By on February 7, 2012
Marcus writes:
My wife has requested that I get a jeep type vehicle that we can use to do some light off road driving, i.e. she wants to drive on the beach.  I see this as an opportunity to buy a fun 4×4.  I would like to take it off road a bit and try to get it stuck.  My requirements are that it be a 4×4, cost $15000 or less and can support a winch.  It does not need to be a daily driver, and manual is OK, but automatic is slightly preferred.  Finally, I am not looking to buy myself a job as a mechanic.
Steve answers:

“I would like to take it off road a bit and try to get it stuck.”

I’ll tell you what. For $15 you could probably have your wife wedge your head in a roll-up window. Then you could get rid of your masochistic tendencies while she enjoys a nice bottle of wine. When the urge for deep pain leaves you, just roll down the window (the right way) and join her.

So you want to get a little hopper for the beach and the rarely beaten path. It won’t be a daily driver, and chances are it will see only a few thousand miles a year.

I would opt for an older Mitsubishi Montero, Suzuki Grand Vitara, Suzuki Sidekick or Geo/Chevy Tracker.

At most you would be spending $5000. Out here in Atlanta, a reliable version of those vehicles regularly hits the $3000 to $3500 mark. Buy one of those and spend the remainder on some good gear.

Once you find yourself perfectly happy with your arrangement, please send the remainder to a good cause. Me. I promise to put the rest of your money to better use.

Sajeev answers:

Try to get it stuck?  Don’t worry, its easy to get any 4×4 stuck if you have the right combination of heat-of-the-moment stupidity and bravery.

The big problem with 4x4s is their cost. Not to initially purchase, but to outfit as you see fit. Perhaps you should buy a pre-modded Wrangler, thereby letting the previous owner take the depreciation hit on both the vehicle, parts and labor needed to install all these goodies.

Then again, a rig with off-road bits is more likely to need more upkeep, unless you are sure it was owned by an urban cowboy who simply had to look cool and never got a spot of dirt under his knobby tires.  And there’s plenty of that in Texas, let me tell you!

Full sizers might be better for a mixed use rig, but since you just want a toy, look at compact trucks: Chevy/Isuzu S-10, Toyota Tacoma, Nissan Frontier, Ford Ranger and the obligatory Jeep Wrangler. The SUVs based on these platforms are just peachy too, but we’d forgive you for not wanting a 2000 Ford Explorer or Chevy Blazer no matter how great the deal can be. Odds are you can get a 4×4 pickup for less than the Jeep, and the Chevy and Ford will give the best bang for the buck with cheap parts aplenty if you do, um, get yourself stuck.

Need help with a car buying conundrum? Email your particulars to [email protected] , and let TTAC’s collective wisdom make the decision easier… or possibly much, much harder.
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48 Comments on “New or Used: The Right combination of Stupidity and Bravery...”

  • avatar

    You don’t need a 4X4 to go off road and get stuck. Any old pickup or van will suffice, just be sure to include a shovel, an axe, and a winch (if you’re really adventurous) and you’re away. The only thing a 4X4 will do is allow you to get stuck a little deeper off road, but then you’re really stuck if your list of solutions doesn’t work.

  • avatar

    Tacoma with the double cab is the answer. It’s a solid beach truck, with your cooler, chairs and gear in the bed. Buy a solid tire inflator, as you need to lower the pressure to drive on loose sand. Probably won’t get stuck. I’d avoid the heavier SUVs for beach use, and the tinkertoys like the Suzuki and Tracker. Plus you can find Tacomas anywhere. A Jeep Wrangler will do the job, but as a non mechanic, I’d stick with the Toyota. It hauls more and is a more useful extra vehicle for winter, trips to the dump, Home Depot or the furniture store.

    • 0 avatar

      For any Tacoma variant you can mention, there’s a Ford Ranger equivalent that’s just as good and $2000 to $4000 cheaper.

      Just saying.

      • 0 avatar

        This is hit-or-miss, in my experience. You can find a cheap used Ranger easily, but once you start tightening up your criteria bit (“no more than ten years old, and I want 4×4, and a manual transmission, and a V6, and…”) the prices in the used market between Rangers and Tacomas start to even out pretty quickly.

  • avatar

    The Mitsubishi Montero, Suzuki Grand Vitara, Suzuki Sidekick or Geo/Chevy Tracker are terrible suggestions. While they’re decent little rigs, they’re very expensive to get parts for. In fact, the Chevy Tracker is nearly impossible to find parts for, and if you can they’re quite expensive.

    The simplest and best answer here is a Jeep TJ Wrangler with the 4.0 inline six. Get one with a soft top for beach time goodness and be done with it. About the only bad thing about the Wrangler, if you can call it that, is the high resale value. Might be a good thing if your wife gets tired of the wind blowing her hair around on the beach and you have to sell it.

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      You can get tons of parts at (junkyard database), Ebay, and Craigslist. Not to mention enthusiast forums that offer a bit more insight as to the best parts to get.

      All of the models mentioned had runs in North America that were well into the six figures. Parts will not be an issue.

      • 0 avatar

        I’m with Steve on this one. If Marcus wanted a Wrangler, he’d know it.

        Take the Montero. It’s a lot more truck, for about 20% less money, than a TJ wrangler. I’m talking about at least a 10-year old example.

      • 0 avatar

        Uh no you can’t. You’re talking about trucks with companies that have a questionable future in the US market at best. Mitsubishi is iffy, Geo is gone and Suzuki is nearly on its death bed. There is already no dealer support available on most Geo components, and sometimes there isn’t an aftermarket part available at all. You might be able to find some sketchy aftermarket parts, but who knows what the quality of those components are going to be like?

        You’re talking about 10 year old trucks here with suspension components that will need replacing soon. That isn’t a cheap proposition for any of the trucks that you’ve mentioned.

        A Wrangler is going to be way cheaper to keep running. Parts are cheap and plentiful. The same cannot be said for the former.

    • 0 avatar

      I have to agree that those suggestions are not really optimal. Jeep Wrangler FTW here. I am surprised this question was even asked because it seems so obvioius?

      I went offroading with my Pinz a few weeks ago with a Jeep club, and while I made all but the most modified Jeeps look like a joke on tough obstacles, they are capable and fun vehicles, and the size is definetely perfect for offroading. Plus you can take the top off which is awesome.

    • 0 avatar

      I have to agree with grzydj. This guy said he’s not looking into becoming a mechanic. While parts for the Mitsubishi and Suzuki might still exist online somewhere, its still not ideal. That strikes me as a comment of someone who wants the local tire place to replace his pads and rotors today, and do it for a decent price. Not search online for hours, ship, find someone who’ll do it, etc. I live in a city of approx 1 million, Fiat, Maserati, Porsche, etc have dealers here, but not Mitsubishi. The nearest Suzuki dealer is almost an hour away.

      The reasonable choices are a Wrangler, any newer compact pickup, or an older K5 Blazer, Jimmy, or a Bronco. Finding a nice 89-96 Bronco with 4wd seems to me to be slightly enough off the beaten trail to be the recommendation here. More comfortable than a Wrangler, parts for the 302 or 351 are a dime a dozen, and the roof comes off. 10k will buy a nice low mile one, 10-15k will buy you an immaculate Eddie Bauer 351 4×4.

    • 0 avatar

      The XJ Cherokee is another strong contender here. Same AMC/MOPAR parts bin as the TJ Wrangler but roughly 1/2 the price for comparable age, mileage and condition. The aftermarket support is almost as strong as the TJ and its its 137% more liveable on any trip longer than 10min.

  • avatar

    Used Jeep Liberty with the V6. Seems affordable used compared to any other “real” 4×4. There was also a diesel version 2005-2006, I believe those hold their value much better, but you probably wouldn’t lose much value if you kept the miles low.

    • 0 avatar

      I have a Liberty along with my CJ7. It is actually the diesel version. Amazing vehicle that’s built on the classic Jeep philosophy of a big truck built into a small body (the CRD got the 5spd transmission they put behind the Hemi, along with a part-time transfer case).

      Great vehicle, but very hard to find. For what this guy seems to want though, the Liberty just doesn’t compare to a Wrangler. Especially if he’s not driving it everyday.

  • avatar

    Buy some beater Go Anywhere Truck with 33 inch tires, roll bar, and lots of dents. Big V8, 351 or 350 inch engine, no mufflers, 4.11 gears, and a stick shift.

    Bonus points for wood bumpers, Tasmanian devil mudflats, Kraco 6×9 speakers, and scrap plates under it’s lifted bottom.

    Someone out there is daily driving one of these and desperately needs a Prius instead.

    • 0 avatar


      I’d say a mid-70’s Ford or Chev pickup. Common, cheap, and capable. Aftermarket is nearly inexhaustible, and the only spendy part would be putting gas in the sucker.

  • avatar

    (I’m guessing it’s suppose to be “not get stuck”?)

    As far as the beach goes, I’ve ran my CJ7 up and down the outer banks in 2WD all day long. However, if you’re not looking to turn a wrench, then I honestly can’t recommend one.

    $15k is a lot to blow on an off road toy. If you don’t plan on driving it much, find a higher-mileage TJ-wrangler for about $10k. You hardly need any mods if you’re driving it on the beach; the stock ride height is plenty, even on newer ones. You actually don’t want the big mud tires either; just something a bit wider then stock (about 11.5 inches does nicely). Forget the winch; there isn’t anything to hoop it up to on the beach anyways.

    Plus, with the Jeeps, you get doors off open-air cruising that you can’t get in anything else. For a toy, especially one that is off-road oriented, there is nothing else out there that even compares. Hell, you can even fold the windshield down, which is a blast riding along the ocean.

  • avatar

    Chevy K-5 Blazer or pre-90’s Ford Bronco. You can find one for about nine dollars and there are replacement parts aplenty in junkyards. When you get tired of it just light it on fire or sell it to some high school kid. Same difference, really.

  • avatar

    A quad bike, motorcycle, or gocart. And a trailer.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Save your money and get the newest 4cyl 5 speed manual Jeep Wrangler you can find. From what I see online the 4cyl are less likely to be thrashed and more likely to have been Malibu Barbie’s commuter vehicle.

  • avatar

    Any 2WD pickup with limited-slip

    • 0 avatar

      I worked with a guy once whose family lived at the outer banks. He swore they drove 60s rwd station wagons on the beach all the time.just needed to let a lot of air out of the tires. I used to have an awd Sierra Denali that did great on the beach as well. Had to be careful about ground clearance on the front bumper though. I would suspect a standard 4wd 1500 Chevy would be even better.

  • avatar

    Get a running army K Blazer diesel for 500 bucks to 1 grand. That way when you get it stuck, you abandon it.

    Driving on the beach in a large 4×4 requires you to be gentle with the throttle and air down your tires substantially. Helps to have bead lockers.

    Or just get an old Subaru. They’re light as hell and do great on sand.

    • 0 avatar

      You talking about a CUCV? No way you can get a running example for $1000. Try 5 times that. If you want to pay $500, go to the DRMO…and expect all the examples to be highly picked over.

      • 0 avatar

        I picked up two 84ish diesel K-Blazer CUCVs (one running and one as a parts car) from a recent government auction when I was up in KY for less than 500 bucks each.

  • avatar

    “My wife has requested that I get a jeep type vehicle that we can use to do some light off road driving, i.e. she wants to drive on the beach.”

    Ah, so then she’s looking to get featured in videos like thess:

    I see humiliation and expensive repairs in your future.

    • 0 avatar

      Those videos are incomplete: not one of them shows even jeeps stuck with the tide coming in! That’s why Steve recommends the older cheapo 4x4s. They’re nearly at the throw-away point already, and the sand and salt will finish them off in a year or two (if you don’t get stuck at water’s edge at low tide). The romance will be gone long before then anyway, so why blow 15 grand? If wifey is adamant, get her a dune buggy.

  • avatar

    not enough ground clearance on a Subaru…I know from experience by taking my old Legacy wagon on the beach in the outer banks. I had to push it hard to get through the deep, soft sand on the access path, and even though I got home fine, it wasn’t without a significant amount of damage.

    I had a 98 Blazer ZR2 with a 5 speed and the 4.3…now that was a beast in the sand, plenty of ground clearance, low range 4wd if ever needed, and the 5 speed is better for always ensuring you are in control and not causing tranny damage when you’re wheels are spinning.

    most important thing is to air down your tires about 10-15psi, the difference is huge. You don’t need a tough truck…just something with ground clearance, light weight, & aired down tires will be sufficient.

  • avatar
    Chicago Dude

    I rented a Wrangler soft top in Hawaii and my wife absolutely hated it. So badly, in fact, that we had to go exchange it for something else.

    I would make sure that your wife spends a good amount of seat time in whatever you think you are going to buy.

    You may also consider the Land Rover LR2. They have depreciated so much that they are approaching your price range. I don’t think any small “luxury” SUV compares to it off-road, and it even has a terrain setting for sand. The engine is a pretty nice inline-6 from Volvo. It’s not fast, but it won’t be leaking all over the place like a traditional Land Rover.

    • 0 avatar

      She didn’t like it because her hair got blown around? An LR2 would be nice, but again, a very expensive rig to keep running.

      • 0 avatar
        Chicago Dude

        I think that it was mostly the noise at any speed above 30 mph. Add in the truckish feel, and she hated it. We ended up in a convertible Mustang, which does nothing for keeping hair in place but was very much a car-like ride.

        This is all I’m saying – make sure the wife gets plenty of driving time before buying. The idea of a Wrangler is one thing; actually driving one is another.

        I should also mention that we both had a blast abusing a Terrios on the “roads” of Costa Rica. That would be a great beach driving 4×4 if only they sold it in the US.

  • avatar

    Polaris RZR

  • avatar

    Don’t know about parts availability but the Tracker is a surprisingly capable off-roader.

  • avatar

    Jeep Cherokee 4.0L Engine.

  • avatar

    Buy a Ford Explorer / Mercury Mountaineer. We spent nearly 20 years going into the deep sand at Cape Hatteras with stock Explorers and only had to be towed due to a blown clutch slave cylinder (and it still crawled off the sand) As the locals there like to say: If you get stuck, you probably shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

    • 0 avatar


      I can’t believe this wasn’t the first vehicle on the list! Although it was mentioned, 2000 Explorer or Blazer, and that’s exactly what I have.

      2000 Explorer 4×4 purchased with 99,000 miles in Fall 2007. It was used exclusively as a weekend toy for off-roading and I only got it stuck twice, both times from high-centering.

  • avatar

    Regarding the parts debate and Steve’s suggestion, I think we ought to split Geo and Mitsu. Geo is probably a dead-end indeed. Mitsu – depends. Montero, as we all know, is the old rally-winning platform, IFS on all corners, somewhat similar to just-discontinued Pathfinder. It became mega expensive and petered out as a halo vehicle. Parts for it are hard to come by even though Mitsubishi still exist. The so-called “Montero Sport” is different, parts are not difficult to come by, because it remained popular for longer. It would definitely be within the $15k budget. Montero SPORT is probably the only one in Steve’s suggestions that I’d consider. The Montero is very sweet, but it’s for a collector. You can get it with awesome leather though.

    Grand Vitara is really nice, but is it winch-compatible – without a major surgery? I never saw a clean installation on one.

    Liberty may be a good call, even with 210 hp v6. Aftermarket parts for it are not anywhere as plentiful as for Wrangler, but winch is possible. Actually, I would seriously think about Commander and GC. I knew people taking those off-road, and they definitely take a winch. Commander may be expensive, sadly, and old GC is not great for reliablitiy (one of those I mentioned above just needed a main seal changed).

    For Wrangler, I’m not sure if it fits. Its practicality is nil (JKU is good, but you cannot get one for $15k). And it seems like an overkill.

    Sajeev’s suggestion is something to think about seriously. I never had the stones to go truck though, so I have no idea what it takes to live with one.

  • avatar

    A good option is a 4wd Nissan Xterra. They are reliable, parts are plentiful, the aftermarket is decent, and they work well offroad.

  • avatar

    I did a local search for a 4WD Tacoma for less than $15,000. The lowest mileage one was a 1998 with 101,000 miles for $12,995. Average mileage was about 150,000 and none were newer than 2003. Ouch.

    My own beach driving experience has been limited to a Mercedes 240D and a Suzuki Samarai. I got stuck both times, but the Samarai extricated itself before the tide came in. I didn’t really apply myself to getting the Suzuki ready for unpacked sand driving. It was a rental. I’d love to say get a used Wrangler, but my office mate has one that is probably worth about $15K based on age and mileage. I’ve never even seen it. It has been in the shop for weeks with no end in sight. The automatic is toast and it has cooling issues. He’s probably going to throw in the towel at which point it will probably be ‘fixed’ by the shop and foisted on someone else.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      I did a local search for a 4WD Tacoma for less than $15,000. The lowest mileage one was a 1998 with 101,000 miles for $12,995. Average mileage was about 150,000 and none were newer than 2003. Ouch.

      And that’s why I didn’t buy a Tacoma when I was used truck shopping, the resale is insane.

    • 0 avatar

      Was that Wrangler a JK with 42RLE? There’s an ongoing saga of those. Apparently some are lemons but Chrysler denies everything. Mine seems in ideal shape, as are most others, but people with overheating issues continue to pop at forums. Note that Pentastar comes with a Mercedes auto, which apparently is said to be bulletproof, but we’ll see. The 42RLE was used in other cars successfuly before, but perhaps a subcontractor cut some corners.

  • avatar

    Z-71 Chevrolet Avalanche. 5.3L + 4-speed auto is a darn good combination. Be prepared to replace axle seals (weak spot). Off-road performance is stellar. Honest.

    Back in the day they did a 34 4X4 vehicle round up and the Avalanche came in second, much to the shock of everyone behind a TRD Off-Road Tacoma short bed. Yes, it did better than the ‘ye ol’ Cherokee back in the day and the Wrangler.

    Angle of approach sucks. Meets all your requirements of price, capability, and comforts. Parts are cheap, repairs are for the most part simple. You could probably find up to a 2004 with average miles in good shape at that price point.

    Also if you take out the rear window, drop the Midgate, take off the rear cargo covers and the tailgate, roll the windows down, find one with a sunroof, you’re darn close to a full open cab experience on the beach. God I miss doing that.

  • avatar

    What about an old VW Beetle? Of course it would have to be the rear-engine rear-drive version. I reckon you would have a lot of money left over after you got one of those, you could probably even find one with good tires for sand.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    Lots of reasonable mileage Troopers in the $7-10k range, easily. Land Cruiser? Pathfinders are tough as well…..

    • 0 avatar

      For LC, there’s an option of getting an old Lexus-badged one. Again, I know someone who got that, and it worked great for him. It takes all LC mods, the body is not too different. However, I doubt $15k would buy one in acceptable shape.

  • avatar

    My son’s daily driver is an old Geo Tracker. So far we haven’t had problems getting parts, if you cross-check Suzuki, but it may well become an issue in the future. Fun little car by the way.

    Beware the “getting it stuck” part. If you get a 4wd stuck, it is likely to be REAL stuck. Ask me how I know this.

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