If there’s an automotive hot commodity right now, it’s the SUV and crossover market. People cannot get enough of these practical, high-riding cars as such vehicles continue to dominate the streets. There are many reasons why these SUVs have become so popular, but one reason, in particular, could be due to nostalgia from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Back then, these types of vehicles were first sprouting up and were unlike anything else on the road. It’s also likely that many people who are now of driving age want to own something similar to the old family haulers they grew up in. After all, many people are feeling nostalgic for wagons these days, so it should be no surprise that SUVs remain popular.
However, unless you’re buying certain specialty vehicles, most of today’s SUVs have ditched their off-road capabilities. Originally, SUVs were based on truck platforms from a time when pickups needed to be capable vehicles that could to be used everywhere. As a result, older SUVs also benefited from those go-anywhere designs. Despite many manufacturers advertising how their crossovers can take owners on new adventures, these vehicles can’t tackle the trails as well as previous models. This is because many of these cars are required to achieve good fuel economy ratings and are designed to be easy to drive. So, if you’re looking for an affordable, capable off-road vehicle that’ll live up to the past, there are many options on the used market.
20 Chevrolet K5 Blazer
The Jeep Wrangler is truly a relic from another time. It’s a convertible SUV that’s available in a two-door body style, something that wasn’t all that uncommon in the ‘70s and the ‘80s. However, the other examples from that time were based on full-size pickups, making them considerably larger than the comparable Jeeps. One of the definitive examples of these vehicles was the Chevy K5 Blazer. This tuck-sized two-door SUV had seating for four and a removable hardtop roof that wasn’t available on Jeeps at the time. These were available with many different motor options, but the most desirable would be the small-block V8s. These trucks were available even all the way up to the very early ‘90s and can be had for surprisingly little money.
19 Land Rover Discovery
There are few brands that are known solely for their off-road and SUV-only lineups, with Land Rover being one of the oldest and most legendary of the bunch. The Defender was a Jeep-like model that's become an icon of the industry. However, much of the brand’s lineup has since been based on the later, more luxury-oriented but no less capable Range Rover SUV.
These two well-known Land Rovers have become rare classics that are highly valuable on the market.
The bridge between these two vehicles was the Land Rover Discovery, which was a large, three-row SUV that was sold with a V8 motor, tons of space, and Land Rover’s signature off-road capabilities. Likely due to the brand’s infamous reliability, Discovery models can be had for a tiny fraction of the car’s original worth—as long as you’re willing to pay for the work when it’s needed.
18 Dodge Ramcharger
If you’re looking for a classic budget off-roader that’s unique and largely unremembered, the Dodge Ramcharger, and its rarer Plymouth variant, the Trailduster, is a good choice. This truck-like SUV was offered with a removable roof and was similarly capable in comparison to the Blazer and the Bronco. Despite its name, this vehicle has nothing to do with the Dodge Ram or the Charger; it predates even Ram pickups, as Dodge didn’t brand their pickups as Rams until the early ‘80s. One of the more enticing features of the Ramcharger was the option for the legendary 440 big block V8. While it was never as popular as its Chevy and Ford counterparts, it’s still an unusual choice that can be had for cheap—assuming you can find one.
17 Nissan Xterra
Out of the many different options available to the budget-conscious off-road enthusiast, many choices are limited in some regard. These vehicles often exhibit poor fuel economy, limited practicality, or are blandly styled. The Nissan Xterra was an intriguing example that does offer plenty of practicality, decent fuel economy for an SUV, and its styling reflects the vehicle’s true capabilities. It looks like it’s ready for the trails off the factory floor, with its bright color options, roof rack, and attractive body cladding. While the Nissan brand isn’t as well known for its capable SUVs in the US, the Xterra is a formidable beast on the trails, and it has a decently large aftermarket selection. And these capable SUVs can be picked up for well under $10,000.
16 Hummer H3
Hummer has become a punchline of the American automotive industry. The H2 was the vehicle that proved that SUV buyers had their limits. With garish looks and legendarily abysmal gas mileage, the Hummer H2 was the reason for the Hummer brand’s success and downfall. However, the brand produced a newer, more palatable model to the consumer market. The H3 was more maneuverable and fuel efficient in comparison to its larger stablemates.
While the H3 didn’t quite have the off-road abilities of the other models, it’s still a stout off-roader with strong approach and departure angles.
H3s can be had for around $10,000. That may sound like a lot, but it's considerably newer and features a better interior than many other alternatives on this list. There was even a manual transmission option, but few were equipped with it.
15 Jeep Wrangler
Of course, one of the most well-known off-roaders in the world is on this list. With twin live axles connected to an extremely simple ladder chassis, the Wrangler is about as capable as a car can get. There are no other new vehicles that can match its extreme suspension flex, as others have moved to independent suspension for improved drivability. However, newer Jeeps are hardly affordable vehicles, as they hold their value extraordinarily well. As a result, if you want a cheap Wrangler, you need to look at older models—much older models. Even the two-generation old TJ Wrangler can still have asking prices of over $10,000, depending on condition. Thankfully, even really old models are still plenty capable, meaning that the original YJ Wrangler can still take trails like no other. And because of the YJ’s age and unloved square headlights, they can be picked up for cheap.
14 Suzuki Samurai
There have been surprisingly few Jeep competitors over the years. With the ridiculous popularity of the Wrangler, it’s frankly surprising that so few manufacturers have been willing to make an alternative to it. However, it seems that no competitor can dethrone the king, and few are willing to gamble against it. Despite this, there was a particular example from the ‘80s and ‘90s: the Suzuki Samurai.
It's a well-known, capable off-roader with many avenues for modification.
To address the elephant in the room, the Samurai does have a reputation of rolling over easily. However, it’s worth noting that many older SUVs and trucks from its time were hardly stable vehicles either. Possibly due to its infamous reputation, the Samurai can be picked up for cheap and can make for a fun off-road project.
13 Chevrolet Suburban
The Chevy Suburban has really started to resemble its name, as suburbans are the most common place to find these huge beasts, usually hauling entire families around. While the Suburban has been offered with a Z71 off-road package, it’s simply too big and too low to the ground to be a truly capable off-road vehicle. The Z71 is better than the standard model, but it’s still not enough to make it a truly proficient off-road beast. At least, that’s true of the newer models.
The older examples that were available from the ‘70s through the early ‘90s, however, are a great base for a modified off-road build.
With twin live axles and a tall ride height due to its old truck chassis, the Suburban can be made into a capable off-roader. Best of all, they can be found for less than $3,000—that’s a lot of car for the money.
12 Jeep CJ
While the Wrangler is often the first vehicle to come to mind when one thinks of the Jeep brand, it was far from the first Jeep with that design. The model that the Wrangler replaced was the CJ (short for "Civilian Jeep"), which is still an extremely capable and easily modifiable off-road vehicle. With a production run that spanned decades after World War II, there are still many around in various states of repair. Thankfully, these old Jeeps are easy to fix, and there are many parts available.
Due to its long lifespan, the CJ was available in many different trims and special editions and had plenty of different engine options, including a couple V8s.
If you’re willing to take a gamble on your own safety and drive something slow, you can have an affordable Jeep that'll legitimately go anywhere.
11 Ford Bronco
There was a time when cheap, truck-based, open-top off-roaders were widely available. The definitive example of such vehicles is the Ford Bronco. Given that the original model is such a classic today, it’s hard to picture that these small trucks were used as general workhorses. This makes it difficult to find clean original examples of the early cars. Due to the rarity and the high value of the first Broncos, these aren’t really an option when it comes to a budget off-roader.
Instead, look for the final generation of the Bronco, which has plenty of off-road equipment and offered a choice of stout small-block Ford V8s.
While it was no longer offered, the open top has forever been linked to a certain infamous police chase, none that stops the final Bronco from being an excellent choice for a cheap beater SUV.
10 Nissan Pathfinder
Prior to the Xterra, Nissan’s Pathfinder was the brand’s entry into the SUV craze in the mid-‘80s. Available in either two-door or four-door flavors, the Pathfinder was hardly a unique offering at the time. However, it can still handle the tougher trails with its tall ride height, and it has plenty of room for chunky tires. Unfortunately, it’s not as quite as capable as other older models on this list, as it features independent front suspension, which reduces flex. That said, it’s hardly a lowrider when it comes to off-roading. Even the later models still exhibit plenty of desirable off-roading traits. Making up for the downfalls is the Pathfinder’s cheap price. Original models can be found for only a couple grand, making it an affordable starting point for a trail rig.
9 Isuzu VehiCross
The early 2000s saw a few innovations in the SUV category, as some of the earliest examples of modern crossovers started to pop up. It also saw the rise of gigantic SUVs that pushed the boundaries of taste. However, despite there being many innovators from the time, such models haven't aged well and are often mocked in comparison to today’s offerings. One example that has aged well is from a brand that no longer sells vehicles in America. The Isuzu VehiCross was a two-door SUV that was based on the larger Trooper chassis but was considerably shorter. This crazy-looking SUV has a tall ride height and generous approach and departure angles. For around $10,000, there isn’t a more unique off-roader on the market than the Vehicross. Just make sure not to get too much mud on the red leather.
8 Jeep Cherokee
If there’s a vehicle that Jeep is well known for besides the Wrangler, it would be the XJ Cherokee. Its blocky styling, seven-slot grille, and small stature undeniably scream "Jeep" to anyone who sees it. Despite lacking an open top or a body-on-frame chassis, the Cherokee is every bit as capable as a Jeep should be.
With front and rear live axles, bulletproof engine options, and absolutely endless modification choices, the Cherokee is one of the best options for a budget off-roader.
That is, so long as you’re willing to pick up an XJ model with several hundred thousand miles on the odometer. However, the 4.0-liter AMC straight six is both easy to fix and well known for its longevity. As a result, high mileage on an otherwise clean example shouldn’t phase a potential buyer.
7 AMC Eagle
The SUVs of today are, for the most part, crossovers. SUVs are traditionally either truck-based or are purpose-built for SUV use. Crossovers, on the other hand, are based on a car platform or are designed to exhibit car-like driving characteristics over off-road capability, despite appearances that may suggest otherwise. One of the precursors to crossovers was the AMC Eagle. The Eagle was basically the standard AMC Concord that was lifted and given a four-wheel-drive system. In today’s era of Subaru Outbacks and Audi Quattros, it doesn’t sound too special, but in the 1980s, it was revolutionary. There are many ways these Eagles can be modified to further their off-road capabilities. It was even offered in a sleek coupe body style, a design that has yet to be repeated on the off-road market.
6 Subaru Brat
It may be hard to believe, but Subaru hasn’t always been the popular company that it is now. Today, the company sells a wide range of vehicles that are all offered with all-wheel-drive and are widely advertised for their safety. However, back in the ‘80s and the ‘90s, Subaru was a strange little Japanese company that offered only a couple different models. The Brat is likely the most memorable of these vehicles. It was a four-wheel-drive car-based pickup that had jump seats in the bed that allowed Subaru to avoid exorbitant US tariffs. Give these little trucks a lift and fit them with off-road tires, and they'll be able to climb any mountain you need them to. And if you’re not going for the roughest stuff, the Brat can even handle some difficult trails in stock form.
5 Jeep Grand Cherokee
After the Cherokee came out and took over the SUV world in the ‘80s and the ‘90s, its larger and younger brother was released, and it was called the "Grand Cherokee." This new Jeep was more luxury oriented and was considerably heavier than the smaller XJ Cherokee. Despite this fact, the Grand Cherokee didn’t lose much in the way of off-road capability. It still offered a front live axle until 2004, making it a reasonable option for crawling over chassis-twisting rocks. When it comes to power, it was offered with the same bulletproof 4.0-liter as the standard Cherokee. However, the Grand Cherokee could be had with a 5.2-liter Mopar V8 for extra power, or a 5.9-liter V8, which made it one of the fastest SUVs of the time. Given how popular the car was when it was new, it can be found for only a couple grand on Craigslist everywhere.
4 Toyota Land Cruiser
If cars like the Jeep Wrangler, the Land Rover Defender, and the Mercedes G-Wagon are just too flaky and impractical for you, then there’s really only one option left: the Toyota Land Cruiser. There are few cars that are as widely known for their durability, capability, and reliability as the Land Cruiser. However, being that the Land Cruiser is a unique and desirable beast, it's become a classic that holds its value extremely well.
The most affordable examples are the ‘90s and early 2000s generations, which are every bit as capable and reliable as one would expect from a Land Cruiser.
Look for cheap, high-mileage options, as these cars can just plow through hundreds of thousands of miles with little complaint. Make sure to check for Lexus LX models as well, as they're virtually the same as the Toyota and are similarly priced.
3 Isuzu Trooper
Prior to Isuzu pulling out of the American market, the brand tried several new models to make buyers return to the brand. While that didn’t work at the time, the Isuzu Trooper managed to be a somewhat popular choice in the ‘90s. While a Trooper may seem basic by today’s standards, it’s about on par with what could be found on ‘90s SUVs, while not compromising on off-road capabilities. Possibly due to the brand’s absence in the US, troopers can be found for well under $5,000, leaving buyers plenty of money to build a capable machine. Given its size and design, it is a great base for those looking for a budget overlanding vehicle. With the model becoming more forgotten as time goes on, it may be more difficult to find these SUVs in the future.
2 Toyota 4Runner
The Jeep Wrangler is often praised for retaining an uncompromised off-road-oriented design. While it deserves this praise, it’s not the only example that remains available today. The Toyota 4Runner, while not as hardcore as the Wrangler, is still an incredibly capable SUV with legitimate off-road suspension and a body-on-frame chassis. These days, it’s one of the few SUVs still on the market available with such a setup. However, retailing at over $30,000, new models are a little too expensive to be an off-road beater. Alternatively, the first few generations can be found for around a tenth of that. The earliest examples even have a removable roof, much like older Chevy Blazers and Ford Broncos. Of course, being a capable Toyota, there are a lot of parts available, both for repairs and for improving the 4Runner’s off-road capabilities.
1 Land Rover Defender
Possibly the most iconic off-roader in the world is the Land Rover Defender. These are extremely capable vehicles that have been offered in many different body styles over its long production. Due to the insane number of Defenders produced, they can be had for very little money throughout the world. However, in the US, the Defender is a forbidden fruit, as it was only commercially available for a couple years before being pulled from the market. As a result, American models can command ridiculous prices, given their rarity and region-specific options. However, even in America, imported examples of the two-door ‘90’ models can be had for around $15,000 or less. That may sound like a lot, but the Defender is a worldwide icon that's incredibly capable and rare in the US. At that price, it's worth every penny.