Five Of The Cheapest Ways To Get Off-Road

 

Some people head off-road because they want to climb a near-vertical mountain pass, stand on the roof of their rig, and take a deep gulp of air unsullied by the more odorous byproducts of urban existence before diving into the waters of a crystal clear glacial lake. Others simply want to spend as little cash as possible to play in the mud, goof around on the trail, and hopefully not break down in the process.

While we respect both of these 4×4 philosophies, we have to admit the second resides nearest and dearest to our hearts. With that in mind, we’ve put together this list of five of the cheapest ways you can get off-road. Look to spend under $5,000 for each of these surprisingly capable SUVs, then drop the rest of your savings on a satellite phone so your buddies can come tow you out of the muck when you get stuck.

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1. Jeep Cherokee XJ

What Is It?

The Jeep Cherokee XJ was the first real “modern” SUV to entice American buyers with its combination of a sturdy unibody design, legitimate low-range four-wheel drive capability, and a stout six-cylinder drivetrain. The Cherokee was built in two-door and four-door editions and was available from the early ‘80s until the 2001 model year.

Why So Cheap?

The XJ was incredibly popular with a wide range of customers, including fleet buyers like the park rangers and the United States Postal Service. Jeep built more than 2.1 million of these SUVs. Let that number sink in for a minute: 2.1 million! That’s enough to ensure that a large percentage of Cherokees survived years of abuse, corrosion, and mechanical gremlins to litter both Craigslist and eBay at enticingly low prices.

Which One To Buy?

Consider 1987 your starting date since it’s the first year for the bulletproof 4.0-liter inline six that is the Jeep Cherokee’s secret sauce. The newer you go, the more power this motor makes, but it’s not a huge difference; you’re looking at fewer than 200 ponies regardless of tune. That same year also saw upgraded four-wheel drive systems with a further strengthening of the driveline taking place in ’91.

What To Watch Out For?

Cherokees love to nickel and dime their owners to death with dead window switches, check-engine lights, and occasionally leaky gaskets. Since this is your off-road beater, you don’t really care about any of this, but when buying, you’ll definitely want to do a thorough rust check. Once the unibody starts to rot, it can be pricey to fix.

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2. Nissan Xterra

What Is It?

For a brief, shining moment at the end of the ‘90s, a handful of reasonably-sized, traditional SUVs combined Japanese reliability with a low-range four-wheel drive. Of these, the first-generation Nissan Xterra has aged remarkably well, especially when seen through the goggles of its sub-$5k purchase price.

Why So Cheap?

Because it’s not a Toyota. No, seriously, the Xterra avoids the Toyota tax that has driven up the price of rivals like the larger 4Runner and the similarly sized FJ Cruiser. The Xterra also happens to be somewhat underpowered given its weight: 170 to 180 horsepower from a 3.3-liter V6 to motivate roughly 4,000 pounds (although later models offered a supercharger that pushed output to 210 horses). There was a four-cylinder model, too, but we assum you want to get where you were going faster than walking.

Which One To Buy?

The 2000 and 2001 model years will be cheapest. Stick with the base V6 and manual transmission. Then spend the rest of the money on tires, a lift, and cutting back that front bumper to improve the Nissan’s approach angle out on the trail. Keep in mind, too, that the front differential is open. You may want to upgrade that as you get more serious about investing in your beater off-road rig. Note: by investment, we don’t mean, “way to retire on increased income,” so much as, “way to spend more money.”

What To Watch Out For?

You might bust the steering on the Xterra, a known weak point, if you get a little too rambunctious. However, it’s not an expensive fix/upgrade. Ask if the timing belt has been changed if the odometer shows over 100,000 miles.

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3. Suzuki Samurai

What Is It?

The Suzuki Samurai is the off-road truck you buy when you could care less what your neighbors think of your driveway occupancy. Thanks to their short wheelbase and high center of gravity, these tiny four-wheel drive runabouts are fairly dangerous to drive at highway speeds. Of course, that same pint-sized form makes them incredibly nimble once the asphalt disappears.

Why So Cheap?

The newest Samurai in America was built in 1995, which means most have huge miles and a list of needs. It’s also a tiny truck with an equally tiny 1.3-liter, 63-horsepower four-cylinder engine. That’s pretty under the radar for most Brodozer fans these days.

Which One To Buy?

Older models (1986 to 1989) came with a larger engine that actually put out less power and were a lot more tippy in daily driving. Look for a 1990 to 1995 version instead. It’s going to be especially tough to find one that hasn’t already been modded for the trails, so if you trust someone else’s lift kit and big rubber — or Suzuki Sidekick engine swap -—then have at it. Otherwise, stick with something stock and just enjoy the Samurai for the rock crawler lurking inside its diminutive proportions.

What To Watch Out For?

200,000 were sold on this side of the Pacific, but rot and abuse have claimed a fair portion of these. That means that although they’re all cheap, not all are ‘cheap and good.’ Transfer case mounts tend to fail on engine-swapped Samurais, door handles snap, and starter wiring wears out over time, which are things that can be fixed inexpensively via the aftermarket. Another unique and fun Samurai weak spot is the corrosive brain fluid that leaks and renders its ECM unstable. That will kill the car again and again until it just shorts out the circuit board. Fortunately, that’s also a cheap fix.

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4. Subaru Outback/Forester

What Is It?

The Subaru Outback and its platform-mate Subaru Forester are the de facto uniform of New England’s winter-bound states. One is a jacked-up wagon, the other is a slightly-more-square jacked-up wagon. Both offer up to 8.7 inches of ground clearance (matching a Jeep Grand Cherokee) with all-wheel drive. Is it weird that we’re suggesting a unibody crossover as an off-road rig? It’s only weird until you’ve seen a Forester or an Outback working its way across a mud pool at full steam.

Why So Cheap?

Old Subarus never really die, they just get parked when their head gaskets give up the ghost. That means there are hundreds of thousands of these troopers lurking anywhere snow falls from December to April.

Which One To Buy?

Try to find the newest one you can afford, but make sure to target manual-transmission models. These offer a mechanical split with a viscous locking center differential for the all-wheel drive system. That will be much easier to work with off-road. Avoid the first-year Outback, as it was just a trim level for the Legacy. Try to find a 2000-and-up with a viscous limited-slip rear differential (also applicable to the Forester). If you want more power, Subaru built turbocharged versions of each, but you’ll probably break out of the $5,000 price cap at that point.

What To Watch Out For?

People laughing at you when you show up to a trail drive in a Subaru. Also, any of the four-cylinder boxer engines found in the Forester and the Outback are known to blow head gaskets.

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5. Jeep Wrangler YJ

What Is It?

The Wrangler YJ was the Jeep that betrayed the faithful by daring to wear square headlights. It was also a better and more modern evolution of the CJ that came before it. Prices have finally started to drop to the point where they can be considered cheap and fun off-road options.

Why So Cheap?

Blame the glut of easier-to-live-with JK Wranglers flooding the market and the fact that the YJ is pretty old at this point. Jeep stopped YJ production in 1995. The TJ sitting between the two soaks up most of the “old used Jeep” dollars these days.

Which One To Buy?

If you can, find a ‘91-and-up model with the fuel-injected version of the same 4.0-liter six-cylinder engine mentioned above in the Cherokee. 1995 models have upgraded suspension components that make them more desirable. You could also still option them without anti-lock brakes, which some people prefer.

What To Watch Out For?

Like the Cherokee, the YJ falls prey to rust and rot—especially on the frame—at the bottom of the doors and around the windshield. Like the Samurai, poorly done mods from previous owners can be a source of vexation. Transmission mounts, motor mounts, and the central-axle disconnect system on some models can be problematic, as can the hydraulic slave cylinder on manual transmission models.

What about you?

We know lots of Roadkill fans play in the mud for dirt cheap. Do you have a low-buck truck? A super Trooper? Maybe a regal Eagle? Let’s see your cheap-o off-road rigs!

Something to Say?

3 thoughts on “Five Of The Cheapest Ways To Get Off-Road

  1. Isuzu Trooper, especially 2nd generation, will out-wheel and outlast any of these in stock form, with better articulation, larger tires (32″ without lift, 33″ with 2″ lift), and a stout boxed chassis. The 2nd gen had super-flexy 4-link coil rear suspension and used stouter diffs with a beastly 12 bolt rear and 10 bolt front. Even the IFS had good travel if you set them up right. To have a Subaru on this list and not a Trooper is kinda funny…

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  2. 2nd gen Ram. With the frail RE overdrive trans and the stupid Mopar rear end, the 1500 is easy to find with a busted major component for peanuts. The magnum engine is pretty great. You can swap to a manual for peanuts. If you want to carb it or toss the garbage efi for a throttle body, intakes abound. Bonus points for a 4bt swap. Once you’re free of the tyranny of the PCM, and it’s frailties, you got yourself a big ole truck you can equip with a winch and some tubing for under 5k.
    Just elbow your way through the trails wherever the little SUV’s go.
    P38 Rovers are dirt cheap because the engines are garbage. Swap out the hot mess for something LS or Hemi or whatever. Go roving.

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