By on October 20, 2016

1990 Toyota 4Runner

As the calendar flipped out of the coked-up 80s and into the next decade, the mash-up that was Diamond Star Motors cranked out all-wheel drive turbo coupes, Chevy unleashed the ZR-1 (with the hyphen, thank you very much), and we were watching Robert Duvall play an excellent portrayal of Harry Hyde.

Toyota, for its part, launched a new 4Runner sporting handsome and cleanly contoured sheetmetal, arriving at the perfect time to ride the wave of customers who were suddenly trading their cars for SUVs.

The 4Runner had been around since 1984, based off the Pickup/Hilux platform and providing off-road chops to challenge the original Cherokee. For its ’90 redesign (available in calendar year ’89), Toyota saw fit to depart from the agricultural roots of the OG 4Runner, which was essentially a pickup truck with a fiberglass cap grafted onto the box and some extra seats designed to skirt the chicken tax. Thankfully, Toyota retained the excellent fold-down tailgate. 

Buyers would find the new-for-’90 4Runner had a remarkably high floor, ensuring folks who wanted an SUV simply for the image would take one look at the liftover height into the cargo area and make a beeline to the nearest Ford store, signing the note on one of those new Explorers. If a poser managed to make it past the jump-up-into-the-driver’s-seat cost of entry, at least we knew they were working for their social status. Making it up into the driver’s seat, buyers of base models were greeted by a full compliment of easy-to-read gauges, reclining cloth buckets, and a full fabric headliner. Hey, this was heady stuff back then.

If it appeared 4Runner drivers were especially sweaty, that probably meant they were either eating too many 3D Doritos (remember those?) or were wrangling a base model SR5, where power steering was not standard equipment. Yes, power steering was an option as late as 1990, but think of all the money drivers saved on a gym membership. P90X was still twenty years away.

Base 4Runners of this vintage were equipped with a five-speed stick and Toyota’s legendary 22RE fuel-injected SOHC four-cylinder. A 3.0-liter V6 was on offer, cranking out 150 horsepower compared to the smaller mill’s 116 hp, but the OHC six-pot proved to have head gasket issues down the road (cue the Toyota jihad that will point out gazillion-mile, trouble-free examples and proceed to burn effigies in my name). New vehicle buyers didn’t know that, of course.

Not yet swayed by today’s trend of offering vehicles with all the visual color of a Charlie Chaplin movie, the ’90 4Runner was available in no less than twelve different shades of paint and four distinct interior colors. These things look best in Cardinal Red, always have. Feel free to disagree. Feel free to be wrong.

I maintain that early 90s Toyota was peak Toyota, cranking out good looking, reliable machinery with well screwed together interiors. Asking price may have outstripped its competitors (witness a fully loaded ’90 4Runner for $25,779 or $43,943 in 2016 dollars) but, for once, buyers got what they paid for. Records show that base, rear-drive, four-door strippers checked in at close to $16,000 in 1990.

Bulletproof engine, baseball-bat shifter sticking out of the floor, rugged good looks, and some off-road chops. If that doesn’t check off the Ace of Base boxes, I don’t know what will.

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53 Comments on “Ace of Base Redux: 1990 Toyota 4Runner...”


  • avatar
    an innocent man

    >designed to skirt the chicken tax.<

    Oh no he di'nt.

  • avatar

    As the owner of a Cardinal Red 1992 Toyota Pickup, I wholeheartedly agree with your color opinion.

  • avatar
    ArialATOMV8

    In addition to the 80 series, i’ve always had a soft spot for 90s 4Runners they were shorter, skinnier, and had a charisma that could put a smile on any ‘normal’ consumer’s face.

    Today, I feel Toyota does not have that magic touch that it used to have long ago over here in the states. Don’t get me wrong, Toyotas are still good but, it’s just harder in today’s market to find a model car petrolhead will like

  • avatar
    dividebytube

    Always loved the looks of the 4Runner – well up until the latest iteration that is. But still it’s my “go-to” zombie-apocalypse approved car.

    As an ex-1998 T100 owner, I was surprised by two things: the stock ride height of those 90s Toyota 4X4s makes ’em look aftermarket jacked up. I like it. And the second surprise – how well my T100 handled. No it wasn’t a high speed canyon carver, but, considering the height, it didn’t have the tippy feeling my old ’97 Mountaineer had. You could take a curve pretty hard and not feel like you were about to roll over.

    Of course there was the simple unabashed ruggedness. Sure it drove like a tractor but you knew you were going to get there no matter what mother nature (or the zombies!) threw in your way.

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      Always liked the Land Cruiser-lite looks of the T100, and I think they’ve aged quite well.

    • 0 avatar
      crtfour

      I have a ’97 T100 extra cab 4×4 that is hands down the best vehicle I have ever owned and I do like that fact that it looks like a 4×4 straight out of the factory. For the most part I can’t seem to distinguish a 2wd from 4wd on today’s trucks.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    I’m not sure about the “bullet-proof engine” bit: didn’t the V6s have head-gasket issues? And, IIRC, hasn’t the 4Runner has generally been Toyota’s least-reliable model, per Consumer Reports?

    That said, my father’s made it past 450K before the rust became a safety issue. IIRC, it’s only real issue was that it ate headlamp bulbs.

    • 0 avatar
      gtemnykh

      The 3.0L 3vz did have an issue (along with some other late 80s/early 90s Toyota 6 cylinders, namely the Supra/Cressida 7mg) with a switch of headgasket materials and not accounting for the difference in head bolt torque. Once this was addressed (corrected head bolt torque, and/or replacement with redesigned gaskets, these motors are as durable as anything else out there.

      Not sure about the “least reliable” claim either. Tahara-built trucks have always been impeccably built IMO, and Toyota definitely applies themselves to make these things very tough and long lasting. Now, the problem might arise that there is simply much more hardware on a 4wd SUV to potentially go wrong than a simple fwd economy car, so as they get older you need to be aware of the things that need maintenance (greasing all driveshaft zerks, changing transfer case and differential oils, etc).

    • 0 avatar
      wstarvingteacher

      @psar: you could be right but there was a recall I believe. They only follow the land cruiser for durability acceding to Steve Langs long term quality index of SUV’ s. The high floor makes it tough for my wife to ride in it. Mine is a 95, 5mt,3.0. Somebody gave me a link to see if I had any outstanding recalls. I don’t so the head gasket was probably done or since that’s the last year of the 3.0, maybe it didn’t need it. Anyway it was a good choice to pick up used and I intend to keep it.

  • avatar
    formula m

    Awesome vehicle

  • avatar
    Car Ramrod

    Love these. And I’m pretty sure I was struggling through P90X way back in 2008.

  • avatar
    philipbarrett

    My mid-90s 4WD has peeling paint, a gabazillion miles & more than her fair share of bumps & bruises but still runs like a champ. Repairs are so few & far between it’s hard to remember exactly what was replaced when. A recent trip to a 25,000 car breakers yard for a glove box lid was a bust as they had a single 4Runner on the lot. “We never see these in here” was the manager’s quote.

    • 0 avatar
      Macca

      Your junkyard anecdote sounds like the makings of a great commercial…”we never see these here.”

      • 0 avatar
        CoreyDL

        Oh man.

        Rugged man pulls up in his 4Runner.

        “Sorry, we never see these here!”

        Behind him, someone in a Discovery pulls up and gets out, wearing nicer clothes. Guy from the yard looks over at him.

        “Row twelve.”

        • 0 avatar
          ajla

          So many Land Rovers in the local junkyard, and no one ever takes any parts.

          Same with Cadillacs.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            When I was getting a new battery for my Tahoe at Auto Zone, standing there watching the trainee struggle to install it with the help of the manager (sigh), a woman came up in a later model SRX needing a new battery.

            They took one look at it and saw there were cables and a fuse box on top of the battery, and they sent her away to the Firestone store to have them take care of it.

            That’s a stupid design, as the battery should always be easily accessible. Boo to the SRX.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            Yup, pity the waste.

          • 0 avatar
            cgjeep

            I now a person that built a Discovery as an off road only vehicle. I asked why he did that, must be horribly expensive. He said that used parts were dirt cheap because nobody worked on them themselves and repair places only use new parts. He found that the stuff that breaks he doesn’t need for off road use. That the drive train was pretty solid.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            @cgjeep

            Intriguing. What MY?

          • 0 avatar
            gtemnykh

            Yep old Discos are actually fantastic off-road beasts. Just watch the cooling system to keep the head gaskets happy, and top off all of the leaking fluids, and you’ve got a really affordable and truly world-class capable rig. Ignore all ancillary accessory functions (non-functions?).

          • 0 avatar
            cgjeep

            @28 cars

            Don’t know there year but it was a first gen Discovery.

        • 0 avatar
          Macca

          @CoreyDL: Nailed it.

      • 0 avatar
        gtemnykh

        Meh they come up every so often just by way of how many were sold and how many are still on the road, wrecks mostly (sometimes caused by lower balljoint failure). Sometimes from the transmission’s “strawberry milkshake of death” (read: coolant contamination from a burst trans cooler line inside the radiator). Although the bad transmission trucks typically will get scooped up and rebuilt before they ever hit the junkyard.

        I was able to snag a rear driveshaft for my ’96 from a wrecked ’00 in the yard, just $20! Some mexican dudes were scoping out the rear shocks (which were mismatched). Who the heck buys used crusty shocks anyways?

        • 0 avatar
          ajla

          I’ve pulled FE3, FE4, F41, and 9C1 shocks off GM vehicles before just because they can be hard to find.

          I’ll even say the junkyard F41/FE3s I put on my Buick and Bonneville seemed to work better than relatively new Monroes. Granted Monroe seems to suck pretty bad.

          • 0 avatar
            golden2husky

            Yep. Monroe decided to go soft. Yuck.

          • 0 avatar
            gtemnykh

            When I was selling my short-lived Maxima experiment, the lady that came to look at the car to buy for her son was gushing at how well it rode (I swapped on Monroe quickstruts all around). The 204k mile struts on my ES300 still dampen well, but are feeling a bit tired over expansion joints and such so I’m deciding what route to take. Thinking about trying out Gabriel Ultras for a change of pace, or else going up to Monroe OESpectrums for a slightly higher quality, slightly stiffer setup than the QuickStruts. I wish I could do OEM, but it’s simply too expensive to put on a $1600 car. KYBs are notoriously stiff.

  • avatar
    DM335

    I worked at a Toyota dealership when these were introduced. They were such an amazing improvement over the first generation. At first the two-door was thought to be the most popular model, but the four-door sold so well the two-doors were quickly forgotten. As the article said, the step up into the seats was quite a leap. If I recall correctly, running boards could not be added at the dealership. The two-tone dark red/gray in the picture was quite popular, but Cardinal Red was easily the top seller. I don’t remember all the interior choices, but I do vividly recall the mismatched pieces of the bright mustard tan interior. That color needed to be avoided. Toyota didn’t learn how to make a tasteful tan interior for a few more years.

    • 0 avatar
      gtemnykh

      There were definitely factory running boards available in 2nd gen trucks, although perhaps they came about mostly towards the end of the run and on upper-level trims only.

    • 0 avatar
      Grunt

      I too worked at a Toyota dealership back then as a sales manager. It was a substantial upgrade from the previous iteration. As I recall the best selling color in the Gulf States Toyota region was medium red pearl, 3H4 code?, if I remember correctly. The tan/brown/peanut butter mixed interior color was awful and would sit forever, even if properly equipped and otherwise fine. Other dealerships would try to dealer trade that awful interior color vehicle to you with an identical option list to the one they wanted from you, with the exception of having that awful interior mash-up.

      I also remember trying to find the old ones that hadn’t been converted to a “passenger vehicle” with seats added in the rear by the distributor and taking them to get the seats and carpet installed by a van conversion company for like $400 which was a good bit less than GST was charging for the upgrade which at that time was like $1000.

      Also I believe the 1990 model was the first time they installed a coil spring rear suspension instead of the truck leaf spring suspension on the 4-Runner. It looked like it squatted a bit in the back from a side view, but that could have been an optical illusion due to the difference in the front and rear wheel arches.

  • avatar
    Tinn-Can

    My first car was a hand me down 91 4runner SR5 in metallic blue… My dad put 250k miles on it and it still ran great and looked even better. It did blow a head gasket but was covered under warranty or recall or something. I believe a change in torque specs fixed the problems. Mine had running boards so I never really noticed the ride height. The roll down rear window and standard tailgate style flip down rear door was the best. I don’t know why SUVs do the stupid minivan lift gate instead.

    • 0 avatar
      gtemnykh

      I actually prefer the lift up tailgate, for the simple reason that when I’m camping, that open rear hatch creates a very practical area to sit in and remain dry. Now the roll-down rear window is definitely a must, and yes I’m surprised that is not more prevalent among SUVs.

  • avatar
    Scout_Number_4

    First new car I ever bought was a 92 4-door (2dr practically non existent) in garnet pearl with the V6 & 5sp. Perfect vehicle for me at the time–single with a job that required me to drive all over the NW USA and much of Western Canada in all kinds of weather. Head gasket did fail at 99,990 miles (no joke). Dealer called me: Bad news, engine ruined. Good news: Toyota’s buying you a new one and giving you this nice Camry to drive for the next 8 weeks while we work thru this huge backlog of rigs that need new engines. IIRC, I only had to pay for a new water pump. I remember going into the service area and seeing about a dozen pickups and 4-runners with the motors out, all waiting for the next shipment of power plants to arrive. Owned it 8 years, drove it 175,000 miles and sold it for about $6800–not too shabby.

  • avatar
    Metal

    I have a ’95 T100 with 310k on the original engine and transmission. It has the 3.4L V6. I believe the T100 was a 4Runner with the back chopped off? I’m not sure if there was a huge change from the article’s 1990 and the 95 vintage, but this truck is bulletproof, slow, loud, and drives like a wounded donkey. I love it.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    The styling on these was just perfect. Too bad that the durable engine was overwhelmed and the weight-appropriate engine had head gasket issues, especially since the rest of the truck was indestructible except by rust.

    But my real soft spot is for the pickups of the same generation. They were the very best of the actually-compact pickups, ever. I’d happily buy a 4-cylinder/5-speed pickup of this vintage today, except that everyone else wants them too and the non-rusty ones are ludicrously expensive.

    • 0 avatar
      Sigivald

      And – as someone who a few years ago dumped a ’94 Pickup with a 22RE – don’t forget that ones still on the road are likely to be very close to needing a timing chain or tensioner.

      And that’s a $1200+ job on a 20 year old, underpowered, half worn out truck.

      There’s a reason, beyond needing something bigger, that I’m in an F250 – the Toyota was needing a *lot* of maintenance at 280kmi.

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      These are almost all gone here, long ago. Occasionally you’ll see a square body one that’s clearly been babied, but it’s so rare.

      Even the early part of the mid-90s version is uncommon. Only the 96+(?) when they got better corrosion protection. (And those look great in dark green or pearl.)

      • 0 avatar
        gtemnykh

        Corey, yes the ’96-’02 gen got galvanization for most parts of the body. My Evergreen Pearl over anthracite two-tone has no body corrosion what so ever, but the asterisk there is that it’s been kept out of the salt for a period of over more than a decade. Frame is likewise almost spotless, only a few cross members show minor surface rust. One friend bought a ’97 Limited recently that’s been less cared for and has been in the Midwest its whole life. It’s just starting to get a bit of rot right at the bottoms of the insides of the rear wheel well lips, but you really have to look for it. More often than not, most of the northern trucks will start to get rotten rear bumpers (easy and cheap to replace), and the undersides will start to look pretty nasty while remaining structurally sound for a long time. Finally the rear trailing arm mount will corrode enough to crack at the weld. Meanwhile the bodies stay solid very impressively, on really bad trucks the rockers will finally let go, but that’s fairly rare. Another friend is currently 3rd gen hunting in the NYC area. Rust is definitely a factor on most trucks by this point. Never structural or even cosmetic, but the undersides are crusty enough to make me worry about the condition of fuel and brake lines. The other biggest issue is curbstoners selling wrecked cars as creampuffs. The downside of Toyotas feeling drum-tight and squeak free even with 200k+ miles on them is that it’s much more believable for someone to turn back the odometer on one, throw on a steering wheel cover to mask the wear, and sell it for big bucks to a sucker. Carfax has proven to be very useful (and entertaining/eye opening) in this current search I’m helping with.

        2nd gens are a mess by comparison rust-wise. They’ll rust from the inside out from the tops of the rear fenders (under the hatch glass), doors will rot inside out, etc. Frames are actually very resilient.

        • 0 avatar
          CoreyDL

          That just reminded me of the times when I’ll see a rusty gen 2, and there’s always a rust growth under the rear window, and often times the clearcoat on the roof is fully gone, and spreading down the rear pillars.

          I know what it feels like when a brake line fails now. That wasn’t fun, but at least I was already home.

  • avatar
    gtemnykh

    2nd gen 4Runners are a crucial step in the evolution of the line. They are basically a gen 1 4runner with a tin top and a nicer interior, and coils instead of leaf springs out back. The frame is the same (global Hilux frame), torsion-bar front suspension is the same, drivetrains and 4wd hardware is the same. Still the same very short wheelbase IIRC, rear passenger space isn’t great. Torsion bar front end doesn’t ride as well or articulate as well as the double wishbone design that debuted in the 3rd generation, but it is durable as all hell.

    The 3rd gen by contrast (the one that looks an awful lot like the 90-95 2nd gen, made 96-02) switched to the “medium duty” Prado style frame (still a fully boxed more than adequate design), got the new front suspension which is a bit more susceptible to abuse and ultimately lower balljoint failure if you wail on it for long enough. The 3.4L 5VZ is head and shoulders above the 3VZ in every possible measure (economy, power, ease of servicing, no headgasket issues), the sheetmetal became galvanized which totally transformed their longevity in Northern climates. 3rd gen also stretched the wheelbase 4 inches which made the rear seat much more comfortable, but the truck was still quite narrow. A boon on tight trails, a detriment for passenger hauling. Interior got more NVH damping, and overall more emphasis on passenger comfort, but they’re still very trucky, make no mistake. Perhaps most importantly, a factory locking rear differential made its debut, totally transforming offroad capabilities of stock trucks compared back to back with a 2nd gen.

    See video below just how much that rear diff helps a stock truck traverse some very technical terrain:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YYDkQuP3HAs

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    Oh come on, 3D Doritos were not available until the very late ’90s!

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    This is my favorite 4Runner body, although the late-90s ones are better trucks.

    Japanese Classics had some holy-grail Hilux Surfs come in a while back:
    http://www.japaneseclassics.com/vehicle/1990-toyota-hilux-surf-ssr/
    https://www.japaneseclassics.com/vehicle/1990-toyota-hilux/

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      Also, look at this Pajero Limited with rear electronic climate control!

      http://www.ebay.com/itm/232118504579

      • 0 avatar
        bumpy ii

        Oh stop it now. You’re going to break gtem’s heart.

      • 0 avatar
        dal20402

        It’s really a good thing for my wallet that JDM cars are RHD. Not quite willing to put up with that.

        Otherwise my Legend would probably be a JDM version with the world’s first nav system (which was just as comical as you’d think) and power rear seats with integrated rear-seat car phone. Not to mention the rear package shelf air purifier.

        • 0 avatar
          CoreyDL

          Yeah, that puts me off as well. I think it would be challenging to learn to drive here that way. Lots of sight disadvantages.

          Cause shoot I’d have a 91 Century!

          • 0 avatar
            gtemnykh

            The biggest challenge is passing on two lane roads (when you don’t have a front passenger to car-spot for you). The huge amount of RHD cars (up to 90% of the traffic in certain parts) in a country such as Russia are in a way a multiplier to what already is a huge problem with accidents and traffic deaths due to impaired driving, not using belts, bad roads, and just plain aggressive/stupid driving. People have adjusted to it and driving around with my cousin in his ’92 Corona for a week I totally stopped paying any attention to the novelty factor.

          • 0 avatar
            bumpy ii

            I’ve talked to some people, and they generally got used to it after a little while. Shifting with the left hand was a bit more challenging, but not insurmountable. As an added bonus, you could get a job as a rural postal carrier- more than a few RHD Jeeps out there delivering the mail.

          • 0 avatar
            gtemnykh

            bumpy I drove our rental ’94 Corolla like this but very beat up:

            sc01.alicdn.com/kf/HTB1clgBJFXXXXcQXXXXq6xXFXXXc/Toyota-Corolla-Van-Ee102.jpg

            when we visited in ’04, RHD, a courier variant with a vinyl interior, 4spd stick, leaf spring rear end, steel bars protecting the inside of the cargo compartment glass and a factory “400kg” sticker on the hatch. I was just learning how to drive stick at the time, and I didn’t find it very unusual at all to do the left hand shift. The pattern is oriented the same and your feet are still pressing the same pedals, it was no big deal IMO.

  • avatar
    White Shadow

    My buddy got one of these brand new the first year they came out. It was an underpowered pig even back then. Today, an old lady with a walker could outrun one.

    Yes, I know that it’s not supposed to be fast, but it’s so ridiculously slow that it’s laughable.

    • 0 avatar
      gtemnykh

      It was about par for the course for a Japanese V6 SUV in those days. All had a 3.0L V6 making 150-ish HP (VG30 in the Pathfinder, JE series 18 valve in the MPV, mitsu 6g72). 10-11 seconds 0-60, not particularly torquey. The domestics always had the edge in this era of SUV, with cruder, larger 4.0L+ motors being the norm in their SUVs (4.0L in Cherokee, Cologne OHV 4.0L in Explorer, 4.3L in S10 Blazer). The larger American motors arguably got better real world MPG to boot.

    • 0 avatar
      Carlson Fan

      Well they aren’t that bad at least with the 5 speed. But my biggest gripe with my ’93 PU (3.0 V6/stick) was the lack of low end grunt when towing. With nothing hooked to the back it as plenty fast. It was great truck & I’d buy it all over again because every other compact truck at the time (foreign & domestic) sucked compared to that Toyota.

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