Jeep-'06 Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited
Now, if I had my way and was just listing my favorites, I'd insert a unibody here. Partly because I love 'em and think they're the absolutely best platform for me to build on for my own personal style, but partly to give the Jeep world a heart attack and accumulate more hate-mail than Jp Magazine editor John Cappa. But when I weigh all the factors, there is no Cherokee or Grand Cherokee that could ever be No. 1 in stock form...not without putting the emphasis on street driving anyways.... And certainly not with the introduction of the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited. The Rubicon is probably considered by most to be the best out-of-the-box 4x4 ever made. And the Rubicon Unlimited is just a one-up over the short-wheelbase TJ. With 10 inches more distance in between the wheels, this 4x4 is more than just a rockcrawler and trailrider. Now it's overall off-roadability has been opened up to longer wheelbase stuff like mudding, desert, high-speed, and just plain more comfort on the highway. The Rubicon package (in case you've been asleep the last four years) comes with a 4.0L inline six-cylinder engine, with the '06 model sporting an available six-speed manual transmission (thus why I picked solely the '06). The tranny sends power to the Rocktrac NV241 transfer case packed with 32-spline outputs and a 4.0:1 gear reduction in low range. From the Rocktrac, muscle is directed to front and rear Dana 44 axles, both four-linked and coil-sprung under the Wrangler. The Dana 44s are packed with 4.10 gears and selectable lockers via a dash switch. Take the top off, and you should be good to go for some great fun in the sun. It should also be noted that 2006 is the last year for the current Wrangler platform, and the last vehicle that will ever see the venerable, beloved, and already missed 4.0L engine, besides being the only year a six-speed manual was offered behind it in a Wrangler.
Land Rover-'97 Defender 90
The Defender series of Land Rovers were based on the original Series 1 Land Rover and (lookswise) has not changed all that much. They still have the same classic boxy styling as the first ones, with the major aesthetic difference being the grille which was pushed out to the front of the fenderline instead of inset between the fenders. They were loved when they came out and are still loved today. But in the U.S. you can no longer buy new Defenders, not the 90s or the 110s, because Land Rover did not choose to adhere to the oncoming airbag laws that were required after the '97 model year. But don't fret, rumors of a new one coming into the U.S. are circulating and I'm sure we'll be anxious to get our hands on one as soon as possible (maybe even one with a Rover diesel!). In the meantime, I believe the '97 Defender 90 to be the best 4x4 that Land Rover ever offered in the U.S. I thought about the LR3 and the most current Range Rover as well, with their super-complicated 4WD traction systems and more options than you can shake a stick at. But their low ground clearance, lack of front solid axles, bigger size, and ultracomplex builds made me pick the D90. The D90 wasn't offered with any type of locker or traction control, but it was quite the bitchin' solid-axle 4x4 package out the door. Offset differential axles (both front and rear offset to the passenger side) get fed from a part-time transfer case that gobbles power from the five-speed manual tranny in back of the 3.9L V-8 Rover engine. It's not a very big V-8, but it's peppy in this 93-inch wheelbase package. The suspension consists of a radius arm, a coil front, and a four-link rear, and it allows a lot of flex while still fitting 32-inch BFG Mud-Terrains on 16-inch Rover wheels. And by the way, the BFG Muds were on there from the factory, giving this ride extra points as an out-of-the-box badass.
Nissan-'05-And-Up Nismo Frontier
I would've loved to put the Patrol down here, or even the Pajaro (but it was never a U.S.-sold vehicle). But in stock form, I think I have to choose the '05-and-up Frontier. Besides being a fun little screamer around town, this truck really has the guts to handle off road. The 4.0L V-6 puts out 265 hp and is backed by a good six-speed manual or five-speed automatic tranny that puts together a package that can embarrass a lot of V-8s. The A-arm front end is held up by coil-sprung struts, while the rear Dana 44 is slung via leaf springs. The Nismo package steps it up a notch and offers a rear selectable locker along with ABS traction control and a Hill-Descent Mode which allows the vehicle to crawl down steep inclines without really using the brakes. Can your Hardbody do that? Probably not.
Toyota-'97 FJ80 Land Cruiser
Don't even try to argue with this one. Even you FJ40 freaks! The '97 Land Cruiser has got to be the best 4x4 package that Toyota ever offered in the U.S. The 4.5L engine was backed by a four-speed automatic transmission that gave decent power and a good amount of torque when needed. The FJ80 sported matching front and rear solid heavy-duty 9 1/2-inch ring gear axles with dropout-style third members that made it the most heavy-duty Toyota to date. And if that wasn't enough, how about the option of three different lockers? The transfer case is a full-time 4WD unit with a differential that locks up when in low range, and the axles, both front and rear, were offered with selectable lockers. And this was back in 1997! Where was the Rubicon then? The axles were slung via a radius arm and coil front, with a four-link and coil holding up the rear. In stock form or as a build platform, I think this'd be the Toyota I'd buy if I could see past all the Chrysler symbols in my driveway.
Wow, I feel like I don't really need to write anything here to justify my choice. Was there even a choice? I'm sure some Grand Vitara owner is writing me right now telling me all the wonderful attributes the Grand Viagra holds onto.... For the other 99 percent of us, there is no other Suzuki option than the solid-axled 2,100-pound Samurai. But the Sammy didn't find its real home until the late '90s, and was scorned by most due to some biased reporting done in the early '90s about rollovers and cornering. No, Samurais do not handle well, but neither does a dump truck; you have to take things for what they are. Sammys are 80-inch wheelbase vehicles, making them extremely squirrely and reactive to steering input. It was also an extreme economy vehicle that found an afterlife in the off-road community as more and more people started to appreciate their minute size and simple build as benefits off-road. Solid axles front and rear were slung over leaf springs that held 'em in place while the five-speed tranny kicked down power to them through the 1.4:1 high-range and 2.268:1 low-range transfer case. Power originated in the fury that is the 1.3L 66hp fuel-injected engine (that's up from the carbureted '89-and-below which punched out a massive 60 hp).