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The Best 4x4s The Four Wheeler Network Staff Has Owned

Posted in News on June 23, 2015
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What is the best 4x4 you’ve owned? For some, that question is a no-brainer, but for others it requires a bit of thought. By “best” we don’t mean the nicest and/or the most expensive but rather the best off-road, the best in regards to reliability, or even the most fun. For some of us, the best could actually be considered a pile of junk.

We polled the Four Wheeler Network staff and their responses were rather surprising. What is the best 4x4 you’ve owned? Tell us what vehicle and why you consider it the best!

Stuart Bourdon
Technical Editor, Four Wheeler Network
I have to define "best 4x4” before I get to deep into answering that question. If by “best,” you mean most fun – well, that would have to be the ’72 Bronco I had in college. Nothing defines the term off-road (other than a classic Jeep) better than a first-gen Ford Bronco. The chicks dug it, too. It wasn’t ultra-modified. As a matter of fact, other than a fire extinguisher and good off-road tires, the thing was pretty much stock. But that rig helped me explore almost every inch of the deserts and mountains in the region I have called home since middle school: Southern California. Unfortunately, right after graduating, I needed money in a bad way, so the Bronco went bye-bye. Selling that rig was the second biggest mistake of my life, and that’s why a couple of years ago I began hunting for another. However, if you know the classic 4x4 market, you also know that first-gen Broncos in any shape other than parts in a basket go for as much as a small home these days. Oh well, I still have the memories.

Ken Brubaker
Senior Editor, Four Wheeler
This is easy. In 1998, I purchased a ’90 Geo Tracker 4x4 for $1,200, and I still have the little thing today. It’s a stripper with a manual trans and no power steering or power brakes. What it does have is utterly staggering reliability. During the first eight years of ownership the little Tracker never let us down. About nine years ago it was rusted to a point where it wasn’t roadworthy, so I attached a SnowSport snowplow and put it to work. It sits in the barn for months at a time but the engine always fires up when duty calls. The only time it gets used is to push snow, so it’s literally run hard and put away wet.

The only money I’ve spent on the little machine in the last 12 years is a $45 scrapyard radiator. The four-cylinder engine has a neat feature: semi-automatic self-changing oil. Lube runs out of several places in the engine at rest so I just replenish the oil. It’s an awesome time saver. I did replace the oil filter in 2001. I launched the Tracker a few years ago while showing off to my boys and the landing ruptured the passenger-side front brake line and caused the radiator grille to fall out. I replaced the brake line at the master cylinder reservoir with a bolt, thus creating a custom three-wheel braking system. Mice moved into the Tracker for a while and every time I turn on the heater fan the eye-watering aroma reminds me of their visit. Oh, and I can’t see out of any of the soft top windows because they’re all yellow and cracked.

On paper, the fuel in the tank of the Tracker is probably worth more than the Tracker, but to me, the Tracker is priceless. No, it’s not for sale.

Matt Emery
Editor, Dirt Sports + Off Road
Honestly, I’ve only owned a couple, but the one that I wish I still had was a ’00 Chevy Blazer 4x4. No, it wasn’t some hardcore crawler, but it was perfect for what I needed it to be, and it got me to the races with my 250 Husky for many years.

I bought it from my dad, who had driven the thing like he had an egg between his foot and the gas pedal. It had about 110,000 miles on it but didn’t look it at all as he had kept it pristine. He had also been religious about scheduled maintenance, so it may have had a few miles on it, but it ran like brand new.

When I got it, the Blazer was completely stock, so for the suspension and running gear I added a 4-inch lift (ReadyLift, if I remember correctly), Bilstein monotube shocks, and 31-inch BFGoodrich A-T tires (the largest I could cram in there) mounted on the stock rims. To give it a little better power and response, I added an Airaid cold air intake and throttle body spacer, an Edge tuner and a MagnaFlow exhaust system. I also added a set of KC HiLites lights to it and then drove the wheels off of it, both off-road and on. By the time it had 180,000 miles on it, I was considering putting in a new engine, but then a lady in a large pickup truck ran a red light. Actually, she was in the left turn lane, but when the light turned green for the lanes that were going straight, she just went too. I was headed toward her and too close to go for the brakes, so I nailed it and gave the wheel a jerk to the right and then back again so as not to hit the signal lights and telephone pole at the corner. I very nearly got around her, but she clipped the back end and spun me around. It was real interesting to suddenly be going backwards at 35 miles per hour, but at least it didn’t flip. However, with a 13-year old truck that had that many miles on it, the insurance company totaled it out.

Verne Simons
Tech Editor, 4-Wheel & Off-Road
I’ve owned many, many 4x4s over the years and while the reliability of a few of the Toyota products I’ve owned (including an ’85 SR5 4Runner and a ’94.5 Tacoma) can’t be denied, probably the most dependable vehicle I ever owned was a ’97 Jeep Cherokee SE four-door. It was a black stripped-down XJ model I bought a few months before I first started working for Jp in 2000. I also have somewhat of a reputation for being hard on tools, cars, cameras -- things in general. I’ve been accused of being able to break a hammer in a rubber room. I can’t in good conscience deny my abilities as a destructive product tester.

Anyways, getting back to that black Cherokee, Jeep apparently got something very right with that vehicle, the 4.0L AW4 transmission, high-pinion Dana 30, and Chrysler 8.25 rear axle. I regularly handed that thing a beating, and it almost never complained. OK, there were a few wear items that needed addressing over the years I spent with it, but remarkably few. Maintenance was light with regular oil changes and the occasional glance at tranny fluid and axle gear oil. Some highlights included frequent 90 mph-plus Los Angeles traffic even with a 6-inch lift and 35s. I also once did a burnout in the truck on the way home from work. You know the kind when you hold the brake pedal and override the rear brakes. Smoky! Once, I accidentally shifted the transmission into reverse for a second while going down the highway. The truck stalled out, I bumped it into Neutral and coasted to the side of the highway where the old reliable XJ fired right up without as much as a hiccup. I also beat the thing off-road. We’re talking airtime, rock trails, mud, etc. On one trail in Arizona on a pretty hot day, a small pinhole started leaking from the upper radiator hose right next to the radiator inlet. I let the truck cool, trimmed a little bit of hose off, slid the hose forward, reinstalled the factory hose clamp (it was probably the original hose), filled the radiator with water and called it good. Years later, I sold that XJ with a few upgrades, but I'm positive I sold it with the same radiator hose and probably the same coolant/water mixture still in place from that trail in Arizona. You can read a story about the rig HERE (http://www.fourwheeler.com/project-vehicles/86278-next-level-cherokee-part-1/)

Christian Hazel
Editor, Four Wheeler
What is the best 4x4 I’ve ever owned? I guess I could use the Clintonian answer of, “that depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.” The first vehicle that comes to mind was my beloved 1985 Ramcharger, but in reality, the body already had rot holes in it when I bought it in 1991 and it wasn’t perfect until I fixed a ton of stuff with it. I also absolutely love my dirt-simple 1989 Jeep Wrangler (Google: “Project Why-J”) but the factory four-banger is so tired by now I really can’t take it on long drives, so its use is kind of limited to around town or places I can flat-tow or trailer it to. I guess looking back the two that I enjoyed most were a tie between my 1997 Jeep Wrangler (Project Steal-J) and my 1971 Jeep CJ-6 (Project Hatari!).

I bought the TJ with a roached interior and a blown-up Dana 35 rear axle for a song. It was a Sport model that was up-optioned with all the Sahara trinkets, including the 4.0L engine, three-speed auto transmission, A/C and everything else. It had a torn soft top on it when I got it. I installed Mastercraft reclining buckets, a new carpet kit, and a Bestop two-piece hard top. The suspension was a ProComp 2-inch spring lift with a 1-inch Currie body lift to clear the 32-inch 265/75R16 BFG A-Ts on factory TJ Rubicon wheels. The factory control arms were replaced with JKS arms, the steering linkage was heavy-duty Currie CurrectLync, and I ditched the three-speed TF999 auto for a TH700R4 when the factory tranny started shifting funny. Finally, I nabbed a set of Dana 44 crate axles with 4.56 gears and ARBs front and rear. That Jeep was my daily driver on my insano 250-mile round-trip commute to the office, and I didn’t hesitate to hop in it for any long-range wheeling destination.

My other favorite was a basket-case 1971 CJ-6 I nabbed for $800 that had a bad T14/Spicer 18 combo and no engine. I yanked a working Buick 225/T14/Spicer 18 drivetrain from a ’70 CJ-5 chassis, rewired the vehicle, fixed the brakes, converted the Ross cam & lever system to Saginaw-style power steering, and fabbed in some Bestop low-back buckets. Eventually I swapped the T14 for an NV3550 five-speed and added a Performance Distributors DUI distributor and Premier Power welder under the hood. That rig, with no heater or wipers or top, was my daily driver for over a year right up until I bought the 1997 TJ. I drove it up to and over the Rubicon, TDS Desert Safari, and on lots of other local wheeling adventures. It got 17-18 mpg and almost never gave me any troubles.

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