ZJ / WJ Jeep Grand Cherokee
By far the most popular suggestion sent our way was to take a look at both the ZJ and WJ generations of the Jeep Grand Cherokee. The ZJ represents the first generation of Jeep’s full-size SUV, which embiggened the unibody construction and looks of the popular XJ Cherokee but added numerous creature comforts as well as an available 5.2-liter V-8 engine on top of the slow, but trusty 4.0-liter inline six. It also offered solid axles front and rear, along with several different four-wheel drive systems and, eventually, a larger 5.9-liter V-8 in the last year of its 1993-1998 production run.
The WJ was the next step after the ZJ, and delivered essentially the same package matched with revised styling and according to Jeep, only 127 shared components. Offered from 1999 to 2004, WJ Grand Cherokee introduced a new 4.7-liter V-8 in place of the previous eight-cylinder options (in both regular and HO versions).
In stock form both the ZJ and WJ are fairly capable for mild off-roading, but you’ll need to add a lift to fit enough tire underneath to deal with more serious stuff. Keep in mind that if you go too far past four inches of extra suspension you may be looking at additional modifications (such as longer control arms and/or driveshafts) to maintain handling, steering, and stability due to the SUV’s four-corner coil spring design. ZJ trucks outfitted with the Quadra-Trac four-wheel drive system featured a viscous coupling in the NP249 transfer case that did not offer true locking capability when shifted into low-range – and you should definitely avoid buying one of the WJ “all-wheel drive” Grand Cherokees that didn’t feature low-range at all.
ZJs and WJs are cheap, but there’s a reason. Most of the early ZJs are pretty used up at this point, and the WJ trucks introduced a lot of high-end luxury features that don’t have the best reputation for reliability. This is especially true of things like climate control systems (specifically the blend doors), window regulators, and sensors (cam position). Find a barebones Grand Cherokee like an SE or a Laredo that lived its life as a commuter if you can.
The Isuzu Trooper (or the Subaru/Isuzu Bighorn, Acura SLX, Open Monterey, Holden Jackaroo, depending on where you happen to live) is a two-generation body-on-frame mid-size SUV found in both two-door and four-door body styles. The Trooper was built between 1981 and 2002, and was offered in a wide ranger of trims and models, so there’s a bunch of variations to choose from out there.
If you’re looking for the best marriage of cheapness and durability, aim for the ’92 and up models, which feature 12-bolt rears and 10-bolt front differentials, as well as an up-sized V-6 checking in at either 3.2 or 3.5 liters, depending on the year. You can fit 32-inch tires underneath the truck without a lift, and while it does offer an independent front suspension it’s still a rugged design that will take a decent amount of abuse. Trucks with a manual transmission feature an integrated low-range transfer case, while automatics offer a divorced setup, and you might want to add a locking front differential and skid plates before tackling more serious trails.
Yes, they are old. Yes, they aren’t exactly known for their ability to resist the tin worm, which makes them fairly rare outside of the southwestern stronghold of rust-free classics. Still, if you’re in an area where people are still daily-driving rigs from the ’60s and ’70s, the International Scout and Scout II are dead simple, and extremely capable off-roaders.
A few things to keep in mind: the original Scout 80 (built between 1960 and 1965, and succeeded by the Scout 800) is, well, about as agricultural as you’d expect from a manufacturer of farm implements, which makes it a little less pleasant to drive to the trail. The Scout II (1971-1980) came in longer-wheelbase models in addition to the standard edition, and also offered Dana 44 axles and Dana 300 transfer cases. Engine parts are hard to find for the latter’s 345 cubic inch V-8 engine, but a number of different transmissions can be made to fit behind the lump.
Known as the Pajero outside of North American (and occasionally, the Dodge Raider inside of the U.S. ), the Mitsubishi Montero is serious business. Originally offered as a two-door when first introduced in the ’80s, and leaving the market as a four-door by the mid-2000s, the Montero can handle 33-inch tires without a lift and features a selectable locking rear diff to go with its low-range four-wheel drive from 1992-2001. The truck can also be found with a reasonably powerful V-6, particularly after 1997 when it swapped from a 3.0-liter to a 3.5-liter unit. If you need any more convincing, Mitsubishi made the Pajero/Montero its weapon of choice for winning the Paris-to-Dakar desert rallies.
The downside to Montero (or Raider) ownership? There’s not much of an aftermarket for the truck out there as compared to its contemporaries like the Trooper and the Toyota Land Cruiser. You’ll also want to aim for pre-2001 models with their full frame design as opposed to the more fragile unibody SUVs that followed for the third generation from Mitsubishi (which also lost its live rear axle).
Geo Tracker / Suzuki Sidekick
Consider these cute ‘utes the secret kissing cousins of the more popular Suzuki Samurai that we already suggested – and in fact, most of our Tracker suggestions came from people who had been priced out of the Samurai market when seeking a cheap trail rig. Sold in both two-door (with a soft top) and four-door editions, later (’96-’98) models put out just under 100 horsepower from a 1.6-liter four-cylinder motor (80 horses from ’89-’95) and feature the same body-on-frame build with rugged low-range four-wheel drive system. Lifts are easy – and necessary when mounting larger rubber – and the Tracker gives you the Samurai footprint without paying the Samurai tax, along with super cheap parts support (you can even get a full rebuild kit for the 1.6-liter for under $250).
Also sold as a Chevrolet, the Tracker was replaced by the Suzuki Vitara/Grand Vitara from 1999 to 2004. Although the Vitaras have their charms, keep in mind that they feature a less-sturdy rack-and-pinion steering setup, balanced out by the availability of a larger 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine.
Five Funky, Inexpensive Off-Road SUVs
- ZJ / WJ Jeep Grand Cherokee
- Isuzu Trooper
- International-Harvester Scout
- Mitsubishi Montero
- Geo Tracker / Suzuki Sidekick