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Best Buys In Used 4x4s

Posted in Project Vehicles on October 1, 2007
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Options, options, options.Where should you start when looking for the next trail rig? What vintage has the best powerplant? What model has bulletproof running gear? Which make has a proven track record with enthusiasts? What aftermarket parts are available for my rig? These are just a few of the questions we get regularly from readers on the prowl for a new (used) 4x4. So we decided it was time to compile a guide based on these criteria, in hopes of aiding your search for the right pre-owned wheeler. We hope that you find this information helpful, and we welcome any feedback about our choices.

When it comes to wheeling a pickup, compact trucks usually rule the roost because of three basic things: maneuverability, power-to-weight ratio, and purchase price. We like them because they fit well in rough terrain. Favored rigs in this arena typically revolve around a stout drivetrain and fuel-injected engines.

1st Place: '85-'95 Toyota pickup
Price range: $500 to $5,000
The Skinny: Right from the very start, Toyota pickups are rock-solid machines designed to take a beating. We like the fact that they have stout frames, extremely reliable rearends, and a plethora of available aftermarket upgrades. The time-tested 22R-E four-cylinder engine barely impresses anyone in the '85-'88 models, but judging by how many of them frequent the trails today, they do get the job done. In 1988 the introduction of the 3VZE 3.0L V-6 motor and R150 transmission helped these pickups earn further trail credibility.

The Hot Setup: If we had to pick one model to build, it would be the rare '85 (pre-IFS) Xtracab with the optional fuel-injected 22R-E engine. With a solid front axle and EFI, you have a great foundation. Add a dual transfer case, a lift kit, some 33s, a locker or two, and a cage; now you're rockcrawling.

Runner-up: '93-'97 Ford Ranger
Price range: $2,500 to $5,000
The Skinny: Among the go-fast crowd, the Ford Ranger is the truck to have because of its free-moving Twin Traction Beam (TTB) front suspension. The '97 model year was the last year Ford offered this arrangement. The powerplant to look for is the 4.0L OHV V-6 with 160 hp and 225 lb-ft of torque. Other benefits of this platform are a Dana 35 front differential with Dana 44-style outers and a 28-spline Ford 8.8-inch axle out back, typically with 3.73:1 gearing. Unfortunately, there is a weak point worth mentioning on this vintage Ranger; both the automatic and manual transmissions are marginal at best, until rebuilt.

The Hot Setup: Our recommendation for a used Ranger is undoubtedly a '97 SuperCab with the five-speed manual transmission. Drop in a new clutch, install some suspension, maybe add a new set of wheels and tires, and you got an awesome little 'wheeler.

It just wouldn't be America without fullsize four-wheel-drive pickups. Everybody in our country depends on them one way or another. They're typically king of the mud bog, stallions in the desert, and required equipment for the job site.

1st Place: '91-'98 Chevy K-3500 pickup
Price range: $1,500 to $5,000
The Skinny: For the money, you can't beat a 1-ton Chevrolet K-series built between 1991 and 1998. They were available with a 5.7L small-block or a 7.4L fuel-injected big-block V-8, a 14-bolt rear axle, and a Dana 60 frontend.

The Hot Setup: In particular we'd suggest looking for a '91 as it would likely be the least expensive of the group while still possessing all the assets necessary for serious wheeling. Look for one with the four-speed manual transmission, otherwise the four-speed 4L80-E automatic will probably require a rebuild to run reliably in the dirt. Stay away from Midwest rustbuckets. Instead, search the Internet for trucks originating from the desert Southwest. It's worth a road trip to get one that is rust-free.

Runner-up: '94-'02 Dodge Ram 2500/3500 diesel
Price range: $2,500 to $12,000
The Skinny: Much of what we look for in a used pickup comes down to power gains per dollar spent in the aftermarket. In the case of Dodge Rams equipped with the 12-valve-or better yet, the 24-valve-Cummins turbodiesel I-6 engine, you won't find a better motor to hop up. On the '94-'98 12-valves, you can perform a simple $200 fueling-plate modification that will net upwards of 100 hp and 200-plus lb-ft of torque. The wimpy A618 and 47RE automatic transmissions will likely grenade quickly if left unmodified, but nowadays there are tons of upgrades to take care of them. Similar power gains can be found on the '99-'02 24-valve Cummins trucks. Despite troublesome electronic fueling issues, these beasts can be quite impressive by simply adding a "fueling box," though exhaust gas temperature must be monitored. These pickups came with Dana 60, 70, and 80 axles, and some even had the coveted NV4500 manual transmission.

The Hot Setup: '02 is arguably the best year in the second-generation Cummins Ram family because it came with rear disc brakes and the Cummins cylinder head had hardened valve seats. We suggest the five-speed manual, extended-cab shortbed. The "Camper Special" or "Off Road Group" includes features that we feel are worth having if you can find them.

This segment is probably the most bang for your buck when it comes to purchasing a used 4x4. Compact SUVs are typically inexpensive because they are lighter and therefore have less beefy components requiring fewer raw materials to manufacture in the first place. We like them because as dedicated trail rigs, they are towable, cheap to maintain, and super-easy to modify. We're always impressed with how well lightweight rigs do on the trail. They always seem to make impassable lines look easy.

1st Place: '85-'95 Suzuki Samurai
Price range: $200 to $1,600
The Skinny: In the world of four-wheeling, Samurais are often the butt of many jokes: "How many squirrels do you have under the hood?" It's a question we frequently overhear while watching a little Suzuki on the trail. All jokes aside, these microsized quasi-Jeeps really hold their own despite the absence of big power and flexy suspensions. We like them because they're small and simple. The Samurai had a 1.3L, 63hp four-cylinder engine and was available as a convertible or a hardtop. In '88 1/2, the Samurai was improved with a softer riding suspension, a larger antisway bar to help reduce body roll, and a lower Fifth gear, which increased engine rpm and power at highway speeds. Further improvements came in the form of interior upgrades.

The Hot Setup: The trick arrangement for any Sammy is to swap in a fuel-injected 1.6L Geo Tracker ('89-'98) motor and drivetrain. We've seen Toyota pickup axles used under these rigs with great success. However, most owners leave the drivetrain stock and simply modify the rest of the rig to work better for extreme trail use. Lots of surprises exist in the aftermarket for Samurai owners.

Runner-up: '97-'06 Jeep Wrangler TJ
Price range: $2,500 to $12,500
The Skinny: Jeep TJs have earned more respect in the last 10 years than any new 4x4 we've witnessed. Ever since the release of the new JK, TJ sales have plummeted, resulting in a surplus of clean, buildable Wranglers perfect for aftermarket perfectionists.

There really is no limit to what you can do when it comes to modifying a TJ. The better of the two motor options is the multipoint-injected 4.0L I-6, which did a decent job of moving the lightweight Wrangler chassis around in stock form. Once bigger tires are added to the equation, more power is definitely needed. We like that they have fully boxed frames, simple coil suspensions, and are an incredibly nimble drive around town. Other noteworthy items include the factory-installed creature comforts like GPS, lockable storage compartments, and a kicking stereo system with available subwoofer.

The Hot Setup: The cat's meow in our opinion is the '06 Rubicon for obvious reasons. However, for this story-and for those of you looking for a good deal in the $2,500 to $12,500 range-the '02-'04 Wrangler is probably your best bet. Many of them exist and some even have a few of the desirable building blocks already in place for a very capable trail machine. These might include a dealer-installed suspension lift, genuine Jeep accessories such as a Warn winch, and bash-resistant bumpers front and rear. The hardtop is a good asset to have if you can find one, but most of all, consider the total mileage when searching for a TJ. Under 100,000 miles, they are strong runners and quite reliable. Upwards of 100,000 miles, you may want to think about big-ticket items such as engine, transmission, and transfer-case rebuilds.

Modern suburbia combined with higher gas prices has caused the midsize SUV segment to go nuts in recent years. This is great for the used-truck buyer because there are lots of them to choose from and the aftermarket is well established. Sizewise, these vehicles are great as daily drivers, yet the cost of ownership typically will not prevent the average Joe from owning one as a dedicated trail machine.

1st Place: '84-'96 Jeep Cherokee
Price range: $500 to $5,000
The Skinny: It might be appropriate to say the Jeep XJ is the VW Beetle of the modern SUV world. Literally millions of these unibody rigs were produced in a whole assortment of configurations: Two-door, four-door, I-4, I-6, V-6, gas, diesel, two- and four-wheel drive. These vehicles were Chrysler's catch-all solution for everything from family hauler to rural-route delivery truck. Now they're sought after because of a lightweight (3,057-pound) design combined with easy-to-find parts. Jeep Speed recognizes them as the average working-man's desert racer, while even the strictest of Jeep purists will admit to having a soft spot for yesterday's grocery getter. Built in Toledo, Ohio, these rigs have served as workhorses in every sector of government, including the U.S. Postal Service and the armed forces. If you want a ton of options, the Cherokee will deliver.

The Hot Setup: Look for a '93-'95 model with the 190hp H.O. 4.0L engine. These years featured improvements to the electrical wiring harness as well as upgrades in fuel delivery, body stiffness, and instrumentation. The cooling system features a cap-on radiator design, and the I-6 of this era remained relatively simple in terms of emissions equipment. You can do almost anything with a used XJ; rocks, sand, mud, and snow are always easier in a lightweight rig.

Runner-up: '85-'89 Toyota 4Runner
Price range: $500 to $3,000
The Skinny: Where the mid-'80s Cherokee fell short, the Toyota 4Runner picked up. We loved the fact that these came with a removable rear fiberglass hardtop. Better yet, they're basically a Toyota pickup hiding underneath an SUV costume. Options abound, and these little trucks can be tricked out with everything from solid-axle swaps to V-8 conversions. Consider a 4Runner if you have kids or like the idea of lockable storage. Private party prices are quite high compared to other SUVs of the era, but that's not a big surprise considering how well they age. We suspect 4Runners are at the top of many high-schoolers' wish lists.

The Hot Setup: Keep in mind that just about anything that can be done to a Toyota pickup will apply to the 4Runner. As such, we'd look for a rare '85 with a solid front axle and fuel injection. Otherwise, a solid-axle swap is a good idea for serious trail work. If desert prerunning is your thing, look into long-travel IFS suspension such as the Caddy Kit from Total Chaos Fabrication (951/737-9682).

The fullsized SUV segment is perhaps the most difficult area to define the best buy in used 4x4s. Largely because of their impressive production numbers in the early '80s and '90s, these vehicles are both readily available and surprisingly inexpensive for what you get. They usually had V-8 power and enough space to take along the family. We like that they often came with similar architecture to the fullsize pickups of the era, making it a breeze to swap in beefy axles and drivetrain components.

1st Place: '73-'91 Chevrolet K-5 Blazer
Price range: $250 to $5,500
The Skinny: We love K-5 Blazers because they came as full convertibles through 1975. The fiberglass hardtops tended to crack because of body flex, but that shouldn't be a deal-breaker. The pre-'80 versions had Dana 44 front axles and a 12-bolt rear, and after 1980 most K-5s got an overdrive transmission and 10-bolt axles front and rear, although we've seen a few variances from this.

The Hot Setup: If you can find one, the '91 is probably the best K-5 to own. It came with a fuel-injected 350 V-8 and improved driver visibility, thanks to a slanted front clip. Swap in a set of 60s, maybe a doubler 203/205 transfer case, and you'll have a very potent package for the dirt.

Runner-up: '80-'96 Ford Bronco
Price range: $500 to $5,000
The Skinny: When it comes to building a do-all trail rig, many will argue that Ford's fullsize Bronco is the cat's meow. We like them because they're big enough to haul plenty of gear, yet nimble enough to park at the local shopping mall. (It's also worth mentioning that past editors of Four Wheeler crowned the '80 variant Four Wheeler of the Year.) Two nice things about these particular rigs are that they're abundant and inexpensive. Plus, a plethora of options exist in the aftermarket for them. The most sought-after versions are likely the '90-'96 models because they came with the E4OD overdrive transmission; however, the earlier '80-'84 variants and even some '85s were equipped with the much-favored Ford 9-inch rear axle.

Some things to keep in mind when looking for a used Bronco are: (1) Stay away from the '80 model if you plan to install a suspension lift. Unfortunately, the '80 frame has several holes in it from the factory that make installing some lift kits extremely difficult; (2) Stay away from '87 trucks because they use a unique 1-piece front-wheel hub assembly that can be costly to replace. (3) Avoid the AOD transmission found behind early EFI 5.0L V-8s. Also, '85 was the first year for EFI on the Bronco.

The Hot Setup: Get a '95 or '96 truck with the 351 Windsor V-8 and swap in the earlier 9-inch rear axle. To do this you will need a vehicle-speed-sensor relocation kit (available from California Pre Fun, 909/845-8820). Add a flexy suspension, maybe a bumper and winch, and you'll be out enjoying the trail in no time.

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