1: Toyota Land Cruiser 100 Series (Any year) – $10,000-30,000
I can hear the screaming and gnashing of teeth from the FZJ80 owners (I am one), but the reality is – the 100 series is just better for vehicle-based adventure travel. It has a much better motor with 100% better performance and can even manage 1-2 mpg better fuel economy. The 4.7L doesn’t eat head gaskets or PHHs and runs ice cold (no AC shutoff in the Mojave). Sure it doesn’t have a solid axle, which limits the most extreme terrain applications, but the 80 isn’t really that good at extreme terrain anyways. The 100 series also has excellent brakes that don’t fade after a few minutes on a twisty road. The interior is refined, comfortable and quiet. Overall fit and finish is class leading, as is interior materials and durability.
On the road, the 100 series will cruise comfortably at 85 mph all day long and then shift into low-range and tackle the most challenging terrain with just a few modifications. If you install an OME HD suspension, new shocks and 295/75 R16 BFG ATs, you will go just about anywhere you want to go in fantastic comfort. These trucks have also proven to be one of the most reliable vehicles ever imported to the US and it is not uncommon to find examples with 300,000 miles that are still rattle and leak free – impressive.
2: Toyota Tacoma (2001-2008) $10,000-25,000
Both the Gen 1.5 and Gen 2 Tacomas are excellent vehicles and nearly match the mythical Hilux in all areas but payload and diesel power plant. These trucks are simple and effective, rewarding the adventure traveler with excellent value, reliability and good on-road comfort. They can be overloaded, overdriven, abused, rattled and frozen without protest. My 2004 Tacoma traveled from the Arctic Ocean and -57F to the Darien Gap in Panama and everything in between. I even used it to pre-run the Baja 500 one year and never had a single warranty claim.
Downsides are limited but notable. Stock suspension is horrible and completely mismatched to the vehicle. Front is too soft and under-dampened and the rear has kidney dislodging axle wrap and hop. Factor an Icon or Old Man Emu suspension into your budget, as the modification is not an option. The first generation Tacomas also suffered from poor interior material quality and flat, unsupportive seats. The generation two trucks are marginally better in both accounts. These trucks are the real deal. A few small modifications and you can drive one around the world – a few times.
3: Jeep Wrangler Unlimited JK (2007- ) $20,000-30,000
The Jeep Wrangler Unlimited JK was a game-changer for Jeep as an overland vehicle. These vehicles have proven to be reliable, supremely capable and easily modifiable. More so than any other vehicle on this list, you could take a stock Jeep Rubicon Unlimited and drive nearly any road, anywhere in the world, without modification. From the Rubicon Trail to the jungles in Guatemala (I have done both with them). They are simple, robust and have considerable interior storage space. They are also available on most continents now, including South America, Australia and Africa, so service infrastructure is improving. However, the Jeep Wrangler is a bit harsh and unrefined, so driver fatigue will be higher and NVH will take its toll on longer road sections.
4: Toyota Land Cruiser 80 Series (1995-1997) $5,000-20,000
The Toyota Land Cruiser 80 Series is a serious exploration tool with solid front axle, robust frame, good factory ground clearance, class-leading payload and excellent technical terrain performance. The challenge that the 80 series has now in the used market is the vehicle is just plain old. Even a 1997 is over 15 years old and most have very high mileage. I own a 1997 Heritage Edition with factory lockers and all the must have features, but these trucks in good condition and with low mileage are extremely difficult to find, and when you do, the cost is extreme (for the year). Look for 80s with lower mileage and check the knuckle-wipers on the front axle, oil in the coolant, overheating, condition of PHH (pesky heater hose), etc. Land Cruisers are incredibly reliable so they are often completely neglected. If you can find a low mileage, clean truck and take it to Slee OffRoad for a 4.7L engine swap and complete freshening, you will have one of the finest expedition vehicles possibly built in the US – but it is going to cost you. The FZJ80 is the ultimate overland vehicle ever imported to the US, but is in the 4th position due to age and difficulty finding clean, low-mileage examples. Nothing stays perfect forever.
5: Mercedes Benz G500 (2000) $25,000 and up
The G-Wagen is a rare breed, and for those who have driven them, they rarely will drive anything else. Yes, they are that good, but their obscurity is also their only downfall, as parts can be difficult or impossible to find while traveling (requiring long wait times for delivery to a Mercedes dealership) and they can be somewhat temperamental. The G500 comes from the factory with everything we want in an overland vehicle, including excellent payload, locking differentials, solid axles, simple exterior lines and even a rain gutter. I own a 463 G-Wagen and love the car. Just know going in that these vehicles are not even on the ‘value’ scale, are expensive to purchase and expensive to maintain, service and repair. Fuel economy is often in the single digits. However, they are one of the best and rarest of breeds.
6: Toyota 4Runner, Generation Four (2004-2008) $12,000-30,000
The Gen Four 4Runner is a highly effective, if somewhat uninspiring vehicle. Slightly smaller than the 100 series and still available with the impressively reliable 4.7L V8, the 4Runner is a near perfect wagon. The vehicle also does not require much modification, especially if kept somewhat light. Install some LT265/75 R16 AT tires, some better lashing points and then head south. With synthetic oil you won’t even need to do a service before hitting Ushuaia. The reason for the lower rating is the unimpressive payload and general softness. That can be a moot point depending on how much stuff you are bringing to Argentina.
7: Land Rover LR3 (2005-2008) $18,000-30,000
Just let the flaming commence now, but I am going on record that the LR3 is the best used Land Rover option in North America – period. Yep, better than my much loved 1995 Discovery, better than a 2004 Discovery II, better than a 1995 Range Rover Classic. I have owned and driven every possible configuration of Land Rover and have near endless love for the brand, but these new generation trucks are shockingly good. And not only are they capable, they are even (dare I say it) pretty reliable. I was talking with Land Rover Las Vegas about these cars and they told me that warranty claims are down 60% from the Discovery II – sixty percent! I will admit my dislike of these vehicles early on – no solid axles, hybrid frame/unibody construction, more electronics and complexity, etc. However, reality has been a bitter pill for me, and I am changing my tune. The LR3 is a serious contender, but it is still not up to Toyota (or even Mercedes) reliability, so go in with eyes wide open. The South Africans are loving these cars with the TDI V6, as are the Australians. With coil spring conversions now available and a notable worldwide dealer network, I look forward to seeing more of these taking the path less traveled.
8: Suzuki Vitara (1999-2003)
Suzuki makes awesome little 4wd vehicles. They are the ultimate stealth, economical and reliable little adventure wagons. I have driven a Suzuki Jimny (think Samurai) through 23 countries and for 17,800 kms across Europe, Central Asia and Asia, ending with crossing northern Mongolia, the hard way. Not a single mechanical failure, not even a flat tire. These vehicles are global platforms and will give mid to high 20s on MPG. They are also extremely tough and durable and will go most places you wish to visit with just an Old Man Emu suspension, rear limited slip or locking differential and one size larger LT all-terrain tires. Feel the Suzuki love!
9: Nissan XTerra (2001-2010) $8,000-22,000
The XTerra is a simple, purpose-built 4wd with a traditional ladder frame construction, good ground clearance, available locking differential and good reliability. I genuinely respect this vehicle and find its understated charm and specifications to make it a serious choice for adventure travel. While unrefined, the vehicle is still comfortable to drive and it’s a good performer in the dirt. The wheelbase is short enough to be nimble, yet long enough to provide stability and enough cargo space. Approach and departure are good and you can fit an LT265/75 R16 stock. The Xterra also represents a genuine bargain for this list.
10: Mercedes Benz E320 or E350 4Matic Wagon (2000-2006) $10,000-25,000P
Why a car on this list? Well, you will find a Mercedes Sedan on practically any road in any country of the world. Chris Scott has driven a Merc Saloon across big chunks of northern Africa too. The 4wd system is designed and built by Steyr in Graz, Austria (where the G-Wagen is made). Mercedes sedans are tough and plentiful and are the choice of local business owners, thugs and politicians (often the same person) in every city I have visited. You will travel well under the radar and in style. Parts and mechanical support will be easy to find. Unfortunately, the US did not get the diesel variant, although Canada has a few. Install a set of HD Eibach springs (in stock throughout New Jersey), Bilstein HD shocks, LT225/70 R16 Michelin LTX M/S tires and a full underbody skid plate. Remove the rear seat and do a dark window tint. You can sleep in the back, cruise in comfort, take nasty pothole hits, bad roads, snow, light mud and even drive out on the beach. You know it would be fun…P
11:2004 Land Rover Discovery II (2004 only) $10,000-18,000P
The 2004 Land Rover Discovery is the pinnacle of refinement, performance and reliability for the NAS Discovery. Having owned a 2001 and now owning a 1995, I have a half-decade of driving time in these trucks and I absolutely love them, but am cautious about recommending them as an overland vehicle. The reason for this is simple: when they work, they are an absolute joy, but the problem is, they don’t work often enough. The only vehicles to fail on me in the field have been my Discovery(s). So, given that, the visibility is wonderful, the driving position superb, the trail performance in stock form near the top of its class. It has excellent payload and a thoughtful layout. It also has a 4.6L motor and a locking center differential. If you love them and still want to buy one, its ok – I understand.
12:Jeep Patriot AWD (2007-2010) $10-25,000P
We did not include an AWD SUV on the list, but they can make a legitimate solution for RTW road travel. The Jeep Patriot has proven reliable and quite durable, and will even reward the owner with nearly 30mpg economy. They are available with a Trail Rated ‘badge’ package that includes skid plates, locking center differential, lower gearing, larger tires and more agressive traction control. They are surprisingly comfortable and fun to drive and a great overall value.