Hitting the trails in a new off-road vehicle isn’t as easy as it was a decade ago. While the number of SUVs on sale has exploded over the past few years, most are car-based crossovers that can’t conquer anything tougher than a dirt road. The ranks of true off-roaders have thinned as buyers have demanded more refinement and creature comforts, and as governments have demanded better fuel economy. It’s a similar story with pickup trucks: They’re a common sight on the road, but some models are better than others when it comes to off-road capability.
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Fear not, though, as there are still several great off-roaders on the market. From upgraded versions of existing models to specialized designs, they keep the off-road faith. To prove our point, we’ve rounded up five of the best off-road vehicles on the market today, while keeping size and price point in mind. Now grab the keys to one of them and get it muddy.
At a glance
Why should you buy this: It’s the quintessential off-roader.
Who’s it for: People who want to live life unencumbered by roofs and doors.
How much will it cost: $27,945+
Why we picked the Jeep Wrangler:
What hasn’t been said about the Jeep Wrangler? The styling references the original World War II-era Jeeps, and the Wrangler’s convertible top and removable doors make it easier to get close to nature. It’s a story that’s been told many times before, so it’s easy to believe the Wrangler is over-hyped. It’s not.
While it has as much in common with a World War II Jeep as a Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class has with one of the German automaker’s Formula One cars, the Wrangler remains the real deal when it comes to off-roading. The Wrangler is one of the last SUVs available with a traditional four-wheel drive system, which includes a crawl ratio that helps maintain traction over loose surfaces. Rubicon models get full locking differentials to improve traction further, plus 33-inch BF Goodrich KM All-Terrain tires.
Every Wrangler model sports a generous amount of ground clearance (10.9 inches, according to Jeep), and approach, departure, and breakover angles (44 degrees, 37 degrees, and 27.8 degrees, respectively), allowing the Wrangler to climb over obstacles without taking damage. Skid plates afford further protection to vital mechanical components. Jeep also claims the Wrangler can ford up to 30 inches of water.
With the launch of the current-generation Wrangler (code-named JL), Jeep has also emphasized tech to a greater degree than before. The latest Wrangler is available with an 8.4-inch touchscreen that runs the Uconnect infotainment system, including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Buyers can also pay extra for a 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine, which provides adequate power and an EPA-rated 24 mpg combined, but a burlier 3.6-liter V6 is standard. Jeep is planning plug-in hybrid and diesel options as well, along with the first-ever Wrangler pickup truck.
Read our 2018 Jeep Wrangler first-drive review
Land Rover Range Rover
The best luxury off-road vehicle
Why should you buy this: It’s like taking a five-star hotel off road.
Who’s it for: Rich outdoor enthusiasts.
How much will it cost: $88,860+
Why we picked the Land Rover Range Rover:
The Range Rover is one of the most well-rounded vehicles on sale today. It’s not cheap, but you get a lot for your money. Land Rover’s flagship offers a high-class interior comparable to many German luxury sedans, and impressive on-road manners for a big SUV. But it can also take you places no other luxury vehicle could hope to reach.
While rivals such as the Mercedes-Benz G-Class, Bentley Bentayga, and Rolls-Royce Cullinan have cropped up recently, Land Rover remains ruler of the mud. To start with, the Range Rover’s body was designed to maximize ground clearance and features short front and rear overhangs — all to make climbing over obstacles easier. Land Rover’s Terrain Response system also sets various vehicle parameters for different types of terrain. The Range Rover can even wade into water up to 35.4 inches deep.
But the Range Rover isn’t a Spartan truck. Its leather-lined interior incorporates a dual-screen infotainment system and a built-in Wi-Fi hotspot that can support up to eight devices. The high-end SVAutobiography version even sports reclining rear seats and a refrigerated drink compartment. Land Rover also offers a variety of powertrains, from a plug-in hybrid to a supercharged V8.
Ram 1500 Rebel
The best off-road pickup truck
Why should you buy this: You won’t be a poseur if you do.
Who’s it for: Off-road enthusiasts who need cargo space.
How much will it cost: $44,095+
Why we picked the Ram 1500 Rebel:
Many people buy pickup trucks because of the image of ruggedness those vehicles create. But not every pickup is capable of serious off-roading. While trucks make a good foundation for off-road vehicles, they still require the right equipment to exploit their potential. Thankfully, adding the right equipment is exactly what Ram did with its Rebel.
The Rebel is based on the 1500, the brand’s bread-and-butter truck. Ram introduced the model in 2015, and it was recently updated as part of a comprehensive overhaul of the entire Ram 1500 lineup. While the Ford F-150 Raptor takes the formula of upgrading a basic truck even further, the Rebel is a more sensible package that more people will be able to get the most out of.
The list of upgrades over non-Rebel Ram 1500 models includes 33-inch Goodyear Wrangler DuraTrac tires and an electronic locking rear differential to aid traction. It also gets a 1-inch suspension lift, improving ground clearance, and a skid plate. Like other Ram 1500 models, the Rebel is available with air suspension, but the standard suspension is a coil-spring setup with Bilstein shock absorbers that feature a remote-reservoir design intended to keep them cooler, which improves performance.
The Rebel is available with the same powertrains as other Ram 1500 models, including a 3.6-liter V6 teamed with Ram’s eTorque mild-hybrid system, or a 5.7-liter Hemi V8. The ubiquitous Uconnect infotainment system — including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto — is available as well.
The most reliable off-road vehicle
Why should you buy this: It will never let you down.
Who’s it for: People who need something dependable in their lives.
How much will it cost: $34,910+
Why we picked the Toyota 4Runner:
The 4Runner was once Toyota’s mainstay family SUV, but the more civilized Highlander now occupies that role. While the 4Runner is a traditional SUV, the Highlander is a more modern car-based crossover. But being freed from family duty means the 4Runner can now live a life of rugged adventure.
The 4Runner’s bulky body-on-frame design and traditional four-wheel drive system may leave less room for kids and groceries and create a less-appealing on-road driving experience, but they make this Toyota a natural off road. That’s especially true if you go for the TRD Pro model, which includes a 1-inch suspension lift, upgraded shocks and springs, and an aluminum skid plate. Toyota also offers some notable driver aids, including hill-start assist control, downhill assist control, crawl control, and a multi-terrain select system, which adjusts the amount of permitted wheel slip for different types of terrain.
But the best part about the 4Runner is that it’s a Toyota. The Japanese automaker has a well-deserved reputation for reliability. The 4Runner received high marks from Consumer Reports in its most recent reliability ratings. No one wants a vehicle to leave them stranded in the wilderness, after all.
While the 4Runner features an old design by industry standards, it does include some modern touches, namely a 6.1-inch touchscreen and a JBL audio system for TRD Pro models. The standard 4.0-liter V6 also provides a respectable 270 horsepower and 278 pound-feet of torque.
The best family off-road vehicle
Why should you buy this: It lets you take the whole family along on an adventure.
Who’s it for: People who have outgrown their Jeep Wranglers.
How much will it cost: $46,090+
Why we picked the Nissan Armada:
Most U.S. buyers probably aren’t too familiar with the current-generation Nissan Armada, but it’s a bona fide off-roading legend in other parts of the world. This generation of Armada launched in the United States as a 2017 model, but it’s been on sale elsewhere much longer as the latest version of the Nissan Patrol — a model with decades of history and a pedigree equal to that of the Toyota Land Cruiser or Land Rover Range Rover.
The Armada is an old-school, body-on-frame SUV. That means the Nissan isn’t as refined as modern crossovers, but it can also go places that they can’t. The Armada sports the requisite four-wheel drive system with low range, as well as a 5.6-liter V8 producing 390 hp and 394 lb-ft of torque. Nissan claims this hulking SUV can tow up to 8,500 pounds when properly equipped, meaning it can haul your boat, too.
But the Armada isn’t just a big brute. Thanks to its enormous footprint, the Nissan has seating for up to eight across three rows. Nissan also equipped the Armada with some simple but handy tech features, such as a video rearview mirror and an alert system that reminds the driver if anything (like kids or pets) is left in the rear seats. General Motors was admittedly the first to offer both features, but they make a lot of sense in a big three-seat SUV like the Armada.
The Armada is also available with an 8-inch touchscreen and 13-speaker Bose audio system, so it’s not entirely lacking in creature comforts. An optional rear-seat DVD entertainment system with dual 8-inch monitors, USB, HDMI, and VTR ports, and wireless headphones can help pacify children. Nissan also offers an array of driver-assist features and a 360-degree camera system. It’s basically everything you’d want from a family SUV, but with added off-road capability.
How we test
The Digital Trends automotive team tests vehicles through a comprehensive scrutinizing process. We examine the qualities of the exterior and interior and judge them based on our expertise and experience in the context of the vehicle’s category and price range. Entertainment technology is thoroughly tested as well as most safety features that can be tested in controlled environments.
Test drivers spend extensive time behind the wheel of the vehicles to conduct real-world testing. We drive them on highways and back roads, as well as off-road and race tracks, when applicable.