Options, options, options.Where should you start when looking for the next trail rig? What vintage has the best powerplant? What model has bulletproof running gear? Which make has a proven track record with enthusiasts? What aftermarket parts are available for my rig? These are just a few of the questions we get regularly from readers on the prowl for a new (used) 4x4. So we decided it was time to compile a guide based on these criteria, in hopes of aiding your search for the right pre-owned wheeler. We hope that you find this information helpful, and we welcome any feedback about our choices.
When it comes to wheeling a pickup, compact trucks usually rule the roost because of three basic things: maneuverability, power-to-weight ratio, and purchase price. We like them because they fit well in rough terrain. Favored rigs in this arena typically revolve around a stout drivetrain and fuel-injected engines.
1st Place: '85-'95 Toyota pickup
Price range: $500 to $5,000
The Skinny: Right from the very start, Toyota pickups are rock-solid machines designed to take a beating. We like the fact that they have stout frames, extremely reliable rearends, and a plethora of available aftermarket upgrades. The time-tested 22R-E four-cylinder engine barely impresses anyone in the '85-'88 models, but judging by how many of them frequent the trails today, they do get the job done. In 1988 the introduction of the 3VZE 3.0L V-6 motor and R150 transmission helped these pickups earn further trail credibility.
The Hot Setup: If we had to pick one model to build, it would be the rare '85 (pre-IFS) Xtracab with the optional fuel-injected 22R-E engine. With a solid front axle and EFI, you have a great foundation. Add a dual transfer case, a lift kit, some 33s, a locker or two, and a cage; now you're rockcrawling.
Runner-up: '93-'97 Ford Ranger
Price range: $2,500 to $5,000
The Skinny: Among the go-fast crowd, the Ford Ranger is the truck to have because of its free-moving Twin Traction Beam (TTB) front suspension. The '97 model year was the last year Ford offered this arrangement. The powerplant to look for is the 4.0L OHV V-6 with 160 hp and 225 lb-ft of torque. Other benefits of this platform are a Dana 35 front differential with Dana 44-style outers and a 28-spline Ford 8.8-inch axle out back, typically with 3.73:1 gearing. Unfortunately, there is a weak point worth mentioning on this vintage Ranger; both the automatic and manual transmissions are marginal at best, until rebuilt.
The Hot Setup: Our recommendation for a used Ranger is undoubtedly a '97 SuperCab with the five-speed manual transmission. Drop in a new clutch, install some suspension, maybe add a new set of wheels and tires, and you got an awesome little 'wheeler.
It just wouldn't be America without fullsize four-wheel-drive pickups. Everybody in our country depends on them one way or another. They're typically king of the mud bog, stallions in the desert, and required equipment for the job site.
1st Place: '91-'98 Chevy K-3500 pickup
Price range: $1,500 to $5,000
The Skinny: For the money, you can't beat a 1-ton Chevrolet K-series built between 1991 and 1998. They were available with a 5.7L small-block or a 7.4L fuel-injected big-block V-8, a 14-bolt rear axle, and a Dana 60 frontend.
The Hot Setup: In particular we'd suggest looking for a '91 as it would likely be the least expensive of the group while still possessing all the assets necessary for serious wheeling. Look for one with the four-speed manual transmission, otherwise the four-speed 4L80-E automatic will probably require a rebuild to run reliably in the dirt. Stay away from Midwest rustbuckets. Instead, search the Internet for trucks originating from the desert Southwest. It's worth a road trip to get one that is rust-free.
Runner-up: '94-'02 Dodge Ram 2500/3500 diesel
Price range: $2,500 to $12,000
The Skinny: Much of what we look for in a used pickup comes down to power gains per dollar spent in the aftermarket. In the case of Dodge Rams equipped with the 12-valve-or better yet, the 24-valve-Cummins turbodiesel I-6 engine, you won't find a better motor to hop up. On the '94-'98 12-valves, you can perform a simple $200 fueling-plate modification that will net upwards of 100 hp and 200-plus lb-ft of torque. The wimpy A618 and 47RE automatic transmissions will likely grenade quickly if left unmodified, but nowadays there are tons of upgrades to take care of them. Similar power gains can be found on the '99-'02 24-valve Cummins trucks. Despite troublesome electronic fueling issues, these beasts can be quite impressive by simply adding a "fueling box," though exhaust gas temperature must be monitored. These pickups came with Dana 60, 70, and 80 axles, and some even had the coveted NV4500 manual transmission.
The Hot Setup: '02 is arguably the best year in the second-generation Cummins Ram family because it came with rear disc brakes and the Cummins cylinder head had hardened valve seats. We suggest the five-speed manual, extended-cab shortbed. The "Camper Special" or "Off Road Group" includes features that we feel are worth having if you can find them.