Have you seen those “eat this, not that” books that tell you to skip the guacamole on your burrito or bacon and cheese on your burger? The premise is that you can still eat something tasty without all of the fat and calories. The same principle can be applied to 4x4s, except that instead of calories we are trying to save you cash while still having something tasty to drive. Some 4x4s cost far more than others, but the price is often a reflection of styling or scarcity rather than capability on the trail. Here are just a few ideas for how to have fun on the trail without breaking the bank.
Ford Bronco II, Not Ford Early Bronco
Early Broncos have been expensive for a while, particularly on examples that have uncut rear fenders. They are great vehicles, with coil front suspension, V-8 engines, and strong axles. You could find these same components in a similar year F-150 though for a tenth of the price. Or build a Bronco II. They are dirt cheap and have decent aftermarket support, and parts from common Ford Explorers are a bolt-in upgrade for the little B2.
Chevy S10, Not Toyota Pickup
Toyota pickups have a reputation for being strong and reliable, and up until recently they were a low-priced alternative to a Land Cruiser. You used to be able to find a 1979-1983 pickup for $1,000, leaving plenty of money in the budget to address the weak Birfields and replace the factory push-pull steering. Lately the prices for Toyota pickups have more than tripled, eliminating part of the reason they were so desirable to start with. And if you already have to do a solid axle swap on an 1986-and-later Toyota, why not start with a Chevy S-10? They come with 4.3L V-6 engines, 700R4 overdrive transmissions, and NP231 transfer cases. All you need to do is upgrade the suspension and the axles, the same thing you would have to do with a Toyota pickup.
Jeep Jeepster Commando, Not Jeep Scrambler CJ8
When they were new, Scramblers were not a hot seller, making them relatively rare. These days people want the added wheelbase of the Scrambler for more storage space and stability when climbing obstacles. A less expensive alternative is the Jeepster, which features a similar wheelbase and open top, just like the Scrambler. While 1966-1971 Jeepsters are gaining popularity, the 1972-1973 Commandos with the Scout-like grille are shunned by Jeep purists and can be found for cheap. They were available with great components like 304 V-8 engines, TH400 transmissions, and Dana 20 transfer cases.
Land Rover Discovery, Not Land Rover Defender
The Defender is an iconic vehicle that conjures up images of African safaris and Swiss bank accounts. These days you will need a Swiss account to purchase a Defender 90, as they cost as much now as they did when they were new. The long-wheelbase Defender 110s are even more expensive, with prices well into six figures. At the other end of the spectrum, you can pick up Discoveries all day long for under $10,000. And they use the same Buick-derived engine and solid axles (with tiny axleshafts) that were found in the Defender. The only difference is if you buy a Discovery you will have money left over to upgrade it.
International Scout, Not Toyota Land Cruiser FJ40
The prices on FJ40s have gone through the roof in recent years, making us timid about taking one out on the trail to dent and scratch. It is easy to see why they are popular. Land Cruisers are simple and have strong drivetrains and good dimensions for most trails. International Scouts share similar dimensions and have not seen the huge price increase associated with Land Cruisers. Scouts can be found with V-8 engines, Dana 300 transfer cases, and Dana 44 axles, making them a great platform for a wheeling rig.
Toyota Land Cruiser FZJ80, Not Mercedes Gelandewagen
The G-Class Mercedes is a more common sight on Wall Street than the Rubicon. Don’t let that fool you into thinking that they are not capable though. G Wagons come with a 563hp supercharged V-8 engine (AMG models) and solid axles with selectable locking differentials. Twenty years ago Toyota offered similar capabilities in the 80 Series Land Cruiser. Admittedly the horsepower is quite a bit less, but so is the price tag. FZJ80s have a thriving aftermarket too, with plenty of suspension and armor options.
Suzuki Sidekick, Not Suzuki Samurai
In the past the Samurai had a reputation for being a small, inexpensive alternative to a Jeep. Nowadays a clean Samurai can cost more than it sold for when it was new! Blame nostalgia, because a newer Suzuki that features fuel injection, a larger engine, and power steering can be purchased for less than a Samurai. You lose the solid front and simplicity of leaf springs, but you can still do a solid axle swap on a Sidekick for less than the price of a Samurai.
Toyota 4Runner, Not Toyota Tacoma
This one has always puzzled us. For some reason Toyota’s 4Runner can be purchased for thousands less than a comparable Tacoma Double Cab model. The two use the same front suspension, but the 4Runner uses rear coil springs instead of leaves and has a fully boxed frame. You could also get a 4Runner with a V-8 from 2002 to 2009, something that was never offered in a Tacoma. If you are planning on getting a Double Cab Tacoma and putting a camper shell on it, save your money and buy a 4Runner instead.
Ford F150, Not Ford Raptor
We applaud Ford for building the Raptor and wish other manufacturers would follow suit. The bold styling, premium shocks, and 35-inch tall tires make the Raptor capable right off the showroom floor. Another testament to the Raptor’s popularity is the strong resale value, which puts even used models out of reach for many buyers. But if you start with a normal F-150 and add aftermarket suspension components you can get performance comparable to a Raptor for a fraction of the price. We would start with a twin-turbo EcoBoost model because it is lighter than the 6.2L V-8 and has the potential to make more power with simple tuning.
Jeep Cherokee XJ, Not Jeep Wrangler JK
Four-door JKs are the hottest 4x4 on the market, and it is easy to see why. They have solid axles, coil suspension, removable tops, and huge wheelwells to accommodate big tires. JKs also benefit from unrivaled aftermarket support; if you can dream it up, someone probably makes it for a JK. But they aren’t cheap, and that is before you start adding aftermarket axle assemblies and long-arm suspension. If you need four doors, consider a Jeep Cherokee or Grand Cherokee instead. Sure, they don’t have a frame and the top doesn’t come off, but considering that they cost just a fraction as much as a JK it won’t hurt as much when you put a dent in your Cherokee, and some Grands came with a V-8.
What About Aftermarket Support?
One factor to consider when purchasing a project is how much aftermarket support is available for it. A stock Dihatsu Rocky is just as capable as a Suzuki Sidekick, but when you start modifying the Rocky you are going to find yourself very lonely. Unless you are an expert fabricator and plan to swap out much of the drivetrain for more common parts, stick to a vehicle that has strong aftermarket support when buying your next project. Fortunately there are still plenty of inexpensive 4x4s that benefit from aftermarket support for the drivetrain, suspension, and bumpers.