These Are The 10 Best SUVs For Going Off-Road

These Are The 10 Best SUVs For Going Off-Road

Fire up your mobile browsers, and scroll through the top 10 SUVs for off-roading

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Photo: Ford

Off-road is hot right now. Buyers know it; carmakers know it. Despite pickup trucks getting bigger and heavier, trucks have been the popular choice for off-road enthusiasts. But when something with enclosed cargo space is needed, and a midsize truck with a camper shell won’t do, it’s time for an SUV.

The best off-road SUVs are clearly the ones in Jurassic Park. Those SUVs were mission-critical out there — where the geese chase you. I’m not talking about the Jeep Wranglers (YJ.) Definitely not the Ford Explorers, which, by the way, were Toyota Land Cruisers in Crichton’s novel. No, the best SUVs for going off-road were those gnarly Mercedes-Benz ML320s. For sure.

Sadly, you can’t just go to a Mercedes-Benz dealer and ask for a Lost World M-Class. What you can do, if you’re in the U.S., is pick the next best sport-utility vehicle from among these, the top ten SUVs for going off-road.

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2022 Toyota 4Runner

2022 Toyota 4Runner

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Photo: Toyota

Of course, we start with the Toyota 4Runner, the all-wheel drive alpha and omega. The venerated off-roader many U.S. drivers choose when they need an SUV that’s actually capable. The 4Runner has a body-on-frame design with good ground clearance, good geometry, low-range transfer case, locking rear differential and adjustable suspension. It’s no sedan or wagon on the highway, but does just fine. And in most any spec, it’s a hardy off-roader.

I think, at this point, believing the 4Runner is overrated only to be thoroughly proven wrong is a Jalopnik tradition. I remember riding in a 2000 Toyota 4Runner Limited (with gold badges!) years ago, and thinking there was no way it could off-road like a Jeep XJ; the 4Runner was too nice! I wrote off the 4Runner as an SUV that peaked in the ’90s, which outgrew the truck it was based on and became a passenger car with more ride height.

Skip to 2021 when I drove a 4Runner at an off-road course so hard Toyota told me nicely, but firmly, to dial it down. I blamed the 4Runner, which goaded me into finding the limits of its traction. Does it even have limits? I don’t know.

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2022 Ford Bronco

2022 Ford Bronco

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Photo: Ford

This is the better Jeep Wrangler, via the Ford Ranger. The new Ford Bronco marks the return of this SUV after Ford discontinued it in 1996. The Bronco is back partly due to the Raptor, which confirmed to Ford that off-roading is more popular than ever. The Bronco is, indeed, popular, and for good reason.

The Bronco lacks the rock-crawling chops and solid front axle of its nemesis, the Wrangler. It concedes some ability to the Jeep, but achieves more balance overall. Unless all your off-roading depends exclusively on extreme wheel articulation and ground clearance, the Bronco will do as well as the Jeep.

David Tracy said of the Bronco, “...it may be the most well-rounded off-road vehicle I’ve ever driven.” There’s no way to top that.

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2022 Jeep Wrangler

2022 Jeep Wrangler

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Photo: Jeep

OK, I was too harsh on the Jeep Wrangler. That’s because I hate driving Jeep Wranglers on the highway. Too loud. But we’re not counting the best highway SUVs, but the best off-roaders. And the Wrangler really is one of the best.

Like most vehicles on this list, that’s because the Wrangler has gone unchanged where it matters. It’s kept a combination of four-wheel drive, solid axles, low-range transfer case and geometry that favors off-road for basically forever. It’s been mastering the off-road longer than some models have existed, to the detriment of comfort on the road. In its modern guise, it’s sold mostly as a spacious four-door, but the gnarliest Wranglers still have just the two.

Drivers can opt for a Wrangler in trims like the Rubicon or as a blank slate to build upon in base model. Both will be capable off the lot, to varying degrees. It’s why the Wrangler is praised and used as a yardstick for other off-roaders.

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2022 Land Rover Defender

2022 Land Rover Defender

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Photo: Land Rover

Now that the big three are out of the way, we can move on to the expensive off-roaders. As if the 4Runner, Bronco and Wrangler weren’t already pricy. The sticker shock is less intense with a Land Rover because it’s fancy, right? That’s uncomfortably true of this evolution of the original Land Rover, the Defender.

The Defender finally got a thorough redesign in 2020, but fans disavowed Rover for the cardinal sins of switching to unibody construction and dropping solid axles. The upheaval even spawned a new car company, which promised to do the Defender justice by turning back the clock.

But as the Bronco showed, an off-roader is greater than the sum of its parts. The new Defender made an evolutionary leap but natural selection kept it worthy with traits like constant all-wheel drive, locking diffs, two-speed transfer case and of course, high clearance. The Defender has finally followed the Range Rover off the farm, but it’s as capable as it’s ever been.

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2022 Land Rover Range Rover

2022 Land Rover Range Rover

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Photo: Land Rover

I struggle to call the Range Rover an upgrade over the Defender, because they’re not really in a hierarchy. Well, unless you consider prices, with the Range Rover starting over $100,000. But the Range Rover and Defender are for different drivers. The Rover’s is concerned with luxury and looks, as much as capability.

The Range Rover’s design is stubbornly evolving. The carmaker has been conservative with the flagship but that applies to the capabilities, too. The Range Rover was designed to have the same off-roadability as early Rovers — which would later become Defenders — but in a comfy and refined body.

That’s why the luxury SUV, now in its fifth generation, ended up with adaptive all-wheel drive, AWD steering, locking differentials and a two-speed transfer case. The Range Rover is both so fancy and so capable, its display tells the driver if it’s OK to ford water. Not the other way around. The Rover is a self-aware and handsome SUV, but it’s also nearly double the price of the Defender.

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2022 Mercedes-Benz G-Class

2022 Mercedes-Benz G-Class

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Photo: Mercedes-Benz

The Mercedes Benz G550 is more or less in the same league as the Range Rover in the U.S., both in price and performance. That’s less true today, as the G550 settled into a cushier role and now costs more than the Rover, starting at $132,000. But don’t forget that while the Ranger Rover is the Queen’s pick, the Geländewagen is the off-roader of choice for military forces around the world.

Under the latest G550's skin, there are traces of its origins. The G-Class is capable thanks to body-on-frame design, three locking differentials, permanent all-wheel drive and a two-speed transfer case. And as more off-road SUVs go with smaller, more efficient engines, the G-Class sticks with a 4.0-liter V8.

The G550 wandered off the dirt path as it made peace with its target buyer but can veer back whenever it wants. Only thing is, the dirt path is now crowded.

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2022 Lexus LX 600

2022 Lexus LX 600

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The Lexus LX 600 is nominally more affordable than those above, but not by much. I’m not including this oversized SUV as a nod to the Land Cruiser — even if the LX is the closest we’ll get to the LC. I’m including the LX because I sat up front in one while Ivan Stewart showed a dozen slack-jawed writers what the LX can actually do. I’ve never seen (felt) a stock SUV as big as the LX move like that and doubt I will again.

Stewart happily pushed the LX, like, floored it, over a dirt course full of large rocks, washboards, hairpin turns, fresh mud, gravel and standing water that revealed deep ruts. It was like he was actively trying to strand the LX in mud, or flip the Lexus on the boulders. We sped over and through all of it. Were the brakes working? Yes, but the man has no chill.

OK, so “Ironman” put on the off-road clinic behind the wheel of an LX 570. This is to the current LX’s favor as it’s lighter and more powerful with the same off-road DNA. Look, it’s not the LX 600's fault that most of its buyers are not Ivan Stewart; it’s only a shame most will probably never suspect that what looks like the limit of the heavy SUV’s abilities are actually just the beginning.

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2022 Jeep Grand Cherokee

2022 Jeep Grand Cherokee

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Photo: Jeep

If the plan is to go off-road, go past the Jeep Grand Wagoneer. That is Jeep’s bid for buyers in the luxury SUV segment —the emphasis on luxury. Same goes for the Jeep Grand Cherokee L. The two-row Jeep Grand Cherokee is the better choice for going off-road in an SUV with a fixed roof and seven slits on the grill.

Don’t let the older road-focused SRT and Trackhawk models fool you into thinking the Grand Cherokee is done off-road; the new Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk and 4xe like to hit the dirt. The rest of the trims are all available with air suspension and a few 4WD and AWD setups, up to and including a two-speed transfer case and rear limited-slip differential.

The Trackhawk get underbody protection and front tow hooks. Even if the Jeep Grand Cherokee has grown heavier by aspiring to luxury, it can still go off-road.

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2022 Suzuki Jimny

2022 Suzuki Jimny

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Photo: Suzuki

OK. You caught me. The Suzuki Jimny is not sold in the U.S., but I’ll be damned if I make a list of the best off-roaders and do not include a Suzuki Jimny.

The Jimny is light but beefy, has the right drivetrain and proper geometry. You can still buy it with a five-speed stick. There’s a base model for those who like to customize. The trail is the Jimny’s natural habitat. The highway? Not so much.

That could change when the Jimny debuts as a four-door model in India. A longer wheelbase might settle it down over long distances. And if Maruti Suzuki boosts power to balance the growth spurt, the Jimny could be more comfortable on-road — at some expense to its capability off-road.

The Jimny may change when it gives in to peer pressure and grows a pair of doors. So, cherish the Jimny now before it becomes a Grand Vitara.

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2022 Lexus GX 460

2022 Lexus GX 460

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Photo: Lexus

And how could a list of best off-road SUVs end? As it began, more or less. The Lexus GX 460 is basically a Land Cruiser Prado, a sibling of the 4Runner and Fortuner. This is the SUV Toyota wants you to buy when the 4Runner Limited isn’t cutting it for luxury. The pie-chart badge, however, is a feint; the GX rips!

As the gussied up Land Cruiser Prado it is, the GX comes with body-on-frame construction, full-time 4WD, low-range gearbox, limited-slip center locking diff (e-lock,) plus terrain modes. Under the window dressing and leather, there’s adaptive suspension, too. All of this coalescing around a naturally-aspirated V8.

In a word, the GX is crocodilian: slow to evolve, but a survivor in every sense.

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