The Toyota 4Runner is one of, if not the most sought-after SUVs in the market. Besides being one of Toyota’s best-selling models in the lineup, the 4Runner boasts rugged looks, sublime reliability, and unbeatable off-road performance. It is well equipped and holds its value like no other in its class. However, even the moon has a dark side. Despite the mesmerizing and appealing characteristics, the 4Runner has seen some dreadful years.
Follow along in this piece to find out what are these awful Toyota 4Runner years to avoid. And why you should avoid them.
Bottom Line Up Front
Here is a cheat sheet to help you save your bank account from complete annihilation. Here is a summary of the years which you should run away from like the plague:
- (1988 – 1989) First-Gen 4Runner with 3.0L V6
- (1990 – 1995) Second-Gen 4Runner with 3.0L V6
- (2001 – 2002) Third-Gen
- (2003 – 2005) Fourth-Gen
- (2014 – 2015) Fifth-Gen
1988-1989 First-generation Toyota 4Runner w/ 3.0L V6
The first-gen Toyota 4Runner was not a brand-new concept for the Toyota lineup when it was launched in 1984. The 4Runner was a Toyota pickup truck with seats and a camper shell thrown on the back. Safe to say it was not a wise move. The Original 4Runner did not receive any major complaints from the NHTSA. Nonetheless, it was full head-spinning issues. The 4Runner came with three engine options to pick from:
- 2.4L Inline-4
- 2.4L Turbocharged Inline-4
- 3.0L V6
The regular four-banger was a reliable engine and good for the daily grocery hauls. But, it was underpowered (100 hp), considering the sheer size of the vehicle. As a result, it was useless in extreme off-roading. The turbocharged four-banger offers more power, but it is super rare.
The V6 has a reputation preceding it. The latter is notorious for being unreliable. Many buyers are running away from it like it’s a deadly virus. One of the main problems the V6 has is head gasket failure due to a design defect in the cylinder heads. Consequently, many recommended dropping the 3.0L and swapping it for a 3.4L V6.
Timing belt and starter solenoid failure were also common issues with the 3.0L V6. And these issues came with a hefty price tag. Replacing the timing belt could cost anywhere between 500 $ and 800 $. Not to mention, the water pump sits behind the timing belt and might need a replacement.
Complaints about burnt exhaust valves were not that common. But it could be the end of your engine if it came up. Plus, the bill for fixing it is not worth it on a two-ton SUV from three decades ago. Another issue to consider is the so-called upgraded chain drive transfer case and transmission. The chain drive transfer case is less noisy on the road and more fuel efficient. However, it is not as good as the gear drive transfer case on rough terrains.
1990-1995 Second-generation Toyota 4Runner w/ 3.0L V6
The 1990 Toyota 4Runner was introduced to the world as a brand new generation, yet it looks almost exactly the same as the original one. The second-gen came with the previous 2.4L Inline-4 with a gear drive transfer case, while the 3.0L V6 was stuck with the chain drive transfer case. The I4 with the turbo power from the previous gen was canceled.
Inevitably, the engine reliability issues continued. Supposedly, Toyota revised the V6 head gasket. The new design included new materials to avoid major health issues. However, those materials were heat resistant, which is a big problem in an engine that is made from Iron and Aluminum.
As a result, the head gasket failed again, and Toyota ended up extending the Cylinder head gasket warranty to 8 years/ 100,000 miles. Moreover, the second-gen 4Runner suffered from transmission failure. After a certain mileage, the automatic gearbox may break down. There are other issues like a blocked EGR system, starter failure, or brake wear and tear. Still, they were not that common.
It is worth noting that a few of the second-generation 4Runner models were recalled due to steering relay rod malfunction.
2001-2002 Third-gen Toyota 4Runner
The third generation of the 4Runner came with a few exciting changes including its own chassis and new engines. The latter was shared with the Tacoma counterpart. The 2.4L Inline-4 was ditched in favor of a more powerful 2.7L I-4, and the 3.0L V6 was replaced by a 3.4L V6. Still, the changes were not enough!
The car build quality was overlooked. The body was made out of sheets of metal that crumble too fast during crashes, making it unsafe for passengers. The manual gearbox and locking differential were also dropped, creating a gap in off-road performance. Another issue the 2001-2002 models had was premature wear and tear of the lower ball joint that affected the vehicle’s handling.
Like the older generations, the third-gen suffered from rust issues, paint peeling, and automatic transmission failure. Often, the 4Runner won’t start due to faulty solenoid starters, and the brake rotors buckled a lot.
*Fuel and drivetrain problems were not popular.
Electrical system malfunctions are frequent on all cars and are an issue with the 2001-2002 4Runners. Many owners claimed that the system showed several warning lights on the dashboard while driving at highway speeds. To make matters worse, the brake barely worked, making it hard to stop.
2003-2005 Fourth-gen 4runner
The fourth generation brought a lot of safety improvements, including Toyota’s Safety System. The latter features ABS, EBD, brake assist, and traction control to avoid accidents. Despite the upgrades and additional power, the fourth-gen 4Runner suffered from serious malfunctions.
The #1 problem was excessive rust. The latter infested entire frames and subframes. As a result, the whole structural integrity was compromised. Many owners reported suspension parts falling off while driving due to rusty screws and bolts. The transmission mounts were hit the most by the rust invasion. Consequently, the propeller shaft got damaged in the process.
The repair bills for such a massive problem are quoted as high as 20,000 $. You can buy a 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee or 2017 Subaru Outback for that price. Other complaints included clunking noises, transfer case leaking, and damaged ring gear. There were also a few fingers pointing at the AC and heater not working properly.
And there is more!
The 03 4Runner has brake issues where the front brake calipers lock up. Some customers claim the issue remained even after changing the calipers for new ones. This gen didn’t suffer from just mechanical problems, even the interior was prone to breakdowns.
Owners who left their 4Erunners parked in the sun or live in areas with high temperatures found a nasty surprise. The dashboard started cracking up and melting like butter because of the heat. The latter was nothing but a cosmetic problem and had no effect on the car’s performance.
However, lots of owners were afraid that the airbags would not work. As a consequence, Toyota had to issue a recall. The broken radio, defective driver seat, bad oil pan, and engine cooling problems were the cherry on the cake.
2014-2015 Fifth-gen Toyota 4Runner
The 5-generation 4runner managed to pull it back together and fix the majority of the annoying malfunctions that cursed the previous generations. However, the fifth-gen Runners started throwing a fit and brought up their own problems. The most detrimental problem was the defective airbags. The latter either failed to deploy during accidents or exploded. As a result, many people suffered from serious injuries, while others did not survive.
It is worth noting that the airbags problem affected over a million Toyota vehicles, including the 2010-2016 4Runners. Still, other major companies like Ferrari, BMW, Dodge, Ford, Chevy, Jaguar, Audi, and Mercedes had the same issue and were forced to recall a lot of their affected models.
It is safe to say that 2015 is possibly the worst year for the Toyota 4Runner due to the annoying mishaps it caused to the owners. The main and most irritating issue people complained about is the horrible infotainment system. The latter would often freeze up and randomly restart.
Moreover, when customers tried to link their personal devices to the car’s Bluetooth, an error message pops up stating that the connection failed. And the message would remain stuck on the screen for almost a week. Adding insult to injury, plugging USB cables didn’t work either.
Consequently, many drivers were forced to restart the system by holding the power button for up to 10 minutes or restarting the entire vehicle. Brakes were another problem for Toyota fanboys to deal with. The brake rotors deformed too quickly, leading to extreme steering wheel vibrations and shaking when applying the brakes.
Furthermore, braking power was lost after ABS interference, resulting in a slow reaction from the brakes. This is a serious issue that can end up in a fatal crash. Additional complaints featured squishy sounds and a spongy feeling from the brake pedal. The solution to this dilemma was replacing the brake master cylinder.
Additional issues came up like the engine losing power going up hills, power steering failure, and wires eaten by rodents.
The 2014 model also had a lousy performance. It suffered from the same electrical problems and infotainment misfits. What’s more, the door locks did not work as intended, including the child safety lock, putting family lives at risk. The running boards got stuck halfway and sometimes did not deploy at all.
Often, the 4Runner would randomly shut down in the middle of traffic. Once the vehicle restarted, the operating system and lights did not turn back on. Death wobble was also a concern as the auto starts shaking like a wet cat at speeds above 60 mph. Besides, the Runner would veer off the road during rainy and windy weather conditions.
Finally, tires were prone to premature wear and tear, especially on the edges. Just for the sake of the inconvenience.
If you are interested in purchasing a reliable 4Runner, check the following models:
5-Gen: 2010 – 2013/ 2016 – 2019
(2010 – 2013)
The 4Runner went through some dark years, but it also has many great years to choose from. The 2010 – 2013 year models are much more reliable and offer ample power and great off-road capabilities. In case you are worried about the airbags problem, it should be fixed during the recall. You can pick one up for an average of 18,000 $.
(2016 – 2019)
2019,2018, and 2017 are fantastic choices for the 4Runner. They are fairly new, have low mileage, are fully loaded, and are closely matched to the latest 2020 – 2021 models. The price tag for any of the aforementioned years is above 25,000 $, but it will save you a lot of trouble in the long run.
(2008 – 2009)
The 09 and 08-year models are the best years for the Fourth-Gen 4Runner. It is more practical with impressive off-road potential. It is offered with special trims for off-roading and sports packages for a magnificent ride on paved roads. In addition, it has fewer problems than the previous years and comes with two powerful engines. This generation is going for 13,000 – 18,000 $.
(1999 – 2000 – 2002)
The third-Generation Runners are coming close to hitting the 25-year-old marker. Despite the drama surrounding the blown head gaskets, rust, brake failure, and electrical issues, the 99’, 2000, and 02’ year models managed to keep the number of complaints to a bare minimum. You can grab one for about 10,000 $.
First + Second-Gen:
The later years of the First and Second-Generation 4Runner with the Inline-4 are your best bet. It is down on power in extreme off-road scenarios, but it is more reliable than the V6. A clean first-gen Runner can cost you up to 5,000$. It is better to avoid the first two generations because they are 25+ years old. Thus, they suffer from additional issues that come with any other old car such as:
- Suspension dipping
- Electrical system faultiness due to damaged wires
- Corroded exhaust system
- Clogged carburetor
The biggest problem you may face is rust. The latter can cost you 1,500 $ and up to 20,000 $ to fix it.
Question: Which 4Runner year had the most recalls?
Answer: Toyota issued a massive recall on the Fifth-Gen 4Runner (2010-2018) due to front airbags failure and faulty fuel pumps.
Question: How long can a 4Runner last?
Answer: Toyota 4Runner is known for its insane dependability. A well-maintained Runner can reach 300,000 miles.
Question: What is the best 4Runner trim to buy?
Answer: The 4Runner TRD Pro is the top-tier trim Toyota offers. It comes fitted with all off-road premium equipment plus an ultra-luxurious interior.
A few bad years do not mean it’s all gone to waste. Toyota is one of the best carmakers for a reason, and the 4Runner is one of their most desired models. Every generation offers a specific set of amenities and comes with insane driving capabilities.
Worst years aside, the 4Runner is still one of the most reliable family-friendly SUVs the market can offer. Not to mention, it is an off-road beast.