In Search of the Ideal Off Road Vehicle

This is the fifth incarnation in our quest for the ultimate customized adventure vehicle. Our last truck was an overland/ camping/ work truck. We did many DIY alterations and customizations to it, only to have it destroyed one torrentially rainy day on the 210. How sad is that! 35” tires, off road bumper with light bar, 3” Suspension lift, new shell/bed liner, just serviced… and it gets crushed driving 35 mph on the freeway in Pasadena! Not a proper end to such a fine machine.

Well, it did have 180k on the odometer. And it did have hail damage. But still! A lot of love, sweat, and thought (and of course money) went into customizing this thing into our perfect vehicle.

R.I.P our Ford F-150 4x4

R.I.P our Ford F-150 4x4

So what did we get after the death of the F-150? 

Well, this was a tough one: we wanted a great 4x4. We wanted something smaller, for sure: At 21 feet, that truck was just silly for driving anywhere other than a straight line on the highway. Plus, this time we had more money and our only sticking point was it had to be cash; no payments for us!

So what to buy? Jeep, Land Rover, Toyota, Ford, Hummer or Nissan (only kidding on the last two)? And why no Honda, you don’t ask? My first car was a civic (like practically everyone else) and I’ve had many Hondas in my past, including our much loved Honda Element that we converted into a pop up E-camper. But in my opinion, Honda has really dropped the ball over the last 10 to 15 years, and they don’t offer anything in a real sports utility vehicle. The design of the Element was awesome, but the engine was just too underpowered for towing or to do anything off-pavement.

Our old Honda Element with E-Camper pop up tent conversion by Ursa Minor

Our old Honda Element with E-Camper pop up tent conversion by Ursa Minor

Ok, so here are the must haves: 

*HAS TO make me smile. I am in my late thirties, knocking on the door of forty; at this point, I deserve something that I can’t stop looking back at as I walk through the parking lot into Costco… But it can’t be so pristine and shiny that I live in constant fear of door dings. That means it’s got to be under 20k, and around ten or so years old.

*MUST be 4x4. But why!? You live in Southern California! True. But my vehicles must have no limits outside of gravity. Here’s my justification: Have you ever been stuck in the snow or had to use chains? I haven’t, but I like the idea of never having to worry about that. Also, 4x4 is cool (honestly, that’s the main reason).

*There’s other stuff on my list (towing, ground clearance, horsepower), but they’re pretty specific to me. So for the purpose of this article, let’s move on…

What did we decide NOT to buy?

RANGE ROVER- we live in LA, so there are like a bajillion for sale under $10,000. So many options to pick from, lots of them are customized already. They look great, especially the Discovery’s classic safari off-road look. They’re luxury cars, so well appointed and a more comfortable ride than other off road capable SUVs. Like other high-end luxury performance vehicles, their value drops like a sinking stone after a few years , so they’re the most affordable of the rigs we considered.

The Deal Breaker: they pretty much don’t run after three years from their build date. Well, that’s not fair; if you replace everything, they will work a little bit for a while. For reliability, they are truly one of the worst used vehicles you can purchase in this category. So what we’d save on the purchase would soon disappear into maintenance costs.

JEEP- when you think of an off road vehicle, you’re probably thinking of the WWII style Willys jeep with the round lights in the signature grill. The jeep wrangler is incredible, no question. The design has barely changed in the last 70 years & that is for good reason; they got it right the first time. We looked at the Wrangler Rubicon and the Sahara for their size. We really liked all the customizability, and it’s the cheapest to customize because so much of the market in this category is jeep wranglers. Also you can find many already very well modified options, especially in Southern California.

The ISSUE: The interior is just too small. The Jeep is built with the passenger compartment on the inside of the wheel wells rather than over them, which really eats up a lot of space. It does give you more room for large off-road tires, but the compromise is the seats get smooshed closer. 

The engine’s also a bit small… even in a six cylinder you can’t really tow with it. Not a huge problem, but it sure does affect your passing speed. It also rattles and whistles as you drive because all the panels can be removed. We drive a lot of long distances to go camping, so this was not the perfect option for us.  

We briefly considered another Jeep model, the Grand Cherokee. It’s Silly powerful, tons of amenities and comfort, but over the years they have a bunch of electrical issues (I can attest to this because I’ve owned one). Beautiful vehicle and a great ride, but I had issues with the power steering, dual climate control, heated seats, and air-conditioning… all while it was still under 30,000 miles. 

…So we move on to TOYOTA! 

The best thing about Toyota (their reliability) is the worst thing about buying a used Toyota (their high resale value). The Toyota Tacoma is a vehicle that stands alone, in that it’s somehow just about as valuable used. Think of the largest amount you would ever consider spending on a midsize truck. OK do you have a number in your head? Great. There’s a used Tacoma within 10 miles of your house asking for more than that (In the interest of accuracy, I searched TRD pro Tacoma around me, and found one in Culver City for $51,000).

They somehow don’t only retain their value, but seem to increase in value kind of a little. We went and saw a used Tacoma TRD that was 10 years old with 160,000 miles on it for north of $18,000. What?!! It’s still unreasonable, but it’s because that engine has a storied reputation. The UK even have a Toyota High Mile Club that sends out stickers when owners exceed 150k, 200k and 300k miles! There is a reason every gardener, pool man, and in every third world country the majority of trucks are ‘80s and ‘90s Toyota Tacomas.

Okay, so as cool as this is, it’s too much money to start with, and it’s not very good looking unless you customize it. If you have fifty or sixty grand to burn, the TRD pro is about the most beautiful and capable Off Road vehicle around.

The 4runner is similarly cost-prohibitive to the Tacoma, on top of which the only good looking body design (in my opinion) is the most recent one. But if you want to get behind the wheel of one of those, you’re gonna be spending over $25,000 and with good customization even used they easily go for high twenties to low thirties (a little too rich for my blood). And if you’re looking a coveted 4X4 version like me, expect another four or five grand on top of that.

Tundra was out; too much like my old truck, too wide, too long. So I think you can guess at this point (especially if you look at the pictures first) that we ended up with an FJ Cruiser!

The FJ Cruiser is not perfect for everyone. As a matter fact, it’s probably the least practical next to the Wrangler. The backseats are an afterthought, so if you have some kiddies, it’s not gonna be very comfortable. However, compared to the Wrangler, it has more room on the interior especially where width is concerned because the vehicle sits above the tires. It drives incredibly well, has plenty of pick up, great passing speed, and is more reasonably priced than the 4runner or Tacoma. But it’s reliability is right up there with the Tacoma since it’s got the same engine (4.0L 6 cylinder). 

For the most part, I describe it as an off road sports car. (I had one before, and I loved it, but I was financing, and when someone offered to buy it for more than what I spent, I couldn’t pass it up). The FJ is practically a two door; the clamshell doors in the back are fine, but definitely not ideal for rear passenger entry and comfort (they can’t even get out unless you open the front doors for them). As a matter of fact, I had to drive my elderly grandparents to Thanksgiving dinner in it one year, and getting in and out nearly killed them (and that one didn’t have the extra two inch lift my new one has)!

Are they customizable? They sure are! And you can find some great ones done by people who know what they’re doing if you look long and hard.

But a warning goes along with buying a used 4x4 that has been customized: Get receipts for the customization and really look over the whole vehicle, because a lot of people do mods very poorly. It sounds biased, but I’ve steered clear of buying this type of car from owners younger than about thirty-five; they have a tendency to ride them hard and install stuff improperly.

Also be aware, that FJs in good condition are increasing in value. Production only ran from 2007 to 2014, so there are a more limited number for sale. They were modeled after the timeless FJ40, and their production vehicle is about the closest to the concept version as you’ll see. They are quickly becoming a collectors item, so ones with low miles and a true body really hold their value. LA is a huge used car market so I still had options, but there could definitely be an effect in smaller markets. (Don’t take my word for it; check it out

To sum up: If you’re looking to get a used off-road vehicle for the summer, there are some solid options out there. There are always trade-offs; go with a 4runner if you have the money to; Jeep Wrangler’s nice if you don’t need a ton of cargo room. If you go the truck route, Tacoma can’t be beat. I chose the FJ Cruiser. Because I can see myself owning it forever, and every time I look at it, it makes me smile.