Going off-road doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. As a matter of fact, all one really needs is a 4x4 and a full tank of gas. We understand that wheeling may seem like an expensive hobby, and admittedly it can be. The reality, though, is you can have just as much fun as the high-priced buggy guys do for a fraction of the cost.
To help those looking for a first-time 4x4, we’ve put together a list of some of our favorite and best-supported used 4x4s. The rigs we picked are by no means the only good project vehicle platforms. They are, however, all readily available and can be easily built in your driveway, and most can be picked up for a couple grand. Once you’ve purchased your new-to-you 4x4, don’t forget to send us a photo and info about it at email@example.com.
Jeep Cherokee XJ
The Jeep Cherokee XJ is hands-down one of the most inexpensive, supported, and builder-friendly platforms to be had. When treated with care the unibody four-door Jeeps are known to last well over 200K miles.
For our money we’d look for a ’91-’99 model. This is mainly due to the availability of the higher-output 4.0L engine, high-pinion Dana 30 front axle, and 8.25 rear axle. The XJ was also fitted with either an NP242 or NP231 transfer case. Both are good cases with a 2.72 low range, but the 231 has more aftermarket support. Depending on how aggressive a wheeler you are, we’ve seen the XJ platforms survive with up to 35-inch tall tires.
If you find a 2WD XJ for dirt cheap and have a salvage yard, some knowhow, and tools nearby, then don’t be afraid to convert it to 4WD. Most of the equipment you’ll need to transfer everything can be picked up used for a few hundred bucks.
The early model straight-axle Toyota mini trucks seem to get all of the credit for making Toyota a staple in the off-road world. While that view holds merit, we say that the modern technology, power, and aftermarket world has made the Tacoma models the one to have. We’re still huge fans of Toyota’s reliable four-cylinder engines and would have no problems with running the more powerful V-6 either. The Taco’s drivetrain is one of the toughest you’ll find from the factory. The factory rear axle can hold upwards of a 37-inch tire, and we’ve even wheeled with guys running the factory IFS components on black diamond trails. The newer trucks get more pricey, but it’s possible to pick up a pre-’01 Tacoma for a few grand.
Jeep Wrangler YJ
There’s no denying that the Jeep Wrangler is the most popular and supported off-road rig on the plant. While we like the new TJ and JK generation Wranglers, they’re still a little pricey for those looking to build on a budget. Fortunately the ’87-’95 YJs have dropped substantially in price.
The golden years for these Jeeps are ’91-’95 since that’s when they were fitted with high-output 4.0L engines. Both the manual and auto options are decent, and the high-pinion Dana 30 front is plenty strong for 35-inch-tall tires. If you find a deal on one with the undesirable Dana 35 rear axle, don’t fret, because you can swap in an 8.8-inch Explorer rear axle for pretty cheap. The four-cylinder models work OK, but it’s worth it to spend the extra coin on the inline-six if you are going to be hitting the highway or daily driving the Jeep.
If you flip through the pages of this magazine you will find our own ’97 Ford Ranger buildup (page 82). With over 20 years of production, and with demand for the older pickups somewhat low, used Rangers can be picked up for next to nothing.
We’re partial to the ’93-’97 models since they are a little more refined than the earlier generations, and still maintain the TTB (twin traction beam) front end. Our perfect purchase would be a ’97 equipped with the 4.0L engine, Dana 35 front axle, and 8.8 rear axle.
The aftermarket support for these trucks is better than most. Up to a 35-inch-tall tire can be fitted onto the trucks pretty easily. Look for the manual-shift BW1354 transfer case, and don’t be afraid of the 3.0L engines. Just know that the 3.0L is jokingly referred to as the “3-point-slow” for a reason.
Lightweight, fuel-efficient, and simple. No, we’re not talking about the latest eco box but rather the short-lived yet legendary Suzuki Samurai. These ultralow-tech wheeling machines have little power and a stubby wheelbase, and according to so-called safety studies they are likely to flop over as soon as your passenger sneezes.
So why are they so great? Because they come as close to the “light is might” build philosophy as you can get. While higher numerical gears are necessary to turn big off-road tires, you don’t need big axles and a ton of aftermarket parts to make these rigs keep up with the big boys. Unfortunately the little ninjas are getting harder to find, but plenty are still out there waiting for new homes.