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Nuts & Bolts: Budget Wheeler

Posted in How To: Tech Qa on February 28, 2017 Comment (0)
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Budget Wheeler

I need some advice on finding a budget-friendly family vehicle for off-roading. It has been about 10 years since I was actively involved in recreational off-roading, and in the meantime I have had three kids (all under 8). So more space is needed with less available budget! I’m looking for a vehicle that can serve my immediate off-road exploration needs and also be a platform for a more challenging build in the future. What would you recommend?

I’ve thought about 1980s Chevy K5s, 1970s Scouts, 1990s XJs, and 1980s 4Runners. I have a $7,500 budget. The vehicle needs to seat my family of five. I have do-it-yourself skills but am not a fabricator. Ideally I want a solid front axle, a winch, 35s, enough reliability to be a backup daily driver, and something with a reasonable chance of passing California emissions. Any guidance or suggestions you can provide would be appreciated.

Brian S.
Via nuts@4wor.com

Welcome back to the off-road world! With your budget and requirements, we think you have several options. All of the vehicles you mentioned are viable candidates, though 1985 solid-axle 4Runners are rare and highly sought after, so it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll find one at your price point.

You didn’t mention fuel injection as a requirement, but we’d probably add that to the list since you have plans for moderate off-road use and you have to deal with California emissions. Though there is absolutely nothing wrong with a carbureted truck, they are more finicky on- and off-road, and getting a post-1974 truck to pass all of the California emissions requirements can be downright daunting unless you know a lot about carburetor tuning. Should you decide to add EFI to the list, that rules out pre-1987 Blazers and Suburbans, Scouts, and fullsize Jeep Cherokees and Wagoneers. There are plenty of aftermarket fuel-injection systems for these vehicles, but few of them are smog-legal in California.

This narrows the field to 1987-1991 Blazers and XJ Cherokees. Both of these are excellent candidates, and it’s fairly easy to find good examples of them well under your budget (though square-body Chevys in general seems to be going up in price lately). We might also add Suburbans to the list since they offer plenty of room for gear and kids, though they are a bit large for tight trail work. Both of these platforms have a tremendous amount of aftermarket support, so the sky’s the limit in terms of available off-the-shelf modifications.

You should be able to find a 1987-1991 Blazer in reasonable shape but with a fair number of miles on it for around $5,000, but it might take a little time to find the right deal. Still, this leaves plenty of room for upgrades. Fitting 35s on a square-body Chevy is easy with a 4-inch lift, or even just a 2-inch lift with a little fender trimming. We would recommend doing front and rear leaf springs rather than rear lift blocks, and you will need some form of mild steering correction with a 4-inch lift, whether it’s a steering arm, a pitman arm, or a steering block (we’d recommend a steering arm). Though the engine, transmission, and transfer case are all solid, the 10-bolt axles are pretty marginal. They should be OK with open differentials and a light foot, but we wouldn’t spend any money upgrading either one. The 14-bolt rear axles are cheap, plentiful, and bulletproof, and can be swapped under either a Blazer or Suburban very easily. For the front, we would recommend finding an eight-lug Dana 44 from an earlier 3/4-ton truck, which will literally bolt in place of the 10-bolt. This will net you 30-spline inner axleshafts, a heavier-duty housing, and a greater number of gear and differential choices than the GM 10-bolt. Throw a locker in the rear and a limited-slip in the front and you’ll be able to tackle the Rubicon (which is in your backyard) and more without issue. You’ll probably end up spending more than your budget to make all of this happen, but you can start with a lift and tires then work your way up as time and money allows.

Fuel-injected 1987-2001 Cherokees are everywhere and they’re cheap. You can buy anything from a running beater for $1,500 to a very nice one for around $5,000. Baby Cherokees are smaller than a Blazer, so interior room will be more of a premium, but their size also makes them better suited to tight, technical trail work. The 1987-1990s have a Renix injection system on the 4.0L inline-six that works just fine, and 1991 was the first year of the High Output 4.0L with MPI injection and a 190hp rating. A number of transmissions and transfer cases were used in Cherokees over the years, but none of them are particularly bad or should be avoided after 1991. The front axle is a Dana 30 (high- or low-pinion depending on the year) that is stronger than it has a right to be. The rear axle will be (in order of preference) a Dana 44, a Chrysler 8 1/4, or a Dana 35. The Dana 44 is the best, but we wouldn’t pass up a nice Cherokee just because it has a Dana 35 since it’s so easy to swap in a different axle. Aside from a factory Dana 44, a Ford 8.8 out of an Explorer is also a cheap and easy upgrade. A wide range of lift kits are available for a Cherokee, from inexpensive basic kits to spendy long-arm systems. Installing 35s is going to be a challenge without a lot of lift or a lot of fender trimming, so if you don’t mind a little compromising, 33s are a better, more realistic fit if you want to avoid body modifications. Thanks mostly to the lower initial vehicle cost, with some elbow grease and savvy buying you could reasonably build a fully equipped Cherokee that meets all of your requirements for very close to your total budget.

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