Toyota 4Runner, Third Generation: Trail Suspension, Part 3

Oct. 19, 2009 By Justin Fort
We're still sorting out the suspension options on our Third Generation 4Runner.

Sorting out something as simple as a trail-ready suspension for the third-generation 4Runner could have been simple once upon a time, but so was the first Jeep – not so easy anymore. With innovation and experimentation comes advancement, and with that then the bloody knuckles of choice and compatibility. The more choices there are, the more there are to make. We’re still making them.

Need spring and shock answers? We’ve tested a few.

Easy Fix for Stale Rear Springs
Getting a bit of business out of the way, we dealt with the soggy rear springs that soured our last coverage of this third-gen 4Runner trail-build. From all the research (some of which we’re going to keep to ourselves to avoid discoloring our collective karma here at, it came down to a rotten set of springs. No conclusion will be drawn about how they went bad. Bad metal? Bad design? Bad outsourcing? Bad seller? They could have been a spring for a different Toyota altogether, one of the pitfalls of using used gear – you’re never quite sure if it’s kosher.
Bad springs at ride-height shown above. Below are the OME 890s new that we installed. 

Whatever the why, we had problems with these collapsed coils. They would collect each other at full compression,

which was happening way too often. On our trip to Colorado for the 4Runner Jamboree, a couple hundred pounds of gear put the coils in full contact over and over again, inspiring a new level of aggravation that didn’t square with our Colorado state of mind.

We must say that the dude who sold us the foul springs went above the call of duty to replace them. He had a set of used Old Man Emu 890s that had also been on his 4Runner at one time (the “A” spring goes on the driver’s side!), and he cancelled their sale to another 4Runnerer so he could trade them out for the failed springs he’d shipped us. The word of the day here might be “caution”: without retail recourse or the backing of a manufacturer, even something as simple as a set of springs can become a sticky wicket. Buying things on the Web, from the boards, or from folks you know only by their screen name and avatar has an increased potential for complication.

You only need to unbolt the anti-roll bar and play leverage games with the rear axle to install rear springs. These 890s seem well matched to the TRD Tundra units in front, and the Bilsteins collect it all nicely. We also picked up about 1.5 inches over the bad rear springs, which had, at best, offered about an inch lift, so the ’97 4Runner now sits over two inches up in the rear, close to 2.5 inches. The rear FJ80-based Bilsteins seem to like that setting. The front end now needs of a top-out spacer to level things (and a matching diff-drop), so we gave All-Pro a call – coming soon.



Oversights: Front Suspension Stuff We’ve Learned
First off, the amount of information out there for third-gen 4Runner lifts is ridiculous. Let’s get that straight. What we give you here is just scratching the surface, and we have five full pages of notes that couldn’t possibly fit in this story. How about the highlights? You like highlights.

At the top, our 4Runner lifted with rotten rear springs, but we subbed them out for the 890s (bottom).

Our front spring & shock combo – TRD Tundra yellow/yellow & blue/yellows with Bilstein adjustable-perch 5100s.  Awesome combo – we’ll top-out soon.

In front, the combinations range from desert-style coilovers, spacers within and without the coil-pack (either on top of the top-hat or below it), OEM-based spring & shock swaps, aftermarket springs for the Toyota shocks, all sorts of aftermarket shock and spring combinations, plus modified suspensions, A-arms and a host of other nut and bolt adaptations of the double-A front end. First real rule? Do your research so you’re not surprised by the results. Somebody has probably already tried what you’re thinking about doing. A pseudo rule we developed during our research is that some vendors aren’t friendly while others are. If you like being treated like you’re spending money, find a local shop that’s willing to do a little hand-holding and has built some good Toyotas in the past. Crucial: don’t put up with jerks, because it’s your money.

A few themes for the front stick out for functionality and good rep. The Tundra-based spring and shock array has dozens of ways to execute, and it’s an honest bolt-on. Using different springs (check the markings, which can be cross-referenced to which Tundra those springs came on) can lift the 4Runner from one to almost two inches, with specific behavior for each spring depending on the truck it was spec’d for. You can buy the parts for the swap from a junkyard if you’re feeling inexpensive, thought we used new springs from Toyota’s parts department (should’a done that out back, too), and new shocks from a company familiar with the Tundra: Bilstein.




Exotic alternatives exist, like the Total Chaos long-travel kit.

The ARB/Old Man Emu selection of front springs work well, are made well, and have a reputation for reliability. OME products are targeted to the expedition crowd, so they work with an ass-high stance. There is a rumble here and there about OMEs and how they settle a little over time, but if you know it’s going to happen, that sounds like reliable behavior … A darling facet of the OME product line is their matching shocks, which give you the option of running a fully thunk suspension kit from front to rear.

Regarding the sandy folks, we toyed with the Sway-Away coilovers for the front end briefly, but their rep for killer function in the sand and big fast stuff was countered by reports that they were too stiff for tight slow-motion trail pounding. Most folks in SoCal have to choose between sand and rock, so the long-travel units are popular, but that stiffness (nice on-road, apparently) is not as rock-friendly. Total Chaos also builds a popular long-travel front suspension for the 4Runner (and other sexy parts), though anecdotal evidence was scarce of its capacity for rocks.

Limitations to front-end mods are the villain of the third-gen 4Runner, especially for the four-by trucks. Shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive means the front half-shafts are always turning, and more than two-inches of lift will necessitate either manual hubs or that you start considering a solid-axle swap. The simplistic diff-drop – a set of well-placed spacers that cock the front diff at a more workable angle, adds the “safe” IFS lift to about three inches. Also, more droop means improving pivot points and adding straps, and larger tires mean alterations to the upper A-arm.

With plenty of lift, this 4Runner still runs without a dropped front diff.

Vague Answers to Rear Suspension Questions
This 4Runner’s rear suspension presents a murkier picture – more options and variations, easier adaptation of crossbred parts, and few clear answers. Buy a whole kit from an outfit like Old Man Emu, and your combination front to rear is already spec’d out by the builder. That also means you have to buy into the manufacturer’s theories about ride and suspension action, which for OME usually includes a stiffer front suspension coupled with taller rear springs that are designed for heavy outback-style excursion gear. It works, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.


Longer FJ80 spring (top) vs. an aftermarket 2-inch rear spring (bottom).

Where the OME brand has elevated its value for a lot of the rock guys is in their wide range of springs rates – you can pick and choose to match the rest of your suspension. In our case, we used the TRD Tundra/Bilstein OEM-based combo up front, and we followed that up with OME 890s in back next to another set of Bilsteins. In the rear, it is important to match shock travel to suspension travel – we used a set of Bilsteins made for the rear of an FJ80 ‘Cruiser.

Multiple aftermarket springs can be had for the 4Runner beyond the OME option (which we include as an example), but opinion varies widely on function. We’re cautious to rep one way or another beyond referring to statements lifted from the boards, because the rear suspension seems to be very subjective. Running an amp and subs? Carry tools? Heavy spare? Wearing a cage? Limited or SR5? All this stuff has altered individual results with these products, so once again, your research is essential – find folks who are wearing the parts you’re interested in. Spacers have been used in the rear, too, but without using a shock that matches the new increased travel range of springs plus spacer, you’ll be topping out quickly. Long-travel is a near non-op, unless you plan to run hoops into the cabin, so high-speed desert performance is a big project at the least.

One of the delights of the rear 4Runner suspension is how quickly you can swap springs in and out, making experimentation a breeze. Other types of rear springs we’ve got in mind? The Land Cruiser (FJ80) front spring has been popular with the OEM (not OME – original equipment, manufacturer) swappers, but a number of variants of the OEM FJ80 front springs are available. With the right FJ80 front spring, though, you can have a cushy rear spring for the gen-three 4Runner that lifts the body three inches more than stock, and is reputed to function well in the rocks (though it’s squishy on the street, and you need to make brake line and anti-roll bar adjustments).  Choices mean choices – with a plus three-inch spring in the rear, you’ll need a 2.5-inch lift in front to keep from looking weird, then a diff-drop kit to keep your front half-shafts intact.

We have just started listing the discoveries from this process – stay tuned, or email us a request for 411 you’d like to see. Not yet begun is the second stage of proper suspension coverage. This will involve a process of diagnosis, use and abuse, all in an effort to see how well the basic spring and shock alterations now in place react to trail use and abuse. This gen-three 4Runner trail-build is answering your questions as we go, just wait.

With images from the Web and WabFab Off-Road, you can see several takes on the 3-inch lift combo. The black on black 4Runner (top) has 3-inch springs with 2-inch body pucks. The middle photos, the green on black, has 2.5-inch OME springs with 1.5-inch spacers. The bottom photo, the green on grey, has Tundra in front, spaced, with JZ80 springs in back, and a heavy front bumper. Newsletter
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