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My New Daily: 2001 Toyota 4Runner SR5

Updated: Feb 5

We must begin with a small disclaimer for those who might get a little too excited about my latest acquisition, this will not be an introduction to an off-road or overland rig, instead, it will be about learning to enjoy the quirks of an old body-on-frame Toyota through the eyes of a small-car enthusiast. Some may say buying a truck is a part of growing up, of course, this coming from those associated with a culture of making smaller, sporty cars go faster than they should, but there's no way I can ever truly grow up as long as I love driving (got you there!). Buying one of the most conventionally bulletproof Toyota vehicles has more to do with the safety of my children, and relieving my EP82 Starlet GT Turbo of daily driver duty, so with that I took on my brother's 170k mile 2001 Toyota 4Runner SR5 as my new get around vehicle.

I'm well acquainted with my new-to-me 3rd gen 4Runner, back in July when my Starlet was giving all sorts of issues, my brother was on vacation and let me use this very same truck for a few weeks while I waited for parts to come in from overseas. Of course, I eventually overcame those issues with a fuel pump and fuel filter, but in between that time, I started to enjoy not having to cosplay a yoga instructor every time I had to pull my kids out of the back of my mostly trustworthy Starlet. The ride on the 4Runner was also a lot more forgiving on the road to and from daycare, the bumps I used to swerve around to the enjoyment of my children were able to be absorbed by the larger tires this beige bomber employs at each corner, in a sense I cared less when just doing my normal routine. In my Starlet I was always worried about every vehicle around me, this being Florida you have a good mix of compromised drivers, from those who are maybe in bad health or at an age where they shouldn't realistically drive anymore, to your typical distracted driver whose cell phone is more important to look at than the road in front of them, and a slew of aggresive drivers from states where they used to battle yellow cabs (I'm from a place like this). My EP82 at roughly 1900lbs and without any safety features to protect occupants against the common 2-ton vehicles on the road today, was surely not a safe choice for my family so a change had to be made. Now we all know that a car from 2001 is missing most of today's standard safety features you'd find even on the cheapest of cars, but having front airbags, a higher stance that makes me more visible to other drivers, and just more real estate gives all of us a chance to make it out ok if there ever was an accident.

Gaining an extra ton in weight on the road also comes with spending a lot more on fuel which is one of the drawbacks of making this switch, filling up the Starlet costs me around $30 or so every two weeks on 93 octane, while it now takes around $42 to do the same on regular at an interval of every 10 days, welcome to truck life I guess. This ties into the drivetrain, the 2001 Toyota 4Runner SR5 comes with a 5VZ-FE V6 backed by a four-speed automatic transmission that sends power to the rear wheels only, as this is a non-4WD equipped variant. The 3.4L V6 comes with 183 power and 217 lb-ft-tq which is good enough to tow up to 5,000lbs and run a 0-60 in...well that's not important as unlike today's supercar rivaling pickup trucks; this 4Runner was made to perform different duties. As mentioned earlier, this vehicle is a bit more thirsty, when new it would get a 16/19 city/highway split and I feel with my driving style I may be matching that or slightly exceeding those numbers although I'm mostly driving locally. it is impressive however, how often I stay under 2,500 rpm while driving to do errands and then getting on the highway occasionally, the gearing on this 4-speed is exceptionally tall, and although you can turn off the overdrive function and also make the transmission rev higher with the ECT button, I honestly haven't found a reason to want to push this vehicle to any uncomfortable limits.

Limits are something easily reached in an SUV from this era, Masaaki Ishiko used the success of the prior generation to fully hone in on what makes the Hilux Surf/4Runner a competent off-road vehicle. The N180 4Runner was built on a new chassis with coil springs all around, rack and pinion steering, and plenty of more interior space geared to not only hauling supplies or lifestyle products but also people. This vehicle is from a time when almost every mid-size SUV was a body-on-frame vehicle, the RAV4 was in its infancy, and the Highlander didn't make its debut until the end of the 3rd gen 4Runner's production in 2000, so every SUV felt "like a truck." My 4Runner is definitely a truck which is why turning corners quickly, blasting away from a stop sign, or doing any "sport driving" should be avoided or taken back a few notches as the 4Runner is more lumbering than confidence-inspiring. It's not to say that the 4Runner can't turn a roundabout easily, I made sure to personally test some of the chassis limits to see how this thing really handles, with all the extra weight raised off the ground you have to be more aware of your inputs, something a few track days has taught me, it even has less body roll than a Miata (shots fired). The brakes are however, a major letdown, and not just from the perspective of someone who normally drives smaller vehicles, but in general they are not up to the task of stopping on a dime, a quarter, or a stack of 1's. The front brakes are disc and the rear are drum, this mix doesn't actually lend to it braking badly but the size of the front brake caliper and rotor are exceptionally small, even with ABS it causes this car to take a long time to come to a stop from even 35 MPH, it's why every maneuver has to be planned, driving around something on the road before a red light means doing so very carefully and with the brakes pressed mid-movement. The Falken WildPeak HT-01 all-seasons do a great job of keeping a grip in the wet, dry, and even some sand from a few chill beach days, these are not the top-of-the-line WildPeak tires that are featured on some of the gnarliest rigs, but instead, a very capable tire that can handle almost anything to a moderate level.

Inside the 4Runner has a fairly large amount of interior and cargo space, and a bunch of materials that will do their best to last another quarter century of driving. This particular SR5 model is equipped with tan leather for the seats, although I prefer cloth because of the heat in Florida, it's still better than black leather and for a car that was sold to the first owner at some point in 2000, it has faired well. The driver's seat has some wear, and a crack splits a portion of the seat where the back of your knee may touch but otherwise, the rest of the seats themselves have been well maintained between that first owner and then my brother. The dash and door cards are a mix of dark brown and tan leather, vinyl, and plastic, all of it is intact and free of cracks, the only missing parts are a few of those pesky push-tabs that tend to disintegrate over time, luckily these can still be purchased from Toyota. When it comes to infotainment, things are rather simple, an analog cluster with a speedo and tachometer are dead-center in front of the driver, and a double-din Pioneer head unit can handle anything you throw at it, except for tapes. Storage is exceptional in this vehicle, it does what a truck is supposed to do, carry cargo and people, something the 3rd gen 4Runner does more than adequately, with seating for five you're able to get everyone inside and buckled safely with room to spare; sure it doesn't have the third row of something like a Landcruiser or Lexus GX, but three adults could potentially fit in the second row of seats. One of the best features after the pop-out cup holder for the rear occupants is the very thoughtful rear seat folding configuration. To fold the rear seats down for a flat cargo area you simply pull the cushion toward the front of the car, pull the headrests out to store them on the underside of the seat (there's a slot for them) and then pull the tabs at the back of each seat to drop them down so you have enough storage to lend your services to your local mafia. A snazzy extra I find useful is the cargo cover that acts like a heavy-duty pull-down shade, the bar can be removed to access the cargo area but when in place you can pull the shade toward you until you secure it with the holder near the rear door, it's an added level of privacy in case you're going to the gas station after picking up a new TV at Best Buy. Saving the best for last, the rear window is power-operated and can be dropped down from the key fob which is convenient when you're approaching your 4Runner and you just need to chuck something in the back, it's a small feature that is taken for granted as most SUVs have discontinued the tailgate window for various reasons, thanks Toyota!

Driving the N180 4Runner is fairly easy, although it's the biggest vehicle I have personally owned, it is not cumbersome so you constantly have to check to make sure you're staying in your lane on the road. It's a true mid-size SUV with a body-on-frame layout which means you're going to have to stay engaged when the road beneath you is less than ideal. This is however, a product that was meant for someone spending roughly $30,000 ($53,000 in today's money) so the suspension and interior do a more than adequate job of absorbing bumps and maintaining comfort, this is a do-all vehicle that is backed by the legend of Toyota's ultra-reliability but dressed in a polo shirt and slacks. Handling is not something I've ever considered when driving a truck as I mostly think of how fast I can turn in and out of a corner, but for a vehicle like this, having a rack and pinion combined with hydraulic-powered steering means that it will require some effort to turn quickly but not so much that you're reminded of your grandpa's (maybe great grandpa) old truck. The drivetrain of course is my favorite talking point, the 5VZ-FE has a reputation for being bulletproof but I'd like it to have a little bit more than just that initial torque off of the line, I don't want to win street races I just would like to get up to speed more efficiently and quickly. The four-speed automatic is truly what holds this truck back from having a winning drivetrain, with the manual discontinued for the 2000 model year, 2001 models only received the V6 paired with this slushbox and it's not the greatest for anything but cruising. An extra gear or two would add more versatility, and speed, and keep some gas in the tank, it doesn't need to be a manual but I guess I can't complain since this four-speed auto is invincible compared to many CVT transmissions on the market, today. Overall, driving my Toyota 4Runner has made me see what the fuss has been all about with these very capable trucks, it's comfortable and capable, it has space, and gives me the peace of mind of knowing that it'll take on more than double its current mileage if I just remember to take care of it as it takes care of my family.

Now of course we will finish on plans for this daily as no vehicle in my fleet can go untouched. It's hard to really pinpoint what I can or want to improve upon with this 4Runner, so far the only modification I've performed installing a set of LED headlight bulbs to replace the sad halogens that did a poor job of lighting the path in front of me. When I think of modifying my N180 I start to think of capability and convenience, less of the cool-looking overlanding mods and more of the all-weather mats and fog lights. I'd like to apply some of the same tactics I have used on my other cars which is making them safer and longest lasting so the first major upgrade will be a set of V6 Toyota Tundra brake calipers, pads, and rotors, along with a set of braided brake lines all around to help get stopping distances to a passing grade. Cooling hasn't been an issue but I'm not too attached to the idea of towing anything like my AE86 in our excruciatingly hot summers just yet without replacing the radiator with an all-aluminum unit, the transmission cooler is nestled inside of the stock radiator so upgrading this piece will allow ole slushy to do its job without imploding on a dark highway near an alligator nest. Inside, I'd like to keep things as they are but add some all-weather mats, something that can be hosed off after a beach day or camping trip. Outside, I'm still up in the air, I'm fine with the current ride height and tire, but I'd like a set of Black Rhino wheels and maybe some of those side cargo window covers that double as carrying racks for different accessories. Leaning into the 4Runner lifestyle I'd like to upgrade the roof rack, I won't carry an extra 200 lbs over my truck with a roof tent but I'd like the versatility to attach a paddleboard or a Kayak up top without having to invest half a day to just load up. Under the hood I have been wondering what to do with the 5VZ-FE, I would love a 2UZ swap as I'm familiar with the engine, but I'd like to explore using E85, tuning, and adding a set of very mild cams whenever I have to do a valve adjustment; if I can find a supercharger for a good price I'd welcome that too. Since I was griping about the 4-speed auto, I'm curious to see what more modern transmissions that offer six speeds may fit, I've been on a rabbit hole watching the fellas at Zero To 60 swap anything and everything with BMW 8-speed transmissions, and while I would probably never do something that extreme, it does provide me with ideas on what can be done with modern technology. Ultimately, I just want to enjoy my 4Runner for what it is, a capable SUV that can safely haul my family around wherever we go, and to build on that I'll dive into the 4Runner community to learn as much as I can and apply it to my beige bomber, so stay tuned.


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