I am not a mechanic, nor am I an engineer, so none of the proceedings should be taken as the opinion of a subject-matter expert in either field. I am just someone who likes off-roading, but fills the hours of not-off-roading doing research about off-roading (and overlanding). Asked to make a recommendation on the purchase of a future 4×4 SUV, I put my notes to narrative, the results of which I present below. Keep in mind that these recommendations do not follow a scientific criteria, though I have attempted to balance the general utility and strength of the vehicle as an off-road or overland platform against necessary modifications and the overall lifespan of the vehicle, taking into consideration – very unscientifically – the opinions of those whose articles happen to appear on the front page of a Google search. The YouTube videos below are strictly for infotainment purposes.
1. Toyota Land Cruiser J70
First out the gate is one of, if not the most capable off-roader in the world, the Toyota Land Cruiser J70. Originally introduced in 1984, this venerable 4×4 has survived the past 35 years of changes in the market and demand, remaining in production to this day where its contemporary “comfort-oriented” Land Cruiser J60 and its successors (-80, -90, -100, -120, -150, -200) has continued to evolve to the on-road environment. Although any Toyota Land Cruiser should be considered among the most capable and reliable off-roaders in the world, the J70 remains the quintessential 4×4. A 4.0L gas I6 or 4.2L turbo-diesel I6 are more than a match for competing Jeep models – with one catch: the J70 is not available in the United States. To get your hands on one of these babies, you will have to import it from overseas – and I have zero idea what that process is like, but just like the Toyota Hilux, you occasionally spot them in more affluent parts of the U.S.
2. Lexus LX 570 = Toyota Land Cruiser J200
As mentioned in the previous entry, any Toyota Land Cruiser should be considered ahead of nearly all other candidates. The Toyota Land Cruiser J200 is the latest and, in the case of the United States, the final model of Land Cruiser, available in a “luxury-oriented” model under the Lexus brand, the Lexus LX 570. Although the thought of taking a relatively expensive luxury SUV off road is enough to make most of us cringe, the fact is that the vast majority of LX 570’s on the road have spent their entire life in two wheel-drive (2WD) on paved surfaces. Given the sort of consumers to whom the Lexus brand appeals, it should come as little surprise that many LX 570’s are traded in for newer and more advanced offerings, sometimes even within the same model, meaning that there is a surplus of used luxury-oriented Land Cruisers with perhaps 125-175k miles, virtually pristine 4×4 capabilities, and a host of aftermarket modifications available. This is all but ideal for the weekend off-roader, particularly when one considers the lifespan of Toyota engines, recorded to last as much as 250-300k miles or more. Desirable engines are the 4.7L gas V8, 5.7L gas V8, or the 4.8L turbocharged diesel V8. That said, because this is the current model year, it may still be too expensive to take off road.
3. Lexus LX 470 = Toyota Land Cruiser J100
Third on the list of off-roading SUVs is – surprise, surprise – yet another model of Land Cruiser; this time it’s the J200’s predecessor, the Toyota Land Cruiser J100 and its luxury counterpart, the Lexus LX 470. Produced from 1998 to 2003, used offerings of the Land Cruiser name are going to be more difficult to locate as more folks shed any remaining LX 470s still on the road. The advantage here is the same as that of the J200: plenty of available, used LX 470s with relatively few miles and often untapped 4×4 capabilities, along with plenty of aftermarket support. The second generation of the Toyota Tundra (XK50) is the pickup truck equivalent of the Land Cruiser, and so it is worth considering the equivalent 4WD models alongside J200s and J100s.
4. Jeep Wrangler JL Rubicon and JK Rubicon
We now come to the best off-the-lot 4×4 currently available on the market, the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. Descendent of the go-anywhere, do-anything “Willys Jeep” introduced for use by the U.S. military in the Second World War, and its civilian successor, the Jeep CJ. The current model of Wrangler, the Wrangler JL, combines the rugged off-road capabilities for which the Jeep brand is known with the most recent advances in vehicle technology. The Rubicon is the Wrangler’s specialized off-road trim level, more expensive than the “luxury-oriented” Wrangler Sahara. Equipped with oversized all-terrain (A/T) or mud-terrain (M/T) tires from the factory, electronic locking differentials, and Dana 44 axles in front and rear, the Wrangler Rubicon is the one vehicle on this list I would feel comfortable driving directly from dealer’s lot to the trails. Aftermarket support for Jeeps is ridiculously strong, with the Wrangler easily occupying the majority of the marketspace, albeit still in its infancy for the JL. The Wrangler JL Rubicon is available in both 2- and 4-door models, with a variety of engines joining the flagship Pentastar 3.6L gas V6 which are only entering the market, including a 2.0L turbocharged gas plug-in electric hybrid I4 (called 4XE), 2.2L turbocharged diesel I4, 3.0L turbocharged diesel V6, and a 6.4L Hemi gas V8. Jeeps have a history of electrical issues starting in the range of 50-60k miles, which – in my opinion – keeps this outstanding vehicle from the number one spot on the list; however, given the relative novelty of the JL model and its many changes, this may yet change.
5. Toyota 4Runner TRD Off-Road/TRD Pro
When seeking a compromise between off-road capabilities and space for passengers and cargo, the Toyota 4Runner occupies a spot at the front of the pack. A sort of “skinny Land Cruiser,” the 4Runner comes with all of the capabilities and long-lived reputation of the Toyota brand. The Toyota Racing Development (TRD) trim levels come with the addition of important features, such as an electronic rear-locking differential, built in Active Traction Control (A-TRAC), Crawl Control, and OEM forward bash-plate, along with an assortment of other upgrades available between the TRD Off-Road and the TRD Pro trim levels. The latest generations of Toyota 4Runners are only available in automatic transmission when paired with the 4.0L gas V6 and four-wheel drive, but this does not diminish the vehicle in any way. Aftermarket support for the 4Runner is among the strongest available, alongside the 4Runner’s North American cousin, the Toyota Tacoma pickup. Used fifth-generation (2009-present) 4Runners will not necessarily come cheap since most owners know exactly what they have or have some buddy who tells them what they have, as will used car dealerships. The Toyota Tacoma is the pickup truck equivalent of the 4Runner, and so it is worth considering the equivalent 4WD models alongside the 4Runner.
6. Jeep Wrangler TJ Rubicon and LJ Rubicon Unlimited
One of the very best Jeeps to ever grace the marketplace is the Jeep Wrangler TJ, which were produced from 1998 to 2006. To this day, when paired with the 4.0L gas I6, base models of the TJ continue to fetch well above their Kelly Blue Book (KBB) value, with the Rubicon trim, the rare LJ Unlimited, and the even rarer LJ Rubicon Unlimited all punching well above their weight level – and for good reason. Both came equipped stock with Dana 44 axles, 245/75R17 M/T tires, and a 6-speed manual transmission (or 4-speed automatic). In the case of the LJ Unlimited, the frame was lengthened by 15 inches, giving the Wrangler an an expanded wheelbase and an additional 1.5k pounds of towing capacity over the standard TJ. The LJ was available starting with the 2004 model year, with the Rubicon Unlimited becoming available starting in model year 2005 before both the TJ and LJ models were discontinued after model year 2006, making them a rare and expensive treasure – if found. Expect to pay close to or more than an new entry-level vehicle, and with either the TJ or LJ, expect to have to invest in aftermarket support, particularly in the replacement of aging components. A total project could easily range into the cost of buying a brand new Wrangler JL, which places the TJ/LJ combo at number 6 on this list.
7. Toyota FJ Cruiser 4WD
The fifth Toyota SUV on this list is the iconic Toyota FJ Cruiser, specifically the 4WD models available from 2006 to 2014. Only in later model years were more recent TRD and off-roading special edition trim levels available, though aftermarket support for the FJ Cruiser remains strong. A 4.0L gas V6 paired with either 6-speed manual or 5-speed automatic transmission is more than match for its the contemporary, the Jeep Wrangler JK, but sales did not bear this out, with the vehicle ending production in 2014. Even used, expect these vehicles to fetch the sort of prices you see for 4Runners and Wrangler TJs since they have the known Toyota reputation for long life and reliability. One major downside I found with the FJ Cruiser were the swing-out doors for the rear compartment, which I personally found awkward to use when I toured it at an auto show, and the limited visibility of the narrow windows – but these are, ironically, the same sort of narrow windows now found on current Jeeps and Toyotas.
8. Toyota 4Runner 4WD
Okay, so it may seem like cheating to put the 4Runner on this list again, but hear me out. The differences between a non-TRD package 4Runner (much are most) and a TRD Off-Road or TRD Pro are sufficient that in the case of used 4Runners, enough of an investment has to be made to “upgrade” the existing vehicle to a 4×4-ready status. It is to Toyota’s compliment that virtually any 3rd, 4th, or 5th generation trim with 4WD capability can be engineered to be a reliable off-roader in the same way Jeeps can be. The aforementioned aftermarket support remains strong, even for the rare 1st and 2nd gen model years, though be warned that only until recently have these vehicles been seen as luxuries rather than work vehicles, and so you are inevitably going to find a lot of work that will need to be done, though so long as the frame, engine, and transmission are going, you should be good to go. Like the TJ, expect to pay prices which overlap with new entry-level vehicles and that total costs after modifications may reach as much as a new, unmodified 4Runner.
9. Land Rover Defender 90/110
The icon of safari adventures and the economic distillation of British imperialism, the Land Rover Defender 90 and 110 series are among the worlds best off-road vehicles, ranking ninth on this list in spite of being available in North America solely from 1993 to 1997 after Land Rover opted not to modify the vehicle with airbags to meet North American vehicle standards – due in large part to the American marketspace being dominated by the Jeep brand and the Wrangler in particular. Finding of these vehicles in good condition is no longer as difficult as it was some ten or fifteen years ago, but that is because they have either been maintained by the owners in such pristine conditions or are the products of collector investments – making buying one of these rare SUVs equivalent to buying a new top-tier luxury SUV, while lacking the amenities many take for granted: air-conditioning, internal insolation, foam cushion rather than spring cushion seating, etc. These will drive and sound like trucks, and have enough mechanical problems over the course of its lifetime to have once more earned the entire Land Rover brand the title of least reliable car brand in the United States in 2021 J.D. Power U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study. Much like most vehicles of that era, when functioning, the vehicle is indomitable – but when invariably something goes wrong, it will cost a lot to fix. Don’t forget: this is a literal antique. This makes the 93-97 Defenders 90 and 110 potentially too expensive to take off road.
10. Jeep Wrangler 4.2L / 4.0L / 3.8L / 3.6L
Just as the 4Runner earned itself a second listing, so has the Jeep Wrangler. Even without all of the powerful additions of the Rubicon trim levels, nearly every stock Wrangler can make an unstoppable off-roader – though there are some things to look for. With a history of electrical issues, if you plan to keep your Jeep you will want to budget for the eventual rewiring of your rig, which will be neither easy nor cheap – and that includes TJ and JK. Used Jeeps suffer from rust, and so it is imperative that you have someone who knows what they are looking for check out any potential buys. Rusted out frames are no uncommon among Wranglers, making for potential catastrophe down the line. You will also want to avoid carbureted engines and go for gas-injected systems, otherwise cold morning may lead to unreliable starts. Options for swapping a carbureted engine for a gas-injected one are expensive. The contemporary Jeep Cherokee XJ can also come equipped with an I6 and 4WD, and so it is worth looking at any alongside Wranglers, though with an eye for the same things mentioned, especially rust in the crossover unibody. In the order of general desirability, you will want to seek out these used model years:
- LJ 4.0L I6 (04-06)
- TJ 4.0L I6 (96-06)
- XJ 4.0L I6 (93-01)
- YJ 4.0L I6 (91-95)
- JK 3.6L V6 (12-15)
- JK 3.8L V6 (07-12)
- YJ 4.2L I6 (87-90)
Honorable Mentions and Notable Exceptions
There are so many off-road worthy vehicles available across the world that it would be impractical to attempt a an exhaustive list. There are some notable omissions to preceding list, chief among them pickup trucks besides the Tundra and Tacoma. Having only just entered the pickup truck marketspace, I have not yet conducted the same sort of research into their comparability across the market in the same way as sports utility vehicles.
LR3/LR4 (Discovery III / IV)
Although not nearly as notable in its off-road expeditions as the Camel Trophy’s iconic Discovery I and Discovery II, the Land Rover Discovery III and Discovery IV – sold in the U.S. as LR3 and LR4 – is still a power to be reckoned off-road. Retaining a body-on-frame construction, it came equipped with the sort of electronic traction control and electronic locking differentials which have no become standard on 4×4 vehicles. Land Rover’s general reliability as a brand should give potential buyers some pause and budgeting before proceeding, understanding that a great deal of work, time, and money will be necessary to maintain this battlecruiser of off-roading. Many have spent the vast majority of their lives on road and very rarely in 4-low (4L), and combined with being a luxury SUV, consequently retain their value out of proportion to the cost of investment. As the platform ages, this will probably continue to be the case as aftermarket support for the LR3 and LR4 is unlike those of other off-road SUVs, though one in sufficient enough condition and the right know-how can certainly keep one going successfully for a very long time.
Defender 90/110 (L663)
Honestly, this entry is probably hear as much for clicks as it is in hope that the latest generation of the venerable Land Rover Defender 90 and 110, the L663, is as successful in the world of off-roading and overlanding as the Defender is abroad. I doubt it will achieve such status, given Land Rover’s overall reputation in reliability – and yet somehow it was the vehicle of choice for the British Empire – and I get the impression that this newer model of Defender will be yet another addition to the luxury offerings of hypothetically off-road ready vehicles, namely crossover SUVs. Although much has been done to strengthen the unibody construction of crossover SUVs since the introduction of the first – and perhaps most successful – crossover SUV, the Jeep Cherokee XJ in 1983. The Defender has traditionally been a body-on-frame construction, but early signs seem to point the Defender’s off-road worthiness – though its relative novelty and extreme expense mean that few are yet willing to risk their vehicle off-road, making this vehicle potentially too expensive to take off road.
Similar to the LR3/LR4, the Range Rover comes with the added cost of being significantly more expensive to both purchase and maintain. A new Range Rover, like every other new Land Rover, is likely to be too expensive to take off road. When functioning properly, the Range Rover is known to be an incredibly capable off-roader, proven most clearly by its success in Madagascar during the 1987 Camel Trophy event. It should be noted that the British crossing of the Darién Gap in 1972 was attempted with two Range Rovers, which were incapable of crossing the jungle without military engineers, aerial support, helicopter medevac, and numerous equipment swaps. Six years later, a team of fourteen Americans made the crossing with six Jeep CJ-7s in 30 days as part of the Expedition of the Americas.
Too Expensive to Take Off-Road
Toyota Land Cruiser FJ40
This iconic piece of automobile history was known for its use abroad, particularly in Australia. There are lucky finds of these antique trucks still available, but they will not come cheap and may require a great deal of work. Companies which appeal to collectors have recently begun purchasing, restoring and updating these trucks to sell at enormous profit. These small Land Cruisers are excellent in off-road environments, but their cost – and in particular the cost for parts and repairs – makes them too expensive to take off road.
Mercedes-Benz G-Class (G-Wagen)
The G-Wagen is known for its versatility, serving in the armed forces of a number of European and Latin American nations, and has recently been featured in the popular media franchise Jurassic World. Although an extremely capable off-roader in its own right, representing the German counterpart to the Land Rover Defender and the Toyota Land Cruiser – though diametrically more expensive. As a consequence, aftermarket support is limited and will most likely have to be done through a dealership – no jacking this rig up in the driveway and installing mods if you don’t want to void the warranty. Ultimately, unless you have a lot of money to risk, the G-Wagen is too expensive to take off road.
Notable Exception: 2021 Ford Bronco
The Ford Bronco (U725) is so far just vaporware – promised deliveries have had to be delayed, no doubt primarily due to the coronavirus pandemic. Combined with the inevitable production delays that come with a new vehicle, there is simply not enough data from consumers – not enough people plying it through the mud and over ruts – since there are none yet on the lots. Maybe in 2022.
You can read more of my off-road shenanigans here: The Expedition Memoirs.