Broadly speaking, new 4x4s are less capable off the beaten path than they were 10 years ago. That’s because the best off-road vehicles — rugged, body-on-frame SUVs — are quickly going extinct, and car-based crossovers reign supreme. While crossovers are more comfortable and usually more efficient than traditional SUVs, the most challenging terrain they’re designed to conquer is a dirt road.
All is not lost if you’re planning on hitting the backcountry, though. There are still several great off-roaders on the market, including a handful that were designed specifically to excel when the going gets tough. Not sure where to start? Check out the ten best off-roaders on the market today, hand-picked by Digital Trends’ car experts.
The ZR2 model turns the Chevrolet Colorado midsize pickup truck from a normal work vehicle into an off-road missile. The bodywork is stretched out to accommodate 31-inch Goodyear tires, and the ZR2 rides on a beefed-up suspension that incorporates sophisticated Multimatic DSSV shock absorbers. Like the standard Colorado, the ZR2 is available with a 2.8-liter turbodiesel four-cylinder engine, with an impressive 369 pound-feet of torque.
All of this makes for a truck that can tackle pretty much anything you throw at it, and keep moving. The ZR2’s relatively compact proportions make it easier to maneuver off road than bigger pickups, and those high-tech shocks and other suspension components let the Chevy cover ground at high speeds. Downsides? Well, the bed-mounted spare tire takes up valuable cargo space, but other than that, we’re not really seeing any.
The Jeep Cherokee is the most capable compact crossover on the market. Although its primary vocation is hauling a family and their gear from point A to point B, the Trail Hawk model can handle serious off-roading with standard four-wheel drive, a beefed-up suspension, and a locking rear differential.
The Cherokee speaks tech, too. Jeep’s Selec-Terrain technology lets the driver choose from several driving modes including Auto, Snow, Mud, Sand, and Rock. A catalog of performance parts lets owners customize the Cherokee without voiding the factory warranty.
Jeep recently updated the Cherokee with a revised, more conventional-looking front end. While it’s far from an all-new model, the refreshed Cherokee also receives available Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility and new option packages. When it comes to the specifications sheet, the 2019 model year brings a brand-new turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder rated at 270 horsepower.
The Jeep Wrangler is undeniably the most iconic off-roader in the United States. It’s also one of the most capable, one of the most affordable, and one of the most fun. It’s built for top-less, door-less motoring in the great outdoors, a mission which makes it unique on the market.
Even a stock, base-model Wrangler can hold its own off-road. It’s a blank canvas for owners looking to make modifications, but Jeep offers several variants of the Wrangler that are ready to get muddy right out of the factory. The Rubicon trim benefits from heavy-duty axles, skid plates that protect vital mechanical components, and a trick system that lets the driver disconnect the front sway bar.
The Wrangler has never been well-mannered around town; until now. The new fourth-generation model delivers a relatively comfortable ride in urban situations, it offers better visibility, and it comes loaded with useful tech features like a large touchscreen that runs Jeep’s Uconnect infotainment system and even blind spot monitoring system with rear cross traffic alert.
The name Range Rover has been synonymous with eyebrow-raising off-road prowess since the original model made its debut in England in 1970. It has become much more upscale in recent years, like most of its rivals, but it remains a true off-roader at its core.
While fuel economy has never been one of the Range Rover’s strong points, the newest model is much more efficient than before thanks to smaller engines and the widespread use of weight-saving aluminum in its construction. An available turbodiesel engine provides solid low-end torque, which is a real boon when clambering over boulders. And, if you’re more into hybrids, Land Rover has you covered with a gasoline-electric plug-in model named P400e.
The Mercedes-Benz G-Class (short for Geländewagen) is unlike any other off-roader on the market today. It was billed as Mercedes’ answer to the Land Rover when it was introduced in 1979, and it has been used as a military vehicle by dozens and dozens of nations over the past few decades. Surprisingly, it’s still built entirely by hand in Graz, Austria.
Don’t let its chrome trim and its frequent appearances in rap videos fool you; the G is one of the most rugged vehicles ever built. It features full body-on-frame construction, three differential locks, solid axles on both ends, and skid plates. The downside is that it’s gotten exponentially more expensive, so driving one off the pavement isn’t for the faint of heart. Those willing to risk it will go anywhere they please.
Act fast if it’s the current G you’re after. Mercedes-Benz just introduced a brand-new model that will begin arriving in showrooms near the end of 2018.
Like the Toyota Land Cruiser, the Nissan Armada is a body-on-frame behemoth that’s virtually unstoppable when the pavement ends. It traces its roots to the Patrol, which is one of the most common SUVs seen in places like the Middle East, Africa, and Australia. In short, the Armada is new for the latest model year but its capability is recognized globally.
Bucking the industry’s downsizing trend, the big Armada relies on a big 5.6-liter V8 engine that makes 390 horsepower and 401 pound-feet of torque. An advanced four-wheel drive system sends the engine’s grunt to the rear wheels only in normal driving conditions in order to save fuel, and seamlessly transfers power to the front axle when it detects that extra traction is needed.
Go ahead, get muddy. The Rebel is the most capable member of Ram’s 1500 lineup. It’s offered either as a quad cab with a 6-foot-4-inch-long bed or as a crew cab with a shorter 5-foot-7 cargo compartment. Either way, this four-wheel-drive-only truck boasts standard V6 power, 33-inch Goodyear tires, skid plates, and a performance-tuned suspension. It’s the kind of pickup that feels at home on even the most challenging terrain.
No one will mistake the Rebel for a standard 1500, either. It wears a more rugged-looking front fascia characterized by black inserts, and the cabin offers durable vinyl upholstery that can be easily wiped down if it gets dirty. It’s also one of the most high-tech trucks on the market thanks in part to a massive, tablet-style touchscreen for the infotainment system.
The Toyota 4Runner is one of the last remaining vestiges from the era when midsize SUVs were all built around a body-on-frame architecture. It’s consequently not as efficient as many of its more family-focused competitors, but few can match it in terms of ruggedness and off-road capacity.
The pick of the litter is the TRD Pro model. To turn the 4Runner into a mountain-taming beast, Toyota added a lifted suspension with an extra inch of travel, Blistein shocks, and stronger springs. It’s more expensive than a standard 4Runner, but being able to explore the desert in a lifted SUV without canceling the factory warranty is priceless.
The Toyota Land Cruiser has commanded the respect of off-road aficionados for decades. It’s the car you’ll inevitably find if you travel to rural Australia or a remote part of Africa. It’s become bigger, more posh, and more expensive than it’s ever been, but it comes loaded with some of the most high-tech features you’ll encounter on the trail. Notably, Toyota has designed a system that can brake individual wheels on-demand in order to reduce the truck’s turning radius.
The Land Cruiser is unlike the average off-roader because it offers wall-to-wall leather upholstery, soft-touch surfaces on the dash, and genuine wood trim. It’s not always the most practical vehicle due to its gargantuan size, but this bold SUV can carry 81 cubic feet of gear with the second and third rows folded flat, or seven adults.
Like its namesake, the Ford Raptor is a beast. Now in its second generation, the Raptor is one of the only vehicles that can travel off-road at high speeds. Helping it to do that is a 3.5-liter, twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V6 that, with 450 horsepower and 510 pound-feet of torque, is actually more powerful than the larger V8 from the first-generation Raptor. It’s a testament to how far engine technology has advanced in the past decade.
The Raptor is a clever truck, too. Different vehicle parameters can be adjusted through six different driving modes. Those modes are designed to give the truck the ideal setup for whatever terrain it may encounter. In fact, the Raptor is so capable that a Ford-backed team raced one in the legendary Baja 1000 off-road race, then drove it straight home.