How Did the Toyota 4Runner Get Its Name?




4th gen 4runner on dirt road

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It’s believed that the meaning behind the name “4Runner” refers to two very basic concepts: the vehicle’s 4 wheel drive system and its ability to travel off-road at speed… or “run”.

The Toyota 4Runner stands as a significant name in the world of rugged SUVs, with its origins tracing back to the mid-1980s. At the time of its inception, the need for a memorable and fitting name for Toyota’s new SUV was clear.

The moniker “4Runner” was the result of a collaborative effort to capture the vehicle’s essence and forecast its position as a pioneer in the automotive landscape.

According to Wikipedia, the ingenuity behind the name “4Runner” belongs to copywriter Robert Nathan, who was working with the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency tasked with branding Toyota’s new creation.

Nathan played with words, combining the sense of innovation implied by “forerunner” with the vehicle’s four-wheel-drive capability, culminating in the catchy and enduring name.

This clever wordplay not only emphasized the SUV’s trailblazing spirit but also its promise of adventure and reliability.

Since its launch, the Toyota 4Runner has indeed lived up to its name, evolving through the years yet steadfastly serving as a precursor to the modern SUV genre.

It bridged the gap between a traditional rugged off-roader and a comfortable passenger vehicle, signaling the arrival of a new era in the automotive world.

Origins and Naming of the Toyota 4Runner

Surprisingly, the original 4Runner wasn’t actually called the 4Runner – it was known as the Toyota Trekker, and it wasn’t even built by Toyota. It gets even more shocking – despite the 4Runner always being manufactured in Japan, the Trekker was made in the good old U.S. and A. Allow me to clear up the confusion:

From Trekker to 4Runner

Initially dubbed the Toyota Trekker, this early iteration of the 4Runner was primarily a modification made to the Toyota Hilux pickup by Winnebago.

The idea came from a Wisconsin Toyota dealer named Jack Safro. Winnebago was chosen to create these Trekkers due to their vast experience with turning the Toyota Hilux into campers.

The Trekker featured a fiberglass camper shell over the bed and an added rear bench seat to accommodate passengers. These were sold from 1981 to 1983.

Eventually, Toyota took notice of what was going on in the USA. They decided that the Trekker served as sort of a 3rd party market test and that was enough for them to go ahead with manufacturing an SUV like this themselves. And so, the 1st gen Toyota 4Runner was born.

Influence of the Hilux Pickup

The first-generation Toyota 4Runner was built upon the robust platform of the Hilux pickup, sharing many of its mechanical components and design features. This partnership lent the 4Runner a reputation for reliability and durability inherited from the Hilux’s proven toughness in demanding conditions.

With the sturdy underpinnings of the Hilux, the 4Runner was well-equipped to handle the rigors of off-road exploration, retaining the utility of a pickup while offering the added passenger comfort of an SUV.

What is the 4Runner called in Japan?

Gray 4runner in front of a cliff

The Toyota 4Runner goes by a different name in Japan: the Toyota Hilux Surf. This moniker was used for the Japanese market, where the vehicle was sold from its inception in 1984 until it was discontinued there in 2009.

The Hilux Surf and the 4Runner shared many characteristics, but there were also unique features and variations specific to the Japanese version throughout its production.

Despite the different branding, the essence of the vehicle remained consistent with Toyota’s reputation for reliability. The Hilux Surf name reflects its shared heritage with the Toyota Hilux, a pickup truck known for its toughness and utilitarian design.

The “Surf” addition likely denotes the vehicle’s adventurous spirit, suitable for both the rugged terrains and the coastal escapades.

The difference between the Fortuner and the 4Runner

The Toyota 4Runner and Toyota Fortuner are two robust SUVs from the same manufacturer, but they cater to different markets and have distinct characteristics.

The 4Runner, primarily sold in North America, is built on the same platform as the Toyota Tacoma, offering a rugged body-on-frame construction that’s ideal for off-roading.

In contrast, the Fortuner, which is more prevalent in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, is based on the Toyota Hilux platform and is designed to be a more cost-effective and versatile option for those regions.

Under the hood, the two vehicles typically sport different powertrains. Diesel engines were an option on the Fortuner while the North American 4Runners were only fueled by gasoline.

This difference not only affects performance but also the fuel efficiency and driving experience of each vehicle. Additionally, the Fortuner is known for its sportier feel and agility, which contrasts with the 4Runner’s focus on off-road prowess and durability.

Inside, the Fortuner usually offers seating for up to seven passengers, making it a more family-oriented vehicle, whereas the 4Runner often seats five with an optional third row in some models.

The interior design and features also vary, with each SUV tailored to meet the preferences and needs of their respective target markets. Both vehicles, however, maintain Toyota’s reputation for producing reliable and capable SUVs that can handle a variety of driving conditions.

2 responses to “How Did the Toyota 4Runner Get Its Name?”

  1. Mike Avatar

    Thanks for the information! I never knew! I live in Wisconsin and my first 4Runner, a 1997 model, was purchased form Safro Toyota! I have had 3 already and just went into a 2008 GX. Keep up the great work! I love your content!

    1. Tim Rempel Avatar

      That’s very cool that your 97 essentially came from the birth place of the 4Runner! Thanks for the feedback, I appreciate you following along!


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