Whether you’re looking to get off the pavement for some Overlanding or some serious rock-crawling, chances are you’re wondering what options you can find on the used car market in terms of capable but cheap off-road vehicles.
And while you might be lusting after the latest and greatest off-roaders with their 21st-century tech, trick suspensions, and rubber reminiscent of a monster truck rally, if you’re on a budget, a brand-new off-road machine might not be in the cards. Luckily, with a little research and a bit of elbow grease, you can find plenty of capable used vehicles that can be transformed into capable off-roaders.
How to Choose the Best Cheap Off-Road Vehicle
Before you spend your hard-earned cash, it’s helpful to narrow down what you do (and don’t) want in an off-road rig. To get you started, here are a few considerations to keep in mind while you’re shopping.
Have 4×4 Drivetrain, Will Travel
No matter where you want to go, if you’re going off the pavement on more than just a dirt road, you’ll want a 4×4 (also known as 4WD) vehicle, and, ideally, a 4×4 that has a low range. Some models have full-time 4×4 drivetrains; others have part-time 4×4 with a locking transfer case that allows you to swap between 2WD and 4WD. Either way, 4x4s have been specially designed to put power to all four wheels to give you the best off-road traction when you need it.
Low range is going to be even better for any extreme off-road situations where you want more torque at a lower speed. Good for steep slopes and tricky terrain, low range can make the difference between having a fun day off-roading and getting stuck on the trails. One thing to note: AWD is not the same as 4WD, so don’t get suckered into thinking that just because AWD powers all four wheels, it’s made for the dirt. AWD drivetrains tend to be optimized for driving on pavement.
Seating, Capacity & Use
Establish how you plan to use your new off-roader. Are you just doing day trips to tackle off-road obstacles? Are you planning to hit the road for multi-day overland adventures? Is this vehicle going to be your daily driver and you also need room for the kids and all their gear? How much space and seating you want can help quickly narrow down your list of potential options.
Aftermarket Mods & Maintenance
Depending on how you want to use your off-roader, you might already have or be compiling a dream list of modifications. If so, keep in mind that certain brands are well supported in the world of aftermarket off-road accessories. For example, Toyota and Jeep have some of the best aftermarket support and a big community of off-road enthusiasts to draw from. With all sorts of mods from mild to wild, if you can dream it, you can probably find it.
On the flip side of that, some brands are going to be more niche and potentially expensive to modify (or fix in the event that something breaks). If you opt for a used Land Rover, there is a high potential that you’re going to have to shell out a good chunk of change for any mods or for parts if something goes wrong.
Hit The Dirt With These 11 Cheap Off-Road Vehicles
It’s always a good idea to make sure you get the right vehicle to start with so you don’t regret it later on, especially if you’re on a tight budget. Here is a list of the affordable 4X4s to get you rolling down the trail:
Old school Jeep Cherokees are a dime a dozen and are one of the cheapest and most reliable vehicles to modify for off-road use. These are great for vehicles that are dedicated to going off-road, or as a mixed use daily driver. These Jeeps are available with an inline six cylinder 4.0 liter engine that is known for its torque, and can be found for dirt cheap. They can literally be found for their scrap metal price, which is only hundreds of dollars. And, when I say reliable, my family was responsible for throwing over 300,000 miles at an early 90s model before the transmission finally blew up.
It is totally possible to find a decent 4 wheel drive Trooper for under $1,000. Just make sure you don’t buy the 4 cylinder diesel or gasoline model, because performance was terrible. GM inserted the V6 from their small truck line, and all was well for the boxy looking sport utility. The 4 wheel drive system is quite capable, and many have successfully taken them up and over some huge rocks. They aren’t as abundant as some of the other best 4X4s on this list, but are plentiful enough to get one in good shape.
Toyota trucks are some of the most reliable trucks ever built. They aren’t without their issues, however. What kind of issues? Rust has a way of setting in on older Toyota vehicles, and if you are in the market, inspect it closely before you buy. If it has rusted, walk away from that deal. However, if you can find one with minimal or no rust, you’ve got a very capable off-road vehicle that can also be used as a daily driver. They can start out at $500 and go up from there depending upon the options and condition.
Toyota Land Cruiser
Far from the cheapest (or smallest) 4X4 on this list; the Land Cruiser has a proud history of being a capable off-roader with the ability to also tote the kids around in comfort and style. There is enough room for seven people or loads of camping gear. And, the 4 wheel drive system is more than enough to get you where you need to be, on just about any trail. However, finding one for less than 4K can be difficult, and you may need to wait for the perfect one to fall into your lap.
Some people are going to think I’m nuts, and I’m okay with that. Because usually, when someone thinks about Subaru going off-road, it is in the form of a rally car. However, the ground clearance of these peppy little all-wheel drive cars rivals that of some of the larger vehicles on this list (like the Cherokee). While there isn’t a lot of work that can be done to them to get several inches of travel to go, say, rock crawling, they are still a formidable opponent on just about any trail where huge rocks aren’t present. The argument can also be made that they receive the best fuel mileage on this list, make great daily drivers and are affordable starting at $1,000.
Jeep Grand Cherokee
Think of this sport utility vehicle as the bigger, more luxurious brother to the boxier Cherokee. These Jeeps had the option to come with the aforementioned six cylinder, or a V8. While these aren’t quite as cheap as the regular Cherokee, they can be a more comfortable option without lacking any off-road capability. And, as always, the extra power from those two extra pistons can only help you do more. They can be found in decent shape starting at about $800.
The Wrangler is the most expensive 4X4 (Jeep or otherwise) on this list. The reason being, there is the perception that you can usually do more with a Wrangler. A lot of the vehicles on this list (like the other Jeeps) have uni-body frames, while the Wrangler utilizes a ladder frame which allows you to get even higher off the ground. Some of the Wranglers came with a 4 cylinder engine, which I’d stay away from just because they don’t offer up the same resale value. Furthermore, if you’re going to build a capable off-road rig, then a mid-sized engine is the better way to go. A decent, rust-free Wrangler in good working order can be found for $4-5,000.
Ford Bronco II
I have a friend who used to have one of these with tires almost as tall as he was. I’m not quite sure what the point was, because if a good gust of wind came through, it just about blew over. And while driving? Forget about it. It gave new meaning to the term “top-heavy.” However, with moderate lifts, the Ford can be quite maneuverable off-road, and tend to be very affordable at around the $600 mark.
These aren’t quite as capable off-road as some of the other vehicles on this list are. However, they can be found for very cheap, which leaves some money for further modifications down the road. Decent Nissan Pathfinders from the early 90s can be found starting at just $600, just be sure to inspect for rust first, because it can be an issue. Finally, the V6 that these affordable 4X4s came with is enough engine to get you through the woods.
This is the kind of machine you either love or hate. There really is no in between. On one hand, they get great fuel mileage because they are a small, light weight vehicle with a tiny engine. But on the other hand, in order to do any serious off-roading in a Samurai, you need some power to move the bigger tires you’re gonna need to actually go anywhere. There is, however, a huge cult following for these things with a ton of aftermarket parts. Good Suzuki Samurai prices generally start at about $3,000 and go up from there.
Another of the larger vehicles on this list is the Mitsubishi Montero. These were sturdy SUVs built with a good V6 and decent ground clearance. Once again, the issue is the rust, so make sure you look it over before you buy. These can be found in the $2-3,000 range and are quite capable off-road, however because they aren’t that popular, aftermarket parts may be limited.