Sales of trucks, SUVs, and crossovers are booming right now. While huge, inefficient vehicles make terrible transportation for the vast majority of drivers, the fast pace of innovation in that space benefits us adventurers. Here’s a list of the best new-for-2018 vehicles that are capable of carrying you, your outdoors gear, and your dog off the beaten path.
(Who am I to be telling you which cars to buy? Well, I’ve been reviewing vehicles in a professional capacity for 15 years, meaning I’ve driven virtually every car and truck on-sale. Despite that experience, my daily driver is a notoriously unreliable old Land Rover, on which I perform most of the maintenance and repairs myself. I also travel off-road most weekends, and sometimes even get to call doing that my job.)
2019 Ford Ranger
For seemingly forever, the Toyota Tacoma has been the only mid-size pickup available to drivers who wanted a truck, but didn’t want to deal with the unwieldy, inefficient proportions of a half-ton. But with basically no competition, Toyota has had no reason to spend much money on innovation, and the Taco they want to sell you today is virtually the same as the one they probably did sell you back in 2004. Chevy tried to compete a couple years ago, but the Colorado hasn’t been able to take on the Tacoma’s vast aftermarket—you need parts like suspension lifts, steel bumpers, and other accessories if you want to get serious off-road.
The new 2019 Ranger, which goes on sale this year, addresses those issues. Fitted with Ford’s excellent new 2.3-liter, twin-turbo four-cylinder motor, it promises to deliver a huge boost in torque over the competition, while the 10-speed transmission should take both performance and fuel economy even further. Because it’s based on a platform that’s been on-sale in Australia since 2011, and because Australia is a market with exceptionally high demand for legit off-road capability, there’s already a thriving market for aftermarket upgrades. When it goes on-sale late this year, you’ll be able to upgrade your Ranger with all manner of proven parts.
2018 Subaru Crosstrek
Starting at just $21,795, the Crosstrek is one of the most affordable new cars on-sale today. It’s also one of the best. Despite its low price tag, this Subaru seats five adults in comfort, is fun to drive, returns very good fuel economy, and is surprisingly capable on rough dirt roads. If you live in a city and need to parallel park on weekdays, but want to escape for camping trips on the weekend, this car has been purpose-designed for you. Did I mention it’s one of the safest vehicles around? And that it’s one of the few new cars still available with a manual transmission?
In stock form, the Crosstrek is nearly perfect. But a few bolt-on modifications can really boost your ability to take it to faraway places. Ditching the stock tires for a set of lightweight all-terrains will help make the most of Subaru’s awesome all-wheel drive system, while protecting you from punctures. A roof basket or box will free up room inside the car for your dogs. A basic vehicle recovery kit will enable you to get out of trouble when you can’t call AAA. And all those things are lease friendly. Which is great, because one of those starts at just $179 per month, making this brand-new car a much better proposition than buying anything else used.
2018 Range Rover Velar
This is Land Rover’s first car-based vehicle (it shares a platform with the Jaguar XE), but surprisingly, that doesn’t really limit its capabilities off-road. In fact, the all-wheel drive system is capable of locking its center differential, equally splitting torque between the front and rear axles. Add in the optional rear locker, and this thing is capable of finding more traction than most traditional body-on-frame SUVs. It also has hill-descent control, to help keep you safe on steep stuff.
Why choose the Velar over other Land Rovers? Well, because of the way it looks, obviously, but also because its car platform creates a very spacious interior and a very smooth ride. On a dirt road, with the rear diff locked, the air suspension soaking up bumps, and the low center of gravity helping to keep the car planted, the Velar is about the closest thing to a rally car you can buy.
2018 Ford Expedition FX4
Ford used to own Land Rover, and it appears that the sophisticated terrain management system developed by the latter is being installed in new trucks made by the former. The system works by tweaking individual brake calipers on-the-fly, mimicking the wheel speed-matching benefits of locking diffs to maximize traction. It does that automatically, through modes tailored to different environments, thereby asking very little of the driver. Combine that with four-wheel drive, low-range gears, and a locking rear diff, and you have a formula for a very large, eight-seat workhorse that’s actually very good off-road.
The other big advantage the Expedition has over rivals is independent rear suspension. Not only does that create a smooth ride, and make this giant handle like a much smaller vehicle, but it also leads to a lower floor inside the cabin. That means loading stuff into the trunk is way easier than it would be in something like a Chevy Tahoe. Plus, it makes the third row genuinely comfortable, even for six-foot-plus adults. The motor’s awesome, the gearbox is better…this thing is a winner.
2018 Volvo XC60
Grown out of your Subaru? The XC60 will deliver similar dirt road capability in a much nicer package. Volvo is now owned by Geely, and the Chinese company is pumping money into its Swedish luxury brand, while allowing it the freedom to build cars the way it wants to. That’s resulting in unique, stylish sedans, wagons, and crossovers like this one that feel way more special than their German rivals.
The XC60’s cabin is a genuinely delightful space to spend time, and it's big enough to cart five adult humans, a dog or two, and their outdoor gear for a weekend getaway. Once you’re back home, the swanky exterior will make everyone on your street think you spent a lot more money on this thing than you actually did. The best part? There’s a plug-in hybrid version available. That’s rocket ship fast, gives you an 18-mile electric-only range, and returns 59 MPGe.
2018 Jeep Wrangler
For a lot of people, “off-road” really means dirt roads. If to you it means rocks, logs, and deep water crossings, then you’ll need a Wrangler. Already the most capable vehicle sold in this country, the Wrangler was redesigned for 2018, resulting in improved angles, room for bigger tires, and much better engine options. Together, those improvements would make this the best Wrangler yet, but then Jeep went even further, improving the quality of interior materials and making the soft top less of a pain to take up and down. You just cannot go wrong with one of these things.
2018 Ford F-150
With an absolutely gigantic interior and utterly awesome engines and transmissions, the F-150 was already our favorite full-size pickup. For its 40th birthday this year, it’s been heavily redesigned, and more importantly gained an optional turbo diesel.
With huge amounts of low-down torque, diesels don't work as hard as their gasoline-powered equivalents when tasked with a heavy load. That means they retain more of their fuel economy and performance when the bed is loaded down or when you’re towing. So, if your adventures involve taking a ton of gear with you, or if you want to build an off-road RV or overland rig, this is now the half-ton of choice. Ford’s FX4 package is available across all the various F-150 trims and engines, meaning you can spec your diesel with stiffer shocks, and a locking rear differential, too.