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Do you want a new 4x4 project, but finances are tight? Maybe you've been looking around at all the trucks on the trails, and you just crave something different. Or maybe you really need a new 4x4, and you want something nice, but the new car prices are way out of your tax bracket. Well, have no fear; here we have your next project buyer's guide. Whether beater, oddball, or low-buck luxury, there's got to be something here for your driveway.
Of course the trick is finding the vehicle you want and buying it. First of all, the really good deals are not found in the paper or on the Web, but rather sitting behind a shed or garage where it was parked a few years back. Start asking around and you'll find a good deal. Plus, if you can do more than just bolt on parts, then your options are wide open.
If you want a cheap vehicle, then don't expect it to be some super-trick trail machine right out of the box. The economics of life are defined by supply and demand, and cheap 4x4s are usually in large supply with small demand, but that doesn't mean they aren't good.
In the Jeep segment you will usually pay less for a 4x4 that has a nonremovable hardtop and/or square headlights. Wagoneers, Cherokees, and Comanches are the budget wheelers of choice in the Jeep family. The fullsize Wagoneers, J-trucks, and Cherokee Chiefs can be found with a 360 or bigger V-8s and many have Dana 44 axles front and rear. Some J-trucks even come with full-floating Dana 60 rears, while the unibody Cherokees and Comanches are abundant and going for dirt-cheap these days. If you need to have a rag or no-top Jeep, look at the '87-'95 Wrangler YJs. They come with a stout frame and a leaf-spring suspension, and tons of parts are available. If round headlights and an open top are required, then the lowest-priced options seem to be CJ-5s. They have a short wheelbase (81-84 inches depending on the year) and millions of upgrades available. However, climbing over the door hump can be an annoying obstacle for newbie '5 owners.
The Ford family has the '84-'90 Bronco II, and they can be had pretty darned cheaply. Lots of folks ignore these as a viable trail platform, but they do have a separate frame and a small body which can be made into something better if your budget isn't tight. We'd love to see more trail-ready Bronco IIs because the early Broncos are going for crazy rich prices and the 94-inch wheelbase would make a great tight trail machine. The Bronco IIs came with a 2.8L or later 2.9L V-6, twin-traction-beam front suspension and leaf-sprung rear, and a manual or automatic transmission. If we had one we'd slap on some little mud-terrain tires and go wheel the poop out of it until something broke, then we'd stuff a 5.0 out of a Mustang under the hood with a C4 and a Dana 300. Rear axle duty would be the venerable Ford 9-inch, while up front we'd build a custom Hi-9 high-pinion 9-inch in one of those trick Spidertrax fabricated Spider-9 housings. It would be fun time in Ford town.
In other parts of the world, Nissans carry a lot of clout in the dirt, but for some reason they have been slow to catch on in the U.S. However, with the success of the Nissan Titan trucks and Xterra SUVs, this nameplate has begun growing a dedicated following. If you're hunting for a budget wheeler outside the norm, look into either the '86-'97 Hardbody pickups or the '87-'95 Pathfinders (both known as the D21 body variants). These imports can be built into stout trail rigs, plus we've found prices staying below that of Toyota pickups and 4Runners. In fact the rear axle is often ranked between a Toyota mini-truck and a Ford 9-inch for strength and there are a few lockers and limited slips available for it. Calmini offers a range of products including a solid-axle swap kit, 3.92:1 low gears set for the TX-10 transfer case, and IFS suspension kits for these trucks. We wouldn't be surprised if they become more and more popular
The next segment of beaters are what we call the Low-buck Luxuries. These are 4x4s that when new were marketed towards the wine and cheese crowd, but now that they have 10-20 years under their leathered, weatherd interiors, they are showing up with off-roader budget price tags. Though not dirt cheap, these trucks offer certain advantages that make them worth the extra coin.
The Land Cruiser nameplate has always been Toyota's premier off-road vehicle, but at some point it went from sport-ute to luxo-ute and required big bucks to get into one, especially the '91-'97 FJ and FZJ-80s. However nowadays you can find these full-time 4x4s for increasingly lower prices and can easily transform one into a Family Fun Machine. The '93-and-later FZJ-80 models are desired for their 4.5L engine and the fact that some are factory equipped with locking differentials front and rear. To add to all this, the 80s have solid axles, boxed frames, and coil suspensions. High-mileage units may require the front birfields to be serviced, but for the most part, 300,000 miles can be expected, especially since most served street duty for the first 100,000.
Land Rovers have always had great reputations as some of the finest 4x4s in the world, and Range Rovers are the cream of this British crop. However, many of these fine 4x4s have long since passed from the Ivy League gates into the Truck Trader pages, and this is a great opportunity to snatch one up. We'd recommend the earlier versions of '87 and '88. These are prior to the problem-riddled air suspensions, and they have the burly LT-230 full-time transfer case with a creepy crawl ratio of 3.3:1. Most of the body is aluminum while under the steel hood is an all-aluminum V-8, all sitting on a boxed steel frame with a coil-sprung suspension. Of course this doesn't mean there are no problems, and often they are found either in the electrical parts or the high-class interior bits. If you need replacement pieces, they still come with the expensive Range Rover aura that means they'll leave your wallet a bit lighter.
Finally there is the Jeep Grand Cherokee. This model has won more 4-Wheel & Off-Road 4x4 of the Year tests than any other and it's no wonder why. They are available with a 4.0L straight-six as well as many different V-8 variants. However, the high-zoot version that we'd recommend is the elusive '98 model year with the tire-smoking 5.9L engine. Yes, that's 360 cubic inches and it gets to the ground through two solid axles and a coil-sprung link suspension. Unlike the other two luxos we mentioned, the Jeep comes with a unibody chassis design, but what it lacks in rigidity it certainly makes up for in raw 245 hp with 0 to 60 times of under 8 seconds. Back in '98 the 5.9 Limited Grand had an MSRP of $38,800, but we've seen clean versions recently for around $6,000. (Note the Grand Cherokee in the photo is not a 5.9 version, because there are no vents in the hood.)
Unfortunately the oddball 4x4s don't always make the best buildup trucks because the aftermarket doesn't offer a lot of support. But at the same time they do offer a unique ride that will stand out on the trail.
There is a group of imported 4x4 SUVs that we like to call the Forgotten Few. These are trucks that come with four-wheel drive, a low range, and a solid rear axle, but little or no aftermarket support. Within this group is the Mitsubishi Montero (pictured); the Isuzu Trooper, Amigo, and Rodeo; and the Honda Passport. These are vehicles that your mom, neighbor, or uncle Ted may have been driving, and if you're lucky, they are ready to sell or give one to you as a graduation present. The next thing you know you have this truck you want to take wheeling, so get yourself some lockers. Amazingly ARB offers an Air Locker for almost every year of these models (the Rodeo and Passport have good old Dana 44s in the rear), and in the case of the Isuzus, Calmini has a handful of parts for sale. If your budget is slim, then weld the differentials up, hit the dirt, and hold on because nothing wheels like a beater.
Another oddball 4x4 we often see for sale but rarely see on the trail is the infamous 4x4 van. Over the years there have been a handful of different conversion companies as well as tons of homebrew alterations done to vans. Though they probably would wheel like a giant loaf of bread, we still think there is a place for them in the dirt. Now don't get us wrong; we don't expect you to become a professional desert racer or rockcrawler in your new off-road shoebox, but if you like to camp, run trails, haul your mountain bike, and still have lots of advertising space for your pool cleaning or poodle grooming business, then do a search for vans with four-wheel drive. It will definitely offer you a ride like few others in the backcountry.
Just as odd as the van and often overlooked are the factory-built trars (part truck, part car). These include Subaru Brats, AMC Eagles, and the later Chevrolet Avalanches. Since the Avalanche doesn't fit the budget goals of this story, we'll stick to the Brat and AMC. Both of them offer very little in the way of aftermarket support. The Brat is basically a Subaru station wagon with a pickup body, while the AMC Eagle is part Jeep with a station-wagon unibody and an independent front suspension. The Brat has a low-range gearset in the single-piece transmission/transfer case, while the Eagle uses a single-speed transfer case. In stock form neither is much more than a fun beater rig, but for an ingenious home mechanic one of these could definitely turn into a capable oddball trail rig or at the very least a fun 4x4 to take up in the mountains during ski season.