I’ve written you in the past about getting a new Wrangler, but our money situation has changed. At this point in time I can’t commit to the payments that kind of purchase entails. I travel for a living and frequently use a rental car if I drive more than 150 miles. I’ve decided to sell my car and replace it with a four-wheel drive. Since I have a wife and two small children, I need to replace it with a 4x4 that can fit our ever-growing family and list of needs. I’ve narrowed my search down to a couple of vehicles—the Toyota FJ60/62 and the Chevy K5 Blazer.
My two picks were mainly because of the price, availability, lack of electronics, and coolness factor. I’m trying to stay under $10,000 so that my payment is small. I plan on financing the entire price of the rig and then use the extra money I make from selling my car on upgrades. I am not an experienced mechanic, but I am mechanically inclined and have done some motor and brake work in the past. If there’s a book for it, I can usually do it. I don’t have a garage, so all work will be done outside.
Here’s my list of wants and needs in a four-wheel drive.
- All-weather capability
- Room for the family
- Great for camping and overland adventures
- Cheap and easy to repair. I’m willing to fix things, but I don’t want to go broke replacing parts.
- Aftermarket support for a person on a limited budget
- Good power-to-weight ratio
- Able to tow a small 5,000-pound trailer
- Highway comfort
- Can haul a load of whatever in the back with minimal damage to the interior
- Tight turning radius for maneuvering between trees on my property
Your list of wants is pretty common for most like-minded wheeling enthusiasts. I completely understand you not wanting to tackle the big monthly payments of a new Jeep Wrangler JK, but I wouldn’t be so quick to leave the Jeep brand altogether. Don’t get me wrong—both the Chevy Blazer and Toyota FJ make for great build platforms, but for your list, they wouldn’t be my top two picks. Rather than go into all of the things that would need to be swapped-out or improved on the two aforementioned rigs, I will offer two vehicle alternatives.
For your price-point and demands, you will be hard-pressed to beat the ’91-’01 Jeep Cherokee XJ or the ’93-’04 Jeep Grand Cherokee (ZJ and WJ). Yes, both are unibody, but the powertrain options help place both Jeep models high in the power-to-weight ratio category. The midsize SUVs fit well on tight trails and since both can be had with four-doors, fitting in the family is no problem.
A cargo mat from WeatherTech (www.weathertech.com) could easily handle your average load carrying needs, and most of the models have fold-down rear seats to increase cargo room. There are plenty of aftermarket rack and bumper options that will free up even more interior space and provide extra gear capacity for your overland adventures. In terms of reliability, the six-cylinder 4.0L is one of the best powerplants ever offered in a Jeep. Steer clear of the early model XJs and look for the ’91-and-newer models fitted with the high-output 4.0L.
Both the Cherokee and Grand Cherokee models have enough towing capacity for your needs, so long as you run a weight-distributing hitch. The V-8 equipped Grand’s may be the better choice if you tow frequently. Since the Cherokee XJ line ran from ’84-’01 factory replacement and aftermarket parts can be picked up on the cheap. The Grand line has seen a few variations since its unveiling in 1993, so replacement parts could be pricier depending on what year/model you purchase.
Be aware that both the Grand and XJ Cherokee could be equipped with the less-than-desirable Dana 35 rear axle. If you do get stuck with this ticking-time-bomb rearend, don’t fret, as there are affordable rear axle upgrades such as the Ford Explorer 8.8 and Isuzu Dana 44. If you want to be picky, search for the ’97-’99 XJ with the 4.0L, automatic transmission, NP231 transfer case, high-pinion Dana 30 front, and 8.25 rear axle. If you’re feeling especially lucky, and like the Grand, look for the 5.9L that was only available in the ’98 model year!
I have a ’97 jeep Cherokee 4.0L that’s completely stock for now. My goal is to one day compete in Top Truck Challenge. My current plans are to drop in a 4.7L stroker, AX-15, Dana 44 front, and Ford 9-inch rear. Obviously, there will be more to the build than just those items, but that’s my starting point. I want to keep my Jeep a daily driver as well. What do you think are some of the minimums my rig will need to participate in TTC and what build recommendations do you have?
After last year’s Champion’s Challenge, Top Truck Challenge is being re-born so-to-speak for 2013. Editor John Cappa will have more details on this in the coming months, but for now, I’ll focus on your XJ build. One of the best pieces of advice I can offer is to build your rig a little at a time and wheel it as much as you can along the way. Learning how the vehicle acts off-road and honing your driving skills will be more valuable than any engine upgrade or axle set you can find. I would also aim to build for your area and places you like to wheel. A well-built trail rig can translate to a TTC winner.
Sure, 54s and a blown-big-block are cool, but there goes your daily driver requirement. The only item I would suggest dropping from your projected list would be the AX-15. It’s not any stronger than your stock automatic transmission. If you are dead-set on swapping over to a manual, look at the NV3550 or NV4500, as both are much stronger options. Keep your eyes peeled for more info on the new-and-improved TTC requirement list, and be sure to keep us posted on your build progress.