In the early 1990s, during the rise of sport utility vehicles’ popularity, virtually all SUVs were truck-based off-road vehicles. Many had ladder frames, solid front and rear axles and high- and low-range transfer cases. Regardless of their extreme off-road, mud-taming abilities, most of these SUVs were used for making school and mall runs.
Over the years, however, the market switched away from truck-based SUVs to the car-based crossovers we see today. The new Nissan Pathfinder is a perfect example. Just because most drivers would prefer a lighter, more fuel-efficient and manageable car-based SUV doesn’t mean that some of us don’t also want an off-road capable SUV. Accordingly, we put together a list of some of the top used vehicles for under $18,000.
Few cars or trucks are as iconic or American as the Wrangler, as its lineage dates to World War II. Then, like now, drivers can pull the roof and doors off the Wrangler for a truly unique driving experience — for better or worse.
Arguably the most capable vehicle on the list, the Jeep Wrangler may also be the least livable. Jeep designed the Wrangler first and foremost for its off-road abilities. To achieve this, however, sacrifices had to be made. A short wheelbase means the Wrangler naturally weaves around on the highway. Flexible suspension means it doesn’t handle very well in the corners. And the big, nobby tires are often loud on the street. It’s also not very fuel efficient.
If you can look past these detractions and embrace the Jeep lifestyle, you can easily fall in love with the Wrangler. Climbing into your Jeep makes each morning feel like an adventure. And for less than $18,000, you can find some fine examples.
After a quick used-car search on AutoTrader, we found dozens of excellent examples of the Wrangler breed in the 2006 TJ series to 2008 JK series range. While each series has both good and bad, we like the 2006, which was the end of the TJ series. Under the hood of the TJ, buyers will likely find the 4.0-liter inline 6-cylinder engine that made Jeep famous. Though it’s not as fuel efficient as the V6 in the JK series, it is peppier and more reliable.
Suzuki Grand Vitara
Don’t let the looks deceive you. Just because the Suzuki Grand Vitara looks like a Barbie Mobile doesn’t mean that it’s not one of the best off-road vehicles for the money.
Although you can find many examples across the 3-generation run of the Suzuki Grand Vitara for sale under $18,000, we recommend the second generation, which ran from 1998 to 2004.
The Suzuki Grand Vitara is an excellent off-roader for anyone who doesn’t need to drive a big, pumped-up truck but also wants trail capability. To prove the point, here are just a few features of the Grand Vitara: 2-speed transfer case with high- and low-range; boxed ladder frame; solid rear axle; both manual and automatic transmission options; and 4- or 6-cylinder engine models available. Plus, plenty of aftermarket parts are available to make your Grand Vitara more capable and unique.
The Suzuki Grand Vitara is, clearly, also quite compact. This makes it both fuel efficient in day-to-day driving but also easy to maneuver off-road. It can easily sneak through small rock and tree gaps when other trucks on this list would have to find another way around. Again, don’t let looks deceive; the Grand Vitara is very capable.
Land Rover LR3
Here we come to the Jeep of Britain: the Land Rover. Just like the Grand Vitara, the LR3 might not look the part of an extreme off-roader, but it very much is one. This truck is the follow-up to the popular Land Rover Discovery model and essentially a third-generation Discovery. In the U.S., though, Land Rover called it the LR3 from 2004 to 2008. In 2009, Land Rover revised the vehicle and renamed it the LR4 here in North America.
On the inside, buyers will find a refined and luxurious interior on par with any other European automaker. Passengers ride high and in English style with optional wood trim and leather seating. Just below the plush interior, though, is a sea of complicated mechanical parts that make the Land Rover brand infamous around the world.
First, the LR3 has two frames. Its body shell is a unibody frame like most cars on the road today. Land Rover then went one step further and bolted that unibody to a ladder frame. While this makes the LR3 cosmically heavy and a bit unwieldy on the road, it makes it an excellent off-road truck.
From there, the Brits added a locking rear differential and a series of electronic traction control systems. Called Terrain Response, the traction control system was designed to make off-roading easier. On the center console, the driver can select from one of five terrain settings: Sand; Grass, Gravel & Snow; Mud & Ruts; and Rock Crawl. From there, the onboard computer uses its pre-settings to control wheel slippage, allowing the truck to competently traverse most any terrain or obstacle.
While V8 versions are most common here in the U.S., Land Rover did import a few V6 models. If you can find one of those, we recommend you snap it up. It might not be quite as powerful as the V8, but it’s close. Plus, it gets far better fuel economy, so it’s worth the slight loss of power.
The Nissan Xterra has been named a "best-of" off-road truck nearly every year of its 2-generation production run. In spite of this, you can still find great examples under $18,000 in the newer, second-generation. One important fact: Nissan did sell the Xterra as a 2-wheel-drive model, as well. So don’t be fooled into buying a rear-wheel-drive unit. If you want an off-roader, you want the 4×4.
The first generation Xterra was offered in many engine and transmission combinations. The second, though, is offered with only one engine, a 4.0-liter V6, with either a manual or automatic transmission.
Unlike the other Japanese 4×4 on this list, the slim Grand Vitara, the second-generation Xterra shares its DNA with the Nissan Titan pickup. While the Xterra might be capable and roomy, it won’t be as economical or as maneuverable on the trail. If you want a smaller but more basic Xterra, go with the first generation, which spanned 1999 to 2004. The larger, more plush second generation debuted in 2005 and is still in production. We recommend either generation.
Toyota FJ Cruiser
The FJ Cruiser — part of the Land Cruiser family — is to Japan what the Land Rover is to Britain or what the Jeep is to America. Yes, there may be a bigger Toyota Land Cruiser on the market, but the FJ Cruiser carries the true Land Cruiser lineage forward, as it is first and foremost an off-road vehicle. So far, it’s had a long life, having been produced since 2007.
Unlike some of the other trucks on this list, the FJ Cruiser has a full-time 4-wheel-drive system. This means you never have to push a button or pull a lever to engage all four. They’re gripping all the time.
Remember Land Rover’s locking rear differential, mentioned earlier? Well, the FJ Cruiser has locking front, center and rear differentials. Driving around on the street, power is sent 40 percent to the front wheels and 60 percent to the rear. Lock up the differentials, though, and power is split 50-50.
Believe it or not, the FJ Cruiser shares its platform with Lexus GX470, which is sold as the Land Cruiser Prado model outside the U.S. So don’t scoff at Lexus 4×4 drivers; they’re packing far more capability than you might think.
If you do buy the FJ Cruiser, make sure to have room in your budget for new windshields. Although the FJ is a reliable Toyota product, it has a nearly vertical windshield, which is prone to rock chips. But, hey, if the worst problem your truck has is a sensitive windshield, consider yourself lucky.