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Our Favorite 4x4s For Under $1,000

Posted in Project Vehicles on September 1, 2010
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Every few years, we take stock and develop a list containing our nominations for the best 4x4s available in the used marketplace. This time around, we decided to tighten our belts a bit and cover only those that can be readily found for under $1,000. We know what you're thinking. What good is a worn-out bucket of rust that carries an asking price of $1,000 or less? The answers may surprise you. In terms of trail potential, many thousand-dollar beaters can out-crawl, out-haul, and out-maneuver a handful of present-day showroom challengers with much bigger price tags. And because perceived value is always dependent on what you use a vehicle for, we tried to include a wide assortment of vehicle types in our selection. Finally, if you don't see your favorite beater on our list, drop us an e-mail ( Agree or disagree, either way we'd love to hear what you have to say.

10th PLACE
Ford F-150 ('73-'91)
If your next wheeling excursion includes any form of camping, you'll probably spend a good deal of time trying to find the space to pack essential items such as coolers, tents, firewood and sleeping bags. But when your truck is equipped with an eight-foot-long cargo box, loading up such accoutrements is a much less daunting task. Nothing beats the function and utility of a pickup truck, and when the price tag is under $1,000, the situation is a win-win. F-150s have enjoyed a solid reputation for dependability and overall toughness, and perhaps that is what makes them attractive as trail machines. Referred to as a "heavy half-tons" by many, the F-150 has enjoyed a longstanding success as the best-selling pickup in America. Equipped with I-6 and V-8 engines ranging in displacement anywhere from 240 to 351 cubic inches, there is a perfect drivetrain combination for everybody. At $1,000 or less, the most likely variant you will find is the one we prefer most: Those offered with the Twin Traction Beam front suspension. Offered between 1980 and '96, the TTB arrangement was a game-changer in a segment comprised entirely of solid front-axle vehicles. We can't tell you that the TTB setup is particularly strong for say, rock crawling, but it holds up well in the wide-open desert environments. If you consider the value of functional TTB to those who prefer it to a solid front axle, it actually adds value to your build strategy. You see, the parts that make up the TTB front suspension, in all their oddity, still command good money from truck builders in the go-fast desert crowd. We've seen complete factory TTB setups sell for more than $500 (used) online, making it that much easier to justify the expense of a 1-ton solid front axle swap for more serious trail work. Out of the box, the F-150 came ready for abuse, with underpinnings that scream "heavy duty" and square body proportions that offer a good balance of function and form.

9th Place
International Scout II ('74-'80)
For some strange reason, International Scouts have always seemed to attract a very specific enthusiast type. The Scout fan typically looks at the world from a little different perspective. We're not sure why, but we think it is due to the scarcity of style within the International brand. Developed as an answer to Jeep's popular CJ platform, the Scout II ushered in the era of the SUV. With go-anywhere utility offered in part by a pair of Dana 44 axles, Scout IIs were the icon of ruggedness to those who looked past the antiquated exterior. The Scout II's appearance was bland, with unusually flat sides and low-hanging rocker panels. Today, Scouts still maintain a love-hate relationship with the four-wheeling mainstream. Options such as a removable soft or hardtop gave the 100-inch wheelbase a Jeep-like passenger experience. Builders favor Scouts because of stout boxed frames and a literal smorgasbord of engine, transmission and transfer case options. If we could have it our way, our Scout II would have the 345 V-8, manual 4-speed transmission and a Dana 300 transfer case. Finding a rust-free Scout II is virtually impossible, though much of the affected areas are easy to repair or replace. In general, Scouts were never well known for corrosion resistance.

8th Place
Ford Bronco II ('84-'88)
The little brother to the classic fullsize Bronco enjoyed significant popularity throughout the mid-80s. The Bronco II was built in Louisville, Kentucky and shared architecture with the Ford Ranger pickup. A 2.8L V-6 engine was carbureted on the '84 and '85 model years, though in '86 the mill was replaced with a fuel-injected 2.9L with an additional 25 horsepower on tap, bringing the grand total to 140. Today, Bronco IIs are not considered particularly good builder rigs. However, virtually any suspension system made for the same vintage Ford Ranger will work under a Bronco II, and a 4.0L swap is common and relatively easy to complete on these rigs. We think of it as a nimble little SUV that can take a beating right out of the box. For $1,000 you get more than what you pay for in terms of trail prowess. The best version to look for is the somewhat-rare 1990 model built after November of that year. Prior to killing production, Ford installed a tougher Dana 35 front axle assembly in place of the Dana 28.

7th Place
Geo Tracker/Suzuki Sidekick ('89-'95)
This Jeep-like SUV made its debut in 1988 as a joint venture between Suzuki and General Motors. A robust chassis features formed framerails integrated into a unitized body structure. A solid rear axle with coil springs and link suspension gave the compact 'ute a pickup-like ride quality. With an overall length of 142 inches and a track width of nearly 65 inches, the Tracker feels stable at highway speeds-unlike Suzuki Samurais. The 1.6L I-4 engine features fuel injection and puts out a whopping 80 horsepower. Despite seeming underpowered on paper, the mill does a decent job at motivating the 2,619-pound vehicle. We like the fact that Trackers come with manual locking hubs and traditional U-joint-style front drive axles. The aftermarket offers a handful of upgrades that can make the Tracker quite capable in the rough. We've seen these lightweight rigs do some pretty amazing things with a confident driver behind the wheel. A $1,000 Geo tracker will likely burn engine oil, leak from around the bellhousing (typically a sign of a faulty rear main seal) and will usually need a new soft top.

6th Place
Ford Ranger ('83-'97)
While we typically do not see the coveted '93-'97 model years for sale at $1,000 or less, the earlier '89-'92 (second) generation is abundant at such a bargain. Of the three engines offered in the Ranger, the one to look for is the 4.0L OHV V-6, making 160 horsepower and 225 lb-ft of torque. Four wheeler-friendly attributes include a Dana 35 front differential with Dana 44-style outers and a 28-spline Ford 8.8-inch axle out back. Typically, these trucks came with 3.73:1 gearing. Unfortunately, the Ranger's transmission is often a weak link, especially in the case of the M5OD manual. Aftermarket support is easy to find, thanks to a plethora of companies that specialize in Ranger-specific lift kits, body parts and drivetrain upgrades. We see built Rangers patrolling all terrain types from desert two-tracks to even the most extreme of jeep trails. We attributed the Ranger's popularity amongst the 4x4 community to its nimble size, and the sheer abundance of well-running trucks still on the road today.

5th Place
Toyota Pickup ('79-'86)
Right from the very start, Toyota pickups are rock-solid machines designed to take a beating. We like the fact that they have stout boxed frames, extremely reliable rear axles, and plenty of available aftermarket upgrades. Prior to '85, these trucks were carbureted and put out 96 horsepower. Then the 22R was upgraded with fuel injection, adding the "E" to the end of the engines nametag. The 22R-E was optional on '85 and up trucks, and pushed output levels to 112 horesepower, and a rare turbocharged version (22R-TE) made 135 horsepower in the '86 model year. In '88 the Toyota pickup got an optional 3VZE 3.0L V-6 that made decent power (150 horsepower). The Toyota aftermarket is literally drenched with options for just about every budget level. All Toyota pickups feature a dropout-style 8.8-inch axle with heavy-duty axleshafts, though the front of all pre-'86 pickups featured a fragile Birfield CV-type axle joint that can easily snap when used with larger-than-stock tires.

4th Place
Chevy M1008 Pickup ('84-'86)
The GM Commercial Utility Cargo Vehicles (CUCVs) were produced for the Military from '84 to '86 and were powered by the 6.2L Detroit Diesel V8. These trucks came in three basic body styles: a pickup, a utility and an ambulance body. These rigs are sought after by 4x4 enthusiasts because of their massive full-floating 1-ton axles, a TH400 automatic transmission, and a NP208 transfer case. Even with steady demand, these vehicles can be purchased through the Government Liquidators website ( for as little as $400, depending on condition and options.

3rd Place
Chevy Blazer M1009 ('83-'87)
The GM-built military M1009 Blazer was used as a troop support vehicle in the early '80s and is still in limited use today. They feature Corporate 10-bolt axles front and rear with 3.08:1 gearing. The rear axles are typically equipped with an Eaton Locker (a.k.a., "Gov-Lock"). While not nearly as rugged as their sibling pickup trucks, these military-spec SUVs are awesome trail machines. A non-turbocharged 6.2L Detroit Diesel sends power to a TH400 automatic and a NP208 transfer case. We like the fact that these Blazers have heavy-duty tow points front and rear.

2nd Place
Jeep Cherokee ('84-'01)
When the unibody Jeep Cherokee hit pavement in the spring of '84, the SUV segment was forever changed. This vehicle laid the foundation for the entire SUV segment we know today. Before it, no SUV manufactured was without a traditional frame. The idea was radical for the time period, and the benefits caught on immediately. By eliminating the frame, the Cherokee was built light, far lighter than the other SUVs of the time. This translated into better power and fuel efficiency from any of the six engine options. Initially, the 2.4L I-4 was carbureted, though by '86 the engine was updated with fuel injection, netting a 12hp increase in power over the previous year. Then in '87 came the 4.0L I-6, sporting 173 horsepower thanks to a Renix fuel injection system. By '91, Chrysler had perfected their multi-point fuel injection system and a higher output 4.0L mill was born. This second version of the 4.0L was an impressive performer at the time, and thanks to the vehicles family-friendly layout, a massive shift began to take place. More and more people upgraded from conventional station wagons to the Cherokee XJ. Today, the Cherokee's boxy exterior design remains one of the practical SUV platforms available. They offer excellent passenger visibility and are virtual billy goats on the trail. All Cherokees have a 102-inch wheelbase, and all share the same solid axle, coil/link front suspension arrangement. The rear axle remained leaf-sprung throughout the vehicle's production cycle.

1st Place
Suzuki Samurai ('86 1/2-'94)
When it comes to capability per dollar spent, nothing comes close to the Suzuki Samurai. Rarely priced over $700 for high-mileage beaters, the micro-sized SUV simply fills the gap where other used 4x4s break the bank. Powered by a 1.3L I-4, the lightweight SUV offers drivers an economical solution to the heavier alternatives in the same vehicle segment. At just over 60 inches wide, the Samurai has been criticized for instability during abrupt cornering or panic maneuvers. However, this did not stop the 4x4 community from adopting the micro-machine for extensive up-fitting. Today, the aftermarket has a solution to every Samurai-related problem sorted out. From gearing to suspension, axles to interior, the Samurai owner has options to spare. We've see built Samurais in every region of the globe; the Samurai bested Jeep's 2007 highest-altitude claim in April of 2007, with a record-crushing altitude of 21,942 in Chile, South America. The ideal Samurai to start with depends on how far you plan to go with a buildup. For example: If 33-inch tires were your goal, then the factory-supplied 1.3L fuel-injected engine would suffice. However, if a point-and-shoot rock crawler build is the plan, consider a V-6 engine swap and bigger axles. Either way, a Samurai returns ample fun in a petite and affordable package.

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