The Top 8 Off-Road Vehicles for Real People with Real Lives
By MATTHEW CLAYSON, 12/18/2018
We all love a little eye candy. Big, bulky trucks with knobby 30+ inch tires, grills the size of Texas and ground clearance that could swallow the Empire State Building – all slicing through muddy river beds or perfectly perched on the top of a rock cropping thousands of feet above a valley floor or charging through a herd of antelope at a 45-degree incline. The perfect blend of man-made muscle and exotic, rugged and isolated destinations.
But, we’re gonna get real here. How many of us can afford to shell out $50,000 plus for a vehicle that we’re gonna drive into the ground, beat on regularly, coat with mud, snow, and ice while loading with wood, feed, deer carcasses, coolers and muddy ATV’s, snowmobiles, kayaks and the like? Exactly.
So, let’s talk about top off-road vehicles for real people with real lives and real incomes. People who thrive outdoors. People who own acreage. People who cut and haul brush. Chop their own wood. Have their own secret fishing hole or hunting tract. Those who take the back roads to poach the untracked powder or carve that perfect trail. People who deal with deep snow, dirt roads, old logging trails, two tracks and farm trails.
So, in our top off-road vehicles list, we’re going to omit the Land Rover’s, Mercedes Benz G550’s and Hennessy’s. We know… …they look amazing covered in dust and traversing the Sahara… …we also know that these are niche vehicles that few of us will ever be able to afford or enjoy. Rather, we are going to stick to vehicles that meet a criterion that emphasizes capability, capacity, durability, reliability, value and consumer preference.
The methodology behind our top list is simple: we cross reference best-in-class rankings for vehicle dependability - e.g. J.D. Power’s “U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study”- against 2018 sales numbers provided by our proprietary datasets and the conversations that we are having with real shoppers in our Detroit-based shopper support center and generate our list of top off-road vehicles that people want to drive.
#8. Chevrolet Colorado
Base MSRP Range: $20,200 - $40,000
The base Chevrolet Colorado is an attractive, capable truck. They’re loaded with the most recent electronic gadgets, such as GM’s proprietary MyLink audio system. And they’re efficient, logging in a respectable 18 MPG in the city and up to 25 MPG on the highway. Sure, the ride can be choppy at times – but base models fit with 4-wheel are affordable options for the casual off-roader who seek aggressive styling coupled with legendary Chevrolet durability.
Now, for those serious off-roaders seeking to kick things into high gear, let us introduce the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2. We’re talking 31-inch Goodyear tires, Multimatic DSSV shock absorbers, an impressive 8.9 inches ground clearance and track width and front and rear electronic locking differentials (you’re an enthusiast, you know what that means). Not to be outdone, the good people at Chevrolet added nine (9) drive configurations as well as Hill Descent Control to the ZR2. Engine options include a 2.8-liter turbodiesel four-cylinder engine (181 hp and 369 pound-feet of torque) coupled with a six-speed automatic transmission or a 3.6-liter V6 engine (308 hp and 275 lb-ft of torque) coupled with an eight-speed automatic transmission. Keep in mind, the diesel engine has a few drawbacks compared to the gas V6. Whatever option you choose, all are backed by Chevrolet’s commitment to quality, ranked by J.D. Power as one of the most dependable brands in its 2018 U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study.
#7. Jeep Cherokee
Base MSRP Range: $23,995 - $37,775
It’s amazing how simple things like a new headlight configuration and license plate placement can transform the look of a vehicle. For 2019, the distinctive and somewhat avante-garde Cherokee has been refreshed to better articulate the brand DNA shared by its larger and smaller siblings. And we like the new look. We also like the new turbocharged four-cylinder engine option, which adds a much needed, peppy alternative to the rather sluggish base four-cylinder engine that is standard on the Cherokee.
Unchanged is the Cherokee’s off-road capabilities. Cherokees are equipped with four-wheel drive and standard with the Selec-Terrain system, which allows you to choose from five terrain settings for various road conditions. Seeking even more off-road capability, check out the Cherokee’s Trailhawk trim package, offering a low-range gear in its four-wheel-drive system, allowing it to scale those picture-perfect steep, dirty, rocky inclines like no other. The Trailhawk trim package also includes Select-Speed Control – think of it as cruise control for low-speed rock crawling. The off-road-ready Trailhawk starts at $33,695. Sure, the Escape or Rav-4 may have more technology and more aggressive styling, but what good are electronic gadgets and additional fascia plates when you’re two tracking through deep snow to poach some fresh tracks?
#6. Jeep Wrangler
Base MSRP Range: $27,495 - $40,995
American muscle, American styling, American capability, and American grit: the first vehicle that comes to most people’s minds when they think off-road, the Jeep Wrangler remains a perennial favorite for outdoor enthusiasts seeking to make a statement with a distinctive, capable, gritty vehicle. Yeah, its ride is rough and noisy, it costs more than other compact SUV’s and clunky features such as its exterior mounted door hinges can lead to unexpected maintenance hassles, but these inconveniences take a back seat when you’re effortlessly plowing through 36-inch snowdrifts, across muddy streambeds, and over unmaintained two-tracks. Kicking it old school, the base Wrangler comes standard with a six-speed, short throw manual transmission (if only it was a long throw, like the off-road God’s intended… …alas, we can only strive for perfection). Long throw vs short throw aside, an eight-speed automatic transmission is available for those who fear the clutch. Standard is 10.8-inches of ground clearance, an approach angle of 43.9, departure angle of 37, and break over angle of 22.6 (27.8 on the 2-door version). The popular Rubicon edition comes with an electronically locking front and rear differentials, an electronically disconnecting front anti-roll bar, and a 4.00:1 low range for its part-time four-wheel-drive system. It also rides on strengthened Dana 44 axles front and rear. Seeking an off-road warrior to handle those deep, muddy two tracks near the lake, then the Wrangler is the vehicle for you.
#5. Nissan Armada
Base MSRP Range: $46,090 - $62,090
Wide, confident and numbing – this beast is meant for deep sand and wide trails as well as everyday commutes. If you are a daily commuter and weekend off-road warrior, then this vehicle is the one for you. Sharing the same platform as the Nissan Patrol SUV, a favorite of the oil-rich aristocrats of Dubai, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, the Armada is spacious, surprisingly refined and powerful. Standard is a 5.6L V8 and a smooth-shifting seven-speed automatic transmission delivering an impressive 390 horsepower and 394 lb.-ft. of torque. Off-roading capabilities include 9.1-inches of ground clearance, an approach angle of 20.8, departure angle of 22.1 and breakover angle of 20.5. An “All-Mode 4-wheel-drive” system features Auto/4H/4LO modes, an electronically controlled part-time transfer case and 2.70:1 4LO gear ratio. For an average commute under normal conditions, the system operates in 2-wheel-drive mode; hit some rain or snow, the system distributes torque to all four wheels. Traction is maintained when the terrain is working against you via Active Brake Limited Slip (ABLS) system. Rather obvious drawbacks include an unimpressive 14 MPG from combined city / highway driving, noticeable body roll around tight corners and handling that can be, at times, quite numbing.
#4. Ram 1500
Base MSRP Range: $31,695 - $59,285
Aggressive and rugged, this Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde of vehicles can haul heavy loads as well as families safely and confidently in a variety of on and off-road conditions. Redesigned for 2019, the Ram 1500 shed unnecessary weight, added more passenger room and has substantially upgraded interior trim, fit and finishes. The result, a surprisingly pleasant on-road ride that is comfortable and quiet, a capable off-road ride that can accommodate almost any weekend escape and plenty of cargo area for hauling coolers, ATV’s, snowmobiles, deer carcasses, tree stands, fishing poles and whatever else a weekend of outdoor adventure entails.
Looking for additional off-road capabilities: then let us introduce The Rebel. Starting at a heftier $44,795 (add an extra $2,800 for a Crew Cab), The Rebel includes 33-inch Goodyear Duratrac tires, Bilstein shocks and a standard 3.6L V6 engine that produces 305 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque. Key off-road specs include 8.7-inches of ground clearance, an approach angle of 19, departure angle of 24.9 and breakover angle of 19.5. Seeking more power for those heavy loads and deep tracks? Then consider an available 5.7L V8 HEMI engine with 395 hp and 410 lb-ft. An eight-speed automatic ensures ample response and agility. Rounded out with The Rebel badging and various interior embellishments intended to evoke ruggedness and durability, The Rebel remains the trim level of choice for those who enjoy dirt roads, deep two tracks, and extreme conditions.
#3. Toyota 4Runner
Base MSRP Range: $34,610 - $44,960
An off-road favorite of enthusiasts and Toyota’s contemporary response to the classic Jeep Wrangler, the 4Runner is a practical choice for those looking for Toyota quality, conservative styling, and a spartan interior. Like its sedan and crossover siblings, handling is numb and unengaging, especially when cornering. Unlike these siblings, the ride is markedly rougher, amplifying bumps and rolls from rough roads and rough conditions, thanks to a stiffer suspension, higher ground clearance, and larger tires. Keeping true to its reputation of extreme ruggedness, the 4Runner is one of the remaining SUVs to be built with body-on-frame construction, which has historically resulted in a superior off-road SUV. Interior fit and finish are basic: plastic and cloth – a gift for those who prioritize function and durability over premium colors and materials. What good is that Bridge of Weir® leather anyways if it is consistently covered in mud, dust, and grime?
For those seeking serious off-road capabilities, there is the TRD Pro trim level (starts at $43,075). Like all trim 4Runner trim levels, standard is a 4.0L V6 that delivers 270 horsepower and 278 lb.-ft. of torque paired with a 5-speed automatic transmission. We’ll be honest here - we’d prefer an 8-speed transmission for more responsiveness and pep, but we’ll take what we can get. The TRD Pro trim level also features oversize TRD Bilstein high-performance shocks with rear remote reservoirs and TRD-tuned springs to help carry you over unforgiving terrain. Other specs include 9.6-inches of ground clearance, an approach angle of 33, and a departure angle of 26. For those looking for no-frills, basic off-road capabilities and conservative styling that is matched with legendary Toyota quality (Toyota remains a top brand in terms of vehicle dependability as determined by the J.D. Power 2018 U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study), the Toyota 4Runner is a solid bet.
#2. Ford Raptor
Base MSRP Range: $50,675 and up
Big. Aggressive. Loud. One of our favorites with distinctive, in-your-face styling, ridiculous power, and a wicked name, the Ford Raptor is as comfortable ripping across the salt flats of Death Valley as it is circling the parking lots of Glendale Galleria. Starting at $50,675 (yes, we’re breaking our $50,000 MSRP guideline here, but for justifiable reason), the Raptor is available with either SuperCab (standard) or SuperCrew (for an additional $2,985). Regardless of which cab style you choose, you get a 5ft 6in load bed, perfect for hauling big loads, sheets of plywood and drywall, dirt bikes, ATV’s, snowmobiles, you name it. Shedding over 500 lbs of weight thanks to a new aluminum body and packing a 36 gallon fuel tank, the Raptor is built for long, treacherous hauls.
Off-roading features include goliath BF Goodrich All-Terrain T/A KO2 tires measuring a respectable 315/70/R17. Balancing things out is a surprisingly adequate 3.5L EcoBoost V6 engine, which cranks out an impressive 450 horsepower and a respectable 510 pound-feet of torque – substantially more than what the earlier generation’s bulky V8 could deliver. Talk about Detroit born and bred engineering: doing a shit ton more with a lot less. The engine is backed with a responsive 10-speed auto transmission, which we love for its torque and fuel economy, and a 4WD system that offers the options of rear-wheel drive, on-demand all-wheel drive and locked 4x4 with high and low range. Another fun option: six selectable drive modes of the Terrain Management System. Ford is not taking anything for granted here. Settings include Normal, Sport, Mud/Sand, Rock/Crawl, Weather and – drumroll – Baja mode (the good folks from Ford thought the “Death Valley Mode” we suggested over cocktails was a little too intense for some in the market). Taking its cues from Ford’s premium Lincoln nameplate, the Raptor also offers three steering modes: normal, sport and comfort. Comfort mode makes for an unexpectedly enjoyable experience while cruising the Kroger parking lot for that perfect spot. A slew of additional features ring home the moniker “Built Ford Tough”.
#1. Subaru Outback
Base MSRP Range: $25,895 - $38,690
Yes. We dare do it. We dare follow the Ford Raptor with a Subaru Outback. And we have good reason to do it. This vehicle has been the official vehicle of the US Ski Team and the US National Ski Patrol for decades. Yes. Decades. And why? Because it is safe, capable and can fit a ton of gear. Perfect for snow days, bluebird skies and long road trips through variable weather conditions, this reliable wagon haul skis to the powder, bikes to the trail, flyrods to the stream as well as commuters to work and children to school. Secure, smooth and stable, it is powered by a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers 24 MPG overall. Optional is a more powerful 3.6 liter six-cylinder engine that results in a quicker, quieter drive. Standard is Subaru’s trademark all-wheel drive system, ensure confident handling in any condition. A safe choice – take it from the US National Ski Patrol, not just us – the 2019 Subaru Outback includes standard advanced safety features such as forward-collusion warning, automatic emergency braking, lane departure, lane keeping and sway warnings. Looking for a reliable, safe and enjoyable vehicle that can handle off-road conditions as well as the morning commute – look no further than the Subaru Outback.