Top-Ten Best Off-Road SUVs
Off-roading can be just as challenging, scary and life-changing as a high-speed track session with a supercar.
With supercars, the chances of a costly mistake are present but manageable. The tracks are typically perfect, the guard rails are there to keep you out of the trees in the case of a spin out, and generally, backing off the throttle is enough to recover control before anything goes *crunch*.
Off-roading, however, brings a real chance that poor driving or the wrong car will result in serious damage to both that driver’s confidence and the car’s rolling ability.
While most racetracks are filled with other cars to help you get home after putting yours into a wall, the situation out on desolate off-road trails is much more grim is something really breaks. Being stranded becomes a real possibility, with bad results almost a sure thing.
After popping three tires and cracking an alloy rim of the 18-inch wheels and 35-section tires of my (poor, abused) Subaru Legacy GT wagon in Oak Ridge, Tennessee a few years ago, I had to limp down the mountain on two hideously-bent donut spare steel wheels. Tires sheared off long before, so it was a clunky and scary ride to a place that a tow truck could find me.
It was this moment I finally realized something: as with everything challenging, to go off-roading the right way, you need the right tools.
Those tools have adjustable suspensions, huge wheel travel, and tires so knobby that a 65 mph cruise on the highway sounds like a Monster Truck.
Great A/C, comfy seats and mechanical reliability are also key parameters for this list.
This one needs no introduction, hopefully. The Rally Fighter is the product of a brilliant team of engineers in Arizona. They decided to build the car of their wildest fantasies: an off-road truck so hardcore that its integrated roll-cage and chassis make even the million-dollar baja prototypes seem weak in comparison.
A giant, V-8 engine sends all its power to those huge rear wheels, ensuring lots more action like the sandy rooster-tail from the article header.
2. Bowler EXR-S
If you think the $100,000 price for the Rally Fighter above is a bit steep for a car without a local service station or dealership, brace yourself for this next beast.
The $285,000 Bowler EXR-S is the street-legal variant of the Dakar racing team’s trophy-winning EXR model. Loosely based on some Land Rover parts, the EXR-S is an unstoppable force on any off-road trail. Its 550-plus horsepower from the Range Rover Sport’s V-8 is able to hustle the big truck to 60 mph in just 4.2 seconds - even on dirt.
The Wrangler is such a legend in off-road circles for a reason. A series of major improvements since 2011 now brings vastly better seats, insulation and cabin tech on the inside, but keeps the removable doors, hardtop and fold-down windshield outside.
The Unlimited model now brings a four-door option with an available color-coded hardtop for the first time since the red Renegade Wrangler of the 1990s.
The colored top is miraculous at refining the Unlimited’s appearance on its longer wheelbase.
Even the two-door models gain the third most critical update: the latest 3.6-liter, V-6 that finally has the torque to match the old 4.0-liter, straight-six that powered this model’s best days.
The LR4 is fresh for 2014 with updated headlights, engines and infotainment. Sales of the model have really fallen off a cliff in the last few years in favor of the Range Rover Sport.
Even with the big, new Range Rover and Range Rover Sport arriving now, the classic LR4 has many benefits on the off-road trails. It is slightly narrower and much shorter than its larger siblings, and also has far fewer compromises to aerodynamics. In shorthand, this means the LR4 is less likely to lose pieces of bumpers and trim in the muddy lanes, where its Evoque cousin would surely be stuck.
The new RR and RRS also take a big downgrade on off-road equipment, and lack the mechanical differentials that make the LR4 unstoppable.
The new Yukon Denali (and all its peers from Chevy and Cadillac) are still quite tough machines off the beaten path. The rugged construction of these trucks means that even horrible-sounding rock scratches on the under-tray will almost never cause major mechanical damage, as similar incidents are likely to do with any European model.
The all-wheel-drive system choice from the Denali is hard to fault. It is generally seamless but can really shift serious torque around as needed to get jobs done.
The new 4Runner is really an odd duck these days. It is too expensive at nearly $40,000 to appeal to the Xterra and Wrangler buyer segments, but too unrefined and compromised to win over many moms who have tried friendlier crossovers.
Even so, this sweet spot is a cool $30,000 less than the Land Cruiser, which would still have trouble topping its lighter little brother on the worst off-road trails.
7. Lexus GX 460
The Lexus GX is fresh this year with some new fender shapes, new lights and a very striking new grille up front. All Predator jokes aside, this is still a truck whose capabilities are beyond fault off-road. A mechanically-adjustable suspension lift is available, and the full-time all-wheel-drive is extremely robust.
The off-road trails will likely snap off those hideous running boards and most of the new nose pretty soon after arrival, making the GX into one of the coolest zombie-proof trucks out there.
For the extra $20,000 over the similarly-sized 4Runner, the GX brings hundreds of pounds of luxury additions like insulation, better leathers, better everything really.
Aside from the black armored versions of the Land Cruiser, the most famous paint job these days is flat white with blue UN letters on the side.
After years of running Range Rovers and Nissan Patrols, the UN is almost 100-percent Land Cruisers at this point. For life in some of the hardest places on earth, confidence that the Toyota will run perfectly — even after an air drop via parachute — is quite important.
After all, when the UN peacekeepers arrive, they are generally very unwelcome, and need to get their business done rapidly and get out. For tasks that need 100-percent certainty, the Land Cruiser is tops.
The Grand Cherokee is still the leading machine for hitting the trails on the weekends, but the city during the week. After years of fine-tuning this formula — with mixed results — the latest generation of Grand Cherokee is finally the best ever.
The Mercedes-sourced chassis has rigidity and handling poise that previous Jeeps could never even fathom, but the three levels of off-road four-wheel-drive systems in the Grand Cherokee are present and better than ever.
Even while the Audi Q7 and the German trucks all ditch locking differentials in favor of hybrid systems, the Jeep is almost the best of both worlds at this point.
10. Nissan Xterra
The Xterra is quite a bit more mature than the others in this list, but even so, there is almost no better machine for Colorado living. Perhaps that is why they are so ubiquitous anywhere that gets snow or has mountains.
While a bit staid on the outside these days, the Xterra is also a far better vehicle than it ever was before. The potent VQ engine stepped in for the original weakling and supercharged weakling.
Amenities are actually very, very good and almost all tailored to the outdoor coolness theme. While the Wrangler might be best up in Big Sky, Montana... the Xterra is close behind on the rough stuff and also much more comfortable on the way there and back.
All these trucks will play the absolute fool out in the dirt. Turn the stability and traction settings off, and some will make you forget all about track days and hissing supercars.
For most people who try off-roading, slow and steady is the name of the game. Five mph is a bit too fast and can pop tires on the Cayenne and Mercedes-Benz G-Class about 30 minutes into any off-road adventure.
If you’re really looking to get your off-road on, any of these top-ten off-roaders will do just fine.