Five Builder-Friendly Compact Pickups
What’s a good 4x4 to build? We get that question plenty. Unfortunately, that’s generally just the start of the query. Following quickly behind is often a list of must-haves which include, but are not limited to “must get good fuel economy, needs to be able haul anything, has to be affordable, oh, and of course, must be able to perform just as good (if not better than) my friend’s Jeep Wrangler Rubicon.” We get it. You want it all.
If you like wheeling, but need something with more cargo-carrying capacity than a two-door Wrangler, then a mini-truck just might be the platform you are looking for. Mini-trucks began to take great strides in the early ’80s and over the years have become a staple across America. We enjoy the small-track-width trucks for navigating tight trails and appreciate the addition of a usable bed. With four-door and V-8-powered versions saturating the domestic and international market, the mini-truck has evolved into something easily adaptable for daily life and wheeling duties.
We’re big fans of mini-trucks in general, but there are a few that stand out above the rest. Compiled here is a list of some of the most readily available used mini-trucks from each of the major brands. We consider all of the trucks that made our list to be excellent builder platforms, though some will require more wrenching to survive more intense terrain.
’97-’04 Dodge Dakota
The Dodge Dakota is a great choice for someone with a good skillset and willingness to think outside of the box. Our favorite generation by far is the ’97-’04 model years, as the powertrain options, sturdy frames, and overall styling make the second-gen trucks a great all-around vehicle. Two- and four-door (along with extended cab) versions give you options for people and gear, and the choice of a 5.2-, 5.9-, and 4.7-liter V-8 means an engine swap will not be necessary. If you are a manual transmission fan, look for V-8 models equipped with the NV3500 five-speed.
The aftermarket support for these trucks is growing, but don’t expect to find a huge array of long-travel suspension kits or bolt-on lifts. For our money, we would ditch the IFS and install a solid-front axle. This may seem like a lot of work (which it is), but it’s the only thing holding these trucks back from being incredibly capable wheelers. Of course, you can get away with mild wheeling in a lightly-modified version, and the towing capacity on the V-8 models would let you argue the case for being an OK tow rig and everyday workhorse.
’09-’12 Chevy Colorado
We know, we know, how could we pick the Colorado over the iconic S-10? Most of it comes down to the fact that the factory axles and suspension under the S-10 would be one of the first things we would discard when building one. Yeah, people rally about the 4.3L, but at its best it only put out 190hp, which is good, but not enough reason to make it our top GM pick. For our money, the ’09-’12 Chevy Colorado would be a much better platform.
Why so specific with the years? Simple, these trucks were offered with the 300hp 5.3L V-8. As far as cab configurations, regular, extended, and crew were all available (though some without the V-8 option). The Colorado’s aftermarket support is slightly better than the S-10, although the S-10 does have a larger enthusiast following online. Even if we ditched the stock axles the same as we would on the S-10, at least we would have a reliable and easy-to-tune powerplant that could handle a 1-ton axle swap with ease. The frame geometry makes the Colorado a bit taller when fitted with a solid-front axle conversion, and the current price point would likely keep most away from trimming away at the higher-price mini-truck.
For those of you who remember the now defunct Hummer H3 Alpha, we think a Colorado-like Alpha would be a great machine for light wheeling and daily driving. It would take some leg work, but you could drop in the front and rear diffs from the last-generation H3 Alpha, which could give you selectable lockers depending on how the H3 was equipped. You could also install ARB Air Lockers in your stock diffs. Add some rock sliders, a mild lift, and shoehorn on some 33s or 35s, and you have the makings of a very versatile wheeler that’s still at home on the highway.
’93-’97 Ford Ranger
It’s no secret that we are fans of the Ford Ranger. In fact, it may be the most sensible and builder-friendly platform on our list. The Ranger has an enthusiast following that rivals the highly coveted Toyota mini-truck and if you have ever spent any time in the Southern California desert you would have thought they were handing out Rangers at the state line. While the late-model FX4 package does bring a lot to the table, our favorite years are from 1993 to 1997.
We would look for a ’97 Ranger with the 4.0L V-6, manual-shift transfer case and 8.8-inch rear axle. The rest of the options can be personal preference, but this gets you the basis of a proven platform. The Dana 35 twin-traction beam front axle offers incredible potential for travel and is maybe the most reliable IFS mini-truck frontend on our list. Aftermarket support is very solid and the online enthusiast community is one of the largest, with multiple Ranger-only forums still thriving today.
’05-’12 Nissan Frontier
Another mini-truck badge that has been turning out pickup enthusiasts for decades is Nissan. While the Frontier is a far cry from the brand’s early hardbody days, the late-model 4x4s have garnered tremendous aftermarket support. With a slew of lift kits and aftermarket components accessible for the ’05-’12 Frontier pickups, it was easy to put the second-gens on our list.
Sure, there isn’t a V-8 option, but the 265hp V-6 isn’t a slouch. As far as off-road-centric packages are concerned, trucks equipped with the NISMO LE option were fitted with Bilstein shocks, heavy-duty skidplates, and a selectable rear E-locker, along with a few other goodies. We even did a buildup of one a few years back, which you can find on our website (www.fourwheeler.com). A popular conversion for those that are budget-wise and wrench-savvy is to pull the front and rear running gear from a Nissan Titan. The ½-ton upgrade increases the track-width and travel of the Frontier, and offers a substantial component strength upgrade for a relatively small investment.
’95.5-’04 Toyota Tacoma
Toyota mini-trucks have a reputation for being dependable and rugged wheeling machines. We will be the first to admit that the fuel-injected ’85 mini-truck ’Yota may be our favorite, but the early pickups simply don’t make for a good daily-driven option compared to the ’95.5-’04 Tacomas. The aftermarket for the Tacoma is staggering as is the online support. With a few engine options (none of which are overly impressive or powerful), we wouldn’t consider the late-model Taco’s powerhouses, but that’s one of the reasons the stock drivetrains tend to last even under tough off-road conditions.
No matter if you are looking to build a rockcrawler, desert racer, or just a family-friendly camping rig, there are cab options and support to aid you in any direction. TRD models were fitted with a selectable E-locker, which like the Frontier, can be modified to work in all-driving ranges. Transfer case doublers and gear-reduction boxes can easily make up for the power shortage, and as we saw in the 2013 Top Truck Challenge, a modified Tacoma can even hang with some heavyweight 4x4s. A Crew Cab, V-6, TRD Tacoma would be high on our want list, but the price-point would likely keep us from behind the wheel. A regular or extended-cab manual transmission truck with the 2.4L or 2.7L four-cylinder is more easy to find and can usually be picked up for a few grand.