Off-Road Buying Guide

Off-Road Buying Guide

Jump To: Off-Roading Vehicles: What You Need To Know | Off-Road SUV Guide | Off-Road Crossover SUV Guide | Off-Road Truck Guide | Off-Road Luxury SUV Guide

So you want to go off-roading and need a good place to start. Perhaps you're unsure about the best sort of vehicle to take off-road, or maybe you're overwhelmed by some of the terms and phrases used so casually in various truck and SUV reviews. You might also be wondering if the SUV already sitting in your driveway is all you really need.

While most trucks and SUVs on sale today can tackle a dirt back road straight from the dealer lot, some are more capable than others. Jeep, Chevrolet and Toyota, for example, offer variants of existing models that are specifically designed to improve off-road capability. These are great for off-roading enthusiasts, but they may be overkill for others. There's a balance to be struck considering off-road capability, day-to-day comfort and cost.

We're here to help. Our guide will break down what to look for in an off-roader and offer some tips to help you pick the right vehicle. We also talk about aftermarket parts and the wide variety of accessories available to customize a vehicle to your heart's content.

Off-Roading Vehicles: What You Need to Know

There's no one factor that determines a vehicle's off-road prowess, so the first thing you should consider is how much capability you need for what you want to do. Do you want to traverse some hardcore trails? Or do you just need something that won't get stranded on a camping trip?

There are a few basic things that any vehicle with off-road aspirations should have. Generally, all- or four-wheel drive is a must, as is finding a vehicle with enough ground clearance so it can drive over obstacles — hills, rocks, mud, creeks — without sustaining damage. As a general rule of thumb, a vehicle with 8.5 inches of clearance or more should be pretty good. After that, it really comes down to individual use cases.

It also helps to understand some important off-roading lingo. First off: What's the difference between all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive? Generally, all-wheel drive is always active, with power going to all four wheels based on need. Four-wheel drive is a little different. While you can leave the system on all the time, four-wheel drive usually implies the ability to switch to two-wheel-drive mode when you don't need extra traction.

Many traditional trucks and SUVs with four-wheel drive also have what's called four-high or four-low gearing. Four-high is for normal driving. Switching to four-low can provide extra traction and control when off-roading. For more information on this and other topics, check out our detailed article that explains the differences between all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive.

You may also see terms such as approach, departure and breakover angles. These are vehicle measurements that influence how steep of an obstacle your vehicle can climb, descend or traverse without scraping the front or rear bumpers or underneath. In general, the greater the angle, the better.

Finally, you may want to look at aftermarket support. Maybe you want to improve a vehicle's capability, or just make it feel a little more personal and unique. Either way, there are companies that offer a seemingly endless number of parts and accessories that can further enhance a vehicle's off-road capability. Bigger wheels and tires, upgraded suspensions, LED lights and bumper-mounted winches are just some of the options available from third-party companies.

Off-Road SUV Guide

Today's SUVs are broadly broken down into two categories: traditional truck-based SUVs and car-based crossovers. Since the former category is much more at home off-road, let's dive into two of the most popular models you can buy.

The Jeep Wrangler is arguably the most iconic off-roader around. It represents the tried and true way to go off-roading thanks to its high ground clearance and available locking differentials that provide extra traction when driving on steep and rocky terrain. Modern Wranglers pack all the features and creature comforts you expect from a new vehicle without sacrificing anything off-road. Another huge plus for the Wrangler is the vast aftermarket support, with countless parts available from a variety of outfitters.

If there's any automaker that comes close to matching Jeep's off-road heritage, it's Toyota. The Toyota 4Runner also has a high ground clearance to help you clear obstacles on the trail. 4Runners with the TRD designation are especially designed for going off-road. The Toyota Land Cruiser is another model to consider. It's not as capable as the Wrangler or 4Runner, but in exchange it's more comfortable. Both the 4Runner and the Land Cruiser offer seating for up to seven passengers.

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Off-Road Crossover SUV Guide

The vast majority of SUVs sold today are crossovers. Crossovers are mostly tailored for the street, but their tall ride height and available all-wheel drive mean they can go off-road when called upon.

As a general rule, crossovers don't have the capability that some enthusiasts are looking for, but what they lack off-road they make up for on the street. Crossovers ride and handle much more like cars with the added capability of all-wheel drive and enhanced ground clearance. They also tend to have higher fuel economy than traditional SUVs.

Two key choices for an off-roading crossover SUV are the Jeep Cherokee and the Jeep Renegade. The Cherokee is a little roomier and more capable off-road than the Renegade, but the Renegade counters with a lower price. Both offer solid off-road capability, especially in Trailhawk trim. The Trailhawk trim of each model comes with modifications such as a lifted suspension and special tires to further off-road capability.

Subaru's lineup of SUVs is also worth checking out. The Subaru Crosstrek and Subaru Outback, in particular, are well suited for light-duty off-roading. Benefits to the Crosstrek and Outback include standard all-wheel drive, good ground clearance, and raised roof rails that make it easy to install racks and other recreational-based accessories.

Finally, Toyota offers a version of the Toyota RAV4 called the TRD Off-Road that has a special all-wheel-drive system and wheels and tires to make it a little more capable than the typical small crossover SUV.

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Off-Road Truck Guide

While full-size trucks from Ford, Chevrolet and Ram dominate the sales charts, we suggest looking toward the midsize truck market for off-road purposes. Midsize trucks offer a lot of utility, but their smaller size makes them more maneuverable and nimble off-road.

That said, there are a few cool specialized full-size trucks available. If you want to read more about off-roading full-size trucks, check out our rankings of the top off-road trucks you can buy today.

The midsize Jeep Gladiator is basically a Wrangler with a cargo bed. The Gladiator's larger size makes it a little less capable than the Wrangler when going off-road, but in return there's its increased utility. Overall, the Gladiator offers many of the same robust features and benefits of its SUV twin, including a high ground clearance and available locking differentials for extra hardcore off-roading traction.

The midsize Toyota Tacoma has a similar relationship to the 4Runner as the Gladiator does to the Wrangler, though the Toyotas aren't as closely related as the Jeeps under the skin. The Tacoma is available in a variety of trim levels. Of particular note are the TRD Off-Road and TRD Pro trim levels, which come with special suspensions and tires that help increase off-road capability.

We also like the midsize Chevrolet Colorado. Regular Colorados aren't all that great off-road, but Chevy does offer the special ZR2. Like the Gladiator Rubicon or Tacoma TRD Pro, the Colorado ZR2 is a highly capable vehicle that has a variety of modifications, such as a lifted suspension and locking differentials, to significantly improve off-road capability.

All three of these trucks have support from aftermarket companies if you want to further expand their off-roading potential.

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Luxury Off-Road SUV Guide

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If you're looking for an off-roader that's a little more subtle or comfortable than the standard truck or SUV, there's a small subset of vehicles that might be up your alley. Luxury automakers offer a wide variety of crossovers and SUVs that combine off-road prowess with high-end touches.

The Land Rover Defender and Land Rover Range Rover may be the best known. The new Defender, in particular, is well-suited for off-roading thanks to its modest size, high ground clearance, and wide mix of terrain-based driving modes. Other options include the Audi Allroad, which is a luxury small wagon with a bit more off-road capability than a typical luxury sedan, and the Mercedes-Benz G-Class. The G-Class' boxy styling hints at its military-based heritage, and it comes with a suitable amount of off-roading hardware and technology.

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