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A good thing made better – the 1990 Toyota 4Runner

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1990 Toyota 4Runner magazine ad courtesy

With the crossover craze in full swing, automakers are once again trying to convince consumers that they need a vehicle to go anywhere and do anything. The recipe is simple and everyone from Buick to Honda has mastered it: Take a wagon or a hatchback, slap some black plastic on it, lift it two inches and market it as an SUV. While these vehicles can put on a good show in television ads, racing through the desert and scrambling up rocky inclines, realistically, they often can’t hold their own anywhere beyond a dirt road. The false advertising is rampant, with some all wheel drive vehicles even having the audacity to proudly wear a “4X4” badge. In 1989 however, the marketing was less optimistic. The ads didn’t promise any less, the SUVs were simply more capable.

Enter the 1990 Toyota 4Runner. Toyota launched the redesigned 4Runner directly into the burgeoning midsize sport utility segment, setting its sights on the Chevy S-10 Blazer and the class-leading Jeep Cherokee. Released one year ahead of the Ford Explorer, Toyota was already delivering their foray into family fun while Ford was still churning out the infamously rollover-prone Bronco II. Toyota had learned from the success of the first-generation 4Runner and the shortcomings of the competition. This 1989 ad proudly presents the Toyota’s optional four doors (a 4Runner first) and space for the whole family. The interior is even billed as the “lap of luxury.” Despite the hyperbolic description, the 4Runner indeed provided many things sport utes had failed to in the past.

Inside, there was comfortable seating for five and more cargo room than many competitors could claim. Gone was the pickup-like fiberglass topper that the first generation had used, and in its place, a fully enclosed steel roof came standard. No longer available as a convertible, the 4runner also added a more mature dashboard and a roll down trunk window to help ease the transition from covered truck to family hauler.

Still based on the venerable Hilux platform, buyers could choose from rear- or four-wheel drive. The new truck utilized an independent front suspension that made it tolerable on road, as opposed to early 4Runners which trundled along on solid axles front and back. Out back, Toyota took a hint from Jeep’s Cherokee and ditched the leaf springs for a more comfortable coil spring setup. The 1990 model year was the first time the 4Runner offered ABS, although only on the rear wheels. The beauty of the 1990 4Runner was the deal it struck between modern luxury and old school capability. It could be described as something of a budget Range Rover, albeit one with fewer leather surfaces and no electrical issues.

While the 1990 model brought an entirely new body, it maintained the old fuel-injected 2.4-liter 22RE that churned out just 115 horsepower and 140 lb.ft. of torque from its four cylinders. What this engine lacked in power, it made up for in efficiency and reliability and Toyota enthusiasts to this day continue to call this engine “indestructible.” For those seeking more power, the then-new 3.0-liter V-6 offered an increase of 35 ponies to 150 horsepower and 180 lb.ft. of torque. Both the four-cylinder and the V-6 could be mated to either a four-speed automatic or a five-speed manual transmission.

Many of these trucks were bought as family vehicles, used for shuttling kids to school and hockey practice. Their reputation was tarnished only by a high propensity to rollover, but sales were successful enough to warrant another three generations. Today, many of these 1990-1995 second generations have been given another chance at life by 4Runner enthusiasts who love to swap in the newer 3.4-liter engine and a solid front axle, creating the ultimate rock crawling rig.

At a factory in Tahara, Japan, Toyota is now producing fifth-generation 4Runners and demand shows no sign of slowing down. The body-on-frame 4Runner is an automotive dinosaur in 2019, and it has watched all of its midsize brethren (Pathfinder, Explorer) transition to unibody construction and all-wheel drive. If you’re one who misses truly offroad-able SUVs, go buy a 1990s 4Runner. Or, if airbags and staying right-side-up are priorities, a brand new one will be almost as capable. Just don’t expect an active safety package or good gas mileage on either.