NOTE: Aaron Turpen took all the photos during the review process in Pine Bluffs, Wyoming.
The Toyota 4Runner appeared in 1984 as a glorified pickup truck with a shell on it. The early 80s were a time when America was fresh off the Arab Oil Embargo and the fuel crisis that ensued. In typical American style, we were flipping the bird to the sheiks by driving ever bigger vehicles with tinier and tinier fuel efficiency numbers.
Despite the still new to the game Environmental Protection Agency’s best efforts to change our minds.
The new 4Runner quickly became a success. And from that first generation to the current fifth, it’s eaten fuel like a champ.
To remind us of the 4Runner’s most American history of being a four-wheel drive import, the 40th anniversary of the 4Runner comes with a special, and aptly-named, 40th Anniversary Special Edition. Because if Americans like anything more than giant inefficient vehicles, it’s long names to describe them. It’s times like this that I wish I were paid by the word.
The 2023 Toyota 4Runner 40th Anniversary Special Edition, whose name I will now shorten to “4Runner 40th” to save screen space for you, is a nostalgic dream.
Like most of the ‘80s nostalgia happening now, such as the Stranger Things resurrection of Dungeons & Dragons and the return of Marty McFly puffy vests, is tempered by modernization.
Some of us remember the complicated social issues around being a fan of D&D (namely getting wedgies) and the uselessness of those puffy vests. Luckily, modern versions of those throwbacks are less fraught with discomfort.
It’s cool to role-play now and today’s puffy vests have multiple pockets. Similarly, the 2023 4Runner 40th is just a current-generation 4Runner with some nostalgic paint color options and stripes.
The 4Runner 40th is basically a mid-tier SR5 Premium model with a unique grille, bronze-colored wheels, special floor mats, and a sunroof.
The special yellow-and-orange stripes are nostalgic, but not from any actual 4Runner predecessor that came out of the factory in the 1980s. But that doesn’t matter. It looks like the ‘80s. That’s the point.
Under the 4Runner’s hood is a tried-and-true 4.0-liter V6 that outputs a steady 270 horsepower to a five-speed automatic transmission.
Up until about 2010, that was a winning combination. Add in the optional transfer case to get 4WD and you’re cooking with gasoline. Well, not cooking, per se, since the 4Runner is more of an off-road-ready truck than it is a speed demon. It takes a while to get all 270 horses really chugging.
And you’ll do that chugging at 17 mpg combined. And thanks to Wyoming’s altitude, you won’t see the EPA estimated 19 mpg on the highway either. Unless you happen to live where the wind is always pushing you forward.
The real problem with the 4Runner is that the whole truck is basically a throwback. It’s a remembrance of what vehicles were before we put effort into making them efficient. And comfortable. And ergonomic. And truly useful.
Most of the Toyota 4Runner’s rivals are now far ahead of it in terms of capability and efficiency. The bigger, beastlier Toyota Sequoia? Beats the 4Runner’s fuel economy by almost 10mpg. And right next to the 4Runner on the same dealer lot is the far more family-friendly and useful Highlander.
At about the same price. The 4Runner sits between these two options like a hoity sibling living off its “I was the favorite in 5th grade” past.
But get a load of those awesome stripes. Personally, I find that to be a compelling reason to get one. I’m not being fashetious..fakshetus..fasciitis.. You know, that word. I’m not being that about it either. The 4Runner 40th looks really, really cool. It’s the stripes and copper wheels that sell it, honestly.
So there’s hope yet. That’s why the 2023 Toyota 4Runner 40th Anniversary Special Edition is a throwback in many ways beyond its looks. Even if you’re not a hipster.
Aaron Turpen is an automotive journalist living in Cheyenne, Wyoming. His background includes commercial transportation, computer science, and a lot of adventures that begin with the phrase “the law is a pretty good suggestion, I guess.” His automotive focus is on consumer interest and both electronic and engineering technology. Turpen is a longtime writer for Car Talk and New Atlas.