Tom Zizzo, a journalist, has also spent many years selling truck and SUV accessories.
Tank Trap Victim at Hollister
If you’ve never had the pleasure of driving off road, and I’m not just talking about driving through icy roads on the way to a ski lodge, you’re missing out on one of automotive’s true enjoyments. But before you decide to take that $40K+ SUV off the pavement, consider a relatively small investment by comparison in what I consider to be some of the best off-road vehicles money can buy.
7 Best Off-Road Vehicles That Won't Break the Bank
- Chevy Blazer (1973–1991)
- Toyota 4Runner (1984–1989)
- Jeep CJ5 (1964–1986)
- International Scout II (1971–1980)
- Land Rover Defender (1990–2007)
- Ford Bronco (1966–1977)
- Toyota SR5 Pickup (1984–1994)
1. Chevy Blazer (1973–1991)
Although its size may seem intimidating for an agile off-road vehicle, don’t let that fool you. The classic full-size Blazer (it got much smaller in the early 90s) is not only fully capable for off-road use, it handles itself quite well despite it being much larger than say a Jeep CJ5 or Toyota FJ40 Land Cruiser. I personally like the ’73 to '75 because it has a fully removable hardtop-years after, only the rear part of the hardtop could be removed. The older ones in CA are also smog-exempt.
The Blazer was such a good off-road vehicle, even the US Military used them, and you can actually find those for sale, with the added bonus that most have diesel engines, which in CA is exempt from having to get a smog check-I think. It’s larger size is also an advantage over smaller off-road vehicles like the CJ5 Jeeps that are limited to what they can carry on camping trips, and parts are relatively easy to find. Pre-73 Blazers are also really great off-road vehicles, and all of them have fully removable hardtops, but their cool classic lines makes them a little pricier and more sought after by collectors.
2. Toyota 4Runner (1984–1989)
Toyota trucks have always been great off-road vehicles, but the first generation 4Runners are my favorite for several reasons. The classic 22R motor may not be the most powerful, but what it lacks in horsepower, it makes up for with low-end torque-ideal for off-road driving. Couple that with extra back seats and a removable hardtop, and you have the makings of an early-era SUV that’s more like a truck, unlike today’s SUVs that are more like cars. Of course, since it’s a Toyota, it’s very reliable, 200K miles on the odometer is like just passing the break-in period.
3. Jeep CJ5 (1964–1986)
No off-road vehicle list would be complete without the classic Jeep. Older years are also just as cool (technically made by Willys), regardless of what company owned the brand, they’re basically the same. What makes them cool are their simplicity in my opinion. It really doesn’t take much to completely tear down a classic Jeep to a rolling chassis. Nearly every body panel is available to be replaced, including the entire tub. Think about it, they have no doors (unless it has a hard top, which many don’t), not much of an interior or inside body panels—they are just simple, raw, off-road workhorses.
Parts are easy to find, and under the hood it’s fairly easy to modify them. The classic straight six motor, which was common with the AMC-made Jeeps, are great motors, even the old military Jeeps with the old F-head motors are bullet-proof, sadly gutless, but they can climb just about anything. Their short wheelbase makes them prone to rolling, but I’ve seen them get rolled back over and keep on going. They’re also just really fun to drive and ride in.
4. International Scout II (1971–1980)
The original Scout by International Harvester from 1960 is arguably the first ever true SUV. It was slightly larger than a Jeep, and with a removable hardtop and four-wheel drive, it would start a trend that would define a new category of utility vehicle, which isn’t a huge surprise coming from a company that makes farm equipment.
While the original 800 design is cool, my favorite is the Scout II that came out in 1971. It’s simple, it’s the right size—not too big, not too small—and it’s as tough as nails, and this is coming from experience. The only drawback to the Scout is that they were built with a mix-match of drive train parts, which some might argue is partly why they’re cool. It’s not uncommon to find one with an AMC motor and a Ford rear end, that’s not custom, they came that way.
A good motor in the Scout, like the Jeep, is the straight six you will find in just about any car built by American Motors in the 70’s and 80’s. But the nice thing about the Scouts is that adapting a Chevy 350 crate motor is as simple as a bolt-on kit from Advance Adapters. Of course, the fully removable hardtop and rugged looks make the Scout a cool and capable off roader. There are also some diesel models, which is rare for these types of early SUVs, and they have a cult following, so finding parts isn’t too difficult.
5. Land Rover Defender (1990–2007)
While Land Rover has always been known for being the international, ultimate off-road vehicle, being used by different militaries around the world, the best model, in my opinion, is the Defender. Is it a luxury SUV? You might think that at first, and yes, it is most certainly a higher-end vehicle, but when you get close and really examine one, you’ll see it has all the traits of the other off-road vehicles on my list.
It’s simple, the top is removable, I’m pretty sure the doors are too, and it’s probably the most comfortable ride on my list. Sadly, it’s also the most expensive, but it’s too good not to include. I know for a fact that at one of Off Road magazine's Top Truck challenges at Hollister Hills, they featured a nearly stock Defender, which won the most comfortable ride class. The owner actually came into the shop I was working at for accessories.
6. Ford Bronco (1966–1977)
I like the early Broncos because of their smaller size and adaptability. One problem with these though is a lot of other people like them too. Finding one cheap may mean it needs a lot of work as properly restored vintage Broncos can sell for up to $20K or more, and if you’re planning on keeping the original, stock V-8 in a first generation Bronco, be prepared that the motor is willfully underpowered. Despite all that, these old SUVs have all the cool features like fully removable hardtops, basic interior, and they’re easy to modify. Some of the early models even have the rare half-cab hardtop, which I have only ever seen on the old International Scouts.
7. Toyota SR5 (1984–1994)
I realize I have already mentioned the first generation 4Runners, but also worth mentioning are the older Toyota trucks, commonly referred to as the SR5s. They’re cool for most of the same reasons the old 4Runners are cool. The 22R motor is reliable, although not very powerful, and great to take the abuse of off-road driving.
The great thing about these trucks is they don’t need many modifications to be a really great off-road truck. Add some bigger tires, a snorkel on the air intake and an after-market locking differential in the rear, and that truck will go just about anywhere. The only problem is finding one used that hasn’t been driven to the moon and back. I know a guy that bought one off an old couple that use to tow it behind their RV, and it was immaculate, and all original-very rare, and can get pricey for one in that good of condition.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
joey decker on April 22, 2014:
I like ur cite