999 Toyota 4Runner | Toyota

The 1996 to 2002 4Runner took the successful formula of the second and dressed it up. It added enough power from a new 183-horsepower V6 to finally be able to keep up with traffic. These early SUVs are now becoming collectible because of their reputation for being bulletproof SUVs that could be ordered with a stick-shift transmission, and solid 4×4 chops.

The third-generation 4Runner finally came with some modern niceties, too, like cruise control and optional leather seats.

What years were the 4th generation of the Toyota 4Runner?

The fourth-generation versions from 2003 to 2009 are sort of forgotten by most 4Runner fans. Sure, you could get it with a V8, leather, and it was the first really to offer modern equipment and a comfortable non-truck interior. But its squashed nose and high back styling polarized buyers. However, it did have a solid 4×4 system that made it an off-road performer, as well as optional luxury trims.

What years are the 5th generation of the Toyota 4Runner?

A white 2023 Toyota 4Runner Anniversary Edition driving up a hill.
2023 Toyota 4Runner Anniversary Edition | Toyota

The fifth generation 4Runner started production in 2009 and soldiers on today. There’s not a lot to write that hasn’t already been written about the current generation. It has an incredible four-wheel drive system that, today, you can get with the Crawl Control function to get out of the sticky stuff.

Today’s TRD package offers incredible off-road ability, and the heritage version certainly evokes the original with its yellow-orange-red stripe kit.

Will there be a sixth generation of the 4Runner?

If we had a magic eight ball, it would say, “Signs points to yes.” The 4Runner doesn’t look dated, however, its rivals like the Ford Bronco or Jeep Grand Cherokee are all-new and sport much more modern designs with, for example, larger touchscreens than the 4Runners antiquated 8.0-incher. Others, like the Honda Passport or the Nissan Pathfinder, may be newer, but they don’t have the capability of a body-on-frame SUV like the 4Runner. Still, many are speculating that a new for 2024 4Runner should debut in 2023.

The 4Runner has always been related to the Toyota Tacoma truck and there will be a new for 2024 Tacoma, and Gear Patrol agrees that a new 4Runner is in the mix. We can speculate that a sixth-generation version will get a hybrid motor, like in the new Sequoia and Tundra, and several are expecting an EV version, too. Or, it could get the new 2.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that Lexus is using in some of its SUVs. But it will need to have the right looks, the right capability, and likely an optional third row to stay competitive.

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