We all have some idea what we consider to be a budget ride. To some it’s a $100 dusty find embellished with duct tape and bailing wire. To others it might be slimming back to some tens of thousands of dollars. It all depends on your perspective, means, and desire to spend on some off-road rig. Here, we’ll throw out a batch of off-road vehicles we think can offer you some of the best bang for the buck.
Granted, each of these can be a moving target and things do change over time. When gas prices fluctuate to the high side, trucks with big motors tend to drop in price, meaning good deals can be had on great rigs with V-8 (and even V-10) engines. Conditions can also vary across the country. We see perfect metal examples of vehicles in the Southwest where it’s bright and sunny, but the interior parts may be UV rotted. In the Northeast, we see great interiors inside the rusting hulk of a body that’s seen too much winter salt.
Your choices may not agree with ours, and there may also be biases based on what area of the country you live in and the terrain on which you play. We’ve chosen some small and some larger rigs, and we offer you some of our reasons why.
1984-to-1995 4WD Toyota Trucks & 4Runners
We’ll start off with some of the earliest of the 4WD mini-trucks. That would be the Toyota trucks and 4Runners. It seems when Toyota sought to design those early versions, it built them using World War II-era design. The company used lots of steel and, fortunately for us, seemed to overbuild many of the drivetrain components. Hence, these 4WDs make great modified off-road rigs and the aftermarket support is immense.
Along with their structural integrity, these trucks offer good engines, with the fuel injected 2.4L 22R-E I4 being the most reliable. The hardest models to find for a good deal swaps back and forth between the 1985 SR5 Xtra Cab truck and the similar 1985 SR5 4Runner. Both offer the solid front axle and fuel injection in this model year. Post-1984 gets you the introduction of fuel injection and pre-1986 gets you solid front axle models. The 1986-and-newer models are IFS, but solid axle swap kits are readily available. Wheelbase can run from 103 to 122 inches.
The four-speed automatic used in these years is reliable, but is generally assumed to rob too much power from the four-cylinder engine. The five-speed overdrive manual performs well. Be sure to check the fifth-gear condition when test driving as these can start to fail over time. Transfer case low range will be 2.28:1 or 2.57:1, and V-6 version rear axles offer beefier third member components over the four-cylinder ones.
You’ll want to stay away from the 3.0L V-6 engine. Some had problematic head gaskets, though some ran for 200,000 miles without an issue. You’ll find cheap 3.0L trucks on Craigslist with blown head gaskets or other engine failure. This may be a good way to get a Toyota carcass, but at this point in their life this V-6 is prone to leaky injectors, oil leaks, and they have a good handful of coolant transfer hoses that are an absolute pain to replace.
1980-to-1996 4WD Ford Bronco
The Ford Bronco has a celebrated history, and the first generation versions are classics. However, they can be quite pricey. The second generation started a move to a bigger body. Those and later versions can fit the bill as a best buy given the choice of healthy engines, TTB front suspension, and overall SUV function.
Over the years, Ford used everything from the stout 300ci inline-six to 302/351/400ci models of the Ford V-8. Fuel injection was introduced on the 302 in 1985. Borg-Warner T-18 and NP435 four-speed manuals were used in the earlier years, followed by the M5OD-R2 5-speed beginning in 1987. Early models had the reliable C6 three-speed auto, but overdrive versions (especially the E4OD) in the later years meant better highway manners.
As with the mid ’90s Ranger, these Broncos used the TTB front suspension using a Dana 44 center chunk. The TTB typically offers ride and handling benefits over the solid front axle, but can be difficult to keep well aligned when lifted. Early year models used the Ford 9-inch rear axle, but later models used the Ford 8.8 axle. Wheelbase is 104 to 105 inches.
This version of the Ford Bronco can be built into many things from rock crawler to fast dirt runner to weekend camp rig. Overall aftermarket support is excellent and it shares many parts with other Ford trucks of the period.
1973 to 1991 Chevy K5 Blazer
This model of Chevy 4WD SUV that spanned nearly two decades is an iconic off-road rig and has always been a favorite. With V-8 power and a solid drivetrain, the short wheelbase 4WD makes for a fun all-around rig. Aftermarket support is substantial and the Blazer shares many of the same performance parts as Chevy trucks of similar years.
Engine choices ranged from a 250ci I6 to a 400ci V-8. There was also the 6.2L diesel engine which performed poorly. Performance and reliability took a jump in 1987 with the upgrade to throttle body fuel injection (TBI). The system is fairly simple and has proven itself to be very reliable.
The venerable SM465 tranny was the four-speed manual offering, while TH-350, TH-400, and 700-R4 autos made their way under the floorboard over the years. There was a wide range of transfer cases such as the heavy-duty gear driven NP205, or NP203, NP208 and NP241 versions of chain driven cases. Straight axles were found on both ends of the Blazer up until 1992, when IFS was introduced. Axle packages were Dana 44s and 12-Bolts (until 1980 or 1981) and then paired GM 10-Bolts (post 1980 or 1981 until 1991).
The 106.5-inch wheelbase works well all around, providing a good turning radius as well as long enough wheelbase to provide decent stability. Part of what adds to the Blazer appeal is the fact that they have a removable convertible top (until 1975) or half-cab with removable back shell (1976 to 1991).
1994-to-2001 Dodge Ram 1500 4WD Pickup
Dodge literally changed the face of its light truck line when it introduced the second generation Dodge Ram 1500 in 1994. This new design caught the envy of some and the questioning stares of others, but in time the look has proven to be popular. These were the last solid axle half-ton trucks made in the USA and offer a good selection of engines, a number of cab and bed choices, and a four-link-and-coil front suspension. Aftermarket support is not tremendous by comparison, but mod parts are available for suspension, engine, and drivetrain.
These trucks came with Magnum engines choices of a 3.9L V-6, 5.2L V8, and 5.9L V-8. Transmissions were either five-speed manual (NV3500, unless it was a ’94 or ’95 with an NV4500) or four-speed automatic (42RH-RE or 46RH-RE). The transfer case low gear ratio was 2.72:1 in either an NP231 or beefier NP231HD transfer case. The front straight axle was unique in a 1500 class truck at this time as Ford and Chevy both had some form of independent front suspension. Dodge offered a Dana 44 on a linked suspension with coil springs. Out back, a Chrysler 9.25 axle on leaf springs was used. Wheelbase ranges from 119 to 155 inches.
1984-to-2001 Jeep Cherokee (XJ)
Production numbers for the smaller, boxy Jeep SUV were high ones during its 18-year model history. That means there were, and are, a lot of these Jeeps still in existence. They’re readily available for sub-$1,000 prices and up. There is considerable aftermarket support for this model and plenty of parts availability. Hence, it is a good candidate for a wide range of modification goals.
American Motors opted for a unibody design when it came time to build this SUV, and it was built in both two-door and four-door flavors. The four-door model is typically considered a bit sturdier off-road, given the extra body pillar support between the front and rear doors. Some reinforcement of the unibody frame rails is generally desirable when running tires much larger than 31-inches for more than light duty off-road use. We should also mention that the XJ was available in 2WD as well with a straight, non-driven axle up front. All versions sit on a 101.4 inch wheelbase.
The Quadra-Link front suspension with coil springs at each corner can offer a stable and comfortable ride, and lends itself readily to lifts and other modifications with widespread aftermarket support. Engines ran the gamut from the AMC 2.5L I-4 to the GM 2.8L V-6 to the AMC 4.0L I-6 and even a Renault 2.1L diesel thrown in between ‘85 and ‘87. The 4.0L is definitely the most desirable as it has proven itself to be long-lasting and dependable. In the later years, a high output (HO) version was released and can be counted on to help turn upsized tires on a lifted XJ.
The earlier manual transmissions were a bit weak, so the Aisin-Warner AX15 or New Venture Gear NV3550 five-speeds are preferred. The AW-4 four-speed auto used from 1987 to 2001 works very well as long as it is not over-heated. Transfer cases were the NP207, NP231, or NP242 which are all chain driven with a 2.61:1 or 2.72:1 low range. The front straight axle on all models is a version of the Dana 30. The rear could be a Dana 35, Chrysler 8.25, or the best being a Dana 44 with 30-spline axle shafts.
1993-to-1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee (ZJ)
The Grand Cherokee debuted in 1993 while the smaller XJ was still in production, and the Grand is still produced to this day after being revised several times over the years. However, the first generation versions can be found, like many SUVS, in clean condition and having never been taken far from pavement. You get solid engines, linked suspension, and straight axles front and rear. Aftermarket support is also fairly good for these models.
Jeep designers had matured their unibody design methods, and the ZJ was available with the reliable Jeep 4.0L I-6, or 5.2L (or 5.9L in special edition ‘98s) Magnum V-8 engines. Transmissions included the Aisin AX-15 five-speed manual, the Aisin AW-4 automatic, and several Chrysler version four-speed autos. Coil springs are used on all four corners with the linked suspension. Rear axles were an AMC Model 35 or a stronger Dana 44, and the front axle was a Dana 30. Multiple transfer case selections offered part-time and full-time 4WD options. The transfer case is manually shifted and has a 2.72:1 low range gear. The wheelbase on the Grand Cherokee sits at 105.9 inches, making it a good overall length for maneuverability and stability.
2009-to-2012 Ford SVT Raptor
In 2009, Ford Motor Company made a bold move and dropped the SVT Raptor onto the showroom floor. The 4WD specialty model was targeted to be an off-road truck that you could drive off the dealer lot and onto the dirt for some fairly serious play. Ford raced a modified SVT Raptor in the 2008 Baja 1000 and finished third in the Class 8 division. Then, the Raptor competed in the 2011 Dakar Rally and garnered a 1st place finish in the Open Production Class.
Early models used a 5.4L engine, with a 6.2L engine optional. In 2011, the 5.4L was dropped and all trucks were equipped with the bigger powerplant followed by a six-speed automatic. What makes the truck really stand out from other production trucks are the FOX Racing shocks and the 35-inch BF Goodrich All-Terrains. The FOX internal bypass shocks with external reservoirs offer 11 inches of suspension travel up front and about 12 inches in the rear. Traction aiding differentials are used as well in the rear, and front, in newer models.
With a widened track and aggressive body lines, the Raptor is designed to be more stable and it readily stands apart from a standard F-150 truck. It uses different leaf springs, suspension arms and a beefier rear axle housing. In 2011, Ford added a four-door Super Crew body to the existing Super Cab model. The Raptor has a user selectable Off Road Mode for aggressive driving. In today’s world of insistent ABS and traction control systems, it’s a treat that the Raptor allows the driver to turn off such systems and control the vehicle acceleration and braking to his liking.
While the Raptor may not be a budget buy, we include the Raptor as one of our best buys. It’s one rig that you can buy today, and hit the dirt immediately and have fun. For those that find great comfort in dealer servicing, Ford dealerships can fully service the truck and you get a new vehicle warranty as well.
1995½-to-2004 Toyota 4WD Tacomas & 2WD Prerunner Tacomas
We list the first generation Tacoma not because you can find them particularly cheap, but because they offer so much reliability and bang for your buck. You get a comfortable truck and solid drivetrain, plus lots of aftermarket parts support whether you want to rock crawl or go fast across the dirt.
The 2.4L I4, 2.7L I4 and the 3.4L V-6 are all great engines. It’s not uncommon to see these motors turn 200,000 miles, never having been opened up nor dripping oil. You also can’t go wrong with either the five-speed manual box or the A340E four-speed auto tranny. The chain driven transfer case offers a 2.72:1 low range and TRD models could be optioned with electric locking rear differentials.
The Tacoma uses a coil strut supported IFS system with a power rack-and-pinion steering setup, and both have proven reliable. Aftermarket possibilities include front coilovers, long-travel kits, and parts for conversion to a solid front axle along with low-gear transfer case upgrades.
The 2WD Prerunner (six-lug wheels) uses the same frame and suspension as the 4WD truck, but has no transfer case. The front A-arms and coil strut assemblies are interchangeable; it’s just that the Prerunner has no front differential or axle shafts. You can get a lighter truck for thousands of dollars less with the same ground clearance if 2WD will suit your off-roading needs. With various body styles, wheelbase is 103 to 122 inches.
1993-to-1997 Ford Ranger Pickup
Sadly, the Ford Ranger has seen its demise in the USA and sales are now limited to other countries. This smaller-than-fullsize truck has always been a popular off-road rig, and the Twin Traction Beam (TTB) and I-beam front suspensions make for a pretty good fast-paced setup. In 1998, Ford did away with the beam front ends and swapped to an A-arm front suspension using either coil springs or torsion bars.
The base V-6 engine was a 145hp 3.0L, with the option of a 160hp 4.0L V-6. Transmission choices were a four-speed auto or five-speed manual (the newer 5R55E in 1997 being the better one). The front differential is either a Dana 35 (with a 4.0L V-6) with heavy-duty outer components, or a Dana 28 in a modified Dana 35 housing (with smaller engines). The Ford 8.8 rear axle came with the 4.0L V-6, and smaller engines came with the 7.5-inch ring gear.
The Ranger has good aftermarket support. Suspension kits and fiberglass parts are readily available. Both 2WD and 4WD versions can be built up for dirt play, depending on your intended use. Wheelbase ranged from 108 to 125 inches.