Looking to buy a SUV, 4WD manual transmission

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Hey Eric,
Let me start by saying how much I enjoy your website and reviews. I have a question for you – I am looking to buy a SUV, 4WD manual transmission, preferably at least 6 cylinder, reasonably priced, and one that will last. I have a RWD Jeep Grand Cherokee with 120,000 miles, and I want something RELIABLE that will last me through medical residency. I am looking at ding my residency up north where it snows in the winter. The best I have found is the Toyota RAV4, but it’s $$$$$$. I like the Wranglers, but I also like something that’s going to run for 120,000+ miles with minimal fuss. The Honda CRV is only 4 cylinder. Any suggestions? I’d also like something that starts with he flick of a button on my keychain, so that it will warm up while I’m getting ready in the morning.
Thanks much,


Hi Andrew,
Thanks! And, we’re looking at launching a new feature on the site that will enable people to post questions like yours.
I’d recommend the Nissan Xterra. It is, first of all, a real SUV (the RAV4 is a car; it has FWD/AWD and no 4WD Low gearing, etc.). The Xterra is based on the thoroughly excellent – tough, reliable – Frontier pick-up. It is available with both four and six-cylinder engines (including a supercharged version of the six, though I would not recommend it due to the expense, complexity and cost). It wont have the factory automatic remote start, but you can easily add that if you wanted to. Aftermarket companies/electronics stores sell kits. etc.
Hope this helps!


  1. I like the idea of a Jeep Wrangler 4X4 soft top, anyone had good/bad experience with those? Just don’t give me a Jeep with that crappy German engineering received from Daimler.

    • My mom purchased a Wrangler Sahara back in 1998 (I think). It was the first year of the coil spring suspension all the way around. Had the straight six. It was absolutely awesome to drive. Too much fun! It was a hard top though. If I were to purchase one it would be a hard top. You can always take it off and put on a soft top.

    • I have a ’93 hard top (YJ) with the 4.0 I-6. In the summer I just pull the hard top and store it. I’ve driven them with a soft top and that’s fine too. But keep in mind that a Wrangler, especially, pre TJ (YJ or CJ) has leaf springs front and rear, so they are rough riding compared to a car or SUV. They handle more like a short wheelbase truck, rotten gas mileage (aerodynamics of a brick) and are noisy. The TJ’s are more comfortable and quiet. The newer JK is probably even better and you can run larger tires without having to lift it. (I just don’t care for the style of the JK; looks too much like a Hummer knock-off for my taste).

      On the plus side, there is practically every accessory known to man available for them. They really are great off road and in the snow (with the right tires) and the 4.0 straight six is just about bullet proof. Pull the back seat out and you’ve got a decent amount of cargo space. Oh yeah, almost everyone else driving a Wrangler will wave to you too!

      But unless you’re absolutely sure you are the rugged individualistic outdoorsy type, you really need to get your hands on one and drive it some before you commit. If you are all about handling and creature comforts in your ride, look elsewhere; “It’s Jeep thing, you wouldn’t understand.” 😉

  2. I had asked Eric Peters the same question. I drive, fix and maintain 1990 mitsubishi eclipse (5 sp.) so I don’t have
    to deal with all these new prone-to-fail electronics and gadgets.  My wife drives a Mercedes.  It’s in the shop all the time.  There’s hardly anything ( besides brakes, oil, sp.plugs, ..) I can fix on her car. I’d like to upgrade my car as new parts are more and more difficult to find but cannot find anything as basic, but newer, as the Eclipse. 

    Eric recommended, for the sporty/sports car category, a similar vintage Mustang 5.0 LX coupe as they are still readily available, fairly simple and are supported by a vast aftermarket. Then the Miata (around since ’89). In a truck category, the ’98-2004 Nissan Frontier.

    Most of these recommended vehicles are available in my area on http://www.kijiji.ca; however, this being Ontario where salt rules supreme in the winter, all the recommended vehicles I surveyed are rust buckets.

    What are my options here in ontario? My budget is about $15K for a used, reliable, large engine, 5-6sp stick, hardly any electronic gadgets (I dont mind cranking my windows) in sedan and/or SUV category that is of recent vintage – due to rust?

    • You might look into a refurbished older model Jeep (CJ, Cherokee, Wagoneer, etc.) or similar. Your $15k budget would buy you a nice condition vehicle of that type in my neck… but they may cost more up north!

    • For whatever it’s worth, and certainly not to disagree with any of the suggestions, I am actively looking and just consulted with the ConsumerReports – the “CR good bets & bad bets (98-09)” section.
      Worst of the worst (for reliability): Jeep Cherokee on the list of about 30 other cars. However, the “Best of the Best” include the usual suspects mentioned here (loaded with electronics mostly) – all types of Accuras, Hondas, Lexus, Mazdas, Nissans, Toyotas. But the most interesting to me was the Subaru Forester – the standard edition – stick, not too overdone with electronics and good for rust resistance (important here). Is ConsumerReports good and reliable source?

      • CR has historically had a pro-Japanese bias but in general, they’re pretty solid.

        That said, one could take an ’80s or ’70s-era Jeep and outfit it with a pre-computer (or stand-alone aftermarket TBI set-up) engine, transmission and eliminate most of the problems (which are typically electronic/computer-related). The rest of the vehicle is rugged, simple and easy to maintain.

        I’ve thought about such a project myself, only I’d use an old F100 pick-up (just because I like them a lot).

        Maybe after I get done with the S1!

        • Every time I visit this subject I start day dreaming about a 1987 Silverado short box, dual tanks,700R4, 2wd, tbi, two tone blue and white. Have it stock to the bone except headers/exhaust, ignition, and lightly tinted side windows and pretty dark rear window.

    • Cash for Clunkers really did a number on the used truck/SUV market. The prices have gone through the roof, even for very high-miles units.

      Example: My local used car joint recently put a ’98 Frontier regular cab, 4WD, just like mine, on the lot – only it has almost 180,000 miles. They are asking $5,900 for this truck. I paid $7,200 for mine back in 2004 with 59,000 on the clock.

  3. Andy – I am searching for the same mid-size SUV with the same requirements (except remote starter). Besides the FJ, X5, & Xterra already mentioned (FJ & X5 are pretty expensive), the only other 6cyl options are a 2001 and older XJ Cherokee, and 2000 & older SR5 4-Runner. Both are excellent vehicles and well-known for extremely strong 6 Cyl motors. I don’t mind a vehicle of that age, but finding one with reasonably low mileage and no rust here in NE is close to impossible. So….I keep racking up the miles on the XJ and keep my eyes open.

  4. These all have or recently had a manual trans option with a V-6.

    Toyota FJ Cruiser
    Jeep Patriot
    Jeep Compass
    Jeep Wrangler
    BMW X3
    BMW X5 (older styles)
    Nissan XTerra

    There may be more.

  5. Oops. Hit wrong button.

    3. Does it have to be a manual transmission?

    This severely limits your selection of vehicles. Most SUVs have 4WD and AWD as an upmarket option and it’s difficult to find them without an automatic. Manual trannies with 4WD was much more common in the early 90s and before, but you get back to the new vs used question. I’d have to do some digging to even find any model with both features within the past 5 years. Additionally, the models mos likely to have them are the cheapest compact SUVs often with 4-cylinder engines. I DO know Subaru has a few AWD models with manual trannies. Maybe Audi? I’ll try and figure out some others, but we’re probably talking about either ultra-cheap or big bucks.

    4. Remote start on a manual?

    No vehicle with a manual transmission that I’m aware of has the key fob remote start option. You’d have to leave the transmission in neutral when parked beforehand, which means every time you park in the winter, and that’s something I don’t recommend in a manual, even with the parking brake engaged. It’s a safety thing. If you remote-started a vehicle with its trans in gear, it would lurch forward and die since the engine is mechanically connected to the wheels. Bad idea.

    As a side note, remote start setups can be added to most vehicles through the aftermarket. Most stereo installation shops do it. Costs around $150. You could probably talk one into it, but they’ll tell you the same caveats.

    5. Engine must be a V-6 or bigger?

    For the most part this limits you to higher end compacts or many mid and full sized SUVs. That means more money. I’m curious what exactly you’re wanting. Horsepower? Towing? As I mentioned before, usually the bigger engines come with a bigger price and an automatic transmission, just like a 4WD/AWD does.

    As for suggestions, take a close look at Subaru, especially the Forester. Very reliable and all have AWD. It does have a manual tranny available, at least in some models. You’ll give up some man cred due to it being basically a glorified station wagon, but if you’re comfortable with you manhood, you’ll laugh at your friends as you drive by the gas stations and repair shops without stopping.

    It seems that the Nissan XTerra once came in a manual config, but it might be limited to a 4-cylinder.

    Look at the recent Kia review Eric posted. Again, the manual requires the tiny engine, but if you get an automatic, it sounds like a nice car.

    Jeep might still be worth investigating, though reliability may still be a challenge for them.

    Hyundai makes a couple of good SUVs as well.

    Dont forget to look for old, used American iron from the early 90s and becore Otherwise, your either looking at expensive trucks from America or Europe, or “crossovers,” which are trendy and overpriced.

    Or get a FWD and some chains. 🙂

  6. Hmmm… That’s a daunting list in some ways. I’ll start by asking a couple more questions to clarify:

    1. Used or new?

    To save the most money, or get the most bang for your buck, go used. You can get a lot more truck for the money buying used, or get the same thing for a lot less. Depending on how old you want to go, you might still get some warranty, too.

    2. Does it have to be 4WD or can it be AWD?

    AWD is the “full-time” system, usually intended for road use for better traction on wet or snowy roads with some added perks for dry roads as well. 4WD is usually found on trucks and truck-based SUVs and often comes with a “low range” transfer case. This is intended mostly for off-road use and should never be used on dry pavement or other high traction surfaces. In wintry weather like you’re talking, AWD is usually as good or better than the traditional 4WD. AWD is serviceable on light off-roading as well, but not for rock crawling or “mudding.”


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