There is something inherently alluring in an off-road capable vehicle. As human beings, we’ve always wanted to explore the unknown. It’s in our nature. And off-road vehicles are the best way to do that. They provide you with comfort, go-everywhere capability, and in some cases, a place to spend the night during your Overlanding adventure.
Like most things, capable off-roaders were born from the military. Later, though, they became the symbol for adventurous people. Today, SUVs are the de-facto vehicles for the modern human. And although most of them lost the tough off-road capabilities of the past, some models still carry the heritage. Let’s revisit those, along with their forbearers in this in-depth off-road history lesson.
What better way to start this slideshow than with the vehicle that literally started the off-road craze, the Willys-Overland MB. Initially designed for the US military, the small SUV/convertible quickly showed there is a market for off-road capable vehicles not just in the US but also globally.
The Willys was so good that Toyota and Land Rover literally borrowed some design decisions for their own vehicles, the Land Cruiser and Defender. Thanks to its short wheelbase and simple 4×4 powertrain, the Willys can still go where others can’t. Moreover, thanks to its evergreen design, you can still find pristine samples at car shows and meet-ups.
Toyota Land Cruiser 40 Series
Toyota might’ve borrowed the design from the Willys, but most off-road enthusiasts will argue it made it better. We won’t delve into that since the Land Cruiser FJ40 is already significant enough. Namely, instead of just a military application, Toyota commercialized the truck. Moreover, the FJ40 started the most popular nameplate in the off-road world, the Land Cruiser.
Oh, and it was an excellent off-roader. So good, in fact, that Toyota produced the 40 Series from 1960 to 2001. And there is a good reason for that – the Land Cruiser FJ40 is an outstandingly capable off-roader, with mechanics that simply won’t die.
Land Rover Defender and 90/110
While the Americans and Japanese were busy building their off-roaders, the English worked on the 90 and 100 Series, later called the Defender. Using some genius design decisions and mechanics, the Defender quickly rose to fame in the off-roading community. Today, you can see Defenders absolutely everywhere, from mountain tops and African safaris to the Australian outback and South-American deserts.
Adventurers would also argue that the Defender has the best looks of any vintage off-roader. However, it’s the outstanding capabilities and tough mechanics that set the British icon apart from the competition. Moreover, the SUV remained on the market for almost seven decades before being replaced by a completely-new model this year.
Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen / G-Class
Being the quintessential carmaker, Mercedes-Benz had to answer to the Land Cruiser and Defender’s rising popularity. The German answer was the G-Wagen, a utilitarian off-road vehicle that became an instant success. Mercedes-Benz developed and manufactured the first model in collaboration with Austrian Steyr-Daimler-Puch, and the SUV is built in Austria to this day.
Launched in 1978, Mercedes kept the same design until 1992, before replacing the SUV with a more civilized model. Today, the SUV is in its third generation. The G-Wagen, or G-Class later, saw many different versions and engines. However, they all shared similar traits – ultimate off-road capability and reliable mechanics.
Before Ford launched the Bronco, off-roaders were seen as vehicles for explorers and adventurers. The Bronco, though, managed to inject cool and macho into the mix. Immediately, the general public got interested in SUVs not only because of the abilities but also for the looks.
And it’s not like the Bronco doesn’t have the abilities sorted. It’s a capable off-roader with competent suspension, reliable mechanics, and easy-to-drive nature. Ford managed to make the Bronco even more muscular and attractive throughout the years, pairing it with powerful V8 engines. The company recently launched an all-new Bronco, with retro looks and advanced off-road capabilities.
Did you know that in most places in the world, people call SUVs Jeeps? The main reason for that is the CJ, Jeep’s first commercially available off-roader. Largely based on the Willys, the CJ took everything good from the military truck and mixed it with a much cooler design.
The combination quickly captured the imagination of surfers and beachgoers – the CJ is still the go-to vehicle for beach activities. But real off-road enthusiasts know that it’s much more than that. You can also take your CJ high in the mountains and deep in the deserts, and do that in style.
International Harvester Scout
International Harvester is a company that’s mainly known for its agricultural equipment, which also includes vehicles. However, they also dipped their toes into the emerging commercial off-road market with the Scout in 1961. Although this was the company’s first foray into passenger vehicles, it proved to be a great success.
The Scout follows the same recipe as the Jeep CJ, although in a boxier body with more utilitarian looks. Moreover, the vehicle proved to be an extremely capable off-roader while also giving customers many models to choose from. The International Harvester Scout was available in a lovely convertible form, but also as a pickup and SUV body styles.
Toyota Land Cruiser 70 Series
Having a predecessor as popular as the FJ40 wasn’t a problem for the Land Cruiser 70 Series. Toyota managed to build on the already successful platform and improve it in every way. The Land Cruiser 70 Series vehicles are known for their legendary durability, even in some remote areas.
Most samples survived to this day, driving through Africa’s savannas and deserts. Everything from the engine to the suspension can stand the test of time. Moreover, Toyota introduced several body styles to cater to the needs of customers. For some, the Land Cruiser 70 was a workhorse; for others, it was adventure time. Whatever the reason, owners hold onto their units for decades, a testament to the 70-Series legend. Oh, and Toyota still produces it in some areas.
Nissan Patrol 160
Nissan closely followed Toyota’s every step with its Patrol family of SUVs. The third generation, codenamed 160, is the one that made the nameplate a staple in the off-roading community. The Patrol 160 is a seriously capable off-road vehicle, thanks to the advanced 4×4 system with a limited-slip differential at the rear. It was also very good on paved roads, unlike other Japanese SUVs from that era.
The Japanese SUV proved very popular among buyers, especially in Australia, where you can still spot some samples driving in the outback. It’s also a very tough and reliable vehicle, able to withstand the test of time.
The modern-day Willys/CJ replaced the roughness with comfort and safety, but it’s still an outstandingly capable off-roader. That’s especially true for the Rubicon models, which provide the driver with outstanding traction on every type of terrain. The short wheelbase and minuscule dimensions further cement the Wrangler Rubicon as an off-road legend.
The Wrangler was first introduced in 1987 but now spans across four generations. Every model follows the same recipe of a cool exterior, comfortable interior, and excellent off-road capability. The latest Wrangler Rubicon is arguably the best of the bunch, proving that you can have a tough off-roader that’s also functional for everyday activities.
Dodge Power Wagon
The Dodge Power Wagon is the first medium-duty pickup truck capable of going absolutely everywhere. Even today, the muscular truck looks menacing with its enormous wheels and tires and emphasized wheel arches. The large tires also provided outstanding traction in mud or rocks, giving the high-riding truck real off-road capability.
Like most off-roaders of the post-WWII era, the Power Wagon also started as a military vehicle. However, it was much more successful as a civilian truck, and it saw a fair share of commercial use. The Dodge Power Wagon proved so popular that the company produced it from 1946 to 1970, before replacing it with the Ram.
You might not be familiar with the Hilux nameplate, since today Toyota doesn’t sell it to North-American customers. However, the Hilux is a historically important pickup truck, mainly due to its extreme off-road capabilities and legendary durability.
In one of the most popular episodes ever, Top Gear tried to destroy one, dropping it in the sea, setting it on fire, and demolishing a building with the truck on top. Spoiler – they didn’t succeed. These pickup trucks simply won’t die, which is why they are the vehicle of choice for people living in remote places, especially in Australia, Asia, Africa, and Europe.
Some owners might have bought it to show status, but there is no denying the Hummer’s outstanding off-road capabilities. Besides, we’re talking about the first generation here, which was directly based on the military version. As a result, if there were a road narrow enough, the H1 wouldn’t have a problem to pass, regardless of the surface.
Simply put, the Hummer H1 is a vehicle built to withstand the most extreme conditions, such as sandstorms. Even today, there is no other SUV that could hold a candle to H1’s capability for overcoming large off-road obstacles. Let’s hope that the all-electric Hummer EV can borrow some of that invincibility.
Long before we had high-performance SUVs like BMW X5 M or Audi SQ7, Lamborghini had the LM002. Most people don’t know about this vehicle, and fewer ever seen one. However, that adds to the allure of the Rambo-Lambo as the Italian company wanted to call it.
Besides, the LM002 has the same V12 from the Countach under the hood, providing excellent straight-line performance. Meanwhile, the 4×4 powertrain and high ground clearance meant that this unique off-roader could go anywhere with maximum style. Lamborghini even employed special tires that could run almost flat and withstand high-temperature desert scenarios, and a mammoth 45-gallon (169-liter) gasoline tank.
Chevrolet K5 Blazer
In 1969, when Chevrolet introduced the K5 Blazer, most off-road vehicles were utilitarian and spartan. The Blazer, however, came with more advanced standard equipment and a better interior while also being tough. Thanks to the short wheelbase and 4WD system, the truck is competent off-road but also in extreme wintry conditions.
What really caught the customers’ attention was the muscular design and the powerful V8 gas and tough Detroit diesel engines under the hood. Moreover, the K5 Blazer was available with a removable roof, which raised its appeal to adventure-seeking customers. Chevrolet produced the last Blazer in 1994 and replaced it with the Tahoe.
Jeep Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer
While Land Rover had the utilitarian Defender and Toyota the spartan Land Cruiser, Jeep had the luxurious Wagoneer. Considered by many to be the first truly luxurious SUV, the Wagoneer was the go-to vehicle for people that wanted style and robustness in one package.
Like every other Jeep, the Wagoneer is a competent off-roader, capable of bringing a whole family to the most remote places out there. Even more impressive, it did that with style and comfort that was reserved only for station wagons of the era. The Wagoneer and its larger brother, the Grand Wagoneer, became so popular as classics lately that Jeep decided to launch completely new models soon.
Toyota Land Cruiser 80 Series / Lexus LX450
Toyota’s answer to luxurious SUVs from Jeep and Land Rover came in the form of the Land Cruiser FJ80. Japanese automakers might have been late to the party, but they certainly arrived with a bang. Considered to be the last great Land Cruiser, the FJ80 kept the robustness and off-road capability of its predecessors while introducing a plush interior and good on-road dynamics.
The FJ80 was so well-received that it served as a basis for the Lexus LX450, which is essentially the same vehicle with a more luxurious cabin. Due to its popularity and outstanding longevity, the Japanese SUV still commands a high price on the used-car market.
Land Rover Discovery
The Discovery never reached the height of the Defender in the off-road community. However, Land Rover never intended to replace the off-road icon with the Discovery in the 90s. Instead, the British designed the vehicle with family buyers in mind that wanted a practical interior, good off-road capability, and excellent on-road comfort.
The Discovery delivered on both ends. While not as capable as the Defender off-road, it’s still better than most trucks and SUVs – lockable central differential and 4×4 powertrain are standard. Meanwhile, it provided passengers with a comfortable and quiet ride on the road, as well as a roomy and comfortable interior. The Land Rover Discovery is now in the third generation and is still a popular option for adventure-seeking customers.
The first Range Rover took the idea of a luxurious off-roader and raised it even further. Even today, the Range Rover is the quintessential luxurious SUV, offering unparalleled levels of capability, performance, and comfort. Some people say it’s the “S Class” among off-roaders, and they aren’t far from the truth.
The first-generation model arrived with a boxy design that looked classy for the time. Moreover, the interior was nothing like the SUVs of the era, utilizing leather and wood. The off-roader proved to be extremely popular among wealthy buyers, which is why Land Rover sold it from 1969 to 1996 with small changes.
The Lexus LX570 is an oddball between luxury SUVs and crossovers from Germany. It still utilizes a ladder-frame architecture, which makes it much less dynamic on the road, something wealthy buyers notice. However, it’s also by far the most capable and reliable luxury off-roader on the market right now.
Sure, you can mention the Range Rover in the same sentence, but the LX570 is infinitely more robust and reliable. It’s also based on the latest Land Cruiser, which, as you probably already noticed, is pretty much the de-facto off-roader. Besides, it has a powerful and sweet-sounding 5.7-liter V8 under the hood.
Jeep Grand Cherokee
Jeep launched the Grand Cherokee as a substitute for the aging Grand Wagoneer. And, while some enthusiasts were irked for the name change, Grand Cherokee became a legend in its own right, perhaps even more than its predecessor. The first model arrived with boxy and muscular design, but more importantly, a unibody construction.
The change introduced car-like dynamics, which made the car more accessible to the general public. Fortunately, Jeep made sure that the Grand Cherokee is still capable off-road, a quality that it has even today. Besides, you can have it in a Trackhawk version with supercharged V8, which propels the SUV to 60mph in only 3.5 seconds.
Land Rover Defender L663
Land Rover recently replaced the aging Defender with the completely-new L663. At first enthusiasts around the world weren’t convinced by the modern design, and some doubted the off-road capabilities. However, while we can’t talk about taste in car design, we know for sure that the latter was unfounded.
The Defender L633 moved to a monocoque chassis for better on-road dynamics, but it lost nothing of its legendary off-road capability. Actually, in most head-to-head reviews, it readily beats the predecessor, especially on demanding terrain. Once again, the Defender is a beast off-road, but this time, largely thanks to computers and electronics. As long as it works, we won’t argue.
Jeep XJ Cherokee
The Jeep XJ Cherokee is a regular find in remote places and among off-road enthusiasts. And there is a good reason for that – the XJ is an off-road beast that won’t stop even on the most demanding terrains. Moreover, it’s arguably the most reliable Jeep, and if you live in the US, very cheap to maintain.
Besides, the interior has just enough space to transport four passengers and their cargo, despite the compact exterior dimensions. Also, in our eyes, it still looks attractive, especially when sitting some aggressive off-road tires. Ultimately, it features unibody construction, making it comfortable on the road.
Mitsubishi Montero (Pajero)
Young drivers might not be familiar with the Montero (Pajero in other markets) nameplate, but ask an off-road enthusiast, and you might hear that it’s the best off-roader ever. How is that? Well, Mitsubishi won 12 Dakar Rally titles and 150 stage wins, both world records. Please make no mistake; the Pajero is a legendary off-roader that deserves its place in the pantheon of greats.
The reason why it was so good was Mitsubishi’s engineering prowess, especially in producing clever four-wheel-drive systems. It is also a reliable and practical SUV, which is why it still sells well globally.
You might think that Corolla and Mustang are the longest nameplates in automotive’s history, but it’s actually the Suburban. Chevy’s station wagon / SUV dates back to 1935, introduced to transport more people efficiently and comfortably. To this day, the Suburban can transport eight passengers, which is the main attraction for customers.
Another lesser-known fact about the Suburban is that it’s a competent off-roader. Thanks to the truck chassis and torquey engines, Chevy’s full-size SUV can take you places where few others can. Meanwhile, it will also be comfortable on the road – the suspension soaks up bumps like the best out there.
The Ford Excursion came in an era when CO2 emissions were becoming a real concern in the automotive world. As a result, many people bashed the poor fuel economy and high emissions. What those people didn’t know, though, is that the Excursion was one of the toughest SUVs ever made.
Based on Ford’s super-duty chassis, the Excursion is a real workhorse that can tow large trailers and carry heavy payloads. Moreover, the ladder chassis and lead suspension make it an accomplished off-roader. The Excursion is one of the few vehicles that can comfortably carry eight passengers on the most demanding terrains.
Toyota Land Cruiser 60 Series
Before the J60, people associated the Land Cruiser moniker mostly with trucks designed for utility rather than comfort. Knowing that, Toyota completely re-thought the Land Cruiser as a family off-roader, making it more spacious and much better on paved roads. Fortunately, the SUV retained the legendary all-terrain capability of its predecessors.
Perhaps the best thing about the Land Cruiser J60, though, are the bulletproof engines. The 4.0-liter inline-6 naturally-aspirated gasoline and diesel engines are one of the toughest in history – they simply don’t break. Additionally, the suspension and powertrain are tough-as-rocks, making the J60 one of the most durable SUVs.
Nissan Patrol Y60
Nissan might be more synonymous with its outstanding sports cars, but its SUV range has some outstanding examples. Perhaps the best is the fourth-gen Patrol, which at the time was perhaps the most competent off-road in its category. The SUV was especially good on rocky terrains, thanks to the super-long-travel coil-spring suspension.
The Patrol Y60 was also excellent on the highway, providing the passengers with a much more comfortable ride than its closest rival, the Land Cruiser J60. It also proved to be very reliable, retaining most of its value throughout the years.
Isuzu Trooper (Bighorn)
A while ago, Isuzu was one of the most established off-road brands in the automotive world. Known for its advanced engines and powertrains, the Japanese manufacturer had great success among customers that wanted excellent off-road capabilities. The Trooper is arguably its most popular model, launched as a response to the Toyota Land Cruiser and Nissan Patrol.
In its first generation, the Trooper didn’t bring anything revolutionary to the table. Well, other than the fact that it was a competent off-road with mechanics that won’t die. However, the second generation is a much better prospect, thanks to better engines and on-road dynamics.
When Toyota replaced the compact FJ40 with the larger FJ60, it left a hole in the lineup. Fortunately, the Japanese company reacted quickly and introduced the 4Runner, a mid-size SUV with excellent off-road credentials. The truck was mostly utilitarian – it was actually a Hilux with a fiberglass roof on top. However, that didn’t stop off-road enthusiasts from falling in love with its toughness and reliability.
The 4Runner nameplate remains extremely popular even today, even though Toyota hasn’t replaced it since 2009. It seems like customers in the sector value reliability and off-road capability more than comfort and hi-tech features.
Nissan Pathfinder WD21
Today, the Pathfinder is a mid-size SUV aimed at family buyers that want a somewhat capable off-roader but mostly care about on-road dynamics. In the past, though, things were different. The first-gen Pathfinder utilized a body-on-frame chassis and was launched as a direct competitor to Toyota 4Runner, Chevrolet Blazer, and Ford Bronco.
Thanks to the short wheelbase and available 4WD, the Pathfinder WS21 was a competent off-roader. However, the rear coil-spring suspension also made it surprisingly good to drive on the road, much better than its competition, in fact. Also, thanks to the insulated steel roof, the Pathfinder WD21 was very quiet for its era.
Volkswagen Vanagon Syncro
What does a van do on a list of the best off-road vehicles of all time? Well, we would’ve wondered if it was for any van other than the VW Vanagon Syncro. Thanks to the advanced 4WD system from Steyr-Daimler-Puch with viscous coupling, the Syncro is a surprisingly capable off-roader.
Additionally, the Vanagon Syncro has everything you need for an Overlanding adventure. The spacious interior has enough room for beds and amenities, and simple overland conversions can take things even further. Some even started replacing the underpowered flat-four with Subaru engines, making the Syncro a competent mile-eater.
Suzuki’s first micro off-roader has perhaps the best name of every car on this list. But it’s not only the designation that makes it desirable – it’s the funky design, convertible layout, and of course, the exceptional off-road capability. Thanks to the 4WD system and short 80-inch wheelbase, the Samurai can go absolutely everywhere.
Moreover, the cute off-roader came at a very low cost, opening the door for many young off-road enthusiasts. It certainly didn’t hurt that it was also reliable, fuel-efficient, and cheap to maintain. The engine was underpowered, but this list isn’t about sports cars. Besides, the small four-cylinder engine was more than capable of providing torque on slippery terrains.
Isuzu wasn’t especially known for good designs, and the VehiCROSS certainly doesn’t change that perspective. However, while certainly not a looker, it at least stands out. There will never be an SUV similar to the VehiCROSS, which makes it a unique proposition, even as a used vehicle.
What many people don’t know is that the VehiCROSS features a very advanced off-road suspension system. The monotube shocks with heat-expansion chambers come directly from off-road racing, giving the unique SUV unparalleled wheel articulation in the compact category. Add to that a short wheelbase and advanced 4WD system, and you have a vehicle that can take on any terrain.
North-American people might have never seen this vehicle. However, the Lada Niva is a legendary off-roader that demands respect, largely thanks to its mythical off-road abilities. Although it sits on a unibody chassis, the independent coil suspension and short wheelbase give the Niva unparalleled wheel articulation and traction on slippery terrain.
The Niva is so legendary that mountaineers still use it in Easter Europe, Russia, and ex-Soviet countries. Ask these people why they love it so much; they will tell you that no other vehicle can go where the Niva can. Russian carmaker Lada first introduced the Niva in 1977 and still produces it in large numbers today.
Suzuki Jimny (fourth-gen)
The Jimny is what you get when you shrink a Defender or Land Cruiser into a city-car package. Suzuki’s diminutive SUV looks decidedly cute in its latest generation, but it also packs some serious off-road punch at a lower price than any other SUV. The extra-short wheelbase, narrow body, and tough 4WD system let you go in places where few other vehicles can.
Moreover, the Jimny features a low-range transfer gear, which gives it outstanding traction on slippery terrains. And, while the 1.5-liter naturally-aspirated engine feels underpowered in 2020, it’s good enough to get you out of trouble in demanding off-road situations.
The Citroen 2CV is easily one of the most important cars in automotive history. The French manufacturer broke many grounds with the vehicle. The reliable and cheap front-wheel-drive platform was certainly one of the ground-breaking technologies, but it’s the extra-soft suspension that caught customers’ attention.
And, trust us, no other vehicle ever produced was as soft as the 2CV. It’s like a cloud on wheels, this cute French car. More importantly, the long suspension travel made the 2CV usable for light off-roading, such as agricultural work, but also general driving, since, at that time, paved roads were pretty scarce.
Crossovers dominate the automotive world today, so much so that some manufacturers even replaced their mighty SUVs with one. Well, you can thank the AMC Eagle for that. The car was certainly revolutionary for its era since it combined elevated ride height with regular body styles. Yes, the Eagle was available as a sedan, a hatchback, and a wagon.
Moreover, it was also the first American vehicle with 4WD and an independent front suspension, giving it both excellent off-road and on-road capability. Sadly, the Eagle wasn’t very successful on the market since the idea was very ahead of its time. If it launched today, it would’ve sold like hotcakes!
Ford F-150 SVT Raptor
The regular F-150 is a very capable off-roader, especially in 4WD form. However, real off-road enthusiasts should go for the SVT Raptor. The specially-tuned version from Ford’s off-road specialists is one of the best off-roaders in the world today. With this truck, you won’t only reach every point on Earth, but you will also have fun while doing it.
The SVT Raptor comes exclusively with a 3.5-liter twin-turbo EcoBoost V6 engine, good for 450 hp. The engine is paired with a 10-speed automatic transmission for enhanced performance and traction. Furthermore, the SVT Raptor is equipped with larger off-road shocks that allow for greater wheel articulation and an all-new transfer case.
Ram Power Wagon
The Ram Power Wagon is similar to the F-150 SVT Raptor; only it is based on a medium-duty truck, the Ram 2500. This means it’s much better for hauling heavy cargo and towing mammoth trailers, and generally for utility.
Despite its huge dimensions, the Power Wagon is also an extremely capable off-roader. Under the hood, it packs a 6.4-liter naturally-aspirated V8 with 410 hp, sending the power to all four wheels via an 8-speed automatic transmission. Ram also upgraded the suspension, installed 33-inch tires, and fitted electronically-locking differentials front and back. The result is an unstoppable force, regardless of the surface.