The fullsize SUV segment is perhaps the most difficult area to define a true bargain in, largely because of their impressive production numbers in the '80s and '90s. These vehicles are both readily available and surprisingly inexpensive for what you get. They usually have V-8 power and enough interior space to take along the whole family. We like the fact that many of these vehicles share architecture with their fullsize pickup counterparts, making it easy to swap in beefy axles and other stout drivetrain components.
First Place: 1973-'91 Chevrolet K5 Blazer
Price range: $250 to $5,500
K-Blazers are one of the most popular builder rigs available today. We love the earlier K5 Blazers because they were available as full convertibles through 1975. The fiberglass hardtops tended to crack because of body flex, but that shouldn't be a deal-breaker. The pre-'80s version had Dana 44 front axles and a 12-bolt rear, and after 1980 most K5s got an overdrive transmission and 10-bolt axles front and rear, although we've seen a few variances from this. The Militarized M1009 CUCV versions are arguably the best to start a build with because they were fitted with Dana 60 front axles and 14-bolt rearends, some of which even had lockers installed in them. Otherwise the '91 is probably the best K5 to own. It came with a fuel-injected 350 V-8 and improved driver visibility, thanks to a slanted front clip. Models produced after 1980 used the chain-driven NP 208 transfer case. After 1988 they used the less desirable NP 241. The popular NP 205 transfer case was found in the K5 between 1973-'80 and is the most desirable thanks to its heavy-duty gear-driven design. K5s need very little aftermarket attention to produce impressive results on the trail. Basic upgrades such as bumpers, a lift, and lockers will net favorable results.
Runner-up: 1980-'96 Ford Bronco
Price range: $500 to $5,000
When it comes to building a do-all trail rig, many will argue that Ford's fullsize Bronco is the cat's meow. We like them because they're big enough to haul plenty of gear, yet nimble enough to park at the local shopping mall. (It's also worth mentioning that past FW editors crowned the 1980 variant Four Wheeler of the Year.) Two nice things about these rigs are that they're abundant and relatively inexpensive. Plus, a plethora of options exist in the aftermarket for them. The most sought-after versions are likely the 1990-'96 models because they came with the E4OD overdrive transmission; however, the earlier '80-'84 variants and even some '85s were equipped with the much-favored Ford 9-inch rear axle. If you can find a clean Bronco with a high-output 351 Windsor engine, you have a great starting point. These were only available between 1984 and '87, and with 210 hp in stock form, they are the most powerful Broncos available. Two things to keep in mind when looking for a used Bronco are: (1) Stay away from the 1980 model if you plan to install a suspension lift. Unfortunately, the '80 frame has several holes in it from the factory that make installing some lift kits extremely difficult; (2) Stay away from '87 models because they use a unique one-piece front-wheel hub assembly that can be costly to replace. Note that 1985 was the first model year for EFI on the Bronco. If you plan to drive a Bronco daily, know that the TTB-equipped rigs are difficult to keep aligned and not the easiest to lift. If going fast through the desert is your thing, get the '95 or '96 with the 351 Windsor V-8, but we recommend swapping in the earlier 9-inch rear axle. To do this you will need a vehicle-speed-sensor relocation kit available from California Pre Fun. Add a flexible long-travel suspension, maybe a bumper and winch, and you'll be out enjoying the trail in no time.
The midsize SUV has grow in popularity in recent years, due in part to higher fuel prices. This is great for the used-truck buyer because there are lots of them to choose from and the aftermarket is well established. Size-wise, these vehicles are great as daily drivers, yet the cost of ownership typically will not prevent the average Joe from owning one as a dedicated trail machine.
First Place: 1984-2001 Jeep Cherokee XJ
Price range: $500 to $5,000
It might be appropriate to say the Jeep Cherokee is the VW Beetle of the modern SUV world. More than two million of these unibody rigs were produced in a whole assortment of configurations: Two-door, four-door, I-4, I-6, V-6, gas, diesel, in two- and four-wheel drive. These vehicles were Chrysler's catch-all solution for everything from a family hauler to rural-route delivery truck. Now they're sought after because of a lightweight (3,057-pound) unibody design that is supported by a plethora of aftermarket goodies. Jeep Speed recognizes them as the average working-man's desert racer, while even the strictest of Jeep purists will admit to having a soft spot for yesterday's grocery getter. Built in Toledo, Ohio, these rigs have served as workhorses in every sector of government, including the U.S. Postal Service and the armed forces. If you want a ton of options, the Cherokee will deliver. For the best value, look for a '93-'95 model with the 190hp H.O. 4.0L engine. These feature improvements to the electrical wiring harness as well as upgrades in fuel delivery, body stiffness, and instrumentation. The cooling system features a cap-on radiator design, and the I-6 of this era remain relatively simple in terms of emissions equipment. Watch out for the overheating issues on virtually all years of the Cherokee with the I-6 engine.
Runner-up: 1985-'89 Toyota 4Runner
Price range: $500 to $3,000
Where the mid-'80s Cherokee fell short, the Toyota 4Runner delivered. We loved the fact that these vehicles came with a removable rear fiberglass hardtop. Better yet, they're basically a Toyota pickup hiding underneath an SUV shell. Options abound, and these little trucks can be tricked out with everything from solid-axle swaps to V-8 conversions. Consider a 4Runner if you have kids or like the idea of having lockable storage. Private party prices are quite high compared to other SUVs of the era, but that's not a big surprise considering how well they age. Just about anything that can be done to a Toyota pickup will apply to the 4Runner. As such, we'd look for a rare '85 with a solid front axle and fuel injection. Otherwise, a solid-axle swap is a good idea for anybody who takes wheeling seriously. Head gasket failures are pretty common amongst the 22R and 22R-E engines, so be sure to check compression before purchasing.
Compact SUVs are the segment where you probably get the most bang for your buck when it comes to purchasing a used 4x4. Compact SUVs are typically inexpensive because they are lighter and therefore have less beefy components, requiring fewer raw materials to manufacture in the first place. We like them because as dedicated trail rigs, they are towable, cheap to maintain, and super-easy to modify. We're always impressed with how well lightweight rigs do on the trail.
First Place: 1985-'95 Suzuki Samurai
Price range: $200 to $1,600
In the world of four-wheeling, Samurais are often the butt of many jokes: "How many squirrels do you have under the hood?" It's a question we frequently overhear while watching a little Suzuki perform on the trail. Jokes aside, these micro-sized quasi-Jeeps really hold their own despite the absence of big power and flexy suspensions. We like them because they're small and simple. The Samurai had a 1.3L, 63hp four-cylinder engine and was available as a convertible or a hardtop. In '88 1/2, the Samurai was refreshed with a softer riding suspension, a larger sway bar to help reduce body roll, and a lower Fifth gear, which increased engine rpm and power at highway speeds. Naturally these are the more favorable versions to look for. One popular conversion we've seen is to swap in a fuel-injected 1.6L Geo Tracker ('89-'98) motor and drivetrain. Or, for those who crave even more power, Suzuki Lightning Conversions can set you up with either a V-6 or V-8 to make your Sammy unstoppable on the trail. We've also seen 8.8-inch Toyota pickup axles used under these rigs with great success, however, most owners tend to leave the drivetrain stock and simply modify the exterior to improve trailworthiness. Lots of affordable surprises exist in the aftermarket for Samurai owners.
Runner-up: 1997-2006 Jeep Wrangler TJ
Price range: $2,500 to $7,500
The popularity of the 2007-and-later Wrangler JK has contributed to a surplus of clean, buildable TJs, perfect for aftermarket perfectionists. There really is no limit to what you can do when it comes to modifying a TJ. The better of the two motor options is the multipoint-injected 4.0L I-6, which did a decent job of moving the lightweight Wrangler chassis around in stock form. Once bigger tires are added to the equation, more power is definitely needed. Advance Adapters offers a V-8 conversion kit that uses a Chevy small-block engine; AEV, Burnsville Offroad, and Jeep Speed Shop each specialize in 5.7L Hemi conversions for TJs. Given the fact that they have fully boxed frames with plenty of room under the hood, a V-8 swap makes a lot of sense. We like the TJ's simple coil-spring suspension design because it allows owners many options for lift kits, terrain tuning, and load carrying. The cat's meow, in our opinion, is the '06 Rubicon model with Dana 44 axles, 4:1 transfer case, and selectable lockers from the factory. However, for this story--and for those of you looking for a great deal in the $2,500 to $7,500 range--the '97-'00 Wrangler is probably your best bet. Many of them exist, and some even have a few of the desirable building blocks already in place for a very capable trail machine. These might include a dealer-installed suspension lift, genuine Jeep accessories such as a Warn winch, and bash-resistant Mopar bumpers. The hardtop is a good asset to have if you can find one, but most of all, consider the total mileage when searching for a TJ. Under 100,000 miles, they are strong runners and quite reliable. Upwards of 100,000 miles, you may want to think about big-ticket items such as engine, transmission, and transfer-case rebuilds. Pay attention to the models with Dana 35 rear axles. These are prone to failure, especially when fitted with larger-than-stock tires. Superior Axle offers a C-clip eliminator kit that addresses this issue.