Ace of Base Retro: 1990 Toyota 4Runner

Matthew Guy
by Matthew Guy

We covered this one a couple of years ago but it’s being featured again today because *just look at it*!! Plus, your author happened upon a fantastic example in rural British Columbia just yesterday, causing him to dance excitedly in the snow like a hotwired puppy.

The 4Runner showed up in 1984, based off the Pickup/Hilux platform and providing the 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 fibreglass cap grafted onto the box.

Now sporting handsome and cleanly contoured sheetmetal, the gen-2 4Runner arrived at the perfect time to ride the wave of customers trading their cars for SUVs, a trend which, it must be said, has not abated in the least.

The new-for-’90 4Runner had a remarkably high floor, ensuring that 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 to sign 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. Buyers of all trims were greeted by a full complement of easy-to-read gauges, reclining cloth buckets, and a full fabric headliner. Hey, this was heady stuff 30 years ago.

If it appeared drivers were especially sweaty, that probably meant they 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.

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.

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 12 different shades of paint and four distinct interior colours. 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.

Bulletproof engine, baseball-bat manual 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.

[Images: Toyota]

Matthew Guy
Matthew Guy

Matthew buys, sells, fixes, & races cars. As a human index of auto & auction knowledge, he is fond of making money and offering loud opinions.

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  • Brandloyalty Brandloyalty on Feb 21, 2018

    The equivalent Pathfinder was a better vehicle, but Toyota fandom carried the day. The Pathfinder's front torsion bar suspension allowed providing drive to the front wheels while mounting the engine low. The 4Runner ended up sticking the front wheel drive stuff below the engine, resulting in the nose-high stance. The consequences of the basically flawed design included a very high centre of gravity and that strange high floor. The seating area was as small as the same era's Corolla. The cabin was so narrow that on bad roads occupants would hit their heads on the side windows. Been there done that. The narrow width, high COG and rounded styling resulted in rollovers. And they would just keep rolling. On the other hand the Pathfinder was far less prone to rolling and the square body resisted prolonged rolling. Both were prone to rusting, probably the 4Runner being worse. The 4Runner also had a power rear hatch window that always broke. Offroad they were equals. The only advantage of the 4Runner was its longer cargo area. As the less popular vehicle the Pathfinder was a far better buy.

    • Gtem Gtem on Feb 22, 2018

      I assume you're talking about the WD-21 BOF pathfinder here, not the R50 that followed. Nissans rotted worse than the 4Runners, especially in the sense that they had structural rust issues (frame) and not just on the sheetmetal like the gen 2 4Runners. I do like those old Pathfinders, they are incredibly robust vehicles. I'd be curious to learn more about the differences in IFS and front diff/driveshaft layout that you claim allowed Nissan to have a more compact layout with lower COG. I was always under the impression that the 4Runners just had higher clearance all around.

  • Scout_Number_4 Scout_Number_4 on Feb 21, 2018

    I bought a '92 SR5, 4-door, 5-sp, V6, leather new--$23,008. Mine was cardinal red, had those classic Toyota alloys of that era plus factory running boards. I drove it 175,000 miles all over Western North America, mostly in Oregon, Washington, BC and Alberta. It was fantastic in the mud and snow. The only problem I had was THE BIG ONE--head gasket failure at 99,900 miles which destroyed the motor. Luckily for me, Toyota declared the head gasket a factory defect and paid for a new engine and gave me a late model Camry to drive during the 8 weeks it took to make the repairs. When I arrived in the tow truck at the dealers, the shop was littered with trucks and 4Runners with the motors out--getting parts was apparently an issue. I loved that rig, but once married with children it became small. I sold it in 2001 for $7800. Not a bad run. Now that the nest is empty, I may get another one.

    • Gtem Gtem on Feb 22, 2018

      Go for it! A clean low mile 2nd gen is getting harder to find, but it is easier to find with a 5spd than a 3rd gen 5spd (which carry a massive premium). A decent higher mile 2nd gen can be found for $2500-3000, a really nice one might top out near $5-6k. 3rd gens run the gamut from $3k for a mechanically sound higher mile (200k+) early-year 4wd/auto/V6 (no locker) up to $11-12k for a really clean late-year 5spd V6/4wd/locked truck (the true unicorns). Various modifications such as the TRD supercharger, lifts, degree of rust on the underside drive prices a lot as well. For reference I paid $6300 for a mint one owner '96 Limited with rear locker, 99k miles and no winter driving for over a decade (excellent frame and underbody) back in 2013. At present with 146k it'd sell for about $7k here in the Midwest on an enthusiast forum owing to the clean condition, particularly the lack of rust on the frame.

  • Tassos Jong-iL The Peninsula of One Korea.
  • Eric No, I just share my opinions. I have no use nor time for rhetoric from any side.
  • Redapple2 Jeez. This is simple. I 75 and 696 area. 1 nobody -NOBODY wants to work in downtown Detritus. 2 close to the tech ctr. Design and Engineering HQ. 20 miles closer to Milford.3 lower taxes for the employees. Lower taxes for Evil GM Vampire.4 2 major expressways give users more options to suburbs. Faster transport.Jeez.
  • Clark The Ring (Nürburgring) is the only race track I've driven on. That was 1985 or 1986 with my '73 Fiat Spider (and my not-so-happy girlfriend). So I made the Karussell (today: Caracciola Karussell, which I believe the author meant; there is another one: Kleines Karussell).
  • AZFelix This article takes me back to racing electric slot cars with friends on tracks laid out in the basement. Periodically your car would stop due to lost connections or from flying off the track and you would have to dash over to it and set it right. In the mean time your competitor would race ahead until faced with a similar problem. It seemed like you were struggling harder to keep from losing than trying to win. Fun times.“History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.” Mark Twain