This particular COAL is the result of the need for a large vehicle capable of family duty intersecting with my wife’s love of the high driving position that only SUV’s can provide. Her car at the point we met was a Suzuki Jimny, which despite its minuscule size, had a tall driving position that added to her confidence on the road. She really wanted to keep the Jimny but the tiny size and lack of any safety features ruled that out, so we moved it along around the same time as the Miata and started shopping around.
My original plan was to get a station wagon or hatch of some kind, but that was vetoed almost immediately. I really wanted a turbocharged Subaru Forester but was told that they too looked just like station wagons so should be taken out of consideration. It seemed like the best fit for our requirements and budget would be something like a mid 2000s RAV4, CRV, but I figured a more old school body on frame SUV would also be ok, because as far as my wife was concerned the more large and intimidating looking, the better!
Things like Landcruisers, Nissan Patrols and the like were way out of our budget, but I very much liked the idea of a N18x series Toyota Surf (JDM version of the 3rd generation 4 Runner), but there weren’t any of them around for sale. The previous N130 model was pretty common, and familiar since it shared a lot with my Hilux, but in terms of safety features it was no better than the Jimny except perhaps for size. The N18x was a major upgrade, with airbags, ABS, side impact beams and generally more solid construction. A close friend of my parents owned a 2001 model that he’d imported himself from Japan when it was almost new, and I remembered how nice the truck felt when riding in it a few times during trips with them. He still had the truck, but I knew he loved the thing and thought he’d never be persuaded to part with it so I didn’t even bother asking.
A picture I had of the surf from a vacation around 2007 or so
So we forgot the idea and started looking for a CRV, when one day out of the blue I got a text from my folks’ friend saying “Hi, I’m thinking of selling my Surf, let me know if you know anyone who might be interested”. You can guess how quickly I called him back! I knew that a one owner, well taken care of Surf would sell super fast, especially at the fairly reasonable asking price he wanted, so we set up an inspection for the very next Saturday to check it out. From what I remembered, I assumed the truck would be absolutely immaculate so I hyped my wife up about it when we were on our way to see.
Unfortunately it wasn’t quite as nice as I remembered; the silver paint had faded some and the beige interior was quite dirty after years of use. Other negative points were a poorly repainted rear right door (apparently after a minor bump), some visible oil leaks and worn and mismatched Chinese tires. On the positive side, the mileage was an honest 123,000 Kilometres, and it had full service history, with oil changes done every 5000 km. The 2.7L 3RZ-FE 4-cylinder fired up immediately and pulled reasonably well, though there was a noticeable vibration at idle. The test drive revealed that it drove, stopped and handled fairly ok, though there was a vibration through the steering wheel at 100 km/h or so, and the shifts of the old school 4 speed automatic gearbox felt a little slow.
It was unmolested, but a bit tired looking
My wife wasn’t very impressed by the overall state of the thing, but I felt that it had potential, so I booked it in with a friend who was a Toyota technician for a thorough inspection. He gave it a full looking over, pulled me over to one side and said “buy this thing as soon as you can!” So I negotiated a bit on the price, we arrived at a good enough compromise, and the Surf joined our garage in October 2020. A more detailed inspection revealed that initial impressions were right and that this really was a very tidy example indeed, with a flawless underside, so I was well pleased with the purchase.
I had my friend the tech change all the fluids, replace worn suspension components, the radiator and the leaky seals, and give the engine a tuneup, all of which improved the way it drove considerably. The engine and transmission mounts had also worn significantly, so they were replaced, which made an incredible difference because all traces of vibration were completely eradicated and you could barely notice the engine running at idle. The crappy Chinese tires were replaced by a set of Yokohama Geolandar GO15s on the insistence of a very good friend who spends a large amount of his time thinking about tires, and they definitely transformed how the truck felt on the road! Despite being AT treaded, they proved to be quieter than some other brand HT treads, and made the Surf feel much more surefooted when cornering and braking.
This generation of Surf/4 Runner saw Toyota consciously moving the model upmarket, further away from the Hilux chassis and making it more refined overall. This generation has more in common mechanically with the J90 series Land Cruiser Prado, with a very similar chassis and suspension that was quite a bit more sophisticated than the equivalent Hilux pickup truck. It makes a notable difference to the driving experience; the Surf feels quite modern for a 20 plus year old truck, with decent road manners and pretty good refinement. It only really seems to struggle a bit at highway speeds, where the 2.7 and four speed auto combination starts to feel a little overburdened when loaded up. Still, it can more than keep up with traffic and doesn’t need to be thrashed hard like the Hilux does to keep to the speed limit.
Cleaned up rather well, if I do say so myself.
Once all the mechanical refreshing was done, I treated the truck to a full detailing and the results were nothing short of amazing, because it emerged looking almost like new. Under all the dirt, the interior material was still pristine, while the rather dulled paint also responded very well to some TLC. Since then it’s basically been used almost everyday, taking me to work and back, running family errands, carrying stuff and generally being every inch the useful workhorse.
So far (touch wood) it hasn’t needed any work done at all, though the shocks are feeling a bit weak and the electronic engagement for the Four Wheel Drive acts up sometimes, so it will soon spend some time at the workshop. We’ve covered just about 7,000 Km since it was purchased, which brings the total on the clock to 130,000 KM or 80,000 Miles. The general consensus is that these trucks are good for 500,000 plus miles if taken care of, so this one is barely run in really.
Soon after I got it, a guy I know offered me significantly more than I had put into it, but my wife now adores it so that idea was given up. Frankly, it meets our needs so well and is so useful overall that I don’t see what could replace it, the only major downside is the rather heavy thirst, but we figure we can live with that for now.
Not fast, but should last a few decades at least.
In case anyone is wondering, the differences between the JDM Surf and the US market 4 Runner are mostly limited to the trim and and spec levels; also, by the 2001 model year, the 4 Runner no longer offered the 2.7l 4 pot, whereas it continued in Japan right to the end of production. The only major visual difference is the spare wheel location. Unlike the 4 runner where it is mounted under the rear floor, on the Surf it lives in a swing away tyre carrier on the tailgate, which means the license plate is moved to a side. Opening the tailgate requires the spare to be swung away separately every time, which is a bit cumbersome and not something 4 Runner owners have to deal with. The opening tailgate glass is a godsend because of this!
The differences are most obvious from this end.
This COAL post is a relatively short one because I haven’t had the truck for very long and it has mostly been completely uneventfully going about its business. Sometimes, that is exactly what you need from a vehicle, so I’m very glad to have it around. If all goes well, this one may end up being around for a couple of decades too.