The Evolution of the Toyota 4Runner: Exploring the Third-Generation Models from 1996-2002

The Toyota 4Runner has been available in the U.S. market since the mid-1980s and will soon enter its sixth generation in 2024 as a 2025 model-year SUV. As we anticipate the unveiling of the new 2025 4Runner, let’s take a moment to reflect on one of the earlier generations that played a pivotal role in establishing the 4Runner’s reputation in the United States.

Previous 4Runner models still hold a special place in the hearts of enthusiasts, especially those who enjoy off-roading, due to their rugged build, reliability, and timeless design. The third-generation 4Runner, introduced in 1996, brought significant cosmetic and mechanical enhancements, solidifying its position as a standout model in the 4Runner lineup.

During the third generation, Toyota increased the overall size of the 4Runner, resulting in more interior space, improved cargo capacity, and enhanced off-road stability. The addition of an electronic-locking rear differential further enhanced its capability, making it a popular choice among off-road enthusiasts.

In 1999, the 4Runner underwent a mid-cycle refresh that included a refreshed front-end design, updated interior controls, and a new transfer case for four-wheel drive models. These changes improved the overall functionality and appeal of the third-generation 4Runner.

As we await the arrival of the 2025 4Runner, let’s take a closer look at what made the third generation of this SUV so desirable.

Third-generation 4Runner powertrains

In the U.S., consumers had the option of choosing between a 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine and a 3.4-liter V6 engine for the third-generation 4Runner. The V6 engine offered slightly less power compared to its use in the Tacoma pickup truck. Both manual and automatic transmission options were available, with the manual transmission being discontinued after the 2000 model year. Additionally, Toyota later introduced a supercharger kit for the V6 engine through its TRD accessory division.

Why is the third-generation 4Runner special?

The third generation of the 4Runner marked a transition from being primarily off-road focused to becoming a more mainstream daily driver and family vehicle. This shift in consumer preference led to a surge in demand for the 4Runner, making well-preserved examples harder to find. The SUV’s combination of versatility, capability, and updated styling attracted a broad range of buyers, from families to outdoor enthusiasts.

While the third-generation 4Runner is still available in the used car market today, models with low mileage and minimal wear are becoming increasingly rare. Prices for well-maintained, unmodified examples have seen an increase, with some fetching prices in the mid-to-upper $20,000 range.

Alternatives to the third-generation Toyota 4Runner

During the third generation’s production, several viable alternatives to the 4Runner were available in the market. Models like the Honda Passport, Isuzu Rodeo, Nissan Pathfinder, and Mitsubishi Montero offered similar off-road capabilities and attractive styling. The iconic Toyota Land Cruiser also presented a more rugged and capable alternative to the 4Runner.

Today, finding a third-generation 4Runner in good condition can be a challenge due to high mileage, rust issues, and extensive modifications. However, for those seeking a classic off-road SUV with a sturdy build and timeless design, the third-generation 4Runner remains a coveted choice.

Frequently asked questions about the third-generation Toyota 4Runner

Which model years were included in the third generation?

The third-generation 4Runner was produced from the 1996 through 2002 model years.

How long do third-gen 4Runners last?

Due to their durability and longevity, third-generation 4Runners can easily surpass 200,000 miles with proper maintenance. Many owners have reported reaching 300,000 miles with minimal effort, although rust and cosmetic issues can be a concern for older models.

Is the third-generation 4Runner worth the price?

For buyers seeking a specific feel and attitude in their SUV, the third-generation 4Runner’s premium price is justified. However, for those looking for modern off-road capabilities and comfort, newer 4Runner models or even the Land Cruiser could be suitable alternatives.

How hard is it to modify the third-generation 4Runner?

Modifying and upgrading the third-generation 4Runner is relatively straightforward, given its simple design and abundance of aftermarket parts. Basic maintenance and care should be prioritized before tackling any modifications, but overall, the vehicle offers ample opportunities for customization.