1997 SR5 vs. 2015 TRD: Two 4Runners 18 Years Apart

Categories Torque Affair, Toyota

Every day I wake up thinking: “Man, I wish I could compare two 4Runners, 18 years apart.”  And then one day my dream finally came true.

Of course, I’m just joking.  Who dreams about comparing two 4Runners?  Two Sonatas on the other hand..now, that’s what true dreams are made of.

Lately, I’ve been noticing that Toyota 4Runners are everywhere.  Older 4Runners are so ordinary-looking that typically they blend into traffic with the millions of Accords and Corollas that you encounter on the road every day.  But, if you really start paying attention, you’ll start to see just how many of them are out there.  And there’s a reason for that.  They’re bulletproof and won’t stop running.

One of the best examples of this is my friend’s 1997 4Runner.  He purchased it new and has been driving it now for 19 years without experiencing any major issues and carrying out minimal maintenance.

Compare the ’97 4Runner to this orangy-red SUV with a weird looking front end.  The 2015 4Runner TRD Pro is bigger and bolder than the ’97.   Unlike the ’97 4Runner that might as well be invisible, the 2015 4Runner cannot be ignored.

4Runner comparison

It has all the equipment you need to handle offroading skillfully like gigantic wheels, a gigantic skid plate and a multitude of settings that allow you to tackle mud, sand, snow and bulldoze through chained gates.  This 4Runner is no stranger to any of it and as is clear with its mud-covered engine bay, it has been through it all.

2015 4Runner muddy engine

My carefully designed road tests unfortunately consisted none of the above, although I’m happy to report that it handled smooth pavement extremely well with a comfortable ride.

The ’97 4Runner has, on the other hand, has never been offroading in its 19 years of existence.  That must explain why it’s still running.  Even after all these years, the 4Runner doesn’t feel terribly old and with almost 200,000 miles on the clock, it feels like there’s still plenty of life in it.

However, for the first time ever in its long and fruitful life, it was plowed through water.  It was about time that the 4Runner encountered something other than normal roads.  Fortunately, no water leaked into the aging vehicle.   I hope that once the SUV hits half a million miles, Toyota gives my buddy a brand new 4Runner for free.

1997 4Runner water test

How does the interior compare?

The older 4Runner is quite a bit smaller on the inside and things are visibly worn out with tears on the seats.  However, the leather on the dash and interior paneling has held up surprisingly well over the years.

Comparatively, with the new 4Runner, you’re greeted with large swaths of cheap shiny plastic as soon as you enter the car.  It’s the same kind of plastic found in American cars ten years ago which can only mean one thing.  A trade agreement must have been signed stating: “2005 Ford hard interior plastic objects to be exchanged for parking sensors.”

As you start to touch and feel this cheap plastic, a cringeworthy feeling radiates through your fingers and fills you with utter dismay.  After 18 years, Toyota has managed to go the opposite direction in the quality of materials used.  And by quality, I mean, there is no quality.  It’s all crap.

4Runner interior

Embedded in all this crap, you’ll find plenty of modern gizmos and functionality, like navigation, a rear view camera, numerous apps and a maintenance notes feature that are about as useful as a landline telephone.

Despite the cheap look of the interior, I did like the spaciousness, seats and the overall comfort of the new 4Runner.

Riding High

Both 4Runners are high off the ground with a similar amount of ground clearance which makes it fun to drive these things off-road.  But even if you never go offroading, it’s nice to have a vehicle that can run over things like office chairs, cushions and trash bags.  You’ll probably want junk laying all over so that you’ll have a chance to drive your elevated vehicle over various obstacles and feel a sense of accomplishment when doing so.

As Booker T Washington eloquently stated: “Success is to be measured not so much by the position one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he had overcome.”

2 4Runners rear

4Runner Rear Window Roll Down

This is an excellent feature that only the 4Runner seems to have.  Having that window down allows you to become one with nature.  Bees can fly in, birds will nest inside, and dogs can jump in and out whenever they want to.  And before you know it, you’ll be driving around the 4Runner’s Ark.

It’s fun to enjoy the outdoors like this–with all windows down and a zoo in your car.

Will the new 4Runner last?

The interior in the new 4Runner is likely to melt within about a year.  All it will take is one scorching hot summer day, and all that mid-2000s Ford Focus plastic will turn into liquid and drip down onto the floorboard.

But what about the rest of the car?  Does Toyota still make cars that will run forever?  Who knows–I suppose we’ll need to wait a couple of decades to find out.

But maybe cars are built to be disposable these days.  It’s a great business model.  Build automobiles with an expiration date and that way people will have no choice to but to keep coming back to buy new cars every two years: “Excuse me Mr. Toyota salesman, my dash has evaporated from my car, can you get me a new one?”

2015 TRD Pro

How about the cost?

The new 4Runner isn’t really more expensive than the ’97 version.  That’s because the MSRP for the ’97 one was roughly $31K and if you account for inflation, that translates to $45K in today’s dollars which was approximately the cost of the 2015 one.  That’s good to know that Toyota has kept prices roughly the same, thanks to the trade agreement with Ford.

What is incredible, though, is the fact that over 19 years, my friend has spent only $4500 on maintenance items like the radiator, shocks and batteries (not including oil changes and tires) over the lifetime of the car.  That only amounts to a few bags of delicious trail mix a month to fix things over all these years.  I’ve spent more money on buying laptops over the years than he has on repairs for his car.

This definitely won’t be the case with the 2015 4Runner because the feature-laden infotainment system will undoubtedly need to be replaced the day after the warranty runs out.

Buy a used 4Runner

I’m not a big fan of SUVs, but I’ve always liked the 4Runners.  The orange one has flare and although weird looking, definitely stands out from the rest.  But if you’re wanting to buy a 4Runner, look at used ones.

Judging by the ’97 4Runner and the fact that you see so many on the road, I think an older 4Runner could be an excellent, reliable and cheap family-and-pet hauler.  Many of the used 4Runners you’ll find on sale will be high mileage versions that can be purchased for a few grand which is a great deal.  Don’t let the high mileage deter you because these SUVs will likely run strong for many more thousands of miles.  Long live the 4Runner 4ever!

2 thoughts on “1997 SR5 vs. 2015 TRD: Two 4Runners 18 Years Apart

  1. I always liked the 4 Runner as well, but the Toyota tax has kept me away. It is a good size without being too big, kind of like the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Too bad the don’t offer it in V8 anymore. I had done a few cross country trips with different V6 SUVs towing multiple motorcycles and decided that I wanted a V8. With the super high gas prices of 2012 and Nissan barely moving the Titan I was able to get a Titan SL 4×4 for $32k brand new. Given their pretty stellar reliability reputation as well I jumped on it. A used V8 4 Runner was on my short list though …

    1. Great choice with the Titan. The 4Runner could’ve used way more power – 270 tq/hp just isn’t enough for such a heavy SUV.

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