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The 6 Coolest Factory-Built Off-Road SUVs of the 2000s

Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when gas was cheap and car-based crossovers were just beginning to gain popularity with consumers, manufacturers had the widest range of off-roady SUVs we’ll likely ever see. Everyone from Mitsubishi to Mercury had a 4-wheel drive vehicle armed with decent ground clearance, skid plates and a 2-speed transfer case ready to tackle the great outdoors.

A few automakers took note and offered extra-capable versions of their already impressive SUVs. They added features such as better underbody protection, locking differentials and even revised transfer cases to make special versions even more capable. Certainly automakers such as Hummer and Land Rover had lineups of serious 4-wheelers, but they didn’t tend to offer unique versions that extended what their base trucks could do when the going got extra rough.

Here’s a look at six of the best from the golden years of the beginning of the millenium.

2003-2006 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

2003-2006 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

The Jeep Wrangler TJ arrived for 1997 with coil-sprung solid axles and round headlights, but it wasn’t until the 2003 model year that Jeep offered a genuinely more capable version. The Rubicon laid the groundwork for a recipe that continues today: It included a beefier transfer case with an improved crawl ratio, chunkier tires, locking front and rear differentials, and additional body armor.

What has changed is value. The original Wrangler Rubicon listed for around $27,000, or about $3,500 more than an equivalent Wrangler Sport. Today, Jeep asks nearly $40,000 for a Rubicon, a $10,000 premium over the Sport. Early Wrangler Rubicons are easy to find today, though locating an unmodified used Jeep Wrangler two-door for sale is more of a challenge. Find a Jeep Wrangler for sale

1996-2005 Chevrolet Blazer ZR2

1996-2005 Chevrolet Blazer ZR2

With its wide stance, raised suspension, pronounced fender flares and rear-mounted spare, the Chevy Blazer ZR2 was the epitome of off-road cool for an entire decade. The package was made available for the sophomore model year of the second-generation S-10 Blazer, and it stuck around even as Chevy introduced the decidedly more pavement-oriented TrailBlazer (itself named after an S-10 Blazer trim package) and transitioned the Blazer into rental fleet special.

For the final model year, the ZR2 package cost the same $1,000 Chevy charged a decade prior. Bilstein shocks, taller springs and a beefed-up chassis ensured it could handle high-speed off-roading. The package wasn’t just about ground clearance and looks, either. Chevy swapped in stronger differentials and mandated that buyers select a limited-slip rear differential as well. Today, Blazer ZR2s remain relatively common and can be picked up for cheap. Later versions with the taller grille have a nicer dual airbag dash, too. Find a Chevrolet Blazer  for sale

1996-2000 Toyota 4Runner SR5 5-Speed with Rear Differential Lock

1996-2000 Toyota 4Runner SR5 5-Speed with Rear Differential Lock

The third-generation Toyota 4Runner struck a just-right chord with its athletic styling, taut dimensions and buttery-smooth 3.4-liter V6. Every version was capable out of the box, but those in the know ordered the mid-level SR5 trim level with the standard 5-speed manual transmission and the optional locking rear differential. This combination wasn’t a special edition, but it was so unusual on dealer lots during the five years when it was offered that it remains coveted today. Here’s a clean example, which will probably get snapped up by the time you read this.

The ideal spec, at least for a stock truck, is a 1999. For whatever reason, those trucks rode on springs that sat the body up nearly an inch higher than in previous or later years. The “chin” front bumper on these 4Runners covered a stronger front bumper that complied with changing federal standards, and the look has aged well. Toyota revised the 4Runner slightly for 2001 by dropping the wheezy base 4-cylinder engine and the manual transmission, and by replacing the rear differential lock with a newly standard traction and stability control system. Find a Toyota 4Runner for sale

2005-2015 Nissan Xterra Off-Road

2005-2015 Nissan Xterra Off-Road/Pro-4X

The Nissan Xterra was a pretty capable truck right out of the box, but the available Off-Road trim level that later morphed into the Pro-4X had a few extra tricks up its sleeve. The second-generation Xterra looked a lot like the original, albeit with a far stiffer frame and the strong 4.0-liter V6 that still (amazingly) motivates the Nissan Frontier today. The Off-Road trim level added a locking rear differential, Bilstein struts and chunkier skid plates. The package was renamed Pro-4X, for whatever reason, toward the end of the Xterra’s decade-plus run, but its content was more or less the same.

Oddly, the Off-Road package could also be had on the 2-wheel drive Xterra initially, but someone at Nissan clearly caught wind of that and nixed the configuration before too long. A 6-speed manual transmission was standard and remains far more desirable than the dull 5-speed automatic transmission. The Xterra has held its value far better than most Nissans, which should be a nice reminder to the automaker that the market for off-roady SUVs is still strong. Find a Nissan Xterra for sale

2008-2014 Toyota FJ Cruiser Trail Teams

2008-2014 Toyota FJ Cruiser Trail Teams

The Toyota FJ Cruiser was unlike any Toyota sold to Americans before or after, including the Land Cruiser FJ40 that served as inspiration. Where the FJ40 was an implement with a defined focus, the FJ Cruiser was a fun celebration of a revered model. It was like a little party on four wheels, which is awfully weird for a buttoned-up company. Anyway, the FJ Cruiser was basically a shortened 4Runner with a quirky retro body and atrocious outward visibility.

Beginning in 2008, Toyota whipped up special limited-edition Trail Teams trim packages almost annually (they skipped 2009). Each year’s version came in different colors and had different features, though Bilstein shocks and various TRD parts were a common thread. A differential lock and Toyota’s off-road traction control system appeared in 2011, and the automaker’s CRAWL Control system that kept the truck moving at a snail’s pace arrived in 2013. The final year was, predictably, the coolest with its retro blue paint scheme, upgraded Bilsteins with remote reservoirs out back and special springs. Find a Toyota FJ Cruiser for sale

1997-2001 Jeep Cherokee Up Country

1997-2001 Jeep Cherokee Up Country

For a few years, Jeep offered a package on its boxy Cherokee that deleted the rear sway bar for increased axle articulation and included a raised ride height, a limited-slip rear differential, tow hooks, skid plates, enhanced engine cooling and a full-size spare. The package carried the evocative name Up Country — how cool was that? The same package could be had on the Grand Cherokee into the early 2000s, but it never included the limited-slip rear differential.

Cherokees with the Up Country package are easy to spot since they sit a little higher and have two tow hooks poking out of their front bumpers like claws. Some of the package’s features could be purchased independently, though not all. The package cost about $750 depending on the model year and trim level, and arguably the most desirable is a Sport with the 5-speed manual transmission. Find a Jeep Cherokee for sale

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Andrew Ganz
Andrew Ganz
Andrew Ganz is an author specializing in helping in-market consumers get the most bang for their buck -- and the best car, while they're at it. When not virtually shopping for new and used cars, Andrew can probably be found under the hood of a vintage classic that's rapidly losing fluids.

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