We all have some idea what we consider to be a budget ride. To some it’s a $100 dusty find embellished with duct tape and bailing wire. To others it might be slimming back to some tens of thousands of dollars. It all depends on your perspective, means, and desire to spend on some off-road rig. Here, we’ll throw out a batch of off-road vehicles we think can offer you some of the best bang for the buck.
Granted, each of these can be a moving target and things do change over time. When gas prices fluctuate to the high side, trucks with big motors tend to drop in price, meaning good deals can be had on great rigs with V-8 (and even V-10) engines. Conditions can also vary across the country. We see perfect metal examples of vehicles in the Southwest where it’s bright and sunny, but the interior parts may be UV rotted. In the Northeast, we see great interiors inside the rusting hulk of a body that’s seen too much winter salt.
Your choices may not agree with ours, and there may also be biases based on what area of the country you live in and the terrain on which you play. We’ve chosen some small and some larger rigs, and we offer you some of our reasons why.
1984-to-1995 4WD Toyota Trucks & 4Runners
We’ll start off with some of the earliest of the 4WD mini-trucks. That would be the Toyota trucks and 4Runners. It seems when Toyota sought to design those early versions, it built them using World War II-era design. The company used lots of steel and, fortunately for us, seemed to overbuild many of the drivetrain components. Hence, these 4WDs make great modified off-road rigs and the aftermarket support is immense.
Along with their structural integrity, these trucks offer good engines, with the fuel injected 2.4L 22R-E I4 being the most reliable. The hardest models to find for a good deal swaps back and forth between the 1985 SR5 Xtra Cab truck and the similar 1985 SR5 4Runner. Both offer the solid front axle and fuel injection in this model year. Post-1984 gets you the introduction of fuel injection and pre-1986 gets you solid front axle models. The 1986-and-newer models are IFS, but solid axle swap kits are readily available. Wheelbase can run from 103 to 122 inches.
The four-speed automatic used in these years is reliable, but is generally assumed to rob too much power from the four-cylinder engine. The five-speed overdrive manual performs well. Be sure to check the fifth-gear condition when test driving as these can start to fail over time. Transfer case low range will be 2.28:1 or 2.57:1, and V-6 version rear axles offer beefier third member components over the four-cylinder ones.
You’ll want to stay away from the 3.0L V-6 engine. Some had problematic head gaskets, though some ran for 200,000 miles without an issue. You’ll find cheap 3.0L trucks on Craigslist with blown head gaskets or other engine failure. This may be a good way to get a Toyota carcass, but at this point in their life this V-6 is prone to leaky injectors, oil leaks, and they have a good handful of coolant transfer hoses that are an absolute pain to replace.