Driving a 1987 Toyota 4Runner Reminds Me of What We Could Have Had

The first-generation 1987 Toyota 4Runner offered a future where crossovers coexisted with nature rather than trampled over it.

byVictoria Scott| PUBLISHED Sep 21, 2022 12:31 PM
Driving a 1987 Toyota 4Runner Reminds Me of What We Could Have Had
Victoria Scott

SUVs are so capable now. They have 400 or 600 or 700 horsepower. Or there’s nine inches of ground clearance on crossovers that were once marketed as mom’s grocery getter. Or there are breakover angles that could let you drive straight up a mountain while texting. This fervor for impressive stat-sheets has saturated nearly every corner of the modern SUV market. 

And there’s virtually no trade-off for this proficiency other than ever-increasing MSRPs. Even in the case of body-on-frame SUVs aimed directly at hard-core offroaders, their rock-crawling proclivity comes at the expense of nothing, and certainly not comfort. Across the board, modern trucks are more luxurious than ever, with unparalleled amenities and NVH levels that, in years past, would have been more likely found in a Brougham than a truck. 

Victoria Scott

The 1987 Toyota 4Runner is a portal into a world where none of this happened. This truck, from the dawn of the SUV era, is a body-on-frame four-cylinder with the footprint of a Prius and cloth seats, no tachometer, and, for the entire time I reviewed it, no roof whatsoever. I would have much preferred this version of the future. 

1987 Toyota 4Runner Review Specs

  • Price: approximately $11,000 (in 1987)
  • Powertrain: 2.4-liter naturally aspirated inline-four | 5-speed manual | four-wheel drive
  • Horsepower: 113 @ 4,800 rpm
  • Torque: 140 lb-ft @ 3,600 rpm
  • Curb weight: ~3,700 pounds
  • Seating capacity: 4
  • 0-60 mph: Yes
  • Fuel economy: 18 mpg city | 22 highway | 19 combined
  • Quick take: Toyota’s first 4Runner was at peace with the terrain it traversed.

The Dawn of the SUV Age

In 1984, the car market was about to undergo its most permanent and drastic change since the fuel crisis began more than a decade before. After the inception of the Combined Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) mandates in 1975—created to address the oil shortages of the 1970s—fuel economy became something manufacturers had to worry about for the first time. By the early ‘80s, however, the shortages of a few years before had given way to a glut, and the United States was awash in cheap gasoline once more. Consumers no longer cared about mpg, and manufacturers began looking for ways to circumvent CAFE and offer buyers the inefficient cars they so clearly craved.

AMC Eagle. Victoria Scott

AMC and Jeep (both owned by the same parent company at the time) were the first manufacturers to clearly realize the potential of the CAFE light-truck loophole, which allows vehicles with four-wheel drive and certain ground clearance requirements to comply with much less stringent mpg standards than traditional passenger cars. 

AMC’s move was to build the Eagle 4x4, a lifted wagon that we would today recognize as a crossover, and Jeep’s strategy was to create the Cherokee XJ, the first unibody SUV. Both of these options allowed consumers a similar footprint and ride quality to a car, with the off-road prowess of traditional, body-on-frame offerings. It worked. The Eagle was a little too early, and AMC would perish before the end of the decade; the Cherokee, however, was a massive success, and Jeep sold 2.8 million over the 17-year lifespan of the XJ. 

In 1984, the same year as the Cherokee XJ fired the opening salvo of modern crossover dominance, Toyota came out with the first-generation 4Runner, and it offered a massively different view of what an SUV should be. 

Unlike the Cherokee, the 4Runner is body-on-frame and derived from the Hilux pickup of the ‘80s but still offered a vastly more compact footprint than a traditional American pickup truck. In place of a massive, torque-y inline-six or V8 powerplant, there’s the dead-reliable Toyota 22-RE that powered nearly every four-cylinder car the company sold for the better part of a decade. 

And, most crucially to my own personal enjoyment of the 4Runner, instead of a roof, there is a bed with a fiberglass camper shell. This first-generation 4Runner was the only version that ever offered buyers a chance to experience open-air motoring; after this, Toyota would acquiesce to the market, and offer the 4Runner as a traditional SUV (although it retains its rugged body-on-frame nature even today).

Toyota’s Different World

While the Cherokee offered a small wagon-like experience and trucks like the Chevy Blazer and Ford Bronco came with similar removable-roof SUV packaging, very few trucks combined the size and convertible form factor that the first-generation 4Runner did. Admittedly, the 4Runner’s driving experience is like that of those much larger trucks thanks to its body-on-frame construction, although the 1987 model I tested eschewed the solid front axle for a more road-friendly independent front suspension. 

The on-road experience is still quite truck-like, admittedly. The steering is on the vague side and it’s by no means a quick vehicle (in my own testing, zero-to-60 times were in the high teens), the gearbox throws are long, and the cassette player (tape of choice) doesn’t pump a whole lot of volume. 

But steering slop or audio quality wasn’t my main concern here anyway, because my test drive for this 4Runner was a 500-mile loop through the most remote stretches of Nevada I could find. All I really wanted was to not get stuck and listen to the wind howl as I set out on decades-old trails crisscrossing BLM land. I left the roof at home, threw as much water and food in the bed as I could, and set out to see the desert I love so dearly

And it turns out, that’s where the 4Runner truly shines. No vehicle I’ve ever driven felt so much like it was part of the nature I drove it through. Yes, it’s partly because of its locking-hub 4WD and transfer case; the low gearing means that it can crawl better than any modern crossover can dream. The small form factor helped; the Toyota’s diminutive size next to any full-size truck (or any modern crossover) makes washouts and city driving simple to tackle. It offers the same phenomenal visibility all small ‘80s trucks had and yet it seats four with plenty of legroom. But the true crux of what made it feel like it was at one with the world I drove it through was that open-aired roof; imagine if a Nissan Murano Crosscabriolet could handle the Rubicon, and you’re close to what the 4Runner offers. 

And with the top off, it got even better as a campsite vehicle. The full-length bed and folding rear seats meant I actually got to drive to where civilization ends, lay out my sleeping pad and blanket, and lay awake staring at the night sky, unhindered by light pollution, right from the comfort of the Toyota. 

And this is the core of what makes the 4Runner feel like a window into a different future. The ability to drive not just over nature, but to pass through it as an observer—to fully soak in the beauty that the 4Runner allowed me to access—was something I never knew I was missing when I’ve been cocooned in cooled seats and 600-watt sound systems.

There’s a simplicity to the 4Runner that all classic-car enthusiasts will recognize, but the way that it delivers it is markedly different than that of a Jaguar E-Type or an air-cooled Porsche, where the analog mechanical experience of the car constitutes its appeal; instead, the 4Runner’s simplicity is that it fades into the background and lets the world around it take center stage. It’s capable and reliable enough that I never worried about it leaving me stranded, and the deserts of Nevada have never looked as good as they did framed by the windows of this little four-cylinder, half-covered wagon. 

Lost Future

Today, barring only the Jeep Wrangler or the Ford Bronco, this off-road, open-air joy is gone, and those two are decidedly not crossovers. The Bronco is a full-size truck, and the Wrangler defies categorization, but it's definitely not cross-shopped with CR-Vs or Sportages. The Jeep vision of the unibody Cherokee XJ won the day and the crossover has been tamed; even the rugged, off-road variants offered today put forth grocery-getting comfort and all the isolation from the great outdoors that entails above all.

And it makes sense; buyers flocked to comfort and a car-like driving experience in favor of off-road prowess or roofless motoring, but this truck made me wish they hadn’t. When I drive into nature, I want to experience it, not conquer it, and so few vehicles hold coexistence with the outdoors as their modus operandi.

Victoria Scott

This 4Runner feels like a relic of a lost future instead of a realized past. CAFE standards were always going to incentivize “light trucks” over sedans and wagons, but the form and emphasis of those trucks could have been so different than what populates our roads today. The 4Runner feels like it lives in harmony with nature, rather than crushing it on the way to the campsite, and it made me yearn for a future we never saw. 

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