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  • Dirt Sports + Off-Road
  • 4-Wheel & Off-Road
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Trail Rig Buyer’s Guide

Posted in Project Vehicles on August 1, 2012
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Going off-road doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. As a matter of fact, all one really needs is a 4x4 and a full tank of gas. We understand that wheeling may seem like an expensive hobby, and admittedly it can be. The reality, though, is you can have just as much fun as the high-priced buggy guys do for a fraction of the cost.

To help those looking for a first-time 4x4, we’ve put together a list of some of our favorite and best-supported used 4x4s. The rigs we picked are by no means the only good project vehicle platforms. They are, however, all readily available and can be easily built in your driveway, and most can be picked up for a couple grand. Once you’ve purchased your new-to-you 4x4, don’t forget to send us a photo and info about it at

Jeep Cherokee XJ
The Jeep Cherokee XJ is hands-down one of the most inexpensive, supported, and builder-friendly platforms to be had. When treated with care the unibody four-door Jeeps are known to last well over 200K miles.

For our money we’d look for a ’91-’99 model. This is mainly due to the availability of the higher-output 4.0L engine, high-pinion Dana 30 front axle, and 8.25 rear axle. The XJ was also fitted with either an NP242 or NP231 transfer case. Both are good cases with a 2.72 low range, but the 231 has more aftermarket support. Depending on how aggressive a wheeler you are, we’ve seen the XJ platforms survive with up to 35-inch tall tires.

If you find a 2WD XJ for dirt cheap and have a salvage yard, some knowhow, and tools nearby, then don’t be afraid to convert it to 4WD. Most of the equipment you’ll need to transfer everything can be picked up used for a few hundred bucks.

Toyota Tacoma
The early model straight-axle Toyota mini trucks seem to get all of the credit for making Toyota a staple in the off-road world. While that view holds merit, we say that the modern technology, power, and aftermarket world has made the Tacoma models the one to have. We’re still huge fans of Toyota’s reliable four-cylinder engines and would have no problems with running the more powerful V-6 either. The Taco’s drivetrain is one of the toughest you’ll find from the factory. The factory rear axle can hold upwards of a 37-inch tire, and we’ve even wheeled with guys running the factory IFS components on black diamond trails. The newer trucks get more pricey, but it’s possible to pick up a pre-’01 Tacoma for a few grand.

Jeep Wrangler YJ
There’s no denying that the Jeep Wrangler is the most popular and supported off-road rig on the plant. While we like the new TJ and JK generation Wranglers, they’re still a little pricey for those looking to build on a budget. Fortunately the ’87-’95 YJs have dropped substantially in price.

The golden years for these Jeeps are ’91-’95 since that’s when they were fitted with high-output 4.0L engines. Both the manual and auto options are decent, and the high-pinion Dana 30 front is plenty strong for 35-inch-tall tires. If you find a deal on one with the undesirable Dana 35 rear axle, don’t fret, because you can swap in an 8.8-inch Explorer rear axle for pretty cheap. The four-cylinder models work OK, but it’s worth it to spend the extra coin on the inline-six if you are going to be hitting the highway or daily driving the Jeep.

Ford Ranger
If you flip through the pages of this magazine you will find our own ’97 Ford Ranger buildup (page 82). With over 20 years of production, and with demand for the older pickups somewhat low, used Rangers can be picked up for next to nothing.

We’re partial to the ’93-’97 models since they are a little more refined than the earlier generations, and still maintain the TTB (twin traction beam) front end. Our perfect purchase would be a ’97 equipped with the 4.0L engine, Dana 35 front axle, and 8.8 rear axle.

The aftermarket support for these trucks is better than most. Up to a 35-inch-tall tire can be fitted onto the trucks pretty easily. Look for the manual-shift BW1354 transfer case, and don’t be afraid of the 3.0L engines. Just know that the 3.0L is jokingly referred to as the “3-point-slow” for a reason.

Suzuki Samurai
Lightweight, fuel-efficient, and simple. No, we’re not talking about the latest eco box but rather the short-lived yet legendary Suzuki Samurai. These ultralow-tech wheeling machines have little power and a stubby wheelbase, and according to so-called safety studies they are likely to flop over as soon as your passenger sneezes.

So why are they so great? Because they come as close to the “light is might” build philosophy as you can get. While higher numerical gears are necessary to turn big off-road tires, you don’t need big axles and a ton of aftermarket parts to make these rigs keep up with the big boys. Unfortunately the little ninjas are getting harder to find, but plenty are still out there waiting for new homes.

Chevy 1500 Fullsize Pickup
The ’88-’98 Chevy 1500 pickups may seem like relics next to today’s high-horse and fancy Bow Ties, but this generation has proved to be one of the most easily modifiable of the bunch. We wouldn’t waste our time or money on the IFS but rather would cut it out and use one of the many solid-axle kits on the market. This means this pickup is definitely for wheelers with more advance skills, but some of the bolt-on straight-axle conversions are designed to be easy driveway installs.

Don’t be afraid of high mileage, because the 5.7L engines are a dime a dozen and easily rebuilt. The most costly portion of your build will likely be the high-pinion driver-side drop front axle that you will need for the solid-axle conversion. A junkyard axle can set you back close to a grand, while a custom-built unit can come in closer to $7,000.

Ford Super Duty
The ’99-current Ford F-250 and F-350 Super Duty trucks have tremendous aftermarket support. As trail trucks go they are a touch large, but that’s not always a bad thing. We’re big fans of the 7.3L diesel engine, and when it’s fitted with Ford’s factory high-pinion Dana 60 front axle and Sterling 101⁄4 rear axle, you have the makings of a mega off-roader.

Don’t be afraid of the 6.0L diesel engines. The major downfalls of the 6.0L are the head bolts and EGR system, both of which have fixes/upgrades on the market. We envision a regular-cab longbed fitted with 40-inch tires as a good starting point. ’03 is a strong model year for these trucks, and many of the well-used workhorse versions can be picked up on the cheap.

Jeep Grand Cherokee ZJ
If a multilink V-8–powered SUV doesn’t get you excited, then we don’t know what will. Available with the 4.0L I-6, 5.2L V-8, or 5.9L V-8 (’98 only), the Jeep Grand Cherokee ZJ merges luxury and off-road performance in one trail-ready platform. As a recipient of multiple 4-Wheel & Off-Road 4x4 of the Year awards, the unibody Grand Cherokee gives you Wranglerlike off-road performance with more comfort, cargo space, and doors. The only drawbacks are the Dana 44A and 35 rear axles. Both can be problematic and are not worth putting a lot of money into, so a rear axle swap will be on the horizon.

The V-8 ZJs were equipped with a fulltime NP249 transfer case, but that can be swapped out with an NP231 pretty easily. The V-8s might sound like the way to go, but the inline-six actually boasts a stronger performance aftermarket and is thought to be more reliable and fuel efficient. Suspension kits, bumpers, performance upgrades, and a large enthusiast community make the Grand one of our favorites.

Chevy S-10 Pickup and Blazer
Since the early ’80s the Chevy S-10 pickup/Blazer has made a great name for itself as an inexpensive and reliable 4x4. For our money we’d look for a ’93 or newer one equipped with the 4.3L V-6 engine. The factory automatic transmissions and NP231C transfer cases are pretty solid. The main drawbacks are the weak IFS housing and 71⁄2-inch rear axles. If you’re looking to take the S-10 on more serious adventures plan on swapping out the stock axle set.

Like the S-10’s older brother the 1500, the S-10 platforms have a fairly strong aftermarket, especially for solid-axle conversions. While a solid-axle swap is a bit more advanced, it’s practically all these body-on-frame platforms need to be a credible wheeling machine.

Ford Bronco
The Ford Bronco is an iconic part of the Blue Oval 4x4 line. It’s hard to beat a rig that has plenty of room for gear, a big V-8 to get you there fast, and a gracious amount of aftermarket attention.

The final years of the Bronco platform proved to be some of the best. With a removable rear shell, an available 302ci or 351ci engine, and a Dana 44 TTB front and 8.8-inch rear, the ’92-’96 Bronco has plenty of good parts to get you off on the right foot. The one negative that haunts the Bronco platform is the temperamental E4OD automatic transmission. Set aside some cash for a transmission rebuild, and don’t let a bad trans keep you from this sweet ride.

Buying Built
Buying a rig already built or halfway there can sometimes save you serious coin. Many guys stand by the slogan “Real trucks are built, not bought.” Well, the reality is that real trucks are often bought then built by someone else, not built correctly, or almost built—and in some extreme cases they act as parts collectors.

Don’t be afraid to buy a rig already modified. There are plenty of good and bad deals to be had, and you have to know how to spot a good one. This means doing your research, asking lots of questions, and making sure that what the owner put on or under the vehicle was worth doing. You might not be able to find the perfect rig already built, but oftentimes it will be cheaper to revamp or finish someone else’s project than to start fresh.

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