Buyer’s Guide: Toyota 4Runner 3rd Generation (1996-2002)
The Toyota 4Runner is a legendary rig. One of the last SUVs still made with rugged body-on-frame construction, it pairs off-road prowess with Toyota reliability and longevity. Indeed, iSeeCars ranked it as the longest-lasting midsize SUV in a recent study. As a result, it remains not only a top seller at dealerships, but used 4Runners also command significant demand and thus tend to retain their values surprisingly well.
Though now an icon, the 4Runner can trace its roots back to a simple aftermarket conversion done by Winnebago, called the Toyota Trekker. It was basically just Toyota’s popular Hilux pickup with two rear seats plus a fiberglass roof added over the bed.
Despite its humble origins, the Trekker sold well enough to convince Toyota to formalize the concept into the original 4Runner, which debuted in 1984.
Toyota has made substantial improvements to the 4Runner since then, and many consider the 3rd generation of the model, sold from 1996 through 2002, a high point for both utility and design. But with most 3rd gen examples now having spent more than 20 years on (and off) the road, it can be tough to find a nice one to buy. They’re still out there, if you know how to look. So, to help you in your search, we’ve put together this comprehensive 3rd gen 4Runner buying guide.
A note about Klipnik’s buyer’s guides. These are not collector car guides. (There are already plenty of other excellent sources for that.) Rather, our guides recommend cars that we think make for entertaining, interesting, reliable, and value-oriented buys — cars meant to be driven and enjoyed (not stashed away for investment purposes) and that don’t cost a fortune to acquire or maintain.
3rd Gen Toyota 4Runner Overview
By the time the 3rd generation of the 4Runner was launched for the 1996 model year, the SUV that began life as a slightly modified truck was now its own fully-realized model. It still shared many components with its stablemate, the Tacoma pickup — most notably under the hood — but its body and chassis were now unique to the model. Overseen by design chief Masaaki Ishiko, its simple lines are still handsome today, borrowing heavily from its top-of-the-line sibling, the Land Cruiser.
Compared to the outgoing 2nd gen 4Runner, the 3rd gen was longer, roomier, and safer, with dual front airbags plus ABS brakes available on all trim levels. It was also more powerful, efficient, and refined, thanks in large part to all-new engines, which were shared with the Tacoma and T100 trucks. Buyers had the choice of a standard 150 hp 2.7 liter four cylinder (3RZ-FE) or an optional 183 hp 3.4 liter V6 (5VZ-FE), as well as either rear- or four-wheel drive. Most were backed by a 4-speed automatic gearbox, though a 5-speed manual was available on some trims until 2000.
Engineers gave the 3rd gen 4runner a new suspension, too, employing double-wishbones up front to enable a lower cabin floor as well as more suspension travel. They tossed the outgoing model’s recirculating-ball steering in favor of a more precise-feeling rack-and-pinion setup. These upgrades make the 3rd gen 4Runner far more refined on the road, without compromising any of its off-road prowess.
The 4Runner was initially offered in three different trims: base, SR5, and Limited. The SR5 offered upgrades like chrome bumpers, color-keyed mirrors, power windows and door locks, a rear-window defogger, and intermittent wipers. Opting for the Limited version got you even fancier stuff like leather seats, wood trim, a moon roof, as well as distinctive body cladding, fender flares, and running boards, plus larger brakes, wheels, and tires. On the flip side, the Limited trim was *not* available with a 5-speed manual gearbox, just the 4-speed automatic.
Toyota 4Runner Model Year Changes
After its 1996 debut, the 3rd gen 4Runner underwent minor changes in 1997 and 1998, including adding a cargo cover in back and swapping the original 2-spoke steering wheel for a new 4-spoke design.
More significant changes came in 1999, including an extended “fat lip” front bumper (for added collision protection), a mild redesign of the interior controls, and a new instrument panel with a digital odometer. Toyota also introduced a new mid-level trim, dubbed Highlander (and later renamed Sport). It paired some of the desirable features from the Limited trim, like larger wheels and brakes and the body cladding, without sacrificing the manual gearbox option.
Also in 1999, Toyota introduced a new “multi-mode” four-wheel drive system on the Limited trim. The new setup employed a center differential, allowing the vehicle to deliver power to all four wheels both on- and off-road. This is a significant advantage for those who live in wet or wintery climates, where encountering slippery pavement is not uncommon. (Without it, you would typically engage 4WD only when driving off-road.)
The 2001 model year brought the last major 4Runner changes. Most notably, a number of feature were dropped, including the four cylinder engine and the manual gearbox, leaving just the V6 and the 4-speed automatic standard across all trims. Also cut was the optional electronic-locking rear differential. This was a popular option for serious off-roaders because it facilitated maximum traction in extreme conditions.
In its place, Toyota added electronic traction and stability control systems (known as TRAC and VSC, respectively) in 2001. These are handy safety features in normal driving; however, we should note that they lack the sophistication of more modern traction control systems and so they can be triggered in error during off-road exploits. On the plus side, Toyota now offered multi-mode four-wheel drive on all trim levels, where it remained through 2002, the final 3rd gen model year.
Best Toyota 4Runner Years and Trims
First and foremost, we recommend looking for a used 4Runner with both four-wheel drive and the V6 engine. That combination is going to net you the most bang for your buck. No disrespect to Toyota’s venerable 3RZ-FE four cylinder, but you really need the additional power of the V6 to operate a 20+ year old 4Runner in modern traffic. Beyond that, which 4Runner you buy should be based primarily on its condition and how you plan to use it.
If you’re looking for the most capable off-roader, you’ll want to stick with the pre-2001 years, which offer an e-locking rear differential as well a manual gearbox. Most desirable of all would be a 1999 or 2000 in Highlander trim with those options, plus the additional upgrades over the SR5. Or if you’d prefer an automatic, you could opt for a 1999 or 2000 in Limited trim, which gains you the desirable multi-mode four-wheel drive system.
On the other hand, if you simply want a nice old rig that’s capable of doing occasional trail duty, we’d suggest holding out for a 2001-2002 4Runner in Sport or Limited trim. Though these lack some of the hard-core off-road options noted above, they have all of the improvements that Toyota made through the 3rd gen 4Runner’s production run. Plus they look the part with their larger wheels and added running boards, fender flares, fog lights, and roof rack. The Limited trim even offers modern amenities like heated seats and automatic climate control.
As with any older used car, you’ll also want to buy the very best example you can find within your budget. These SUVs are well made and can last well over 200,000 miles with proper care, so your number one concern should be finding one that has a well-documented history of expert service.
The market for nice 3rd gen 4Runners is strong, so you may be tempted to compromise your standards and buy one of the cheaper ones out there. But please note that the cost of reconditioning a needy 4Runner will far exceed its value, especially if you aren’t doing the work yourself. It’s almost always more cost effective in the end to pay a bit more upfront for a well-kept specimen.
Used Toyota 4Runner Problem Areas
Once you’re ready to start examining specific 4Runners for sale, there are a number of common problem areas that you should look out for.
The foremost 4Runner problem area is rust. Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to spot rust on a 4Runner. Just climb underneath it and look up. If you see anything more than minor surface corrosion on the frame and chassis, we recommend walking away. Unless you’re handy with metalworking, it’s just too much trouble to bring a rusty 4Runner back to good health.
Before you even climb underneath, though, you can eliminate most rust issues by shopping only for 4Runners that have lived their lives in areas which don’t salt the roads during winter. That includes most of the South and Southwest as well as the Pacific Northwest. A quick check of the vehicle’s Carfax or Autocheck history report can usually confirm this.
The 4-speed automatic gearbox in 4Runners can suffer from a condition known as “strawberry milkshake.” That’s when corrosion in the radiator allows engine coolant to mix with automatic transmission fluid (which is cooled in the lower part of the radiator), turning it into a frothy pink liquid. This first shows up in the coolant overflow reservoir — and if left unchecked will quickly make its way into the transmission, often resulting in catastrophic failure.
Most likely, the examples you’re looking at won’t have this issue, but it’s a good idea to study the service records to see if it has happened in the vehicle’s past. Look for a history of the radiator being replaced along with a flush of the transmission fluid. That’s a bad sign. It could mean that there is residual transmission damage which could cause you problems down the line.
To prevent this, most 4Runner owners are vigilant about changing their coolant at regular intervals, and some will preventatively replace the radiator every 8 years or so, at a cost of about $150 plus installation. That’s a small price to pay to ensure the long-term health of your automatic transmission.
The OEM brake rotors on 3rd gen 4Runners are notoriously thin, which makes them prone to warping during hard braking. If the rotors are warped, you’ll notice it quite easily on a test drive. Once you’re up to speed, press lightly on the brake pedal. If you feel any pulsing under your foot, the rotors are warped. In extreme cases, warping can cause the whole vehicle to shudder when braking.
Fortunately, the fix for warped rotors is pretty easy. Just swap in new ones. But since the original design is not quite robust enough, warping is likely to return. Even better is to upgrade the rotors, calipers, and pads to those from a first generation Toyota Tundra (2000-2006), which are far more substantial. Parts for the upgrade are about $300, which is worth the investment to ensure longer-lasting rotors.
In 2005, Toyota issued a recall for some 3rd gen 4Runners for a problem with the lower ball joints, which in extreme cases could result in a front wheel falling off the vehicle. By now, most examples will have had this problem addressed, but it’s worth checking if the specific 4Runner you’re looking at has had them replaced under the recall. If it isn’t apparent from the service records, a quick call to your local Toyota dealer should be able to clear this up.
You can also look for signs of lower ball joint issues on your test drive. Listen for odd noises coming from the front suspension when traveling over bumps and potholes, and test for play or roughness in the steering. These are signs that one or more of the suspension components needs replacing.
A 3rd gen 4Runner can also suffer from sagging rear springs, which should be obvious from its appearance. The fix for this is pretty straightforward: just replace the springs with new ones. Many owners choose to install springs specced for the 1999 SR5 4×4 V6 model, which are known to be the tallest.
Timing Belts and Fluids
Toyota’s 5VZ-FE V6 engine employs a timing belt, which must be changed every 90,000 miles. Typically the water pump is also replaced at this time. You’ll want to make sure this work has been done on time for any vehicle you’re considering. If not, factor in a cost of about $700 for this work at the dealer.
Likewise, you’ll want to ensure that any 4Runner that you’re evaluating has had its critical fluids changed on a routine basis. That includes not only the engine oil and filter (at least every 5000 miles) but also the differential fluid and coolant (every 30k miles) and the transmission fluid (every 40k miles).
Used Toyota 4Runner Prices
The 3rd generation is one of the most sought-after iterations of the 4Runner. As a result, prices for nice examples might surprise you. Low-mile, pristine examples are selling on Bring a Trailer for $20,000 or more, including a recent 5k mile first-year SR5, which likely set some records when it closed at $43,000.
But unless you’re looking for a collector’s item (or just have some serious money to burn), you don’t really need to spend that much. We’d target $10-15k for a well-kept V6 4×4 example with around 150,000 miles, depending on the trim and features. Keep in mind that vehicles with somewhat rare option combinations, like a 5-speed manual gearbox with the e-locking rear differential, will command a premium.
You can definitely find solid 4Runners for sale for less than $10,000. However, they will likely have 200,000 miles or more and may be lacking some desirable equipment, like four-wheel drive or the V6 engine. Additionally, they may have cosmetic issues, like faded paint and worn interiors. Worse, they may have problems like an accident history, rust, or deferred maintenance. We suggest treading carefully if the price seems a little too good to be true.
The Bottom Line
Toyota has developed two fully new generations of the 4Runner since the last of the 3rd gen models were sold. Both the 4th and 5th gen 4Runners are also great SUVs, with notable improvements over their replacements. However, there’s something about the 3rd gen 4Runner that just never gets old. Perhaps it’s the rugged good looks. Or its just-right size. Or the fact that it comes from what many consider the peak years of Toyota quality and design. In any case, it’s in a sweet spot between the more rudimentary early version of model and the larger, more complex machine that it has since become.
We expect nice 4Runner examples from this generation will continue to delight their owners for many years to come. And with prices as low as they’ll ever be, now is an excellent time to buy one.
Photos courtesy Mecum, Toyota, and Wikimedia Commons
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