Caught the truck bug? Here are three 4x4s that are plenty good off-road in stock form—or even better as the basis for custom builds.
$10,000: Toyota 4Runner
This budget should get you a seriously nice, low-mileage, unmolested third-generation 4Runner (1995–2002), with a little cash leftover for some basic service and repair work, or allow you to buy and build a first-gen (1984–1989) into something like our ultimate overland 4Runner.
Both versions are small, light, simply designed SUVs that were produced in large quantities. That simplicity, combined with that volume, means they are easy to work on and easy to find parts for. You’ll be able to do everything yourself, and any repair shop in the country will know exactly what’s wrong, should you need a little help. You’ll be able to pull upgrade parts from junkyards, internet forums, or, even now, most parts catalogs.
While these trucks are famous for their long-term reliability, anything this old is going to require some TLC before you can rely on it out on the trail. Whenever you buy an older vehicle, you should take time to replace all the fluids (oil for the engine, transmission transfer case, and diffs; coolant; brake fluid); inspect the brake pads, discs, and lines, replacing where necessary; and do the same with the wheel bearings, steering components, and suspension. Both of these 4Runners suffer from saggy rear suspension that needs to be replaced on pretty much all examples, but fortunately you can identify that by simply looking to see if the rear of the vehicle is drooping.
Prices will vary heavily, based on maintenance history and condition. At the sub-$10K level, it’s worth seeking out the nicest example and paying a premium for it. If recent work or upgrades have been performed, I often negotiate with the seller by offering to split the cost with them. That makes them feel like they didn’t make a bad decision, and you get stuff you were going to have to pay for anyway at half-price. Compare prices nationwide, and be prepared to travel for the right truck.
I actually just got a third-gen V6 in a trade for a motorcycle and plan to use it as a winter beater at our new house in Montana. The state salts its roads heavily, and I don’t want my old Land Rover to rot away. Unlike the Rover, this truck is mostly stock, with the exception of upgraded Old Man Emu suspension and slightly upsized all-terrain tires. That should be enough to tackle most off-road challenges, while keeping the truck very road-friendly. The seller replaced the head gaskets and brake discs just before the sale, and I helped him put the OME suspension on it two years ago, so that has decades of life left in it.
$20,000: Lexus GX 470
Even fitted with the 3.4-liter V6, my new-old 4Runner is slow and unrefined. Start talking about long road trips or multiweek overland adventures and you’re going to want a little more comfort. That’s doubly true if you plan to use your truck as a daily driver. Enter the 2002–2009 Lexus GX470.
Based on the everywhere-but-the-U.S. Toyota Land Cruiser Prado, the GX has legit body-on-frame construction and full-time four-wheel drive. That gives it legit off-road articulation, angles, and traction, but you’ll really appreciate the luxury features and engine. The interior is a Lexus, so expect wood, leather, and about a million buttons. Luckily, some of those are for features you’ll want, like hill descent control and the Mark Levinson sound system. The 4.7-liter V8 makes 270 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque—more than fast enough to keep ahead on highways, even after you’ve lifted it onto big tires.
Don’t be put off by this car’s styling. It takes well to steel bumpers, rock rails, and big tires. All of which are easily sourced. Do all that stuff and you’ll have a very capable overlander that’s also a very nice place to spend time. Right around $20,000 should be enough to buy both a good example of a stock vehicle and get most of the upgrades you’ll want.
$30,000: Ford Raptor
This is a lot of money, and it will get you one hell of a truck. Launched in 2009, the first-generation F-150 Raptor brought incredibly high-quality triple-bypass suspension and other off-road upgrades to what was already a very good truck, making it the most capable off-road pickup ever available with a warranty. In 2010, Ford launched a much more powerful 6.2-liter V8, and that’s the only model you should buy.
Unlike any previous factory specials, the Raptor was built to be a high-speed desert runner. That dictated widening the front track by six inches, fitting a suspension system that would have cost $10,000 in the aftermarket, and adding unique bodywork to cover the widened front. Four-wheel drive and a locking rear differential were standard, as was hill descent control.
One of the proudest achievements of my past life as a car guy was the bougie East Hampton Star running an expose on a poor kid from Brooklyn (me) visiting eastern Long Island to jump a bright-orange pickup truck off a sand dune. While the Raptor is obviously designed to catch air, all that suspension works just as well to keep you comfortable on dirt trails. And that makes the Raptor an excellent companion on long trips and through difficult terrain.
There’s no point in buying one of these to lift it even more. If you want to do that, spend less money on something that doesn’t already come with such expensive suspension. Instead, focus your modifications on protection parts (the front bumper and skid plate are particularly in need of upgrading) and lighting. You’ll want as many lumens as possible when you’re running through Baja in the pitch-black night.