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Five Go-Fast Vehicles For under $15,000 - Affordable Fun

Posted in Features on July 14, 2014
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Like most of you, we spend untold amounts of time drooling over Trophy Trucks and high-end prerunners. We lust after the huge amounts of wheel travel and plethora of horsepower. If it was up to us, and we could obtain a fuel sponsor, we would use a Trophy Truck or insanely built prerunner as our daily driver. Other cars would simply serve as whoops as we blasted down the freeway on our way to work.

However, reality quickly—and rather sadly—sets in and breaks us from our fuzzy dreamland. It’s not just the strong possibility of winding up in jail after using other cars as obstacles, there is the real world problem of our bank accounts. Like many of you, we don’t exactly have funds that we would describe as stellar. We have no need to hide our abundant wealth in offshore accounts, as unfortunately, there is none.

But, we can still have fun. Options are out there for those born sans silver spoon in mouth. True, a proper prerunner or a play car is not exactly a cheap affair. However, one can be had for a more realistic number than the steep seven-figure price tags of the higher echelon. In fact, we set our purchase budget at a more realistic $15,000 and went out to see what we could find. Remember, this is the budget for buying a vehicle. What you spend on building it is obviously up to you. Don’t be afraid to break the news to your children: They won’t be continuing their higher education on your dime, as you just blew their college fund on building an awesome prerunner. We guarantee bombing through the desert will be more fun than any graduation ceremony. Let’s take a look at some of our top picks for less than $15,000.

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Toyota Tacoma and Tundra
Right up front, we will admit we are Toyota fans. With only a few exceptions, most Toyota platforms have proven to be extremely rugged and reliable. The latest version of the Toyota Tundra is a big and extremely powerful (when equipped with the 5.7-liter V-8) truck with a stout frame and great brakes. Toyota built it as a step-up from the previous generation Tundra and it definitely stands up to the claim. The same can be said for the latest generation Toyota Tacoma, which is bigger and more powerful than the previous generation. When you have a $15,000 price limit, though, you can’t opt for the latest generation big and shiny Toyota trucks. However, that is perfectly okay. Toyotas throughout the years have been great at maintaining their reliable and rugged nature, only losing some of the refinement and horsepower of the latest versions.

To fit within our budget, look at the first generation (1999 to 2006) Toyota Tundra. Although not as big as a modern fullsize truck, the baby Toyota Tundra’s size makes it nimble and able to bomb down many desert trails without having to worry about pinstriping the paint. It is not as powerful as a fullsize truck, either, but its 4.7-liter V-8 is more than adequate. For a smaller option, check out first generation Toyota Tacomas (1995 to 2004). Both can be had as standard, extended, or double cabs with four full doors. With a wide spread of years, finding one of theseToyotas for under $15,000 should be possible.

What to Look For:
Toyota Tundras have proven reliable and the only major complaint is the tendency of early ones to eat front brakes. However, this is an easy fix with aftermarket pads or rotors. (See our brake guide on page 32 for plenty of options.) The addition of the Double Cab to the lineup in 2003 was the only major change for the first-gen Toyota Tundras. In 2005, an updated version of the 4.7-liter V-8 offered 271 horsepower and 313 lb-ft of torque, compared to the 245 horsepower and 315 lb-ft of torque of the earlier version.

The Toyota Tacoma was also largely unchanged during the first generation. The only major addition was the introduction of the Double Cab model with four full doors in 2003. Power was provided by a 2.4- and 2.7-liter four-cylinder or a 3.4-liter V-6, which obviously provided the most power. Like its bigger brother, the Tacoma has proven reliable. However, some head gasket failures have been reported with the 3.4-liter V-6. In addition, rust can be an issue, but mostly on vehicles driven in the northeast and on salted roads.

How to Build It:
The great news about the Toyota Tacoma and Toyota Tundra is they have a strong following among the aftermarket, resulting in a ton of options. Another big plus, the drivetrains are fairly stout. As long as you avoid seriously beating on the Toyota Tundra and Toyota Tacoma, for the most part, you only need a better air filter and shouldn’t have to swap parts for stouter ones.

When it comes to suspension, you have a host of options, too, running from mild to wild. Most companies make coilovers for Toyota Tacomas and Tundras. With the simple addition of an upper control arm and coilover, they can become capable vehicles. To push the envelope further in performance and price, add long-travel options from companies like Camburg Engineering, Chaos Fabrication, and Solo Motorsports. These modifications usually produce 12 to 14 inches of wheel travel, adding plenty of rough-terrain ability. Above that, Camburg’s full race front suspension system for the Tundra offers 20 inches of wheel travel.

The Baja Bug
Usually, stating Hitler once had a good idea would probably cause you to lose your job. In the case of the Volkswagen Beetle, though, it is absolutely true. The original concept came from der Fuhrer in 1934, when he expressed a desire for a cheap, simple car that could be mass-produced and populate the new German Autobahn road system. He contracted Ferdinand Porsche as project leader, and the team took until 1938 to develop a final design. Even with the interruption of World War II, the Beetle was a recipe for success. It became the most manufactured car of a single design platform worldwide.

A variant of the Beetle, the Kubelwagen Type 82, first ventured off-road during the Afrika Korps campaign in Africa. The troops discovered its light weight and suspension made it adept at cruising the soft desert terrain. As an added bonus, its air-cooled engine was much better at maintaining its temperature in the hot climate, compared to the Korps’ larger truck-based transports. It quickly became one of the preferred transportation modes, other than a Panzer tank.

In the 1960s, the Beetle ventured off-road in the United States. The Baja Bug was born, partly in response to more expensive Volkswagen-based fiberglass dune buggy conversions. Instead of swapping a complete fiberglass body onto the Volkswagen pan, the fenders were removed or modified to allow bigger tires. In 1968, cartoonist Dave Deal drove one of the first Baja Bugs in the 1968 Baja 500. The very next year, Baja Bug kits were offered—the rest, as they say, is history.

What to Look For:
When building a Baja Bug, you can’t just bolt on a long-travel suspension kit and call it a day. Rather, those starting from scratch are going to require a fair amount of mechanical skill and know how. For the most part, Baja Bug builds start with a usable body and you add or modify pretty much everything on it. This can seem daunting, but they are extremely simple to work on and parts are fairly cheap, making them great project cars. A usable shell can be purchased for a modest amount. Unlike the other vehicles on this list, a complete and capable Baja Bug can be built for under $15,000.

If you are building a Baja Bug that is closer to stock, a 1969 or later VW is good place to start. These are generally not considered collectible and are much cheaper, and parts are more plentiful. Most importantly, these models incorporate an IRS rear instead of a swing axle, which makes them easier to modify. The only drawback is ball joint frontends that are not easily modifiable to increase the wheel travel, but that’s simple to remedy. If you want something more radical, none of this really matters.

How to Build It:
If it were our money, we actually wouldn’t build a Baja Bug. Say what? Rather than start from scratch, we would buy a used already built Baja Bug. Currently, $15,000 can set you up with Baja Bug installed with lots of quality parts. If you go this route, learn everything you can about Baja Bugs and which parts make up a quality build.

The Ford Bronco
Utter the name Ford Bronco. This will more than likely bring up either memories of Al Cowlings piloting O.J. Simpson’s Ford Bronco in the most bizarre low-speed chase ever or Parnelli Jones and the famous Big Oly. We greatly prefer the latter, but you must choose a solid foundation to build a vehicle capable of exploring any terrain. That means, the fullsize Ford Bronco built from 1980 to 1996, such as the one AC piloted.

There is a lot to like about the big Bronco. First, it employs Ford’s Twin Traction Beam (TTB) front suspension. It’s not the most effective in terms of handling and providing a stellar camber curve, but a TTB front is extremely stout and can take a serious off-road beating. On top of this, it can provide the awesome combination of a good amount of wheel travel and four-wheel drive. With this, you don’t have to fear getting stuck and can still tackle tough terrain at a good speed.

The other nice plus of the 1980 to 1996 Broncos is they provide a lot of secure and lockable interior space when compared to most trucks. For anyone doing multiple-day excursions deep into the heart of the wilds of Baja or the like, this is an extremely nice feature. Instead of having to take everything out of the pickup’s bed and securing it, one can simply lock the doors and be done with it. Of course, the shorter wheelbase of the Bronco means slower speeds, but we will gladly sacrifice that for the pluses of four-wheel drive and security.

What to Look For:
The Ford Bronco was essentially the same from 1980 to 1996 with a few exceptions. Thankfully, Ford kept the TTB front suspension throughout. Most of the changes occurred in the drivetrain and updated front clips and interior treatments. Unfortunately, the big Bronco was discontinued after the 1996 model year and replaced with the mall-exploring Expedition.

During the early 1980s, Ford Broncos were blessed with the venerable C6 transmission and the Ford 9-inch rear axle but were extremely choked by emissions equipment. In 1984, the “high-output” version of the 351W V-8 made a shameful 210 horsepower and the regular version produced an even more pathetic 156 horsepower. Things have gradually improved with the introduction of fuel injection in 1985 on the 302 V-8. By 1988, all Broncos were fuel injected and the C6 three-speed was phased out in favor of the AOD and E4OD four-speed automatic transmissions. The 9-inch rear axle also disappeared in 1986 and was replaced with the less-stout Ford 8.8 rear. Later-year Broncos have less desirable components, but they also have fuel injection and more horsepower, which makes them preferable to earlier counterparts.

How to Build It:
More than likely, you can leave the engine alone on 1990s Broncos. For serious use, we would upgrade the 8.8-inch reared to a Currie F9 or similar. Also, heavily build the E4OD with as many heavy-duty internals as you can stuff it with or swap it for a C6. A stout cage is highly recommended for any vehicle used at speed off-road.

For optimum results, use a coilover and fabricated shock tower to get travel out of the front. A cut and turned TTB beam or even an extended version is also a necessary. Companies like Autofab, Camburg Engineering, and Solo Motorsports all offer cut and turned or extended versions of the factory beam. If you would like a decent amount of wheel travel (over 12 inches), you’ll need a custom equal length steering system, unless you enjoy lots of bump steer. A solid option for the rear is Giant Motorsports 64-inch long spring under system.

The Ford Ranger
One vehicle could be the modern-day version of the Baja Bug—the Ford Ranger. Okay, it doesn’t come close to the cool factor of a Baja Bug, but it is cheap and fairly reliable if built the right way. Like the Baja Bug, it is infinitely modifiable with a whole host of upgrades and parts available, ranging from mild to wild.

One consideration, a Ford Ranger is definitely a compact pickup. Other trucks in the class, such as the Toyota Tacoma, morphed into more mid-size platforms, but the Ranger always remained a compact pickup. It was never offered with four full doors like its competition and only came in regular and extended cab versions. For some, its size is a plus. If you are seeking a truck with more room and power, we suggest a tenth generation Ford F-150 (1997 to 2003).

What to Look For:
In North America, the Ford Ranger was produced from 1983 to 2012, when production was stopped. However, it is still sold overseas, where you can even find a cool four-door version. Like the Ford Bronco, the Ranger had no radical changes in its nearly 20-year run, but some important developments went beyond freshening its looks.

When introduced in 1983, the Ranger was a very basic pickup with either a pokey 2.0-liter four-cylinder that made 72 horsepower or a 2.3-liter four-cylinder that made 10 more horsepower. For drivers thirsting for more power, Ford offered a 2.8-liter V-6 that made a whopping 115 horsepower. Needless to say, none of these engines provides anything resembling brisk acceleration.

Thankfully, those were not the only engines offered. In 1986—the same year the Super-cab was introduced—the 2.8 liter was replaced with a 2.9 liter with a more respectable 140 horsepower. In 1990, the Ford Ranger introduced the 3.0- and 4.0-liter V-6 engines, a big year. Although the 4.0-liter engine’s torque was much improved, it only produced 150 horsepower. It wasn’t until 2001, when the OHV version replaced the pushrod 4.0 liter, that horsepower climbed to 207.

Perhaps the change of most interest to the Dirt Sports Nation is in its suspension. From 1983 to 1997, the Ford Ranger used Twin Traction Beam front suspension for both two- and four-wheel drive models. In 1998, the TTB setup was replaced with dual A-arms.

How to Build It:
For us, there would be two trains of thought in building a Ranger. Of course, both depend upon available budget and skills. In the first scenario, we would take advantage of the rugged nature of the TTB front suspension and buy a cheap Supercab produced from 1986 to 1997. We would then ditch the low-power V-6 and replace it with a V-8 backed by a C4 three-speed automatic and a Ford 9-inch. Add a long-travel system and you have one capable go-fast Ranger.

The second scenario involves less custom fabrication. We would spend more money up front and buy a later-model Ford Ranger with the OHV valve 4.0-liter V-6 (2001 and up). We would leave the drivetrain alone and add a mid-travel or long-travel suspension system front and rear. Luckily, practically every suspension company imaginable makes something for the Ford Ranger, giving you plenty of options.

The Chevy Silverado
Chevy fans might feel overlooked with the abundance of Blue Oval in this list, but that is definitely not the case. The first generation of the Chevy Silverado 1500 (1999 to 2007) is a solid performer and a great platform for a go-fast build. Replacing the C/K pickup line, the Silverado was a complete redesign of Chevy’s iconic truck that featured all-new Vortec engines, a new frame, and a totally new body. Almost nothing was carried over from the previous generation as Chevy was looking to compete with the new Ford F-150 that had been introduced two years earlier.

For the most part, Chevy’s new pickup truck has been spot on since its introduction. Throughout its eight-year life cycle, before another major redesign in 2008, the Silverado has proven fairly reliable and rugged. Even better, since it is a Chevy, it has an almost unlimited number of aftermarket parts to improve on it.

What to Look For:
Its simplicity is part of the beauty of the 1999 to 2007 Chevy Silverados. Besides different frontend sheet metal, nothing much changes in the 1500 model over those years except during its first year, the Silverado was only offered as a regular cab and a three-door extended cab. Beyond that, it was available with the same 4.3-liter V-6 and 4.8- and 5.3-liter V-8s through its entire run. We advise you to skip the smaller engines and opt for the 5.3-liter V-8 that produces 295 horsepower and 335 lb-ft of torque. Before 2004, it produced 285 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque. A more powerful 6.0-liter V-8 with 300 horsepower was available in the 1500HD and SS versions of the 1500, but it was more rare.

The majority of Chevy Silverado 1500s came with the 4L60E or 4L65E four-speed automatic transmission. Both are fairly stout and can easily be upgraded to withstand abuse. Other than engine selection, decide whether you want a standard cab, extended cab, or four full doors and go from there.

How to Build It:
As mentioned previously, one of the huge benefits of the Chevy is the massive amount of aftermarket parts. You can easily boost the horsepower of the 5.3-liter V-8 by tapping into the many horsepower-producing goodies, but we would leave it mostly alone. Slap a good air filtration system on and forget about it. Like any automatic transmission destined for off-road use, the 4L60E or 4L65E benefits from additional cooling and a temperature gauge to ensure it is not cooked. Leave the rest of the drivetrain, but consider adding a custom-made rear axle, such as a Dirt Tech or Currie F9, to handle serious off-road use.

Next, focus on the ton of suspension choices out there. Many companies sell mid-travel options consisting of upper A-arms and coilovers. Those with bigger budgets and greater need for speed can add great long-travel options from the likes of Camburg and Mazulla that offer upward of 18 inches of travel. Both companies have developed upgraded front hubs for those looking to seriously beat on their Bow Ties. Again, you only need to ask yourself how much you want to spend. There are plenty of options for any budget or expertise level.

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