In 2013, my father passed at the age of 63 after a short and sudden struggle with what turned out to be ALS, or Lou Grehrig’s disease. I figured out then, that if I wanted to live life I had better not wait: No one is guaranteed a retirement. So I sold my beloved Forester XT 5 speed and bought my 1997 Toyota Land Cruiser the following summer. I put it straight to work on the white rim in Canyonlands, Utah. Since then, I’ve put about 90,000 miles on the old girl (311,000 and counting) and about 1/3rd of those on dirt.
I discovered what many people before me had – that a vehicle plus a boundless horizon is freedom.
Whatever the motivation, overlanding has exploded in the last 6 years which is good for you. As people have rediscovered the joys of adventure travel for themselves, companies have scrambled to build, import and sell gear to meet that need. AutoAnything has a large collection of the best gear, upgrades and accessories for the overlander and we stand ready to equip your travels.
More than that though, we get it. It’s not just a job for us, we are passionate car people who’ve found great joy in the hobby and want to bring you the best information possible to elevate your car life, from street to trail.
In that spirit we’ve compiled a buyers guide of suitable adventure machines with the intent to inform. We don’t sell cars and have no stake in your decision here.
The idea here is simple – When you start looking for the gear, upgrades, accessories and add-ons to take you further and in more comfort, we’re confident you’ll find what you’re looking for with us and at the best price.
With that covered, let’s get started!
First and foremost, I didn’t drive all these cars, as I don’t have access or time personally. As a result, if you’re looking for comparisons based on driving feel or personal experience this isn’t that.
The vehicles are ranked by their value, which comes from a score based on the merits of the vehicle in several categories divided by the MSRP. The merit score, explained in detail later on, and value score are listed alongside each vehicle in the list.
What I’ve done is picked out specs and figures I think matter to the overland community at large based on my years of experience, and leaning heavily on people who are much more traveled than I am.
This makes assumptions on what figures matter more than others to the overlander. That may not jibe with your priorities and you can judge for yourself what matters most to you.
So, onto the list!
10 – Jeep Gladiator Rubicon 3.6 – 7.9/10 Value – 83/100 Merit
The brand-new Jeep Gladiator is everything Jeep fans have been begging Jeep for; namely a truck. And it’s a good one! It’s got all the best features of the extremely competent Wrangler but made more useful with the healthy application of space and payload, things the wrangler sorely lacks for the overlander.
The Gladiator Rubicon has fair payload in this group, excellent capability which is held back only by its very long wheelbase and subsequently very poor 20.4 break-over angle (2nd worst in test). It is also built strong and meant for hard work, which is a big deal for people loading up their head and heading into no-man’s land. It’s barely out and yet the aftermarket is strong on account of its similarity to the Wrangler. The go anywhere truck.
9 – Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro – 8.2/10 Value – 88/100 Merit
The 4runner is a strong package that scores well pretty much across the board. It’s no mystery why it’s been so popular among overlander’s as it’s the right blend of all the right ingredients. The Pro model’s weakness is its value proposition. While you do get better tires and shocks right off the showroom, the extra goods don’t necessarily make up for the extra cost.
This is subjective however, as the suspension alone makes the vehicle a much more confident touring machine on and off-road. The goods are there, as the 4Runner TRD Pro gets the top merit score in this test. It should also be noted that the 4Runner has great parts support and a very strong aftermarket. Everything right about Toyota, turned up a little for a little more coin.
8 – Jeep Gladiator Sport S – 8.3/10 Value – 80/100 Merit
You may be wondering why the Sport S is ranked higher than Rubicon? The answer is two-fold: 1. The sport S with the max towing package is the only model that gives you a real payload advantage promised with the gladiator platform. 2. The price. While the Sport S is priced high compared to other trucks on this list, is much more palatable than the costly Rubicon. The only thing keeping the Sport S back is better differentials (equipped with the rear LSD and no lockers) and a nearly unacceptable break-over angle of 18.4 degrees, lowest in this group by a sizable margin.
Strong aftermarket support and strong resale are going for the Jeep. Of all the vehicles on this list, this vehicle represents the best and easiest path to future upgrades and capability. A great place to start a build.
7 – Jeep Wrangler Unlimited 3.6 – 8.3/10 Value – 81/100 Merit
The Wrangler got better with the JL in almost every way and even with a comparatively high cost of the Rubicon trim it did very well here. It maxes out the capability metric and scores well in just about every other place…with the exception of payload which, at 892 lbs, is exceptionally poor. Carrying weight and adding mods will have to be done carefully. It’s worth repeating here again that adding strong springs allows your suspension to carry a load better but it does not increase your payload rating.
In spite of this, I’m happy to see this venerable 4 wheeled Swiss army knife on the list. It probably doesn’t bear mentioning but aftermarket support is strong. The original, still hard to beat.
6 – Nissan Frontier PRO-4X – 8.4/10 Value – 67/100 Merit
This, um, what’s a better word for ancient…VENERABLE truck can still hold its own, owning in part to its decent capability and its incredible value. With a DANA 44 locking rear axle, full skids and good tires for the least money in its category, it’s a lot of truck for a little cash. Unfortunately, the Nissan suffers the same poor payload problem as the Wrangler, coupled with poor range on account of its powerful but thirsty 4.0 V6.
The Frontier , however, is a proven reliable and capable machine in the backcountry and if you can deal with its dated design its value may be too hard to pass up. Aftermarket is fair for the frontier, not as good as Jeep or Toyota but it’s been around long enough that finding parts isn’t too difficult. A value that’s hard to ignore.
5 – Toyota Tacoma TRD PRO – 8.5/10 Value – 85/100 Merit
The Tacoma TRD PRO model only scores 1 rank higher than the Frontier PRO-4X despite a vastly superior merit score on account of, you guessed it, value. While the FOX bypass suspension is great, it’s a lot of additional money for something that doesn’t pay off in the numbers. Like the other TRD Pro on this list, you’ll have to judge if the quality of the ride may make the high price worth it to you.
Great angles, a user selectable rear locker, skid plates, as well as legendary Toyota reliability all factor in to make this a great truck, but it’s not the best value on our list. Aftermarket, as you might guess, is very strong owning to it sharing much with the outgoing model. A better Tacoma, at a price.
4 – Ford Ranger XLT FX4 – 8.6/10 Value – 72/100 Merit
One of the most recent additions to this group, the Ford Ranger, basically a refreshed version of the long selling vehicle of the same name from foreign markets, makes a strong case for itself in the numbers. A user selectable locking rear differential, decent angles and clearance, great payload and very good highway mileage wrapped up in an affordable package makes it a top contender.
The biggest letdown is the thimble sized fuel tank (18 gallons) and subsequent lack of range and poor aftermarket support (for now). The Ranger isn’t a standout in any category but its strong in almost every category. Jack of all trades, master of none.
3 – Chevrolet Colorado Z71 3.6 – 8.9 Value – 73/100 Merit
If it feels like the more off-road focused ZR2 should be here in this spot know that I was as surprised as you were when doing the numbers. Like the Tacoma TRD PRO, the high price of the ZR2 pushes it down – and off – this list. The massive drop in payload didn’t help either. It’s a similar story with the expensive diesel option in the Z71 that pushes range through the roof, but at too high a price.
The Z71 earns its spot on this list by being a well rounded truck at a reasonable price. The angles, skid protection and auto-locking rear differential pair well with excellent payload and range for most peoples actual adventures (versus their imagined ones). Aftermarket is pretty good and with the ZR2 there is an upgrade path to a more capable vehicle as you get further down the overlander’s path. Another great all-rounder, this time for the bowtie fans.
2 – Toyota 4Runner TRD Off-Road – 9.5 Value – 87/100 Merit
From amateurs to pros the 4runner has been known as the solid, dependable, adventure wagon. It’s the closest real competitor to the Wrangler in capability, but with legendary Toyota build quality and reliability. Indeed, the scores for reliability and longevity speak volumes (see scoring and methodology).
The 4Runner is built on a good foundation that delivers an excellent blend of payload and chassis performance off-road. The TRD PRO may be a slightly better machine for hard off-road work but the basic TRD Off-Road represents the better value. Aftermarket is robust, as is dealer and parts support. All the right ingredients in the right amounts.
1 – Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road – 10/10 Value – 84/100 Merit
The Tacoma, like the 4Runner, is the classic choice and for good reason reason. Toyota calls its philosophy “Ever better™” the rest of us call it – “if it’s not broke don’t fix it”. While that can approach can be frustrating from the point of view of being out of touch with the state-of-the-art, it’s hard to argue with what it’s earned in reputation.
While the transmission, brakes and ergonomics are a little bit of an anachronism, the payoff is proven components, a strong aftermarket and unmatched reliability. A strong performer off-road owing to its best in class angles and combination of skids, a selectable rear locker and above average chassis performance, the Tacoma TRD Off-road will get you there and back with all stuff. A classic choice, for good reasons.
Don’t see your vehicle on this list? Well obviously we can’t do EVERY vehicle on the market but there are quite a few that didn’t make the cut for a variety of reasons, mostly value. Check out the runners up here with their rank, their merit, and their value scores:
11 – Chevrolet Colorado Z71 Duramax 2.8 72/7.8
12 – Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk 3.2 56/7.6
13 – Jeep Unlimited Rubicon 2.0 77/7.5
14 – Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 3.6 73/7.4
15 – Lexus GX460 82/6.9
16 – Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Duramax 2.8 73/6.8
17 – Nissan Armada SV 73/6.5
18 – Land Rover Discovery Sport 54/6
19 – Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk 58/5.8
20 – Land Rover Discovery TD6 60/4.6
21 – Toyota Land Cruiser 85/4.3
22 – Infinti QX80 69/4.2
23 – Lexus LX570 82/4
24 – Mercedes-Benz G550 82/2.9
25 – Range Rover TD6 58/2.8
Scoring and Methodology
I’ve chosen 5 categories that I think are most important to an overland vehicle, and then weighted their importance in that mix.
- Payload and capacity – 20%
- Fuel economy and Range – 10%
- Capability – 25%
- Longevity – 20%
- Reliability – 25%
These add up to a possible 100 points of merit alone. In each of these categories I break it down into very specific details and weigh those details in total. The numbers and detailed scoring is available here.
From there I take the MSRP of the minimum build configuration that allows for the best overland options and divide that into the merit to create a value score of 1 to 10. 10 being the best value and 1 being the worst.
Having both scores allows you to choose your vehicle based on its merits or getting the most for your money.
NOTE: I didn’t include resale values. This is what you get for your money, not what it’s worth when you are done.
So whats the best choice for you? You’ll have to decide that yourself, but whatever you decide, be thankful to be spoiled for excellent choices that have never been more capable right from the factory.
When your ready to take it to the next level, be sure to check out all the great stuff you can add to your vehicle to take you there!
See you on the trail.
*Disclosures: My current overland and daily driver is my Toyota Land Cruiser. I’ve got my feelings on the brand, though I’ve tried very hard to remove them from math. Is a Toyota the right choice for everyone? Certainly not and i will happily wheel with any make and model.
**Information was accurate as of summer 2019 from manufacturer` or 3rd party sources.