My Rock Climbing Obsession Means I Need an Affordable Off-Roader! What Car Should I Buy?

Image: Nissan Heritage
Image: Nissan Heritage

Erin has caught that rock climbing bug and wants a better car for when she’s not on the pavement, and one that can haul her gear and help her spend time in the wild. She doesn’t have a big budget, but it should be enough to get her a nice off-road rig. What car should she buy?

(Welcome back to What Car Should You Buy? Where we give real people real advice about buying cars. )

Here is the scenario:

Help! My rock climbing hobby is quickly becoming an obsession and I need a vehicle that will help me live that sweet weekend dirtbagger life. I need something that can handle dirt roads and have enough space for me, a couple friends, and tons of rock climbing and camping gear (crash pads, ropes, backpacks, etc.). The tiny hatchback I bought in college just isn’t cutting it.

Bonus points if it has a sunroof. Extra bonus points if the rear seats fold flat so that I can sleep in the car like the dirtbag I aspire to be. It seems like every climber in Nor Cal has a Subaru - should I join the masses, or is there something better out there?

I bike and walk almost everywhere in-town, so this car would be pretty much exclusively for long trips. I can spend up to $15,000.


Quick Facts:

Budget: $15,000

Daily Driver: Not really

Location: Sacramento, CA

Wants: AWD, space, decent MPGs

Doesn’t want: Something too cramped

Expert 1: Tom McParland -You Are Climbing The Rocks Not The Car

Image: Autotrader
Image: Autotrader

Erin, I’m sure there are plenty of folks that are going to tell you to get some crazy overland rig with all kinds of nonsense you don’t need to hit the trails. The key thing to keep in mind here is to find something that can get you to the base of the mountain and allow you to camp comfortably. As fun as it is to get locking differentials, big knobby tires and a snorkel, all that stuff is overkill for your needs.

What you need is a Ford Flex. These are basically a living room on wheels with plenty of space for gear and sleeping arrangements. The big V6 gets around 23 MPG on the highway if you are lucky, but that’s not too bad for a vehicle of this size.


The tricky part is finding a nice one for sub $15,000, but this SEL with some nice upgrades has about 70,000 miles on the clock but it is a Ford certified car, so that should give some buffer on the warranty.

Expert 2: Raphael Orlove - Look Up To The Heights Through a Skylite Roof

Illustration for article titled My Rock Climbing Obsession Means I Need an Affordable Off-Roader! What Car Should I Buy?

Hello fellow NorCalian. You may some days be sitting on Business 80, stuck in hella traffic, thinking how much nicer it would be to be on one of those Amtrak cars with the windows that go up into the roof, riding to SF or wherever.

Well, such a view is available to you, should you know where to look for it.

Gaze now upon this 1989 Toyota MasterAce Surf GS with, yes, the “Skylite Roof.”

We got an earlier iteration of this thing, one that you might have seen bopping around town. It was just called the Toyota Van here, and was pretty spartan.


But this MasterAce was a high-trim version. It’s roomy as hell, plush as shit, and the seats fold flat or out of the way entirely. It’s like a Mitsubishi Delica, only less wheezy. This one has a turbodiesel, an automatic, and 4WD. Could be you, and for under budget, too!

Expert 3: David Tracy - You Need a Camper Van

Image: Craigslist
Image: Craigslist

Raph’s on the right track with the van suggestion. Don’t let the “Utility” part of the “SUV” acronym fool you: SUVs are not nearly as spacious or practical as minivans, which is why Jalopnik regularly suggests that folks looking for lots of room just buy the damn minivan.

The problem with most minivans is that they’re not particularly “rugged,” but the good news is that if you reach into the old car classifieds, you’ve got some damn fine options. Raph’s MasterAce suggestion is a great one, and so is the Delica he mentioned.


I’ll recommend something a bit more “California”: the VW T3 Vanagon. My initial thought was to suggest a four-wheel drive “Syncro” version, but those are a bit pricey, and I bet a standard Vanagon will get you most places you need to go. More importantly, it’ll have plenty of space, be easy to keep on the road thanks in part to its simple air-cooled motor, and offer some serious creature comforts that you won’t find in most other cars.

Those comforts include a sink, stovetop, and refrigerator if you get a camper version like the one shown above, which costs 13 large. If you want to spend a bit less coin, you can find non-camper versions for much less, but if it were me, I’d go for the one with the built-in tent to maximize livability. Because are you really a proper rock climber if you don’t live in a van?


Expert 4: Jason Torchinsky - They Forced Me Into This

Illustration for article titled My Rock Climbing Obsession Means I Need an Affordable Off-Roader! What Car Should I Buy?

Man, what’s the world coming to when I hop in one of these and people have already suggested JDM vans and rear-engined Volkswagens? Where does that leave me? Pushed further into the realm of the strange, that’s where, which is why I’m going to suggest, in all earnestness, this wonderful green Lada Niva.

I can confidently say that the Niva will get you where you want to go, as I’ve driven a Niva, and found it remarkably capable off-road. Sure, it was crappy in many other ways, but it’s a charming kind of crappy, and this one looks to be in better shape than the one I drove.


You can think of the Niva as a sort of VW Rabbit wearing hiking boots and having spent some time in a gulag; it’s a hatchback with big wheels and a lot of ground clearance, with real four-wheel drive. There’s plenty of room in there for you and your couple of friends and their gear, and that rear seat does fold down, so I think you could sleep in it, if you felt like it.

It’s got headlight wipers/washers, too! How cool is that?

Plus, it’s compact enough to be an easy and usable daily driver, and that green color is so good I bet it’ll make you not even question where the hell you’re going to get parts. Actually, you can get parts from Canada, since these were sold there. Not so bad!


This one is $10,950, and it’s not even that far away. You may have to register it in Washington or Oregon, they say, but, I’m going to assume that’s just fine, because why not? This thing will be great.

Do you want us to help you find a car? Submit your story on our form.

Tom is a contributing writer for Jalopnik and runs He saves people money and takes the hassle out of buying or leasing a car. (

Share This Story

Get our newsletter


Turning Jalopanese, the refreshing choice

As per usual, you guys are trying too hard to score Kooky Points. $15k is a lot for this scenario, so there are tons of good options, including Subies. Personally I’d go with a 4Runner or Pathfinder (one of the good ones).