Best Off Road Vehicles: Four Wheeler Network Staff’s Picks
New or old, these are the best vehicles to take off-pavement ever
What is the best off-road vehicle? Man, that's a loaded question.
Off-road encompasses so many differences compared to on-road. With on-road, you're talking hills, curves, dry, rain, and snow. Those are your variables. With off-road, you can be talking mud, sand, rock, regular trail, woods, washboard roads, and everything in between. And breaking it down even further, by sand do you mean beach, huge dunes, super loose, super firm, rippled, coarse, fine, and all sorts of other variables.
And that's just one element. We could go into prerunning, slickrock versus granite, off-camber, ledges, uneven terrain that taxes the suspension flex and traction devices, and more. We could literally write a book on the subject. So picking just one vehicle that is the overall best across all these differing terrain types is no simple task. Pick a vehicle that can go fast through the desert, and chances are it'll have a larger front and rear overhang that'll get wasted dropping down ledges or climbing sheer rock faces. Pick a rig with super low gearing that'll excel in the rocks and it may not have the right effective gearing to tackle super tall sand dunes without running out of huff. Pick a well, you get where we're going here. So with all that in mind, we posed the question of "what's the best off-road vehicle" to some of the Four Wheeler Network staff with the caveat that we had to select both a vehicle you could walk into any dealership and purchase new off the lot, as well as any vehicle ever made since the dawn of the internal combustion era. Here's what our editors had to say.
Ken Brubaker Best NEW Off-Road Vehicle: Jeep Wrangler JL Rubicon
There's no mass-produced 4x4 that even comes close to comparing to the JL. It has outstanding approach and departure angles, solid axles with Tru-Lok electric locking differentials, 4.10 gears, 17-inch wheels, standard 31-inch tires, a pliable suspension, Rock-Trac 4:1 T-case, front sway bar disconnect, and more. All these goodies are tethered to a vehicle that is compact and nimble, which creates a point-and-shoot trail rig. Toss in the JL's civil creature comforts and a removable top, and the sum is a 4x4 that is not only extremely capable but also loads of fun.
Ken Brubaker Best EVER Off-Road Vehicle: Jeep Wrangler TJ Rubicon
If there was a 4x4 history book, there would probably be an entire chapter about the Jeep Wrangler TJ Rubicon. The backstory about how the Rubicon came to be is fascinating and includes a multi-year approach to get Jeep execs to green-light the project. There were demos, compromises, and debates, but in the end, the engineers behind the Rubicon got almost everything they wanted except for a high-pinion front axle (it wouldn't physically fit when the first official prototype was built) and a 1-inch suspension lift. The fascinating Rubicon backstory can be found at https://www.fourwheeler.com/project-vehicles/154-0907-the-eep-wrangler-rubicon-story/. I'm a fan of the TJ Rubicon, not only because of its impressive parts list, but also because it's so incredibly simple and nimble with no electronic nannies and the proven 4.0L I-6. And it's civilized too.
Jeremy Cook NEW/USED: Ford F-150 Raptor
It might seem a little lazy, but to me a Raptor seems like a great choice for a "do everything" off-road truck. And I'm a truck guy, by the way. They come pretty well- equipped right out of the box suspension-wise, and they feature a good 'ol V-6 or V-8 with plenty of horsepower, but when you're ready to upgrade there is a ton of aftermarket support. It'll run circles around all the slightly more interesting rigs my cohorts will pick.
Jason Gonderman Best NEW Off-Road Vehicle: Ford F-150 Raptor
For me, the best off-road vehicle currently offered from the factory is the Ford F-150 Raptor. Stick with me for a minute here. The 2020 F-150 Raptor comes from the factory with an electronic locking rear differential, a magnificent Torsen front limited slip, massive Fox 3.0-inch bypass shocks, gobs of wheeltravel, and loads of articulation. The Raptor also comes from the factory with 35-inch BFGoodrich tires. The truck's EcoBoost engine makes 450hp and 510 lb-ft of torque, while still getting up to 18 mpg on the highway. And we can't forget about the loads of skidplating underneath. The truck also benefits from being the newest generation of Ford F-150 in terms of quietness, comfort, and technology. These days, a factory 4x4 needs to be a complete package, not just a one-trick pony, and the Ford F-150 Raptor is the best mix of everything.
Jason Gonderman Best EVER Off-Road Vehicle: Jeep Wrangler JK Unlimited Rubicon
The best off-road vehicle to buy used is the Jeep Wrangler JK Unlimited Rubicon. Again, hear me out. A lot of folks are probably going to dub the TJ Rubicon as the best ever, but I disagree. The JK Unlimited brings with it a more ideal wheelbase all-around wheeling (no more sky wheelies on even the smallest climbs), its increased width adds to stability, and the larger four-door cab is great for hauling friends and family (without jumping over people to get in the back seat). The Rubicon version features decent Dana 44 axles, electronic locking differentials front and rear, a disconnecting front sway bar, and a 4.0:1 transfer case. The engine choices were pretty terrible, and the automatic transmission was even worse. However, because of the popularity of the JL Wrangler, prices have dropped off a ton in the past year, making it a great time to buy a low-mileage mall crawler for cheap.
Christian Hazel Best NEW Off-Road Vehicle: JL Wrangler Rubicon
If you want a do-everything off-road Swiss Army knife vehicle today, nothing comes close to a JL Rubicon Wrangler. I'll get to why in a minute, but before I do, my personal engine choice is the eTorque 2.0L turbocharged engine. The 3.6L V-6 and 3.0L eTorque diesel engines are great options as well, but after living with a 2019 eTorque 2.0L Unlimited Rubicon, I've developed a huge fondness for the engine's spunky, flat power delivery in any terrain. It's got plenty of grunt against the 4:1 T-case low and 4.10 axle gears for rockcrawling, yet provides enough on-tap power to run the biggest dunes in High range. The suspension is tuned well enough to go fast at sane speeds down most desert washes and dirt roads, and there's plenty of axle articulation from the front and rear solid Dana 44 axles, front and rear lockers, and front swaybar with electronic disconnect. The front approach angle and rear departure angle are excellent, so you won't be leaving pieces of your front or rear fascia on the trail, and the rockers are armored with steel rock rails. Big 33-inch off-road tires on 17-inch wheels, underbody skidplating, tow hooks, and more just round out the package. Sure, vehicles like Ford's F-150 Raptor or some vehicle by Land Rover, Toyota, and Chevy come with a good selection of off-road attributes and may be as good or even better in certain areas than a JL Wrangler Rubicon, but none come close to matching the JL Wrangler Rubicon's ability to excel in as wide a range of off-road environments. The JL Wrangler Rubicon is simply the best all-around off-road vehicle offered today.
Christian Hazel Best EVER Off-Road Vehicle: Any Willys/MB/GPW Flatfender
Let's for a moment set aside the undisputable fact that after WWII surplus Willys and Ford flatfenders were responsible for creating the off-road 4x4 hobby as we all know it today. As scores of surplus MB and GPW vehicles made their way to the civilian market for pennies on the dollar, former GIs, farmers, hunters, and other outdoor enthusiasts scooped them up and put them to use as their backwoods mechanical horse. The majority of these vehicles came equipped with the sturdy 134-cube GoDevil flat-head four-cylinder engine rated at a whopping 63 horsepower. In 1953, an F-head version of this engine with in-block exhaust and overhead intake valves was introduced in the CJ-3B high-hood models, upping power to a whopping 75 net horsepower. In either case, the engine was relatively economical and just adequate to get the (plus or minus) 3,000-pound vehicle down the road fast enough to not be a complete and total impediment to navigation. The vehicles were very light, small, nimble, and despite the lack of power steering, the large wheel and Ross cam and lever steering offered good leverage to turn the front tires on the trail. With probably the best approach and departure angle of any factory vehicle, if you ever did get your flattie stuck on the trail, just call over three or four buddies to help lift you out of your predicament. The engines didn't make quite enough power to harm the T90 three-speed transmission or Spicer 18 T-case and the Dana 25 front and (depending on year and model) Spicer 23/Dana41/Dana 44 rear axle had either 4.88 (WWII MB/GPW) or 5.38 gearing and an option of Power-Lock limited-slip differentials. From running the Rubicon trail to plowing farm fields to strafing desert airfields, a stock flatfender has been there and done that. They're the greatest off-road vehicles ever.
Verne Simons Best NEW Off-Road Vehicle: Ram Power Wagon
Because I am into having lockers, I think if money wasn't an issue there are two real options for the best new off-road vehicles because they have a real transfer case and front and rear lockers. The Jeep Wrangler JL Rubicon and a Dodge Power Wagon. Just to be different, I'm going to opt for the Power Wagon. I don't know why, probably because it's got two lockers, a V-8, big axles, a winch, a bed for stuff, and you can tow a real trailer behind it. Plus the price is all over a similarly equipped JL Wrangler Rubicon but you get much more "meat on the bone."
Verne Simons Best NEW Off-Road Vehicle: Ram Power Wagon
The best 4x4 of all time in my humble opinion just might be the 2003-2006 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon, AKA the LJ. Why? It's got the torquey, reliable, and durable 4.0L I-6. I'd opt for the available automatic, a 4:1 T-case, lockers front and rear, a hard top, and that would just about do it. Add some 33s or 35s maybe 37s, a winch, some body armor, and you've got an extremely capable drive-anywhere, anytime 4x4.