While modern SUVs are more commonly used to ferry kids to school, peer over traffic and even enjoy the lap of luxury, but it wasn’t always that way. Years ago, SUVs were built to go deep off-road – and while the majority of today’s SUV drivers will never take their vehicles onto anything more challenging than a gravel road, there are certainly some serious off-roaders still out there who will. We’ve compiled this list with them in mind; highlighting which new SUVs are best suited to tackling trails or crossing streams than gliding through the carpool lane.
Jeep Grand Cherokee
Don’t be fooled by its increasingly upscale interior and softened exterior lines: the midsize Jeep Grand Cherokee is still just as capable off road as its rugged predecessors. While even base-level Grand Cherokee models offer hill ascent control and thick tires, an available Off-Road Adventure Group dials up the SUV’s terrain-tackling proficiency by adding a limited-slip rear differential, skid plates, a front tow hook and hill descent control. The SUV also offers two versions of its Quadra-Trac all-wheel drive system, ranging from the pavement-only Quadra-Trac I designed for inclement weather and occasional off-road use to the go-anywhere Quadra-Trac II, which includes low-range gearing for the muddiest, most challenging off-road trails.
Jeep’s go-anywhere Wrangler is still among the best buys for drivers looking to do some serious off-roading. In addition to featuring a long list of standard off-road items like four-wheel drive, a two-speed transfer case, hill ascent control and thick tires, the Wrangler touts some of the industry’s best approach and departure angles – a good measure of its rugged capability. The Wrangler also offers several optional features not available in competitors, including a special axle ratio for off-roading and a removable soft top for summertime excursions over rough terrain. For four-wheel junkies who still want more, Chrysler’s Mopar division offers an entire parts catalog dedicated to taking the Wrangler further off the pavement without voiding its warranty.
Land Rover Range Rover
Underneath the Range Rover’s plush leather upholstery, heated and cooled seats, touchscreen navigation system and other techno gadgets lurks one of the best off-roaders in the business. While its $80,000 base price keeps most buyers from ever considering an excursion off the pavement, the Range Rover includes a long list of off-road-ready items ranging from a two-speed transfer case and a locking center differential to hill descent control and height-adjustable suspension. The SUV even includes a stunning array of cameras mounted throughout its exterior, providing drivers with a constant view of the trails they’re traversing. While many of the Range Rover’s upscale competitors wouldn’t last more than a few miles on an off-road trail, we believe that Land Rover’s flagship could hang with the best.
While base-level versions of Nissan’s body-on-frame Xterra are surprisingly capable off road, we recommend the upscale PRO-4X trim level if you’re a serious four-wheeler. In addition to featuring the Xterra’s typical rugged construction and distinctive all-purpose roof rack, the PRO-4X adds standard four-wheel drive, a two-speed transfer case, a locking rear differential, skid plates and even hill descent control, making it a veritable monster off the pavement. The Xterra also boasts a whopping 9.5 inches of ground clearance, which is especially impressive considering its roomy four-door body style.
Toyota FJ Cruiser
Seen as the spiritual successor to the original Land Cruiser, Toyota’s chunky stylized FJ Cruiser doesn’t just look the part – it embodies it. Thanks to a host of standard off-road goodies like front and rear tow hooks, skid plates, a two-speed transfer case and two locking differentials, four-wheel drive versions of the FJ Cruiser are among the most capable SUVs on the market today. Thick tires and an impressive 9.6 inches of ground clearance help the FJ Cruiser find its way back into civilization after nearly any off-roading adventure.
What it means to you: If you’re looking for a new SUV to take deep into the wilderness, check out one of the vehicles on our list.