Is an older 4runner a good adventure vehicle + daily driver?
August 30, 2011 7:17 PM   Subscribe

What automatic used 4runner should I buy that will be best for both rugged roads and daily driving? Specific project plans inside...

So, this previous AskMeFi question has helped me out a bit, but I need some specific advice with regards to 4runners.

I spend a few months out of every year driving to various parts of North America to photograph, and recently I have added backpacking to the mix. I usually car-camp or stay in motels when not backpacking and quite often the roads I need to use to get to my intended trailheads or photographic locations are very very rugged. It has gotten to the point where I am missing photographic opportunities because I drive a 2 door coupe that can barely handle an ungraded dirt road.

My plan is to buy a used 4runner and do to it what this guy has done - adding a bed in the back so I can camp in my vehicle when not out on the trail. It also needs to be my daily driver. Luckily I don't drive all that much when not out adventuring, because I bike to we're talking trips to the grocery store, hardware store etc.

I settled on the 4runner for several reasons: 1) 4wd capable 2) reliable 3)Can be converted to sleep inside [yes, not comfortably, but understand my alternative is usually sleeping on the ground]

I am led to believe that the early to mid 90's models tend to be more reliable, but that the 1999 and onward models have better gas mileage. Is there any truth to this? To me the post-1995 models look overbuilt and from an uninformed standpoint I would much rather have an early 1990s I'm looking for someone to tell me why that might be a bad idea when compared to a later model.

I do not drive stick and would be looking for an automatic with 4wd as opposed to all wheel drive. Most of the roads I intend to drive on are dirt roads of varying quality in the southwest and mountain roads in the Rockies...and ideally I'd like a vehicle capable of tackling something likeThe Old Mojave Road without it being a dedicated off-road toy. Am I asking for too much?

I work with my hands a lot and am a fairly technical person, but I have never been a "car guy" so a vehicle that isn't a pain in the ass to maintain is a necessity (I'm thinking Land Rovers and older Jeeps, CJs, etc). Is a 4runner even right for this?

TLDR Recap:
I want a hardy suv that is large enough for me to sleep in if necessary that can handle very rough road in remote locations and also will act as a daily driver. I think the 4runner fits the I right, and if so what should I be considering?

-Are there other suvs I should consider for this sort of use?
-What year used 4runner would be best suited to this purpose?
-If prioritizing for ease of maintenance, what sort of performance might I sacrifice?

This purchase is about a year off, so any info would help me continue the research process. Thanks!
posted by jnnla to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
There was a generational change in the HiLux Surf/4Runner from 1996 onwards. I would buy the lowest mileage 1996 to 2002 4Runner you can find that has 4WD (some US model ones are 2WD only!) and then put some extra money into beefing up the suspension a bit if you intend to drive frequently on "very rough roads in remote locations". Search eBay Motors for post-1995 4Runners and you will find a lot. If you can get one from a dealer in California or Florida the odds of underbody rust will be much lower. I wouldn't buy a used ten year old 4Runner from New Jersey or other states that have winter ice/snow/road salt.
posted by thewalrus at 7:37 PM on August 30, 2011

One thing that comes to mind when considering a car this old is that if you want to have air conditioning now and in the long term, you should get a model new enough to use R134a refrigerant (not R12). To be sure, check the label under the hood, but in general cars from '94 or newer use it.

A prime consideration for "not a pain in the ass" is to get a fuel-injected vehicle, but that's pretty standard since '86 or so.
posted by fritley at 7:38 PM on August 30, 2011

Oh yeah, and do NOT buy the 2.7L 4-cyl gasoline engine US model 4Runner, it's gutless, power-wise. Since you are (i think) looking for a car you can buy in the US, the Surf with 3.0L turbo diesel engine is not available, your best option will be the 3.5L V6 gasoline engine.
posted by thewalrus at 7:41 PM on August 30, 2011

I would recommend something like this which is pre-2003, 4WD, has the correct engine and appears to be a Florida car. Try to look around for one with a bit lower mileage or a lower price. The one in the auction, if it's originally a Florida car and has been driven there the whole time has probably been used in the same way a family would use an Accord or Camry. Here is another 4Runner you could consider as a base for modification. If you want to spend a lot of time on dirt roads or in 4x4 mode, take off the 265 size tires, put on 275, and have a professional two inch lift kit installed.
posted by thewalrus at 7:47 PM on August 30, 2011

I thought of another thing. Cars '96 and newer use OBD2, which means your mechanic (or you) can easily read trouble codes from the car's computer when something is wrong. Before '96 computer diagnosis was hit or miss, and varied according to manufacturer and model.

So, if you go earlier than '96, you might have to sometimes take your car to the venerable old guy who works on the weird old stuff.
posted by fritley at 7:48 PM on August 30, 2011

In before the other subaru people are but one of the outback or forester models are plenty big enough to sleep in, get good mileage, are just as reliable as a 4runner (after 2002) and cheaper to run-tires are cheaper and I think so will a lot of the maintenance. They have a good amount of ground clearance and the subaru all wheel drive system is actually pretty decent for dirt road driving and mild off roading. It is not up to rock crawling or mud bogging. I would also look at seeing if you can fit in a Honda CRV or a RAV4. They are lighter and smaller than a 4runner but also cheaper, better gas mileage and more fun to drive. Also the Toyota Pickups are pretty good vehicles, lighter and simpler than a 4 runner and you can sleep in the bed just fine. They make air mattresses that fit great in pickup beds now.

The new ford escapes seems to be well liked also, but I have no personal experience.

Big things on any SUV to maintain reliability-stay up on regular maintenance (not just oil changes but all the regular services). Don't put on big tires or a lift kit (really, this just kills the running gear as it wasn't designed to handle that much weight and it is also working at an odd angle it wasn't designed for) or anything that weighs a lot more than stock like giant tube bumpers and nerf bars. A roof rack/basket is pretty useful and not too much weight. Plus it makes an awesome platform up high for sleeping when it is hot and photography stand that gets you up above the scrub.

You might want to get a product for car camping is tents that fit over the rear hatch on SUV. They make a bunch of different ones for all models and will make the car camping thing much more pleasant. This setup might let you get by with a smaller vehicle. There is also a kind of drawer that fits in the back of SUV that could store your gear out of sight and is separately locked from the vehicle.

For the ultimate get an adventure trailer. Trailers are useful but can hurt gas mileage and specialty trailers like this are pretty pricy.
posted by bartonlong at 7:51 PM on August 30, 2011

Response by poster: Wow. Great replies so far, thanks, thewalrus for the specific links - that gives me a really good idea of exactly what I might be looking for. The car will *hopefully* be purchased here in CA, so I'm expecting rust to be a minimal issue. Seems like the biggest challenge will be finding one with low enough miles. Thanks so much, keep em coming if you got em!
posted by jnnla at 8:12 PM on August 30, 2011

I have spent a lot of time driving a HiLux Surf (the Japanese right hand drive model of the 4Runner) on very poor roads in Central Asia, so I can attest to the model's nearly indestructible construction. It's not a land cruiser, but it's also significantly lighter than a land cruiser, which makes the power:weight ratio about even. The ground clearance is significantly better than a Subaru, and the 1990 to 2002 models are relatively simply under the hood and easy to fix. In the US there is also a good supply of parts available for the 1996-2002 models, or in a pinch you can import parts from Japan as they share 95% common parts with the HiLux Surf. The only bad thing about buying one in the US is that you can't get the 3.0L turbo diesel SSR-G Japanese model Surf, which is a great truck.
posted by thewalrus at 8:35 PM on August 30, 2011

Are you occasionally driving into the mountains to go skiing? Maybe some icy roads in New England? Then buy a Subaru, hands down.

For the use you are describing, buy a 4runner or an Xterra, as late a model and in as clean condition as you can afford. As was suggested above, buy one that was used as a suburban commuter, not beaten up off road.
posted by Forktine at 8:50 PM on August 30, 2011

4 Runners are very good cars, but if I could make a suggestion for a solid competitor; My roommate bought a Nissan Xtera recently and it is awesome. 4 Runners are more common, so they might be your best bet, but while your shopping if you get a chance check out an Xtera do it. They also have a built in roof rack and basket. Just my $0.02
posted by token-ring at 8:51 PM on August 30, 2011

jnnla -

for the uses I imagine you're desiring out of a 4runner, please disregard the extremely well-meaning advice to pick up a subaru. if you were in the North East, or anywhere else in the US, I would probably recommend the same. they are fantastic cars, but they are no expedition or overland ready vehicle for the sort of roads that the Sierras, or mountains of the South West can throw at you.

I would recommend checking out the toyota specific section of it's an enthusiast site directly geared toward expeditions, overland travel, and vehicle dependent expeditions. you can also check out the classified section for expedition rigs suited toward what you are looking for. Buy a california based car, that's already been registered in the state. Something from out of state will either have to be shipped and then smogged in CA, or you fly and drive back, then smog. Either way, registration costs go up a bit because of being registered out of state + sales tax, and wahtever shipping/flying/driving back expenses you incur.

If you want to use the vehicle on a regular basis, and then as a base camp when you head out, think about a roof top tent (RTT) on a roof rack. Easy to store, as they fold up and take up just a little moor floor space than a bicycle.

Once you decide on what year 4runner you want, do diligent craigslist searches several times a day, covering Los Angeles, the inland empire, and orange county to find exactly what you want.

Due to my personal bias, I would be remiss to not mention that you should also look at '89-'95 range rover classics as a wonderful base for your expedition rig. There's a reason that toyota guys, who finally buy a rover, never go back. If you want more details or resources on that, drop me a line. I'm L.A. based and more than happy to help with either marquee!
posted by Bohemia Mountain at 8:57 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I had a 2000 6 cyl 4WD 4Runner I got rid of last year with 130K miles. I can confirm your choice-- they are very reliable and have a great balance of on-road/off-road characteristics. Nice to drive on the highway and pulled up tree stumps when I needed it. One of the few purchases I've made with zero regrets.

I too did what that guy did. But I found was that finding a level place to park was harder than finding a level place to put up a tent, and it bugged me when it wasn't. Plus, when the rear seat is folded forward, the seam between it and the rear deck is noticeable under you even with a pad. So instead of putting the pad directly down on the deck I cut a piece of 1" plywood to fit (19"x72"). That took care of the seam. Then I cut 20 or so 5" lengths of 2x2s to use as leveling chocks for the board. If I needed to, I used a little bubble level and stacked up the blocks as cribbing under 1, 2, or 3 corners until it was basically level. That really made for better sleeping. But some nights I was fine just sacking out in the driver's seat, which is comfortable.
posted by buzzv at 9:30 PM on August 30, 2011

Regarding the model year: I've driven the 1994 and the 2000 4Runners on the highway and I definitely preferred the 2000 -- significantly better ride (much more car-like) on the highway in both suspension and steering.
posted by buzzv at 9:37 PM on August 30, 2011

The 1994 is the second generation HiLux Surf/4Runner platform, which is more akin to a pickup truck... The 1996 through 2002 (before the body style changed) is the 3rd generation which was improved a lot for highway driving. Anything post-2002 is the 4th generation (fatter, V8 engine available in US, etc) which is a heavier thing.
posted by thewalrus at 11:03 PM on August 30, 2011

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