Getting your first vehicle is a rite of passage. For many, it was simple transportation that was a few levels below what was even considered basic. Stuff like coat hanger antennas, duct tape glove box latches, and doors that were so in need of hinge bushings the latches wouldn’t even line up. “You’ve gotta slam it!” Reliability? Bah, that’s for rich people. First vehicles were an experience in the laws of chance and probability. Would it start, or wouldn’t it? Let’s find out on this edition of, “I’m late for class and need to leave NOW!”
But that was then, and by and large things have gotten better now. Believe it or not, despite all the moaning about how much better things used to be, in terms of vehicle design we’re leaps and bounds ahead of where we’ve come. Sure, there’s more plastic that can chalk and fade and look crappy, and trim is held on by glues and double-sided tape that can fail over time, but we’re talking about the hardcore mechanical systems that actually get you from point A to B.
Engines aren’t festooned with miles of vacuum line and analog emissions devices, problematic carburetors, or questionable points ignition systems, so it’s not uncommon for a vehicle to easily stretch its term of reliability way out past 150,000 or even 250,000 miles. And that’s not to mention modern safety features like air bags, ABS brakes, and so on. So if it’s time to start shopping for your first vehicle, and you just so happen to think you might also like to do a bit of easy to moderate off-roading, here are five great 4x4s that can still be purchased for less than a small fortune.
1998-2003 Isuzu Amigo
[In Ron Burgundy voice]: We don’t know if you realize, but Isuzu vehicles were kind of a big deal. Well, at least they were around the Y2K era. They offered rugged durability, good (for its day) styling, and honest on- and off-road capability. And of those, the Isuzu Amigo was one of the best bang-for-the-buck off-roaders in the company’s arsenal. Although the 1989-1997 first-gen models are still great, offering things like a removable rear roof, seating for four, and a solid rear axle with IFS front suspension, the second-generation models from 1998 to 2003 were where the vehicle hit its stride.
With some great underpinnings like a real all-iron Dana 44 rear axle, durable IFS front suspension that can take a beating, four-wheel disc brakes, a nice optional 3.2L V-6, and a comfortable interior with air bags, the Amigo is a great way to buy a mix of on-road comfort, off-road capability, and modern amenities. Nowadays, Isuzu vehicles are largely overlooked, but if you find one of these jewels for sale and the undercarriage is solid and free of severe rust and rot, go for it.
1991-2001 Jeep Cherokee
The internet is a mean place. After all, where else can keyboard toughs cast slings and arrows of uninformed opinion from the safety of their parents’ basement. One of the internet curiosities that’s sprung up is various memes and jokes comparing the Jeep Cherokee XJ to a dumpster.
Well, if it’s a dumpster into which Jeep tossed all of its best drivetrain components of the time, then perhaps it’s true. In fact, this author has said for decades that the 1991-2000 Jeep Cherokee XJs came with some of the very best, most durable drivetrains Jeep has ever offered in any of its vehicles right up to today, starting in 1991 with the introduction of Jeep’s excellent 4.0L inline six-cylinder engine. The 2001 Jeep Cherokee is a close second, but by then Jeep knew the model was drawing down and had started using low-pinion Dana 30 front axles from the TJ in lieu of the high-pinion Dana 30s that came in the 1991-2000 models and had added a coil-on-plug ignition in place of the previous tried-and-true distributor and plug wires.
Out back, the rear axle was either a rare Dana 44 (more commonly found on the non-HO Cherokee Wagoneer models of the late 1980s) or the Chrysler 8.25. Between the 4.0L engine and durable axles was either an excellent Aisin-built AW4 four-speed auto or AX15 five-speed manual and either a full/part-time NP242 or part-time NP231 T-case.
All this was wrapped in a boxy 1991-1996 or a slightly rounded-off 1997-2001 wagon-style two- or four-door utility vehicle with a rear swing-up hatch, seating for five, and a nice interior. Of the two generations, the later revised 1997-up models got dual front airbags and a nicer, more modern dash layout. If the unitbody is free of rust and the doors open and close easily, an XJ Cherokee from these years will give you years of reliable transportation and miles of off-road enjoyment while asking for only minimal upkeep and maintenance.
1999-2004 Nissan Xterra
Unless you’ve actually been there, you may not realize that Australia is home to more than reruns of The Crocodile Hunter and the backdrop for the movie Quigley Down Under. But no matter the case, Australia holds an enormous amount of space, and its points of interest are connected by thousands of miles of unimproved dirt roads that wind and weather turn into a corrugated torture test for the vehicles that traverse it. Australian corrugations can literally shake a vehicle apart very, very quickly. We’ve seen stress cracks on body, frame, suspension components, and broken glass, not to mention stuff like blown motor or transmission mounts, shocks, and so on. So when we see most Australians who routinely travel these horrendous Outback roads driving almost exclusively Nissan or Toyota vehicles because most others literally fall apart in big chunks, we take notice.
Nissan offered value-centric vehicles in the early 2000s with the tagline, “Everything you need, nothing you don’t.” So if you’re looking for a great first used 4×4 SUV and need durability and survivability, but not fluff and amenities, then the first-gen 1999-2004 Nissan Xterra are a great option. In the US market you’ll find most with a 3.3L V-6 that made an adequate 170 hp, later bumped to 180 hp in the 2002-2004 models. Backing this would be either a five-speed manual or four-speed auto and an all-gear T-case splitting power to a solid rear axle and an IFS front. The factory shocks were nothing to write home about, fading quickly and often puking their seals. Still, it’s easy work to swap to a set of better aftermarket shocks, and as long as you keep the engine in tune and swap fluids at regular service intervals, most of these trucks give good service. The interiors are simple but highly functional, with a large swing-out rear tailgate to access the cargo area and seating for five. Nissan didn’t skimp on the ladder frame strength or tow hook attachment points, so even out of the box, your standard Nissan Xterra is better equipped for mild to moderate off-roading than many of its domestic counterparts.
1987-1995 Jeep Wrangler
Another internet redheaded stepchild is the square-headlighted, AMC-designed Jeep Wrangler from 1987-1995. After media reports convinced the public that merely standing next to a Jeep CJ-7 would cause it to roll over and squish you, a major redesign of the Jeep utility vehicle was implemented. The resulting Wrangler featured many design elements intended to aid cornering stability and reduce the potential for rollover during severe maneuvers. The highlights included wider axles, front-and-rear track bars and a front antisway bar, a wider spread on the framerails, and leaf springs that were pushed out farther toward the tires, away from the centerline of the vehicle. The benefit of these changes was more stability on road at the expense of off-road flexibility and suspension articulation. Savy YJ Wrangler owners quickly determined that you could ditch the track bars and sway bar to greatly increase off-road performance and help keep all four tires on the ground to maintain forward momentum off-road without the aid of a locker.
The drivetrains in these little Jeeps are pretty simple, with a fuel-injected 2.5L four-cylinder (TBI for 1987-1990, MPT for 1991-1995) or an optional 4.2L (1987-1990) or 4.0L (1991-1995) ) inline six-cylinder engine. Of these, the 1987-1990 Wranglers with the 4.2L were the dogs in factory form, with a complicated electrically controlled emissions carburetor and problematic analog emissions devices. To further accentuate this, unless you got one of the less common three-speed auto variants, the 4.2L was backed by the lousy Peugeot-built BA10/5 five-speed manual which had the longevity of a chicken in a gator pond. Otherwise, all of the manual transmissions were great, with the 2.5L receiving the AX4 four- or AX5 five-speed transmission and the 4.0Ls the AX15 five-speed. In any case, the transfer case was an excellent NP231 part-time unit. Axles were adequate in the form of a high-pinion Dana 30 front with a central axle disconnect system that uncoupled the passenger-side axleshaft. These systems can be bad nowadays, but there are plenty of aftermarket repair or delete systems to address this. The rear axle is an OK Dana 35 out back without C-clips up until 1990, but from 1991 the Dana 35 used a cheaper-to-manufacture C-clip style Dana 35 that allowed the whole rear tire and wheel to fall off if an axleshaft broke. But that said, this is only really an issue with much larger-than-stock tires and wheels and heavy off-roading, so for the first-time 4×4 buyer, these little Wranglers still offer one of the most affordable ways to step into an open-air Jeep without breaking the bank.
1995-2004 Toyota Tacoma
Everyone needs to own at least one pickup truck in their lifetime. And if you’re buying a pickup, it may as well be 4×4, right? And if you’re buying a 4×4 pickup at least once in your life, wouldn’t it be nice if that truck was durable enough to last your entire life? That’s our long-winded way of saying the Toyota Tacoma has a lot of life. It’s not uncommon to find these little 1995-2004 4×4 Tacomas on the market with up to 300,000 to 500,000 miles on the original drivetrain, especially the venerable little 2.7L four-cylinder. That said, many more first-gen 4×4 Tacomas left the factory with the 3.4L V-6, which suffered from head gasket problems in its infancy.
A major recall during the mid 1990s into the early 2000s fixed the head gasket issues, but then came severe frame corrosion problems that began manifesting as it came to light the corrosion protection on the factory frames was inadequate. That was cause for another huge recall in which Toyota actually replaced the entire frame assembly under warranty. It’ll be pretty evident if the Tacoma you’re looking at was not part of the frame recall and was operated in wet or winter weather areas because most of the rear frame from the rear leaf spring hangers back will be rotted almost completely away. Don’t buy one of these if the one you’re shopping has frame rot. But otherwise, providing all the recalls were done, these trucks are durable, reliable, and actually pretty darn capable, with a decent smattering of aftermarket parts availability.
The engines, while not extremely powerful, are relatively economical and utterly reliable, as are the manual or automatic transmissions. The T-case assembly are all-gear and, even with hundreds of thousands of miles, often shift like butter. Factor in high-quality fasteners, good electrical systems, twin front airbags, and long-wearing interior fabrics/surfaces, and you’ve got a recipe for an awesome first 4×4 that’ll be easy to drive, provide great utility, and can be the fodder of a lot of fun.