We often get asked why we don’t build [insert person’s ride of choice here]. More often than not it is because someone on staff doesn’t own one, it’s too pricey, or it’s simply not worth building. While the last reason might sound harsh, please allow us to explain. Virtually anything can be transformed into an awesome do-anything wheeler. Heck, we’ve seen Ford Mustangs turned into Baja racers that were downright cool.
The trouble is that you often have to delete much of the factory components to create a rig that is actually trail worthy. Like most things in life it all boils down to time and money. Is a Kia Borrego a decent 4x4? Sure. Can you easily modify it in your driveway, squeeze on 35s, and make it so you can join us on the Ultimate Adventure? Now you’re getting the picture. Unless you’re rolling in the dough and have an all-star 4x4 shop at your beck and call, most rigs need to meet a handful of basic requirements.
Starting with a rig that has some semblance of aftermarket support is always a great idea. This doesn’t mean that it has to have an array of bolt-on catalogue parts, but being able to phone a few industry guys will help when you’re trying to formulate a build plan or solve a problem. You also want to make sure you are building a rig that makes sense for wheeling. Overly complex, heavy, or limited-production vehicles may seem like a great idea, but you’ll often limit your window for repair and replacement parts.
Likely the most important quality of any 4x4 is that it needs to be a vehicle you can work on. Sure, it’s OK to have a 4x4 shop to help you build it up. But if you don’t know how to wrench on your highly custom oddball 4x4, you’ll be in real trouble when it breaks on the trail.
Compiled here are our top picks for 4x4 platforms that just are not worth the headache of building. Think we’re wrong on our five picks? Then send us your own poor build choice at email@example.com.
For everything we like about the Hummer H2 there is something we don’t. For starters, the H2 is extremely portly, which makes squeezing it down tight trails memorable in more ways than one. Visibility is terrible, as the giant doors are fitted with Keebler Elf–sized openings and the steering links look better suited for a Geo Tracker, not a 3⁄4-ton 4x4. And while it did get eight-lug wheels, the IFS front and C-clip rear axle are hardly heavy duty. There is decent aftermarket support for those going for the hardcore look, but few items that will make this behemoth an ideal trail dominator.
Since GM killed off the Hummer division a few years ago, preowned is the only option for those in the market for an H2. Even used, the trucks are very expensive and are likely to attract the attention of eco-Nazis who might follow you home and perform silent protests in your front yard.
A good alternative to the H2 would be a late-model Toyota 4Runner, as it will provide you with luxury, power, capacity, and off-road prowess at a fraction of the weight and cost.
The Early XJ
We are probably some of the biggest fans of the Jeep Cherokee XJ, but we know all too well that the unibody wheeler got off to a rocky start. Before 1987 the engines and transmissions in the 4x4 SUVs were subpar. This was especially true if you got stuck with the 2.8L GM V-6. The vacuum-disconnect front Dana 30 and the Dana 35 rear are also low on our list of likes. For our money we would bypass the old ones and look for a ’91 or newer XJ. We still stand by the XJ as one of the best bang-for-the-buck wheelers. Just let the ’80s be about hair metal and not your next Jeep.
If Jeep’s roots are in the Wrangler, then the annoying yard weed is the Compass. With a fully independent front and rear suspension, an uninspiring powerplant, and styling that would make a blind man flinch (not so much with the latest rendition), the Compass is a sad reminder of how the Jeep brand got off track. The Compass is much like the Patriot: an overgrown car with an all-wheel drive that befits a Subaru but not a dedicated or even occasional wheeler.
Performance aftermarket parts are practically nonexistent, and while aftermarket wheels and tires can help the look of almost a vehicle, you’d need an invisibility cloak to fit in at any real 4x4 event.
An excellent alternative to the Compass would be a Jeep Grand Cherokee. Even the most mildly equipped 4x4 Grand could run circles around a Compass. Maybe Mopar’s underground lab can save the black sheep.
Don’t Cross the Line
The Honda pickup was something every Honda loyalist was looking forward to. Instead of a rugged 4x4 truck that would compete with its import and domestic counterparts, what we got was only a small step above an all-wheel-drive minivan. Fitted with a unibody designed, fully independent suspension, and … wait for it … no low-range transfer case option, the Ridgeline is more carlike than any of its alleged competition.
Aftermarket lifts and components are sparse.
A great alternative to the Ridgeline would be a Chevy Colorado or Toyota Tacoma. Both the Colorado and Tacoma are available with four doors, body-on-frame contraction, and a live rear axle, and for some extra bonus points the Colorado can be optioned with the 5.3L V-8. Currently the Tacoma does edge out the Colorado with more aftermarket support.
The Isuzu VehiCross was a crazy Amigoesque vehicle. It only managed a short production run in the U.S., from the ’99 to ’01 model years. The wheelbase and weight balance make it appear as though it will pass itself going down steep hillclimbs, and the styling is a cross between a Playschool toy and a Reebok high-top from the early ’90s. The cargo capacity is just as bad as the Jeep Wrangler’s, but since the VehiCross has a less-than-desirable IFS front end, you don’t get the pros of the Jeep’s solid axles.
Limited production means that parts are hard to find and the aftermarket is scarce, as is sadly true for many Isuzus (and Nissans).
A good alternative to the VehiCross would be a Jeep Wrangler. If you are looking for a lifelong project you could always purchase a Land Rover D-90, but for the best value, stick with the Wrangler option.