Comparison: 4th gen and 5th gen Toyota 4Runners

Since its introduction in 1984 the Toyota 4Runner has become a forever player in the off-road capable, street-friendly SUV segment. Now deep into its fifth generation, the venerable 4×4 is still posting strong sales numbers. But prior generation trucks are holding up well, and the options for a reliable, comfortable, trail-happy rig are more than ever. And yet, some are viewed more favorably than others. On sale from 2002-2009, the 4th generation 4Runner falls more toward the unloved side. How does it compare to its successor? Neither vehicle is perfect but the similarities and differences are vast. Let’s break down how the 4Runner changed for its 5th gen, how it’s better, and so on.

4th gen Toyota 4Runner vs 5th gen Toyota 4Runner

First let’s look at the specific vehicles here as it’s not a perfectly direct comparison. The 4th gen is represented by my recently-sold Stormtrooper 4Runner, a 2005 Limited V6 (the beloved 4.7L V8 was available). With nearly 155,000 miles and the majority of its life spent in Canada, on off-road trails, it was a bit worse for wear. It was also very modified. The 5th gen is represented by my newest acquisition, a 2018 TRD Off Road Premium. It now has close to 22,000 miles and is wholly unmodified.

4th gen Toyota 4Runner vs 5th gen Toyota 4Runner

Where to start in comparing two trucks separated by thirteen years? On the outside, of course. Admittedly the 4th gen body is not the most visually attractive in the model’s history. The bulbous and semi-bloated bodywork doesn’t lend well to its shape. More curvaceous than chiseled, it needs modifications to truly look good. This is rather contrary to the 5th gen. Introduced as a 2010 model year vehicle and refreshed for 2014, the truck looks just right for its intention. Meaty and chunky in all the right ways, it certainly looks bigger and more substantial than the 4th gen. And it is: 2” longer, 2” wider, and depending on trim 300-400 pounds heavier (~4400 vs ~4750). And yes, both have the ever-crucial roll-down rear window.

4th gen Toyota 4Runner vs 5th gen Toyota 4Runner

Things are similar on the inside. The 4th gen is simply more car-like. You sit stretched-out versus upright in the 5th. Both have good space overall and make efficient use of the exterior dimensions that house them. Likewise, both have serious ergonomic quirks. For example, the driver’s door window switch control locations are both awful. In the 4th, it’s low on the door, down below the handle. Accessing such can be cumbersome and inconvenient. Toyota attempted to remedy this in the 5th gen by putting the switches on a flat surface at the base of the window. This makes them easy to use when resting one’s arm on the window sill itself but otherwise inconvenient as well. Both locations are bad.

Other peculiarities are present as well. The 4th gen’s HVAC controls were certainly unique but are nowhere near as logical or direct as those in the 5th gen. Also, in the 4th gen the ignition is on the dash, out of the way. The location never moves, regardless of steering wheel adjustment, and is easily visible from the driver seat. In the 5th gen it was moved to the steering column. In turn it’s harder to see and harder to find. And it must be said that it’s utterly ridiculous that a ~$40k, 2018 model year vehicle even requires use of a real key.

5th gen Toyota 4Runner center stack

A few items favor the 4th gen’s interior. Among these are the steering wheel controls. They are simply more intuitive and situated where one’s hands rest more frequently. Same goes for the 4th gen’s seat heaters which get hotter and emphasize more critical locations on the back. What the 5th gen does do drastically better is the forward visibility. The a-pillars are quite a bit smaller and the seating position affords a much more commanding view of the road.

5th gen 4Runner interior

Overall both interiors are plenty fine. Neither is a tech master for its respective time period, neither is the most modern available. But they’re reasonably comfortable and boast more airy passenger compartments and more cargo room than comparable Grand Cherokees which are of near-identical length.

4th gen 4Runner interior

Both trucks have 4WD and share a variation of effectively the same powertrain. Both use 5-speed automatic transmission (early 4th gens had a 4-speed). All that differentiates the engines is the addition of Dual VVT-i. While the 4.0 is perfectly adequate it didn’t exactly set the world on fire when it was new. Today it’s severely lacking behind the competition.

The big difference lies in the 4WD systems. Do note that due to the difference in trim levels this is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Having a 5th gen Limited on hand would be the only way to do so as the 4th gen didn’t have a TRD or proper off-road variant. Operating the 4th gen Limited’s 4WD system is done by way of knob-style selector affixed to the dash. The options are 2WD, 4WDHI and 4WDLO. It’s simple and effective. Hitting the A-TRAC button sends equal power to the front and rear axles. It is not a substitute for lockers but it works well. Downhill Assist Control is also present.

4th gen Toyota 4Runner vs 5th gen Toyota 4Runner

The 5th gen TRD Off Road separates itself with a slew of off-road hardware and tech. The manual shift lever feels properly old-school and engages with authority. Like the 4th gen Limited it offers 2WD, 4WDHI, and 4WDLO. But there’s more. The overhead console houses a number of other controls. Included in the package are a locking rear differential, Crawl Control, Multi-Terrain Select, and A-TRAC. It’s not the most advanced wheeling machine but it gets the job done. Also present is a button allowing the traction control to be fully disabled, yes, even when in 2WD. Snowy parking lots might as well be Gymkhana fields.

I hesitate to draw direct comparisons in road behavior due to the modified nature of the 4th gen truck present. The 4th gen is comfortable, the 5th the same. The 4th gen rides and sits more car-like, though there’s no escaping the fact that it’s still a reasonably large SUV. Most noticeable is how the 5th gen’s on-road presence feeling more truck-like even in stock form.

4th gen Toyota 4Runner vs 5th gen Toyota 4Runner

In terms of livability the two are quite similar. Dimensionally there’s next-to-no difference. Updated tech marks the biggest change on the 5th gen. It simply makes it a nicer, more modern place to be. In the real world the improved outward visibility plays a nice role, too. All-in-all the 5th gen is easier to live with, boats more modern (albeit still outdated) tech, and still acts like a perfectly normal vehicle.

4th gen Toyota 4Runner vs 5th gen Toyota 4Runner

In the end the 5th gen is everything I like about the 4th gen but better and more modern. Though the two trucks here are not directly comparable due to differing conditions and states of modification or lack thereof, it’s still interesting to line them up side-by-side. Wildly differing price ranges mean the 4th and 5th gen trucks likely won’t compete for the same buyer’s dollars but either option offers a strong 4Runner and a strong vehicle for the money.

4th gen Toyota 4Runner vs 5th gen Toyota 4Runner

The 5th gen 4Runner is still a 4Runner, and is better than the 4th gen in countless ways. And yes, comparing an older, somewhat beat-up 4th gen to a nearly new 5th gen isn’t totally fair. But none of the age detracts from the core of the truck. And certainly not from the deliberate design elements both inside and out. In its fourth iteration the 4Runner was a true, strong SUV. Toyota managed to improve on the 4Runner in every way in going to its 5th generation. It’s old and antiquated compared to much of the competition but it’s still a 4Runner, it’s still honest, and it’s still great.

13 Comments

  1. I actually prefer column mounted rotatable-switches for ignition. My 2010 Lancer has what I think is the best compromise: there’s a capacitve door handle sensor, so it’s true keyless entry, and the ignition switch is basically a conventional keyswitch, with a plastic cover on it. I can start my car with my keys in my pocket, but should the fob battery die, I simply remove the cover from the keyswitch, slide out the backup key from the fob, and away I go. Getting into other car’s where I have to use the key is annoying now, as my muscle memory causes me to turn the car off then leave the keys behind.

  2. Seeing them both side by side, I think I might actually stylistically lean towards the 4th gen – it’s very of its 2000’s time period, but seems honest and purposeful, like all the Toyota SUVs which came before it. The 5th gen is still very admirably restrained in modern terms, but against its predecessor, it looks like it’s trying to be tough. On the other hand, I love that anyone improved visibility on a car from the past 10 years over what it replaced.

    I’m also not bothered by the key’d ignition – being simple and proven is part of the 4Runner’s appeal. It’d just be nice if they’d make it more affordable as it aged (not that they need to, I suppose).

    1. Trying to hard to be tough seems to apply to everything these days alright, doesn’t matter if it’s a city car or srs bizness German saloon, it’s all get out of my way anger. One thing I notice about the 90s, unlike now, it was fine to give a car a friendly or neutral “face”, even the sporty ones – MX5/Miata, Suzuki Cappuccino/AZ-1 (admittedly never came to the US), Honda Civic, 90s Peugeots etc. Some like the Nissan Figaro and K11/12 Micra were even downright cutesy. Now even a Micra is sorta scowly.

      1. Exactly! I posted a similar thought a week or two ago on the “Who Will Be The Next to Redefine the Car?” article. After that, I did a quick glance over the current available U.S. vehicles, and found very few examples that didn’t look angry or mildly perturbed. The KIA Telluride, Ford Expedition and Flex, and VW Atlas are somewhat neutral, but I think it’s because their grille/headlight combos have a more mechanical, less face-like appearance. The new G-Class, Wrangler/Gladiator, and Fiat 500 are fairly happy looking, largely because they don’t deviate from their classic round headlights. Minis started out that way too, but the newest ones are gaping-mouthed zombies. The 2020 Ford Escape doesn’t exactly look angry, but has a stalker ex-GF look to it that puts me off.

      2. Exactly! I posted a similar thought a week or two ago on the “Who Will Be The Next to Redefine the Car?” article. After that, I did a quick glance over the current available U.S. vehicles, and found very few examples that didn’t look angry or mildly perturbed. The KIA Telluride, Ford Expedition and Flex, and VW Atlas are somewhat neutral, but I think it’s because their grille/headlight combos have a more mechanical, less face-like appearance. The new G-Class, Wrangler/Gladiator, and Fiat 500 are fairly happy looking, largely because they don’t deviate from their classic round headlights. Minis started out that way too, but the newest ones are gaping-mouthed zombies. The 2020 Ford Escape doesn’t exactly look angry, but has a stalker ex-GF look to it that puts me off.

          1. Thus the name ‘Escape’. As in, “After him, he’s trying to escape!!”

          2. Thus the name ‘Escape’. As in, “After him, he’s trying to escape!!”

  3. I would still choose the 4th generation. I think I could do more with it and add some modification that I see fit. I could also choose any set of
    truck wheels and it still won’t look so out of place.

  4. Great article. I have a 07 SR5 that I am Modifying and love the look of the rims and tires on your 05. Just wondering what they are.

  5. My ’08 V8 Limited had full-time AWD and a locking diff. I could choose between 4H and 4L, but there was no “2” anything.

    1. The V8 only came in AWD, ans could be switched to 4wd, while the V6 came with switch for 2wd, 4hi, or 4lo

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