More than the sum of its parts

On the Labor Day weekend of 2012, my father and brother bought a 1995 Toyota 4Runner SR5 V6 off of Craigslist for $3,800. Thankfully, they did not get murdered by the seller. It was black, rugged-looking, had 212,000 miles, and got off the line with all the gusto of a canal boat. My brother loved it.

My brother's Instagram post celebrating the purchase

The Toyota 4Runner was introduced in 1984 as little more than a Toyota Hilux pickup truck with a removable roof and back seats. In its 50-odd years of production, the Hilux has been the darling of everyone from United Nations security forces to Taliban militants. It has garnered a reputation for being extremely reliable, and was declared "unkillable" by Top Gear. Even after being set on fire, smashed with a wrecking ball, washed away into the ocean, driven through a garden shed, crashed into a tree, and having an entire building demolished underneath it, the showrunners were able to repair what little mechanical damage it had with basic hand tools, and it was then able to move under its own power. Needless to say, its reputation is well-earned. The Hilux-based 4Runner was generally well-regarded within the automotive world, but owners who bought new and kept it for a while would discover that problems lay ahead.


After about 2,000 miles of my brother's driving to and from church, school, and home, the gas mileage began to sink into the single digits. Then one Thursday, the truck refused to start, leaving my brother marooned in the parking lot after school. A friend came by and attempted to help him jump the car off, but to no avail. The day ended with the 4Runner on a flatbed bound for the shop of Albonetti, our go-to mechanic, and thus began the nearly month-long saga of the truck’s mystery mechanical malfunction.

The initial diagnosis was a bad ECU. It would be a simple fix – nearly plug and play – but naturally that was not actually the problem. A few hundred bucks and a couple weeks later (the replacement ECU had to be shipped direct from Japan), and we were back to square one. Albonetti then moved his attention to the mechanical parts of the car. In a few days, we had the real and much more serious diagnosis: a series of compounded issues, including failed head gaskets, meant we’d have to get a new engine. What had initially seemed like a solid, reliable choice for a car was shaping up to be a bit of a money pit.

Pictures deceive. It never actually looks this clean.

4Runner JT3VN39W6S0202428 rolled off the production line in Tahara, Aichi, Japan in May of 1995 sporting a rather archaic 2958 cc V6 known internally as the 3VZ-E, and to anyone who's ever owned a vehicle equipped with one as the three-point-slow. Not only does the three-point-slow have a reputation for being, well, slow (it boasted a whopping 150 horsepower and a whiplash-inducing 180 pounds-feet of torque), but it is also notorious for its head gasket problems. As a consequence of its iron block and aluminum heads, different parts of the engine would expand at different rates, and if proper maintenance was not performed, the gasket between block and head would fail - allowing coolant to enter the cylinders - and produce the dreaded coolant-oil milkshake that, left unfixed, could destroy an engine with ease. Such was the unfortunate case of 4Runner JT3VN39W6S0202428.

I love the clean lines on it.

My dad was willing to pay up for a new engine, so he told my brother it was time to decide which one to put in it. Obviously, the engine would have to be compatible with the transmission already in the truck, and it would have to be reasonably priced to boot. Instead of choosing a more powerful 2JZ straight-6 or 1UZ V8, my brother, in a mind-boggling moment of poor decision making, elected to replace it with the same three-liter boat anchor that the truck came with.

Many an internet forum lurker has successfully swapped either of these engines into a 4Runner, and for many good reasons. The 2JZ is a very well-known engine in the car scene. First offered in the 1991 Toyota Aristo (known to Americans as the Lexus GS 300) but most famous for its place in the engine bay of the highly sought-after Mk.IV Toyota Supra, the 2JZ is a stout inline-6 that came from the factory with 225 horsepower and 220 pounds-feet of torque, both of which would have been massive improvements over the sluggish 3VZ. The real star of the two candidates, though, is the 1UZ. The 1UZ is a masterpiece of modern engineering and a testament to Japanese quality. Making its debut in the 1989 Lexus LS 400, a 1UZ contemporary with the 4Runner produces a healthy 260 horsepower and 270 pounds-feet of torque. Arguably one of the most reliable engines ever made, owners of 1UZ-equipped cars regularly report mileage above 300,000, and some have crested 1,000,000 – without ever replacing the engine.

Unfortunately, however, my brother was ignorant of these statistics at the time, so it was out with the old, and in with the old. Sixteen more Benjamins, and the replacement powerplant arrived at Albonetti’s South Memphis garage. A couple more weeks, and the debacle was over. The 4Runner lived again.
My brother drove the old 4Runner for about two more years before he went off to college, taking my dad’s 2004 Ford F-150 with him. It served him faithfully, and he loved it, but the F-150’s more powerful engine, better gas mileage, and nicer interior were welcome improvements over the 4Runner. After a year of serving as the occasional hauler for my dad’s mountain bike, I got my license and with it the 4Runner.

Not pictured: the lake of oil this thing expels.

Having been a passenger for three years, I was familiar with its idiosyncrasies, and I found it difficult to live with them. I began to work the little annoyances that I could fix on my own. I replaced the off-off-brand front speakers, which were so poor that listening to music through a payphone would have sounded better, remedied faulty and disconnected window switches, and before I knew it, I began to like the 4Runner. Yes, it is slow. Yes, it barely cracks 12 miles to the gallon. Yes, it has an oil leak only slightly less severe than the Exxon Valdez. And yes, it is old. But the 4Runner is truly enjoyable despite its glaring faults. It taught me an important lesson. Smiles per gallon is more important than miles per gallon. Now, I look it at and see potential, but unfortunately I probably won’t be the one making the most out of that potential, as I have neither the time, nor the space, nor the money to do most of the things I’ve envisioned for it. I’m in the market for a new car now – hopefully something sportier, faster, better on gas, or nicer – but the 4Runner will always hold a special place in my heart. I’ll probably get it off Craigslist, too. But who knows? I might just hang on to the slow, inefficient, plastic-clad, 3,500-pound hunk of steel that is my '95 4Runner.

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