Every two to three years, we review and showcase our nominations for the Best Buys in used 4x4s. This time around we're adding a little information about each specific model in terms of favorable engines, drivetrain componentry, and available aftermarket swaps. Our intention is to point out a great deal in each category while highlighting some of the most popular and affordable build strategies possible. We know some of the prices listed may not jibe with those found in your particular region; after all, some vehicles are simply less abundant where 4x4 enthusiasts congregate. In any case, think of our list as a general guideline to what can be found, purchased, and built on a minimal budget. We hope that you find this information helpful, and as always, we welcome any feedback about our choices.
The compact pickup category is probably the most popular of all, simply because of their abundant availability and excellent value. Attributes that make them exceptional builder rigs include nimble maneuverability, well balanced power-to-weight ratio, and surprisingly low cost of ownership. 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.
First place: 1985-'95 Toyota Pickup
Price range: $500- $3,000
Right from the very start, Toyota pickups are rock-solid machines designed to take a beating. We like the fact that they have stout boxed frames, extremely reliable rear axles, and a plethora of available aftermarket upgrades. The time-tested 22R-E four-cylinder is perhaps the most common engine supplied in these vehicles, but it hardly makes enough power to take serious. An improved version known as the 22R-TE was equipped with a small turbocharger, which improved power a bit, but these are scarce due to a very limited production run. In '88 the Toyota pickup got an optional 3VZE 3.0L V-6 that made decent power (150 hp) for stock applications, however, when laden with a whole assortment of aftermarket products, the V-6 left a lot to be desired. The most popular conversion we've seen for these rigs is offered by Advance Adapters, which allows installation of a Chevy V-8 in place of the four-cylinder. This kit comes with a bellhousing adapter, slave cylinder, pressure plate and clutch, a new flywheel, a starter, engine mounts, and a radiator for the low price of just $1,750. As for drivetrain upgrades, the Toyota aftermarket is practically drenched with options for just about every combination of transmission and transfer case offered. Very affordable low-range gearsets and even dual transfer case arrangements can be found through Advance Adapters, Marlin Crawler, Trail Gear, and Inchworm Gear. The dropout-style 8.8-inch axles found under these trucks were equipped with heavy-duty axle shafts in rear applications, but featured a less desirable Birfield joint up front. Longfield Super Axles offers the ultimate CV joint upgrade to help enthusiasts bombproof the front 8.8 axle.
Runner up: 1993-'97 Ford Ranger
Price range: $1,500 to $4,200
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 was the last year Ford offered this arrangement. Of the three engines offered, the one to look for is the 4.0L OHV V-6, making 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; the A4LD automatic trans is passable, but the M5OD manual is marginal at best. Or better yet, Advance Adapters offers a kit that permits installation of the TH 700R4 automatic, but only behind the 4.0L engine.
In the fullsize pickup arena, we look for a proven track record with enthusiast groups. This ensures that any problems encountered during ownership have already been addressed by the aftermarket. As abundant as fullsize pickups are, buyer beware: not all pickups are created equal.
First place: 1988-2002 Chevy C/K-Series pickup
Price range: $1,500 to $4,000
For the money, you simply can't beat a Chevrolet CK-series built between 1991 and 2002. They were available with several different power plants, the best of which include the 210 hp 5.7L small-block V-8, a 230 hp 7.4L fuel-injected big-block, and a rare version offered exclusively on the C3500HDs built from '00 to '02 with an 8.1L Vortec V-8. The C/K-series trucks came with a whole assortment of different axle configurations, some of which should be avoided altogether. Look for trucks with the tried-and-true 14-bolt rear axle, or even better, the Dana 80 found under the back of 3500s. The front drive system is the weakest part of this particular platform. Comprised of IFS that utilizes weak CV-style drive axles, this vintage of Chevy pickup can benefit greatly from a solid front axle swap. Kits to do such a conversion are available through Off Road Unlimited and retail for just under $700 plus the cost of the axle. The most common transmission you will find under these trucks is the 4L80E automatic, which should provide years of dependable service if maintained properly. The 700R4 is more common in the pre-'91 trucks and features a favorable 3.059:1 first gear ratio. Common trouble spots to watch for are: The '91-'94 trucks with the 6.5L diesel engines are known to develop transmission shudder. Some '96 models may exhibit engine noise because the exhaust valves on models equipped with the 4.3L, 5.0L, or 5.7L engines may not get enough lubrication. Usually, this condition is accompanied by excess oil consumption because the valveguide seals on the exhaust valves are bad and need to be replaced.
Runner up: 1994-2002 Dodge Ram 2500/3500 diesel
Price range: $2,500 to $12,000
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 a Dodge Ram, equipped with the 12-valve--or better yet, the 24-valve--Cummins turbodiesel engine, you won't find a better value in terms of bolt-on performance. On the '94-'98 12-valve version, you can perform a simple $250 fuel stop plate modification from Diesel Performance that will net upwards of 150 hp and 70-plus lb-ft of torque. Similar power gains can be found on the '99-'02 24-valve Cummins trucks by performing minor bolt-on modifications. Despite weak fuel lift pumps and a somewhat sensitive VP44 injection pump, you can expect impressive results by simply adding a "fueling box." Keep in mind that exhaust gas temperature should be monitored closely after making such modifications. The wimpy A618 and 47RE automatic transmissions will likely grenade quickly if left unmodified, but nowadays there are tons of upgrades to fortify them for the long haul. These pickups came with the stout Dana 60 up front, either a Dana 70 or 80 out back, and many were equipped with the coveted NV4500 manual transmission. The 2002 is arguably the best year because it came with rear disc brakes and a cylinder head that featured hardened valve seats. The most problematic drivability issue on these trucks is related to the front axle track-bar mount. A reliable solution to this problem is offered by Solid Steel Industries, which updates the design to that found under the newer 2003-`08 Ram pickups.