Best Off-Road Truck Buys
Wheelin' Rigs for Your Money
By Jay Kopycinski, Photography by Jay Kopycinski
1995½-to-2004 Toyota 4WD Tacomas & 2WD Prerunner Tacomas
We list the first generation Tacoma not because you can find them particularly cheap, but because they offer so much reliability and bang for your buck. You get a comfortable truck and solid drivetrain, plus lots of aftermarket parts support whether you want to rock crawl or go fast across the dirt.
The 2.4L I4, 2.7L I4 and the 3.4L V-6 are all great engines. It’s not uncommon to see these motors turn 200,000 miles, never having been opened up nor dripping oil. You also can’t go wrong with either the five-speed manual box or the A340E four-speed auto tranny. The chain driven transfer case offers a 2.72:1 low range and TRD models could be optioned with electric locking rear differentials.
The Tacoma uses a coil strut supported IFS system with a power rack-and-pinion steering setup, and both have proven reliable. Aftermarket possibilities include front coilovers, long-travel kits, and parts for conversion to a solid front axle along with low-gear transfer case upgrades.
The 2WD Prerunner (six-lug wheels) uses the same frame and suspension as the 4WD truck, but has no transfer case. The front A-arms and coil strut assemblies are interchangeable; it’s just that the Prerunner has no front differential or axle shafts. You can get a lighter truck for thousands of dollars less with the same ground clearance if 2WD will suit your off-roading needs. With various body styles, wheelbase is 103 to 122 inches.
1993-to-1997 Ford Ranger Pickup
Sadly, the Ford Ranger has seen its demise in the USA and sales are now limited to other countries. This smaller-than-fullsize truck has always been a popular off-road rig, and the Twin Traction Beam (TTB) and I-beam front suspensions make for a pretty good fast-paced setup. In 1998, Ford did away with the beam front ends and swapped to an A-arm front suspension using either coil springs or torsion bars.
The base V-6 engine was a 145hp 3.0L, with the option of a 160hp 4.0L V-6. Transmission choices were a four-speed auto or five-speed manual (the newer 5R55E in 1997 being the better one). The front differential is either a Dana 35 (with a 4.0L V-6) with heavy-duty outer components, or a Dana 28 in a modified Dana 35 housing (with smaller engines). The Ford 8.8 rear axle came with the 4.0L V-6, and smaller engines came with the 7.5-inch ring gear.
The Ranger has good aftermarket support. Suspension kits and fiberglass parts are readily available. Both 2WD and 4WD versions can be built up for dirt play, depending on your intended use. Wheelbase ranged from 108 to 125 inches.
By Jay Kopycinski
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