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I'm A New Grad Student And I Need An Off-Road Ride For Fieldwork! What Car Should I Buy?

A $25,000 budget for something that can handle dirt roads and gear

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Image for article titled I'm A New Grad Student And I Need An Off-Road Ride For Fieldwork! What Car Should I Buy?
Photo: Jason Torchinsky/Jalopnik

Regan is about to start graduate school, which will take him into the field to collect data for environmental research. However, his small sedan isn’t really ideal for these excursions or carrying all the gear. With a budget of up to $25,000, what car should he buy?

(Welcome back to What Car Should You Buy? Where we give real people real advice about buying cars. Do you want us to help you find a car? Submit your story on our form.)


Here is the scenario:

I am about to start graduate school and I need a car that would have decent storage space for fieldwork equipment and comfortable for road trips. Equipment includes nets, electrofishing gear, tanks, etc. I have a small sedan now and need something a bit bigger with a more outdoorsy feel. I need something that I can take a couple of people out to sites and carry a decent amount of equipment.

Overall I am looking for Good gas mileage, slight off-roading capability, a spacious trunk, and reliability in the long run. I can spend up to $25,000.


Quick Facts:

Budget: Up to $25,000

Location: Dallas, TX

Daily Driver: Yes

Wants: Off-road-ish, decent MPG, reliable

Doesn’t want: A manual transmission

Expert 1: Tom McParland - You Are In Truck Country Now

Image for article titled I'm A New Grad Student And I Need An Off-Road Ride For Fieldwork! What Car Should I Buy?

Congratulations on your graduate school journey; being out in the field conducting research sounds more fun than sitting in a classroom. While you don’t need a vehicle for serious off-roading, it does sound like this ride is going to see a bit of dirt and mud, so I don’t know if gunking up the inside of a crossover or wagon is going to be the best move in the long run. As you may have noticed, almost everyone in Texas drives a truck, so maybe it would be wise to blend in a bit. I’m not suggesting you grab a monster F-250 but a small pickup with four doors and a bed that can handle the gear might be the way to go.

This is where I am going to deviate from my usual strategy of adhering pretty firm to the proposed budget and suggest you try to wiggle up just a bit more for something nicer and more capable. While you can certainly score a 50,000-mile Outback for $25,000, for just a shade under $30,000 you can get a pretty recent Hyundai Santa Cruz with reasonable miles and plenty of warranty. The Santa Cruz is just enough truck to handle your fieldwork and gear without being too thirsty. Here is a local example in a cool green color that also comes well-equipped with leather seats and other upgrades.


Expert 2: Owen Bellwood - You Really Don’t Need A Truck

A photo of a 1996 Mitsubishi Delica parked by a lake.
Photo: Mitsubishi

Congratulations on making it to grad school! It sounds like you’ve got an exciting few years ahead of you, and that definitely warrants an exciting set of wheels to get you out to your research sites. And, as someone who has now driven a truck, I’m here to say that it really doesn’t have to be a truck. Please don’t get a truck.

Instead, what you actually need is a van — all the practicalities of a truck but with a roof and much better looks. With your demands for something that can manage a few rugged trails and haul plenty of scientific gear, there are a few good options out there for you to explore. At first, I wanted to suggest this excellent off-road Econoline, but a petrol V8 is far from fuel efficient.


So instead, I think you need a 1996 Mitsubishi Delica, a real go-anywhere van. This one is right in your backyard, and it is lovely. The four-wheel-drive van comes with a set of off-road ready tires, a clean bill of health and, importantly for Texas, air conditioning that actually works. Sure, you’ll have to get used to right-hand-drive, but that’s a small price to pay to get your hands on the perfect field work van.

Expert 3: Collin Woodard - Something You Might Actually Buy

Subaru Forester
Photo: Subaru

Normally, I’m the one who says something like, “Well, the obvious answer has already been given, but if, for whatever reason, you don’t want the obvious answer, here’s an alternative that you might like even if it’s a little out there.” And then commenters call me dumb for not repeating the obvious answer even though I already said the obvious answer is the correct choice. But, apparently, I have to be the voice of reason today. I don’t like it, but I’ve accepted it.

Grad school is not the time to stretch your budget or buy a JDM van with questionable reliability and limited parts availability. Technically, I never graduated college, so I don’t have any first-hand experience, but I’ve dated enough PhD students to know money is always tight, even in relatively affordable college towns. Would the Delica be awesome? Absolutely. Until something on it breaks, and you’re stuck bumming rides for a month waiting for a replacement part to come in.


Instead, just get a Subaru Forester. If you’re driving on trails that are too much for a Forester to handle, it’s time to drop the good fuel efficiency requirement and get a body-on-frame off-roader. But those kinds of trails are pretty rare unless you intentionally seek them out. The Forester has all-wheel drive and enough ground clearance to get you pretty much anywhere you can reasonably expect to go. It’s got plenty of space for your stuff and a few people.

And after looking at listings around the Dallas area, I’m not even going to bother linking to a suggested car. You can probably throw a rock from where you’re sitting right now and hit a used Forester that’s for sale within your budget and without too many miles on it. It won’t be as interesting as the previous two suggestions, but it’s a much better choice for a grad student. Hold off on buying something interesting until you’ve graduated. (Ugh, I can’t believe I just said that.)


Expert 4: Lawrence Hodge - A Vehicle That’s Just Right

2024 Subaru Crosstrek
2024 Subaru Crosstrek
Image: Subaru

I’m going to keep this short and sweet because the answer to your needs is obvious: the Subaru Crosstrek. It literally checks every one of your needs. Off-roadish? With 8.7 inches of ground clearance and standard symmetrical all-wheel drive, you’ll have no problem tackling whatever small trail you need to go on. Decent gas mileage? Crosstreks are powered by a 2.0-liter boxer four. And despite all-wheel drive, Subaru says it’ll get 27 mpg city/37 highway, so that’s another check. Reliability is another check. I’ve never heard of anyone having any sort of problems with these things.

With your budget you can buy a new one as well. Excluding destination charges, the Crosstrek starts at $24,995. But if you can swing it, go one rung up the ladder from the base and get the Crosstrek Premium. If you don’t get any premium colors or option packages, you can pick one up for just $27,440. Trust me, you’ll be happy with your purchase.