December 9, 2013

A baker’s dozen of top used buys: 13 real off-roaders that don’t cost the earth

Based on a report that first appeared in 4x4 Action Adventure magazine

Your comments and ownership experiences are invited (use the comments section).

Short of a substantial Lotto win or selling some surplus Auckland real estate, most people aren’t going to buy a new 4x4 just so they can get it scratched and dented on “enthusiastic” off-road trips. Fortunately, the used market provides a marvellous depth of supply of well priced, capable vehicles that can be put to use as club trucks, and damn the matagouri scratches. After eight or 10 years, depreciation will have cut deeply into their asking prices, yet many will have at least another decade or two of reliable service ahead, given regular service.

Here’s a guide to a baker’s dozen of top wagon contenders, listed alphabetically. Any of these would make an excellent club truck, with a few well chosen modifications. Most have a separate chassis that’ll be good for ruggedness, provide a mount for recovery points, and make for an easy body lift to accommodate extra-large tyres.

The aftermarket is also awash with useful accessories for the 13, from steel bullbars to raised-suspension kits.

1. Isuzu Trooper (1992 on)

It has one of the longest lists of aliases of any 4WD ever, but this Isuzu mid-size wagon is a pretty sweet vehicle, by whichever name it's known. The list includes Bighorn, Trooper, Caribe, Acura SLX, Monterey, Jackaroo and Horizon. It's been badged as an Isuzu, a Chevrolet, Subaru, Honda, Opel, Vauxhall and Holden.

The thing about this vehicle is that although it's not outstanding at any one thing, it does everything well, making it a competent, reliable and durable off-road tourer. The first version, from 1981 to 1991, was angular, tough as nails, somewhat clumsy and underpowered in diesel form. The second and similar third generations, made from 1992 to 2005, were way better, thanks in part to styling and ergonomic input from Opel. Its 3059cc diesel is a sweet unit and the 3165cc V6 is okay, too, if you like supporting the petrochemical industry.

Build quality is excellent and problem areas, few. One long time owner said of his Trooper: “There are so many versions with differences, some significant. Mine has a gear driven camshaft so never had cam belt concerns. Its body panels are galvanised. The original clutch wore out at 120,000km and at 380,000 I'm still on its aftermarket replacement.

“Isuzu was an early adopter of powerful all-round discs and with the diesel engine, pad changes are very well spaced time-wise. The alternator is 'expensively' placed for servicing and prone to muddy water failure.  A seal on the steering box inevitably leaks after time but can often be managed with one of the ‘leak stop' products. I've had a radiator top split but my motor has never been opened up, nor the gearbox. Oil changes have been always done to the book.

“The interior space has always impressed, along with the head and shoulder room. The bonnet is short, giving good vision. It's been a good vehicle and easy to drive.”

Some keener off-roaders choose the shorter two-door version that has the advantages of being lighter and more agile. Or they’ll get an Isuzu MU, the short and “sporty” derivative.

Suspension: front independent wishbone, rear live axle
Availability: good
Typical prices: $1000 to around $11,000. Average about $5500

2. Jeep TJ Wrangler

The original leaf-sprung rectangular-headlamp YJ Wrangler that took over from the CJs was a bit of a dud, although owners will argue that late into the night. The TJ, introduced to New Zealand in 1996 and sold in some numbers, was a much better proposition, with good dimensions, coil suspension, bulletproof engine, generally strong drivetrain and, most important of all, round headlamps! A TJ has an unrivalled backup of aftermarket parts, mainly from American sources and just a courier flight away. The Australian aftermarket also has a lot of good TJ stuff. So owners can make their truck into anything from a weekend rambler to a wicked winch challenger.

It’s even relatively easy to swap-in other engines or, say, running gear from a Land Cruiser or Patrol. However, the four litre straight-six does the job and is reliable. TJs are relatively trouble free, with niggling problems rather than major issues. It’s often modifications, rather than the vehicle itself, that are its undoing.

Although five-speed manuals are plentiful, we’d suggest the three-speed automatic which is strong and helps dampen the effect of the TJ’s unfortunate hair-trigger accelerator.

Ground clearance isn’t impressive, so it’ll need a suspension lift to get larger tyres under there.  

Suspension: front and rear live axle, coil springs
Availability: good
Typical prices: Good ones are in the $18,000-$23,000 range

3. Jeep XJ Cherokee

Experts back in the day reckoned the monocoque-bodied XJ Cherokee would be too flimsy for “real” off-roading, but nearly 30 years on has proved them wrong. Sure, the body tends to, um, flex but it holds together well and absorbs punishment.

The XJ’s amazingly capable, much better than it has any right to be, and that’s both on- and off the road: the 4x4 Action Adventure red Cherokee was nicknamed the “Square Ferrari" for its ability to convert petrol into fun. Some argue that the XJ was the best of the Cherokees and there are still plenty of good ones around at cheap-as prices.  Highlights are its excellent power to weight ratio; the automatic with overdrive on third and fourth; small diff centres that provide better ground clearance; surprisingly good suspension travel and flexibility; suspension geometry that gives clever weight transfer for better traction.

It’s compact and manoeuvrable, with great outward vision off-road. Like the Wrangler, vast parts and upgrades gear is available from the US or Australia, but not many mods are needed for general use. Unibody construction makes extreme mods a bit of a challenge.

And it gets away with smaller tyres, winches and so on than bigger trucks.
On the other hand, the thirsty 4.0 litre straight six engine has a tendency to overheat; it’s in a space designed for a four cylinder or V6, and the radiator too small. Diffs are a bit light and front axles tend to break when a diff lock is fitted. Its compact size limits interior space.

Suspension: front and rear live axle
Availability: good
Typical prices: Around $5000 for a good one, way less if you’re lucky

4. Jeep Grand Cherokee WK

Beam axles, grunty engines, strong build, roomy, this is the best Grand Cherokee for the enthusiast. The 1999-2004 WK was designed for the luxury market, but like the Range Rover was seriously good off-road.

The WK had full-time four-wheel-drive, Quadra-Drive in Jeep terminology, that used a two-speed chain driven transfer case with a gerotor (Generated Rotor) positive displacement pump and a clutch pack to transfer torque between the front and rear axles. The combined transfer case and progressive locking differentials in each axle could automatically control traction between all four wheels. 

Early automatics in the V8 included three planetary gear sets giving six theoretical speeds, but programmed to only use five. Four were used for upshifts, with a different second gear for downshifts. In 2001, the programming was changed to make use of all six ratios. Rather than six forward gears, the transmission was programmed to act as a five-speed with the alternate second gear for downshifts. 

Grand Cherokee’s UniFrame was developed to incorporate the strength and durability of a separate chassis within a unibody. 

The WK doesn’t need a lot of modification to be trail ready: tyres, a bit of a lift and a decent front bumper will all be useful – and maybe some jerry cans; its petrol engines can be thirsty. There’s not a lot of difference between the fuel consumption of the V8 or six and either engine is up to the task. A 2.7 litre five cylinder diesel (120kW and 400Nm) was offered for a while but relatively few come here.

Suspension: front and rear live axle
Availability: a bit scarce
Typical prices: Around $7000-$11,000 for a good one.

5. Land Rover Defender

Defenders come in three wheelbases, the short 90, the four-door 110 and the long 130 pickup. Overall, the 90 is best for off-roading, being relatively compact and possessing a better turning circle than the others – you’ll really notice it when twisting and turning between trees. Owners of other makes like to mock the full-time 4WD Defender for alleged flimsy construction and unreliability, but the former 4x4 Action Adventure 90 never broke on the trail in more than 13 years and took some enormous hits. The key is preventive maintenance; if you can’t be bothered, don’t buy one. Defenders enjoy huge aftermarket support and finding the right part is rarely a problem. 

Until 2007, when it changed to a Ford engine, the Defender mainly used Land Rover’s own powerplants, first the 200Tdi, the now much more common 300Tdi and then the five-cylinder Td5. Electronics initially scared some from the 2500cc Td5, but it’s proved itself as a solid, basically reliable unit. Among the TD5’s early drawbacks were oil pump failures and cylinder head problems. There have been recurring reports of problems with the electronics, especially oil finding its way through the wiring harness and into the ECU.  

Some buyers still prefer the all-mechanical 300Tdi. Many of these suffered from a cambelt misalignment issue that could lead to a blown engine, but most will now have been fixed. Still, check this carefully.

Beware of chassis rust in older Defenders and corrosion in various body areas where alloy meets steel. The front bulkhead is susceptible to corrosion. Many Defenders leak somewhere, that’s just the way it is. All will benefit from having their flimsy sills upgraded, and chequerplate on the even more flimsy top of the wheel arches. 

Otherwise, modify as much or as little as you like. A snorkel’s a good idea if you’re planning on a lot of river work as the air intake is low.

Suspension: front and rear live axle on coils
Availability: Plenty of 110s, few 90s
Typical prices: $23,000-$24,000 for a decent 90

6. Land Rover Discovery

Introduced in 1989 on the original Range Rover chassis, early models are now scarce and mostly thrashed. It’s best to look for examples from the mid-1990s and until production ended in 2004. The Series II appeared in 1998 and although looking similar, almost every body panel was different. This introduced  Active Cornering Enhancement (ACE), an electronically controlled hydraulic anti-roll bar system that has had its share of problems.  The Series II also came with one of Land Rover’s engineering blunders. Although fitted, the locking centre differential did not have the linkage to work it, Land Rover figuring electronic traction control made it redundant. The locking mechanism was removed in 2001, before being fully reinstated on some versions of the final 2004 model. Traction control did not provide the control and smoothness of the central diff lock. Aftermarket kits are available to re-link the lock.

Discoverys had the same diesels as the Defender (see above) but many came with one of a series of V8s, from 3.5 to 4.0 litres, depending on the model. These are generally good and very suitable for off-roading; high fuel consumption is their major drawback. Diesels attract a premium on the used market.  On road performance is adequate with the Td5 diesel, but barely acceptable with its predecessors; however, all of the diesels are okay off-road.

Like the Defender and Rage Rover, a Discovery benefits from preventive maintenance to avoid the myriad problems that can occur. Among them: Cracking cylinder heads on Td5s with more than 160,000km; the Td5 oil pump bolt can come undone, causing considerable damage; Td5 water pumps can leak, causing overheating; the fuel injector wiring harness can leak and allow oil to travel along the loom and into the ECU, causing poor starting, misfiring and rough running.

NZ-new Discovery IIs will probably have rear self-leveling air suspension. Check that the airbags aren’t cracked and the vehicle stands “square” and level. Kits are available to convert the rear to coil springs. Hub sensor faults are common, usually caused by worn brake pads. 

Active Cornering Enhancement pipes may corrode. The upturned section of the rear chassis immediately forward of the rear crossmember is prone to rusting. A leaking sunroof  – a common problem – can be awkward to fix. 

It’s easy to modify a Discovery to make it a better off-roader, but be aware that fitting large wheels and tyres can be a hassle because of tight wheel wells.

Suspension: front and rear live axle on coils; rear air suspension on later models.
Availability: good for V8s, diesels fairly scarce
Typical prices: $4000 to $10,000 for decent one. Diesels carry a premium

7. Mitsubishi Pajero (Gen 2)

Mitsubishi was one of the first to dump the front live axle for an independent arrangement, a configuration carried on in the good looking and improved Generation 2 model of 1991 to 1999. It’s the short wheelbase two-door that’s at its best off-road, initially with either a 2972cc V6 or 2477cc four cylinder turbodiesel; later with a 3.5 litre V6 and the ubiquitous 2.8 litre turbodiesel. Key features of the Gen 2 Pajero are its Super Select 4WD system and multimode ABS. Super Select combined the advantages of part-time and full-time 4WD and can be used in high-range rear drive; high-range full time 4WD; high-range 4WD with locked centre diff; and low-range 4WD with locked centre diff. The Multimode ABS is fully functional in all modes of Super Select, adjusting braking parameters to the mode. 

Sadly, the independent front suspension lets the Pajero down somewhat on tougher trails, compared to some of its contemporaries, but it can be made to work and work well with some well chosen modifications, among them larger wheels and tyres and one or preferably two cross-axle diff locks. We’d also recommend the four-speed automatic over the manual.

Suspension: front independent wishbone and torsion bar, rear live axle
Availability: becoming scarce
Typical prices: $3000-$5000 for a two door

8. Nissan Patrol/Safari GQ

No other 4WD has been so enthusiastically received by New Zealand 4WD enthusiasts as the two-door GQ or Y60 Patrol of 1987 to 1997. From club truck to winch challenge hero, the Patrol or used import Safari has an almost peerless reputation for strength, reliability and amazing off-road ability, even without modifications (some have a factory rear diff lock). It may be number 8 on our alphabetical list, but in many enthusiasts’ eyes it’s number 1. Although four door Patrols are popular with off-roaders, and some are used on extreme trips, their size makes them a handful compared to the two door. A range of engines was fitted to the Patrol but the only one that really counts in the TD42 six-cylinder diesel, an unburstable unit sold with or without a turbo and connected to an equally strong five-speed manual or four speed auto. Many non-turbo engines have been fitted with aftermarket kits. Be wary of “home workshop” turbo conversions or upgrades.

Because of its popularity here and Australia, aftermarket products are widely available to make a Patrol pretty much anything you want. It takes well to body lifts, too. Even without mods, the coil-sprung suspension performs very well.
The chassis is rarely affected by serious rust, but look out for corrosion elsewhere.

Its successor, the GU or Y61, has not enjoyed the same enthusiast following, possibly because of a relative scarcity of two-doors but also because of its higher price, added complexity and relative rarity of the 4.2 litre engine; more commonly available is the widely disliked 3,0 litre four cylinder diesel.

Suspension: front and rear live axle, coil sprung
Availability: becoming scarce
Typical prices: $6000-$9000 for a two door; low mileage attracts good premium

9. Range Rover classic

Back in 1970, the Range Rover was coveted as a luxury wagon for the landed gentry, or those who would like to be. More than 40 years later, it’s coveted by 4WD enthusiasts as a hard-core vehicle capable of astonishing ability in the rough. A property set-up Rangie is still often the one to beat in winch challenges. Available over the years in two- or four doors, manual or automatic and with a variety of V8s or diesels, there’s a Range Rover, somewhere, to suit every need. If not, it’s so (relatively) easy to modify. Change a four-door body for a two-door, or vice versa; change engines, transmissions … whatever. And all the expertise and parts are available right here in New Zealand.

It doesn’t matter that Range Rovers suffered from iffy build quality and a long list of niggling faults because, today, a good one will be well sorted or a rough one will be going into the garage for a major rebuild anyway as its owner turns it into his perfect off-roader. However, be aware of the potential for rust not only in the chassis but in and around the tailgate, footwells and the steel inner body structure. Damaged bonnets can be hard to repair properly and replacements costly. The electronics on late models can provide headaches.

There’s a wealth of Range Rover classic information and “how-to” articles available on the internet, some of it from right here in New Zealand.

Suspension: front and rear live axle, coil sprung
Availability: becoming scarce
Typical prices: $3000-$5000

10. Suzuki Samurai

Trouble with the Samurai is that, these days, so few good ones are left. Many have been used and abused, heavily modified  – not always well – and have accumulated huge mileages and the rust to go with it. Still maybe all this doesn’t matter if you want to build up a rough truck. Pre-1996, the Samurai rode on leaf springs, then switched to coils. Argument continues as to which is better, but it probably doesn’t matter all that much. Gear to upgrade the suspension abounds, particularly from the American Calmini company. The beauty of the Samurai is that it’s small and agile, yet seems able to absorb huge amounts of abuse and keep on going. Some owners strip out the standard 1.3 litre engine and fit Vitara 1.6s or even the 1.3 twincam from the old Swift GTi – or another maker’s engine. Thing is that the Samurai is so straightforward and simple, a good keen owner can modify it any which way. There are plenty of Suzuki enthusiasts nationwide to offer advice.

Suspension: front and rear live axle
Availability: few good ones around
Typical prices: $4000

11. Toyota Land Cruiser 70 series

Introduced in 1984, the 70 Series, also known as the Prado (predecessor to the current Prado family), really needs an article of its own. It was produced in a variety of models with a range of petrol and diesel engines and many mechanical differences. For example, some models had factory front and rear differential locks. All, however, were tough, reliable, easily modified and able to cope with our hardest trails. A drawback for off-roading was the leaf-spring suspension, which couldn’t match the articulation of the arch rival, Nissan’s Patrol, and which tended to get hung-up in tough going. Front suspension was changed to coils in a major 1999 makeover. The rear leaf springs survive today in the current 70 Series V8 diesel utes and wagons.

However, the short (2310mm) wheelbase 70 Light, also known as the Bundera and Landcruiser II, had a four-wheel coil spring suspension, giving it a major advantage for enthusiasts and those who prefer better on-road ride and handling.

Unless you have lots of people or stuff to carry, a short wheelbase vehicle makes most sense for club-type activities, although some owners use their long wheelbase wagons with success.

With the influx of used imports, equipment on New Zealand models varies widely. Any of the engine choices will be more than okay, except perhaps for the relatively weak – but not common – 2.4 diesel. Overall vehicle condition will also vary widely, so a thorough check is advisable, especially for rust.

Aftermarket parts and expertise is vast, with kits for everything from dropping in a V8 to raising the suspension. Many vehicles that come up for sale, particularly the SWBs, already have useful modifications and, assuming they’re well done, can make for good buying. Be wary of “home workshop” turbo conversions or upgrades, though.

Suspension: front and rear live axle, leaf springs and/or coils (see text)
Availability: reasonable, but good two-doors becoming scarce
Typical prices: $6000-$12,000

12. Toyota Surf (4Runner)

Surfs are up! This no nonsense Toyota is one of the most popular 4WD used imports. The Hilux Surf, or 4Runner as it was known in export markets including New Zealand, was conceived as a wagon-bodied Hilux, primarily for the North American market. Those that began to filter into to New Zealand in the dawn of the used import era came first with the two litre petrol motor or the 2.4 litre turbo diesel. In 1987, the 1998cc motor was replaced by the larger 2247cc motor and fuel injection replaced the carb. A 3.0 V6 petrol version was sold here both new and as an import, but its improved performance and smoothness came at the cost of high fuel consumption.

When available new, the 4Runner had the 2.4 litre petrol motor producing 75kW of power and 185Nm of torque (at 2800rpm); the 2.8 diesel producing 65kW and 183Nm (at 2400rpm); and the V6 producing 105kW and 240Nm (at 3400rpm).

Although the five speed manual rules the roost, Surfs were imported with a four speed automatic gearbox.

The Surf gradually became more refined, getting four doors, a fully integrated wagon body and double wishbone independent front suspension replacing the beam axle. Although the IFS was quite good off-road, some serious owners retro-modified their Surfs to a beam front axle configuration.

By 1989, the part time 4WD system had become more sophisticated, Toyota ditching the basic auto hubs for units that were electrically engaged by a switch on the transfer case lever.

A weak point of the four cylinder (and V6) petrol motor, as is the case with all petrols, is vulnerability to water of its electrical system, but otherwise was a good off-road alternative. It had an ability to lug nicely at tickover speed and, on road, offered a reasonable turn of speed. 

Lots of aftermarket equipment and some ingenuity can turn a Surf into a top club or competition vehicle.

Suspension: front and rear live axle, independent wishbone on newer models
Availability: good
Typical prices: $7000-$15,000

13. Toyota Land Cruiser 80, 100, 200

We wrung our collective hands over including the big ’Cruisers because, well, they’re just so large for so many of our tight tracks. On the other hand, they’re so darned capable, even with their independent front suspension, so well built and so good on-road thanks, in part, to full-time 4WD. Available from 1989 to 1997, the 80 Series “modernised” the Land Cruiser and was the last of the models on which a solid front axle was available here (although it continues on the 70 Series). The 80s are a good hunting ground for enthusiasts, because prices are relatively low and mileage doesn’t matter too much. The base RV model is worth looking for. Because it’s an off-roaders’ favourite, the range of aftermarket accessories is huge.

Most have the 357Nm 1HD-T 4.2 litre inline-six turbodiesel, a unit so good there wouldn’t seem to be much point in buying one of the few petrols on the market. On the other hand, fitting a Lexus V8 is a popular though expensive conversion.

The 100 Series, built from 1997 to 2007, refined the concept and retail prices grew to match the vehicle’s size. One version, the 105 that retained a beam axle front suspension, was sold in Australia and some other markets; a few have come to New Zealand. This series had various issues with the front suspension and front differentials, but those would almost certainly have been addressed on 100s available today. Lots of aftermarket equipment available.

It may look much the same, by the 200 Series introduced in 2007 was mostly redesigned, featuring a whole swag of off-road electronics and the 4.5 litre twin-turbo V8 VD diesel with a six speed automatic. Used prices of the 200 put it out of reach of most enthusiasts, but it’s a superb vehicle with one of the very best electronic traction control setups. Like the earlier models, the aftermarket offers lots of good gear.

Suspension: independent wishbone on most models, live axle rear
Availability: good
Typical prices: Late 100s sell well into the $40,000s; early 80s, $10,000 up

Watch for a sting in the tail

There could be a nasty shock awaiting some buyers of modified 4WDs. That’s rejection at WoF time because the vehicle has modifications that are subject to low-volume certification … but don’t have it. Putting the matter right may in extreme cases cost thousands of dollars and may keep the vehicle off the road until it’s done. Almost any changes to a vehicle’s suspension, engine or brakes require certification – short of fitting a freeflow air filter or swapping one brand of shock for another of similar specification. Well, it’s not quite that bad, but it’s best to think negative and be on the safe side. 

Your “get out of jail” card is a certificate and plate affixed to the vehicle proving the modifications have been certified by an approved engineer. A conscientious previous owner will have had this done. True, WoF inspectors may miss subtle modifications for years and you can boast about how you’ve given the system the finger; but sooner or later someone will notice. However, missing the mods is not likely to happen if the vehicle is in a serious crash and gets hauled off for a forensic examination, in which case a sentence containing the words “throw” and “book” comes to mind. Consider certification good insurance, on several levels.

The NZ Transport Agency has more, here:


  1. Very useful, thank you. I've been considering several of the vehicles you listed and I think I've narrowed it down to a two-door Patrol/Safari.

  2. I went for a 2004 Defender 90 Td5 after everyone told me to get a Safari. I've been very pleased. Have needed only routine servicing and I think the LR's reputation for unreliability is largely unfounded. On club trips I see plenty of the mighty Safaris, Cruisers etc suffering all kinds of problems.

  3. Could the Daihatsu Feroza be one more fun toy to be added?

    1. For sure. Not many of them around these days, though.

  4. where can i buy the Isuzu Trooper (1992 on)

    1. Trademe and used-car dealers spring to mind.