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The Best Buys In Used 4x4 Trucks

How To Find A Good Used Builder Rig

Robin StoverPhotographer, Writer

Every two to three years, we review and showcase our nominations for the Best Buys in used 4x4s. This time around we're adding a little information about each specific model in terms of favorable engines, drivetrain componentry, and available aftermarket swaps. Our intention is to point out a great deal in each category while highlighting some of the most popular and affordable build strategies possible. We know some of the prices listed may not jibe with those found in your particular region; after all, some vehicles are simply less abundant where 4x4 enthusiasts congregate. In any case, think of our list as a general guideline to what can be found, purchased, and built on a minimal budget. We hope that you find this information helpful, and as always, we welcome any feedback about our choices.

Small Pickups
The compact pickup category is probably the most popular of all, simply because of their abundant availability and excellent value. Attributes that make them exceptional builder rigs include nimble maneuverability, well balanced power-to-weight ratio, and surprisingly low cost of ownership. We like them because they fit well in rough terrain. Favored rigs in this arena typically revolve around a stout drivetrain and fuel-injected engines.

First place: 1985-'95 Toyota Pickup
Price range: $500- $3,000
Right from the very start, Toyota pickups are rock-solid machines designed to take a beating. We like the fact that they have stout boxed frames, extremely reliable rear axles, and a plethora of available aftermarket upgrades. The time-tested 22R-E four-cylinder is perhaps the most common engine supplied in these vehicles, but it hardly makes enough power to take serious. An improved version known as the 22R-TE was equipped with a small turbocharger, which improved power a bit, but these are scarce due to a very limited production run. In '88 the Toyota pickup got an optional 3VZE 3.0L V-6 that made decent power (150 hp) for stock applications, however, when laden with a whole assortment of aftermarket products, the V-6 left a lot to be desired. The most popular conversion we've seen for these rigs is offered by Advance Adapters, which allows installation of a Chevy V-8 in place of the four-cylinder. This kit comes with a bellhousing adapter, slave cylinder, pressure plate and clutch, a new flywheel, a starter, engine mounts, and a radiator for the low price of just $1,750. As for drivetrain upgrades, the Toyota aftermarket is practically drenched with options for just about every combination of transmission and transfer case offered. Very affordable low-range gearsets and even dual transfer case arrangements can be found through Advance Adapters, Marlin Crawler, Trail Gear, and Inchworm Gear. The dropout-style 8.8-inch axles found under these trucks were equipped with heavy-duty axle shafts in rear applications, but featured a less desirable Birfield joint up front. Longfield Super Axles offers the ultimate CV joint upgrade to help enthusiasts bombproof the front 8.8 axle.

Runner up: 1993-'97 Ford Ranger
Price range: $1,500 to $4,200
Among the go-fast crowd, the Ford Ranger is the truck to have because of its free-moving Twin Traction Beam (TTB) front suspension. The '97 model was the last year Ford offered this arrangement. Of the three engines offered, the one to look for is the 4.0L OHV V-6, making 160 hp and 225 lb-ft of torque. Other benefits of this platform are a Dana 35 front differential with Dana 44-style outers and a 28-spline Ford 8.8-inch axle out back, typically with 3.73:1 gearing. Unfortunately, there is a weak point worth mentioning on this vintage Ranger; the A4LD automatic trans is passable, but the M5OD manual is marginal at best. Or better yet, Advance Adapters offers a kit that permits installation of the TH 700R4 automatic, but only behind the 4.0L engine.

Fullsize Pickups
In the fullsize pickup arena, we look for a proven track record with enthusiast groups. This ensures that any problems encountered during ownership have already been addressed by the aftermarket. As abundant as fullsize pickups are, buyer beware: not all pickups are created equal.

First place: 1988-2002 Chevy C/K-Series pickup
Price range: $1,500 to $4,000
For the money, you simply can't beat a Chevrolet CK-series built between 1991 and 2002. They were available with several different power plants, the best of which include the 210 hp 5.7L small-block V-8, a 230 hp 7.4L fuel-injected big-block, and a rare version offered exclusively on the C3500HDs built from '00 to '02 with an 8.1L Vortec V-8. The C/K-series trucks came with a whole assortment of different axle configurations, some of which should be avoided altogether. Look for trucks with the tried-and-true 14-bolt rear axle, or even better, the Dana 80 found under the back of 3500s. The front drive system is the weakest part of this particular platform. Comprised of IFS that utilizes weak CV-style drive axles, this vintage of Chevy pickup can benefit greatly from a solid front axle swap. Kits to do such a conversion are available through Off Road Unlimited and retail for just under $700 plus the cost of the axle. The most common transmission you will find under these trucks is the 4L80E automatic, which should provide years of dependable service if maintained properly. The 700R4 is more common in the pre-'91 trucks and features a favorable 3.059:1 first gear ratio. Common trouble spots to watch for are: The '91-'94 trucks with the 6.5L diesel engines are known to develop transmission shudder. Some '96 models may exhibit engine noise because the exhaust valves on models equipped with the 4.3L, 5.0L, or 5.7L engines may not get enough lubrication. Usually, this condition is accompanied by excess oil consumption because the valveguide seals on the exhaust valves are bad and need to be replaced.

Runner up: 1994-2002 Dodge Ram 2500/3500 diesel
Price range: $2,500 to $12,000
Much of what we look for in a used pickup comes down to power gains per dollar spent in the aftermarket. In the case of a Dodge Ram, equipped with the 12-valve--or better yet, the 24-valve--Cummins turbodiesel engine, you won't find a better value in terms of bolt-on performance. On the '94-'98 12-valve version, you can perform a simple $250 fuel stop plate modification from Diesel Performance that will net upwards of 150 hp and 70-plus lb-ft of torque. Similar power gains can be found on the '99-'02 24-valve Cummins trucks by performing minor bolt-on modifications. Despite weak fuel lift pumps and a somewhat sensitive VP44 injection pump, you can expect impressive results by simply adding a "fueling box." Keep in mind that exhaust gas temperature should be monitored closely after making such modifications. The wimpy A618 and 47RE automatic transmissions will likely grenade quickly if left unmodified, but nowadays there are tons of upgrades to fortify them for the long haul. These pickups came with the stout Dana 60 up front, either a Dana 70 or 80 out back, and many were equipped with the coveted NV4500 manual transmission. The 2002 is arguably the best year because it came with rear disc brakes and a cylinder head that featured hardened valve seats. The most problematic drivability issue on these trucks is related to the front axle track-bar mount. A reliable solution to this problem is offered by Solid Steel Industries, which updates the design to that found under the newer 2003-`08 Ram pickups.

Fullsize Suvs
The fullsize SUV segment is perhaps the most difficult area to define a true bargain in, largely because of their impressive production numbers in the '80s and '90s. These vehicles are both readily available and surprisingly inexpensive for what you get. They usually have V-8 power and enough interior space to take along the whole family. We like the fact that many of these vehicles share architecture with their fullsize pickup counterparts, making it easy to swap in beefy axles and other stout drivetrain components.

First Place: 1973-'91 Chevrolet K5 Blazer
Price range: $250 to $5,500
K-Blazers are one of the most popular builder rigs available today. We love the earlier K5 Blazers because they were available as full convertibles through 1975. The fiberglass hardtops tended to crack because of body flex, but that shouldn't be a deal-breaker. The pre-'80s version had Dana 44 front axles and a 12-bolt rear, and after 1980 most K5s got an overdrive transmission and 10-bolt axles front and rear, although we've seen a few variances from this. The Militarized M1009 CUCV versions are arguably the best to start a build with because they were fitted with Dana 60 front axles and 14-bolt rearends, some of which even had lockers installed in them. Otherwise the '91 is probably the best K5 to own. It came with a fuel-injected 350 V-8 and improved driver visibility, thanks to a slanted front clip. Models produced after 1980 used the chain-driven NP 208 transfer case. After 1988 they used the less desirable NP 241. The popular NP 205 transfer case was found in the K5 between 1973-'80 and is the most desirable thanks to its heavy-duty gear-driven design. K5s need very little aftermarket attention to produce impressive results on the trail. Basic upgrades such as bumpers, a lift, and lockers will net favorable results.

Runner-up: 1980-'96 Ford Bronco
Price range: $500 to $5,000
When it comes to building a do-all trail rig, many will argue that Ford's fullsize Bronco is the cat's meow. We like them because they're big enough to haul plenty of gear, yet nimble enough to park at the local shopping mall. (It's also worth mentioning that past FW editors crowned the 1980 variant Four Wheeler of the Year.) Two nice things about these rigs are that they're abundant and relatively inexpensive. Plus, a plethora of options exist in the aftermarket for them. The most sought-after versions are likely the 1990-'96 models because they came with the E4OD overdrive transmission; however, the earlier '80-'84 variants and even some '85s were equipped with the much-favored Ford 9-inch rear axle. If you can find a clean Bronco with a high-output 351 Windsor engine, you have a great starting point. These were only available between 1984 and '87, and with 210 hp in stock form, they are the most powerful Broncos available. Two things to keep in mind when looking for a used Bronco are: (1) Stay away from the 1980 model if you plan to install a suspension lift. Unfortunately, the '80 frame has several holes in it from the factory that make installing some lift kits extremely difficult; (2) Stay away from '87 models because they use a unique one-piece front-wheel hub assembly that can be costly to replace. Note that 1985 was the first model year for EFI on the Bronco. If you plan to drive a Bronco daily, know that the TTB-equipped rigs are difficult to keep aligned and not the easiest to lift. If going fast through the desert is your thing, get the '95 or '96 with the 351 Windsor V-8, but we recommend swapping in the earlier 9-inch rear axle. To do this you will need a vehicle-speed-sensor relocation kit available from California Pre Fun. Add a flexible long-travel suspension, maybe a bumper and winch, and you'll be out enjoying the trail in no time.

Midsize Suvs
The midsize SUV has grow in popularity in recent years, due in part to higher fuel prices. This is great for the used-truck buyer because there are lots of them to choose from and the aftermarket is well established. Size-wise, these vehicles are great as daily drivers, yet the cost of ownership typically will not prevent the average Joe from owning one as a dedicated trail machine.

First Place: 1984-2001 Jeep Cherokee XJ
Price range: $500 to $5,000
It might be appropriate to say the Jeep Cherokee is the VW Beetle of the modern SUV world. More than two million of these unibody rigs were produced in a whole assortment of configurations: Two-door, four-door, I-4, I-6, V-6, gas, diesel, in two- and four-wheel drive. These vehicles were Chrysler's catch-all solution for everything from a family hauler to rural-route delivery truck. Now they're sought after because of a lightweight (3,057-pound) unibody design that is supported by a plethora of aftermarket goodies. Jeep Speed recognizes them as the average working-man's desert racer, while even the strictest of Jeep purists will admit to having a soft spot for yesterday's grocery getter. Built in Toledo, Ohio, these rigs have served as workhorses in every sector of government, including the U.S. Postal Service and the armed forces. If you want a ton of options, the Cherokee will deliver. For the best value, look for a '93-'95 model with the 190hp H.O. 4.0L engine. These feature improvements to the electrical wiring harness as well as upgrades in fuel delivery, body stiffness, and instrumentation. The cooling system features a cap-on radiator design, and the I-6 of this era remain relatively simple in terms of emissions equipment. Watch out for the overheating issues on virtually all years of the Cherokee with the I-6 engine.

Runner-up: 1985-'89 Toyota 4Runner
Price range: $500 to $3,000
Where the mid-'80s Cherokee fell short, the Toyota 4Runner delivered. We loved the fact that these vehicles came with a removable rear fiberglass hardtop. Better yet, they're basically a Toyota pickup hiding underneath an SUV shell. Options abound, and these little trucks can be tricked out with everything from solid-axle swaps to V-8 conversions. Consider a 4Runner if you have kids or like the idea of having lockable storage. Private party prices are quite high compared to other SUVs of the era, but that's not a big surprise considering how well they age. Just about anything that can be done to a Toyota pickup will apply to the 4Runner. As such, we'd look for a rare '85 with a solid front axle and fuel injection. Otherwise, a solid-axle swap is a good idea for anybody who takes wheeling seriously. Head gasket failures are pretty common amongst the 22R and 22R-E engines, so be sure to check compression before purchasing.

Compact Suvs
Compact SUVs are the segment where you probably get the most bang for your buck when it comes to purchasing a used 4x4. Compact SUVs are typically inexpensive because they are lighter and therefore have less beefy components, requiring fewer raw materials to manufacture in the first place. We like them because as dedicated trail rigs, they are towable, cheap to maintain, and super-easy to modify. We're always impressed with how well lightweight rigs do on the trail.

First Place: 1985-'95 Suzuki Samurai
Price range: $200 to $1,600
In the world of four-wheeling, Samurais are often the butt of many jokes: "How many squirrels do you have under the hood?" It's a question we frequently overhear while watching a little Suzuki perform on the trail. Jokes aside, these micro-sized quasi-Jeeps really hold their own despite the absence of big power and flexy suspensions. We like them because they're small and simple. The Samurai had a 1.3L, 63hp four-cylinder engine and was available as a convertible or a hardtop. In '88 1/2, the Samurai was refreshed with a softer riding suspension, a larger sway bar to help reduce body roll, and a lower Fifth gear, which increased engine rpm and power at highway speeds. Naturally these are the more favorable versions to look for. One popular conversion we've seen is to swap in a fuel-injected 1.6L Geo Tracker ('89-'98) motor and drivetrain. Or, for those who crave even more power, Suzuki Lightning Conversions can set you up with either a V-6 or V-8 to make your Sammy unstoppable on the trail. We've also seen 8.8-inch Toyota pickup axles used under these rigs with great success, however, most owners tend to leave the drivetrain stock and simply modify the exterior to improve trailworthiness. Lots of affordable surprises exist in the aftermarket for Samurai owners.

Runner-up: 1997-2006 Jeep Wrangler TJ
Price range: $2,500 to $7,500
The popularity of the 2007-and-later Wrangler JK has contributed to a surplus of clean, buildable TJs, perfect for aftermarket perfectionists. There really is no limit to what you can do when it comes to modifying a TJ. The better of the two motor options is the multipoint-injected 4.0L I-6, which did a decent job of moving the lightweight Wrangler chassis around in stock form. Once bigger tires are added to the equation, more power is definitely needed. Advance Adapters offers a V-8 conversion kit that uses a Chevy small-block engine; AEV, Burnsville Offroad, and Jeep Speed Shop each specialize in 5.7L Hemi conversions for TJs. Given the fact that they have fully boxed frames with plenty of room under the hood, a V-8 swap makes a lot of sense. We like the TJ's simple coil-spring suspension design because it allows owners many options for lift kits, terrain tuning, and load carrying. The cat's meow, in our opinion, is the '06 Rubicon model with Dana 44 axles, 4:1 transfer case, and selectable lockers from the factory. However, for this story--and for those of you looking for a great deal in the $2,500 to $7,500 range--the '97-'00 Wrangler is probably your best bet. Many of them exist, and some even have a few of the desirable building blocks already in place for a very capable trail machine. These might include a dealer-installed suspension lift, genuine Jeep accessories such as a Warn winch, and bash-resistant Mopar bumpers. The hardtop is a good asset to have if you can find one, but most of all, consider the total mileage when searching for a TJ. Under 100,000 miles, they are strong runners and quite reliable. Upwards of 100,000 miles, you may want to think about big-ticket items such as engine, transmission, and transfer-case rebuilds. Pay attention to the models with Dana 35 rear axles. These are prone to failure, especially when fitted with larger-than-stock tires. Superior Axle offers a C-clip eliminator kit that addresses this issue.