After owning 3 relatively boring sedans, I decided to take a chance and pick up my first off-road capable vehicle. I fired up Craigslist, searched for a week or so, and picked up a 2002 4runner with 180k miles on it for about $4k.
Well, I ended up falling in love with the truck, but was not in love with the condition of the example I had. Somehow, I managed to sell it for a small profit, and started looking for a cleaner 3rd gen.
I will be basing this review off the newer truck, which was an 02 as well but was a sport edition with only 120k miles in thundercloud grey (The best fucking color). Picked it up bone stock and tastefully modded it until It developed a serious rust hole in the frame, and I had to retire it for an extreme loss.
Upon selling the second 4runner I seriously considered going back to some sort of “regular” car. I drove a couple GS400s (My first car was a gs300), an IS300, some G35s, etc. but none of them were sharp enough or fun enough to stop me from straying back to another SUV.
Knowing that I should probably avoid getting another 3rd gen 4runner since both of them had rust problems I pursued the following in my used car search:
- 4th gen 4runner
- 2nd gen montero
- 3rd gen montero
- r50 pathfinder
- Tahoe (The year it got the LS...2000?)
- 2nd gen Trooper
After a slow and careful search I finally found the one: A 2003 Pathfinder SE with 120k miles and in beautiful condition. I picked it up for about $6k, which was fair considering it was from a reputable Infiniti dealership who had serviced it for years for the first owner. Again, I bought it stock and slowly modified it to my liking.
These are two choices that would be great for a sub $10k used offroad build, so I figure this will help differentiate the two Japanese beasts. Brand new, they were also quite competitive, with the obvious edge in sales going to the Toyota. Lets see how they stack up.
In terms of stock vehicles, the two trucks are very similar in design. Both are rugged medium sized vehicles with plenty of ground clearance. In fact, most of my friends and coworkers had no clue I even got a different truck! I dismiss that as them not paying enough attention though, since the 4runner literally had BRONZE wheels, which are a little hard to miss. In stock form, I will give the edge to the pathfinder, as it comes with much cleaner wheel choices and sits perfectly level no matter the age, rather than sagging to the center of the earth as 4runners do.
HOWEVER, after modifications, which were very similar on each, the 4runner, to me, was near perfection. The hood scoop added aggresive styling to the front, the bronze wheels complimented the thundercloud paint perfectly, and the clean but handsome body lines made it look a lot less dated than it should have.
The Pathfinder on the other hand does not have as aggressive of lines, and does not feature the 4runner sport edition hood scoop, but is still quite attractive in its current form, If I do say so myself. Overall, with 2 inch lift and 33s, the pathfinder is much larger in stance and stature.
Winner: 4runner (With modifications)
By virtue of being body on frame, the 4runner is a very rough ride. No, it is not 90s 3/4 ton truck rough, but I found myself bracing for impact for any medium-large sized potholes in the less than perfectly paved state of Pennsylvania. Not only were potholes rough, but the overall ride even on glass smooth tarmac left a lot to be desired.
The 4runner also had very average seats which were mounted very low to the ground. This was awkward for me, at 5'10", so I imagine it would be less than ideal for anybody tall. The seats were also very small and made out of very scratchy material which is unique to the sport edition. Overall, not a great road trip car, but still a lot of fun around town.
The Pathfinder however is built on a unibody with a subframe for added strength. Whether this translates directly to the better ride or not I am not sure, but I can tell you without a doubt that it is MUCH more comfortable. Over large potholes it is still not the most graceful, especially since I dont have a panhard drop and my rear axle hucks me a little to the side. Over anything but gaping holes though the Pathfinder is buttery smooth. Transitions from pavement to grass to gravel are almost imperceptible. It is surreal how well it rides offroad, and I have had a lot of fun bombing fire roads at speeds that would have the 4runner bouncing everywhere and destroying my spine. I guess it is no surprise then why Car and Driver noted its “creamy off-road ride” in comparison to the 4runner, Grand Cherokee, Trooper, Bravada, Explorer, and Land Rover Discovery.
The seats in the pathfinder are mounted much higher from the ground in a more traditional fashion, and are also much larger, softer, and comfier overall. I am not large by any means but I find the Pathfinder seats allow more room while still having a little bolstering.
Winner: Pathfinder by a huge margin
Both of these trucks are Japanese and built to last, so I did not have a ton of wrench time on either of them. Based on my knowledge of the motors in each though, I would assume that the 4runner is easier to work on in general. The 5vz in the Runner is much less modern than the vq35, and fits in the engine bay with more room to spare. Here is a run down of the work I did on each.
- Tightened throttle cables: This was very easy to do with a set of wrenches and improved my pedal deadzone immensely.
- Rewired alternator to battery charging cable: Easy enough, and the extra engine bay room made it easy to access
- Installed 2 inch lift: Rear shock mounts are fucking impossible to access and made the lift install hell. Good job toyota.
- Replaced headlight: took 1 minute at a highway rest stop. Could not have been easier.
- Installed 2 inch lift: Easy as pie besides the whole spring compressor possible fatality thing.
Winner: Tie? More room in the engine bay and less electronics for the 4runner, but damn...that rear suspension was dumb as shit.
Larger aftermarket for the 4runner, but BARELY. Every part I needed for my build was available for the Pathfinder and for less. In terms of normal parts, they are pretty much identical.
Winner: Tie. Both have cheap plentiful parts.
Neither of these vehicles is easily identifiable by non car folk. That being said, once they were lifted and all that, they got a lot of attention. I would say that on average I would get more comments about the 4runner, but that was probably because it had extremely loud exhaust and gold wheels.
In terms of looking presentable in nice places, the Pathfinder is the winner in that it has a nicer interior, more sedated exterior, and looks newer in general.
If you want to measure cool factor by how impressed Jeep guys are by it (dont) then the Pathfinder wins purely based on the fact that Jeep guys are threatened by Toyotas and pretty much universally hate them.
Winner: Pathfinder (but barely)
I dont keep detailed numbers, but based on my estimations they get the EXACT same mileage. Probably best to note that my Pathfinder does not have a working gas gauge...
The 4runner is a very popular platform for offroading. The 3rd gen was available with a locking rear diff, and a couple different 4wd setups. Unfortunately, my 3rd gen had an open rear diff and the viscous center diff 4wd system. It was capable as hell, don’t get me wrong, but it was not suited to rock crawling due to IFS, not suitable to mudding due to open diffs, and not suitable to high speed offroad running due to the awful ride. Itll take you off the beaten path, but its not the best of the best by any means.
My Pathfinder luckily is equipped with an LSD, which does help quite a bit in low traction situations. The Pathfinder is similarly not great for rock crawling due to IFS, but is good in mud, and incredible at high speed offroad running. The first time I took the Pathfinder out I headed to a mountain fire road that I frequented in the 4runner and was able to maintain 20 more MPH up the entire path in comfort. I get great pleasure out of beating up on my friends Jeeps with 35s on anything other than technical crawling or mud pits.
The 4runner is adequate around town, and the 5VZ likes to make most of its power down low which makes it usable in most situations. On the highway though, the 4runner was a dog and would wheeze past 3.5k to the redline making very little power.
The Pathfinder on the other hand feels just about as quick as your average sedan in every single situation. Off the line it pulls hard and chirps tires. Around town it has instantaneous power when you need it. On the highway, the VQ35 sings and it’ll pull you easily to any legal speed limit in the US. A lot of the charm of this car comes from having a sports car motor (okay fine, nissan uses it in just about everything now) in a big off-road SUV. To put it in perspective, many are willing to spend thousands of dollars to swap motors into the 4runner that are on par with the VQ35.
4runner: 185hp 217ftlbs
Pathfinder: 240hp 265ftlbs
Weight difference is about 200lbs, but you would never know. The Pathfinder is a rocket compared to the 4runner.
The 4runner is actually quite small on the inside. A combination of the trucks frame taking up space and the deceptively small footprint mean it is about as practical as a large wagon. I never had issues, but if you are looking for a true large utility vehicle, do not get a 3rd gen (or any midsized SUV for that matter)
The Pathfinder is larger inside, comfier inside, has better folding seats, and tows more. It is still not as large inside as you would think, but I am now able to stuff 2 kayaks inside or carry a full sized mattress.
Well, as you can see, the Pathfinder is pretty much just objectively better. That being said, you cannot go wrong with either of these vehicles as a used off-road buy. They are both reliable as hell, capable, attractive, and easy to find. I personally have enjoyed both immensely, but the Pathfinder is my favorite car of the 6 I have owned. It does everything my 4runner could do while feeling like im driving my GS300, and I dont know what more you could ask for.