Reader Question: Off-Roader Recommendation?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

James asks: I currently have a 2007 Scion Tc which has been absolutely incredible. My favorite car that I have ever owned, if only because it is the only car that has had zero mechanical issues. Alas, I have since moved to the Olympic Peninsula and have already gotten stuck many times just parking on the sides of roads. The ground is often moist and soggy, especially in the shade, and my little 4 banger FWD friend cant cut it. My hobby is landscape and nature photography, so I am constantly exploring the web of logging roads in the National Forests, many of which are deteriorated with potholes and erosion. As we come out of winter, I am also learning that nobody scrapes those roads clear of snow and ice. Go figure. I would love to get deep into the wilderness during winter to find that virgin powder among some random nature scene that nobody will ever find. But I need the proper vehicle. Can you help?

I have my eye on something like a used Rubicon because I like the 4 doors. But also, the Toyota FJ cruiser. Thoughts on these and others, or just things to look out for when shopping for four wheel drive vehicles would be appreciated. What I am really concerned about is sometimes certain makes or models have a reputation of being problematic later in life. For example I have heard the Jeep Cherokees tend to need new transmission sooner than other vehicles. I don’t know if this is even true, but it’s these kinds of rumors that can really affect the buying decision.

My reply: A Rubicon would certainly get you there- and back. Also the FJ – which I personally prefer because of its bulletproof Toyota running gear and also because it’s different (a personal preference).

Both are, however, very different vehicles than your current one. Have you driven either – or anything similar? If not, I strongly recommend some seat time – and more than just a drive around the block. The difference in ride/handling (among other things) is like the difference between a walk in a city park and a hike up the mountain. Your Scion  is small and agile and easy to park; the Rubicon and FJ less so. Your gas bill will also double.

Not that there’s anything wrong with either vehicle – just be aware.

The same will apply to  similar vehicles with truck-type 4WD systems and transfer cases such as the Grand Cherokee.

The regular Cherokee – which has AWD (available with a gear-reduction feature that works like 4Low in a 4WD vehicle) is also very capable off road – might be a better middle ground for you in terms of ride and handling on road.

But I think I have the one for you  – and it is none of the above.

I am going to recommend a Subaru Crosstrek. Inexpensive new – and a bargain used. Not overwhelmingly huge, easy to drive – but also very roomy and versatile – with lots of space for cargo/equipment. These also have nearly nine inches of ground clearance and an immensely capable AWD system. If you know how to drive off-road, these will go pretty much anywhere a 4WD truck will go  – and places most 4WD trucks/SUVs can’t fit. Because they are wider/longer.

The little Soobie also gets decent (not great, but decent) gas mileage. It won’t sink you, at any rate And it drives comfortably on-road, like most cars.

Hugely recommend a test drive. (My review of the plug-in hybrid version is here; but look at the regular non-hybrid version.)

Keep us posted!

. . .

Got a question about cars – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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  1. Just looking over used car lots seeing what’s there in the largest numbers, I’m not sure I’ve seen an FJ Cruiser. I know people who have them but have no intention of trading them and that’s even people who decide to get another vehicle….but they keep the FJ. I’m guessing it’s because the only thing they’ve done to one is drive it, wash it, put gas in it and eventually, replace the tires.

  2. The problem I have with ALL of the AWD cars and current 4WDs with IFS (the solid axle Wrangler being the sole exception that I know of) is that if you get into a lot of mud, the axle boots will get compromised pretty quickly leading to failure and replacement of the four axles. A thorough jet-wash of the underside when you get back to town may help with this.

    I am really at a loss as to what vehicle might replace our ancient Cherokee if I can’t keep it going the rest of my life.

    • If you are willing to do some searching- a Mitsubishi j54 jeep from the 80s or 90s is great- body is interchangeable with the willys CJ3b, it has a modernized interior and drivetrain and a 30+mpg diesel. Just hard to find in the states and they usually are over $8k <—-I think this site sells them from Michigan or something. It was out of my price range, so I got a m1009 cucv

      • Hi Anchar,

        I dig those, but they’re not for everyone. I recommended the Crosstrek because it’s as comfortable on-road as it is capable off-road (unless rock-crawling). Subarus are very tenacious vehicles, but don’t beat you up on long road trips or commuting in heavy traffic.

      • Anchar. are you replying to me or the thread in general ????

        I can’t imagine recommending a really rare vehicle to replace the once common but now getting older and harder to find nice Cherokee like the one I have. I would recommend an XJ for “James” but you really have to be dedicated to keeping them going. Newest ones are 18 years old and mine is now over 30!

        Our daughter had a Subaru and I don’t want another one. There are people in our general neighborhood that love them but none in our immediate area. There is a lot more snow and mud here than even two miles down the road, and the four neighbors right by us all have four wheel drive truck types.


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