It’s hard to believe, but I’ve already lived on the outskirts of Detroit for over year now. And while I have extremely strong opinions on the city, and the state itself, I’m not here to shit where I eat. But I have learned a few automobile-related items during my elongated state in the north.
For one, the roads are horrendous. And when I saw horrendous, I mean that some of the roads here aren’t even paved. They’re just rocks scattered around in a way to look like a road. I have absolutely no idea why this is the way it is. And the roads that are paved are almost as bad, as they’re riddled with massive ruts, bumps, and potholes. Again, I’m not sure why the roads here are worse than a third-world country’s.
Winter isn’t a joke here. In Northern Virginia, we would get a healthy slathering of snow every year. It would dip into the low 20’s and, if you were lucky, you’d see a couple of inches of the cold white stuff on Christmas. In Michigan, it snows almost every day in winter, and temperatures drop into the negatives. So 4WD and snow tires are a must, as is a reliable car.
After learning these important facts about the state, I went out and bought a 1996 Toyota 4Runner for $2,700 and drove it up from Virginia to Michigan. The car was in pretty rough shape, but it made the journey without a hitch and has served me well. But 4WD stopped working as soon as snowfall hit and I’m not planning on doing another winter without that.
So, I did what any right-minded enthusiast would do and went back down to Virginia and bought another 4Runner. Why another 4Runner? Well, I already have the necessary tools, know-how, and manual to work on the car. Plus my neighbors have two of the exact same vehicles – same year, color, and all – and I wanted to mimic them to fit in.
The latest addition to my garage is a ’02 with just under 170,000 miles. It’s an SR5 Special Edition model with dark gray paint, gray cloth seats and, get this, everything works. Four-wheel drive works perfectly – the guy took us on a joy ride through his backyard, so I know it works this time – the seats aren’t mangled, the trunk is original, and it doesn’t need anything for the near future. In other words, it’s one of the nicest vehicles I’ve purchased in the past few years.
And the best thing about the SUV is that it cost me just $4,000. And it has a rear differential locker. I mean come on. I was searching the entire time I was in Michigan for a vehicle in Virginia, and when I stumbled upon this one, I couldn’t believe that it was still for sale.
As usual, getting the machine was a hassle. Between running errands with my family, running back and forth between Washington, D.C. and Virginia, I barely made it on time to the meeting time that the seller and I agreed to. And when we got there, it took us (my father, fiancé, and mom) nearly two hours to check out the 4Runner from top to bottom.
It had a few dents here and there, and could’ve used a good cleaning on the inside and outside, but other than that, it was in extremely good condition. And on my short time schedule, I didn’t have any time to do a tune-up, not that it needed one.
So a few days after purchasing the SUV, I drove it roughly 550 miles from Northern Virginia to Royal Oak, Mich. And while the ’02 and ’96 are nearly identical, the vehicles couldn’t have been more different on the trip up.
The ’96 was a racket to drive. The steering feel was sketchy, at 70 mph the 4Runner allowed so much road noise in that speaking with a passenger was difficult, and night-time driving was terrible thanks to a blinding LED light strip that the previous owner used to make sure that the driver could see how fast they were going.
The ’02 4Runner on the other hand was quiet, comfortable, and enjoyable to drive. At 80 mph, the SUV ran straight and true without a fuss. The five-speed transmission, which doesn’t sound like a complete upgrade from the four-speed unit in my ’96, sat in between 2,000 and 2,500 rpm at highway speeds, making for an enjoyable trip.
Usually, I switch off with my girlfriend (who’s my fiancé now) halfway through the journey – somewhere in Ohio – and take an hour break. But roughly four hours into the journey, something strange happened. The car threw an engine code. The check engine light came on, which was shortly followed by the VSC Trac light and VSC ABS light.
Strange, as 4Runners are known for being incredibly reliable and I’ve never seen a check engine light cause two other lights to come up. It was also a little scary, as we had just entered into Ohio and had approximately five hours left. So we drove for a little bit longer and found a rest stop to check out the vehicle.
I checked the regular items, oil, fluids, loose wires, and sensors, anything that would cause a check engine light to randomly come up without any warning signs. I couldn’t find anything out of the ordinary, so we set a route to the local Advance Auto Parts to get the car diagnosed. While they will read engine codes for free, I decided to purchase an OBDII reader for $100.
The codes that popped up were a little unnerving – C1201 Engine Control System Malfunction and P0770 Shift Solenoid E Malfunction. Seeing those codes are a little scary, especially when there are five hours left to go on the road trip. After spending some time looking the codes up and researching what would cause them to pop up, I learned that the cheapest option would be a transmission oil change and the most expensive one would be to get a transmission overhaul.
Knowing that, I simply cleared the codes, and continued on the way to Michigan. Oddly enough, the vehicle didn’t miss a beat until we were 30 minutes away from our house. The same lights reappeared, yet again without a discernable sign, leaving me to believe that the issue must have something to do with the transmission fluid, which I’m sure is quite old.
When the light came on a second time, I didn’t even bothering pulling over, as I was just a few miles away from the house. But what I did do as soon as I got home was place a massive order on Amazon for 13 quarts of Valvoline synthetic transmission fluid, five quarts of Mobil 1 synthetic 75W-90 gear oil, and a new transmission filter.
Hopefully, getting all of the dirty fluid out of the gearbox will help ensure that the light never comes on again. But it did show me that the cheaper, older ’96 4Runner, despite being an absolute hunk of garbage, is more reliable than my “new” SUV. Either that or none of the lights on the dash work.
Still, I’m psyched to have a 4Runner that works and works well. And I’m excited to have a key fob again. Once again, it goes to show that you can get a great deal on Craigslist, as long as you’re willing to search, and search, and search.