New trucks are pretty rad and, as we’ve been finding out, lightly used ones can be just as good. The problem is that these vehicles come with a price tag and, if you have off-roading on the mind, you probably don’t want to thrash all that hard on a vehicle that’s worth north of $25,000. Or maybe you just don’t have that much to spend on your next truck, which is completely respectable, because I don’t either.
As per usual, I have the perfect solution: if you’re going to go wheeling, buy a cheap 4×4 instead. Think about it; manufacturers have been building some serious drivetrains for decades, old trucks have amazing levels of community support via the internet, and a lot of them already have some mods installed. Just make sure you have it checked out before you sign any paperwork.
So in no particular order, I’m going to offer up my favorite cheap off-roaders that are on eBay right now. Of course, “cheap” can mean a lot of different things, including the $150 1979 Dodge Power Wagon that I once bought that was so rusty, the cab literally fell off the frame the third time it hit the trails. For these purposes, I’m going to set a budget of $5000, including necessary mods and repairs to make it decent in the dirt while still remaining a reasonably safe and reliable mode of transportation.
Fully aware that this list is outrageously biased towards my personal tastes, I invite you all to berate my choices in the comments as well post some of your own picks. Here we go:
1997 Toyota 4Runner – The Sensible Cheap 4×4
When I took my first stab at higher education, nothing said “well-heeled frat star” quite like a 90’s 4Runner, compliments of mom and dad. Years later, however, they’ve depreciated to the point of being one of the most versatile cheap 4×4’s out there. The buy-in on this particular unit is a little close to my budget limit but it’s a Toyota with less than 100,000 miles so, theoretically, there shouldn’t be that much wrong with it. You’ll still have over a grand to throw a lift kit at it or do something about the upholstery on the driver’s seat.
Problems to look out for are valve cover leaks and worn front suspension components but at this mileage, they should still be in decent shape. It also should have had a timing belt service at 90K but you’ll want to make sure that the water pump was replaced at the same time. I’ve seen a few people go cheap on that service to then have to tear them back apart when the pump starts leaking before the next oil change is due.
This generation 4Runner is effectively a V6 Tacoma chassis with coil springs out back so you can expect all the durability and longevity associated with Toyota trucks of the era. This particular one sports the Limited package which includes such niceties as motorized leather seats, a giant sunroof, and a nifty auxiliary heater for the back seat.
I personally know several people that swear by these trucks and for good reason. They’re capable in the slop, decently mannered on the road, and the styling has aged well enough that you can still get away with taking them out to dinner. If you’re feeling radical, there’s even a bolt-on supercharger available directly from Toyota. If it was a 5-speed, I’d probably be clearing some garage space for it.
1986 Suzuki Samurai – The Goofy Cheap 4×4
Despite absolutely abysmal acceleration and an inability to go around corners without tipping over, old Samurais are actually pretty capable little machines. Out of the box, they had solid axles and a crazy low-range on the transfer case to get you over just about anything, provided that you’re not in a hurry. This one only leaves $400 of wiggle room in the budget but it seems like it’s fairly well-sorted, save for a couple scrapes. Honestly, if your 4×4 doesn’t have a couple battle scars, you obviously aren’t wheeling hard enough.
On a thirty-year-old vehicle, pretty much anything can happen in terms of component failure so you’re going to want to go over everything. The major Achilles heel on Samurais is corrosion but this one is sporting California tags and looks relatively clean. On the up side, the engines run carburetors and distributor caps so they’re super simple to maintain.
This one is getting a little long in the tooth, from a mileage perspective, but who cares? The engine was just rebuilt and broken in! It also has a fresh carb, a beefed up alternator, and even the air works. At some point, the suspension was lifted up with some quality parts and there’s a Warn winch on the front for the off chance that you actually get stuck.
I’ve been out on the trail with a few Samurai and their lack of size is a huge advantage when trying to get through tight spaces. They’ve developed a bit of a cult following so expect clean examples to start gaining value in the coming years. There doesn’t seem like there’s a lot left to do on this one except re-upholstering the back seat. Just try not to crash it.
1996 Jeep Cherokee XJ – The Volvo 240 of Cheap 4×4’s
This car was radically advanced when it was released for 1984. It had a unitized chassis held up by solid axles making it (relatively) light and solid while being able to run over just about anything that you could throw at it. The design was such a trend setter that it soldiered on for several years after the Grand Cherokee ZJ was replaced, which was originally intended to replace the XJ. At $3200, there’s plenty of cash left over to continue beefing it up and address whatever is lurking under those ominous seat covers.
Early Cherokees were plagued by terrible engines and pathetically fragile gearboxes. By the nineties, however, they sported the venerable 4.0L HO inline six mated to Asin-Warner transmissions, like our example here. Although insanely durable, you still want to check for rear main leaks and worn-out suspension and steering components. Rust can wreak havoc on any old Jeep but this one seems like it’s already had a healthy round of corrosion restoration.
This one has new rubber and a mild lift already installed. Additionally, there are hordes of additional parts and online support for these rigs if when you decide to build it up even more. You could have plenty of fun with this unit as it sits or use it as a jump-off to build a seriously gnarly off-road machine.
With the prices of used Wranglers skyrocketing, the value-minded cheap 4×4 shopper would be foolish not to check out an XJ like this one. While it lacks the rear coil springs of the TJ, its drivetrain is virtually identical. It’s only a matter of time before collectors start snapping up all the decent ones. If only this one had the AX-15…
1994 Land Rover Discovery – The “I Forgot to Take My Medication” of Cheap 4×4’s
It’s fairly common knowledge that high-mileage Land Rovers are not for the faint of spirit, but hear me out on this one. It has a BIN of $2500! Just two thousand, five hundred buckeroos! That leaves you another $2500 to chase down whatever electrical gremlins are inevitably present and either remove or complete that propane conversion that the current owner has apparently lost interest in.
On these cars, you want to check for drivetrain leaks, specifically at the axles since those differentials do not take kindly to water entering their oil mix. Additionally, control arm bushings like to rot out and they are prone to water leaks around the roof. Also, and do not take this lightly, cooling system health is mission critical on any old Land Rover as that aluminum V8 will wad up like a piece of foil if it comes anywhere close to overheating.
On the plus side, this is a base model so it’s devoid of a lot of the failure-prone luxury gadgets that are common to most Rovers. The frame is basically an early solid-axle Range Rover chassis, minus that stupid air suspension, so it has reliable articulation for days. They’re huge and comfortable inside and nothing in the 4×4 world packs the snob-appeal of saying, “I drive a Land Rover.” This one has the rare (and ridiculously fun) manual transmission that, according to the ad, has just been gone over.
How, you might ask, do I know all this? I used to own one. Even in stock guise, it would run circles around most modded Yotas and Jeeps, given that it was actually running. If you need more out of it, there are upgrades galore available since Land Rover’s basic chassis remained pretty similar for about a thirty year span. As an added bonus, this one seems to have lived in Southern California so expect it to be free from any significant corrosion. Somebody snap it up before I decide that I need another one!