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What is the best off-road 4×4?

Crushing cross-country terrain in a well-equipped 4×4 is a sensation everyone should have the opportunity to experience. Getting off the beaten path in an adventure vehicle is a freeing feeling that connects a driver to terra firma in a way rivalled by few aspects of life.

Rolling off the lot in a vehicle that is qualified to rumble deep off the grid is easier than ever. With practically every major brand offering a truck or SUV dressed to destroy the dirt, there is a plethora of shapes and sizes that will satisfy city dwellers to hardened dirtbags. Even those with no off-highway understanding are able to hop headfirst into the four-wheel-drive lifestyle, with the only limit being the size of their wallet. This list includes our top choices of 4×4 off-road vehicles that can be purchased from your local dealership today and ripped down the trail tomorrow.

Creating a definitive list of the ‘best’ off-roaders is something of a fool’s errand (although, as you can see, that hasn’t stopped us from trying). Even if you pin down the basic parameters for comparison – break over angles, wheel travel, wading depth, cost and so on – the problem becomes one of environment.

2019 may be the best year yet for truck fans. The best new pickups and SUVs combine long-travel suspension with luxurious interiors, and some are putting out more than 500 horsepower. Here are our favourite rock-crushers for the new year.

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Bowler Bulldog

If you want the world to know how serious you are about your weekend mud-plugging, what better way to show it than by buying a car that looks a bit like the world’s most iconic off-roader – but that is a highly specialised customer rally raid car underneath? That’s precisely what you get with the Bowler Bulldog; an off-roader built on the niche Derbyshire-based motorsport outfit’s latest’ cross sector’ platform and engineered well enough to convince Land Rover itself to acquire the whole company not-so-long ago.

The Bulldog is built on a bespoke monocoque chassis and uses long-travel suspension adapted from what you’ll find on a Discovery and Range Rover Sport, with heavy-duty springs and dampers there to take real punishment. Both supercharged petrol and diesel engines are available, with an enormous fuel tank delivering the desert-crossing range that many rally raid addicts require in the latter case. Opt for petrol instead – and there’s a hell-raising 5.0-litre V8 with 567bhp, should you want it – and your fuel economy and range drops… well, quite a lot. There’s plenty of room in the flatbed for jerry cans, mind you.

The Bulldog’s performance ranges from hot-hatchback- to sports car-quick depending on engine choice. At the same time, its ride and handling is amazingly precise and controlled on the road, yet also indefatigably rugged and huge fun over ruts, gravel, mud and sand.

Ford Ranger Raptor

Park, for a moment, any sensible considerations you might have, because the Ranger Raptor is a Baja-inspired pickup truck that aims, quite simply, to please. It’s a little larger than the standard Ranger, but the real magic lurks beneath the body, where widely re-engineered axles, uprated springs and Fox motorsport dampers take the place of leaf springs at the front and the old Watt’s linkage previously found at the rear. The setup has been tuned to work best with no additional load and at speed, and ground clearance is up 30%. We’ve previously described this car as a ‘rough-track sports car’.

Weaknesses? You get nothing more than a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel under the bonnet, and at just under £50,000, it’s quite expensive. As a working commercial vehicle, its capacities are limited; but as a method of covering very rough terrain at outrageous speed, it’s almost without equal.

Isuzu D-Max AT35

The ‘AT’ stands for Arctic Trucks – the Icelandic expedition specialists who will modify your off-roader to go almost anywhere on earth, including the North Pole. The Isuzu D-Max is already among the more ruggedly robust and capable pickup trucks, and Arctic Trucks’ dedicated off-road tyres, 125mm increase in ride height and upgraded suspension (with increased travel) unearth its true potential.

Bear in mind, however, that this is very a much a specialised off-roader. It may be cheap to run, but it certainly isn’t cheap to buy, and you pay for the phenomenal ability with ride quality. Note that Arctic Trucks will also turn its attention to the Nissan Navara and Toyota Hilux, both of which are marginally more hospitable in normal driving.

Jeep Wrangler

Jeep doesn’t revitalise the Wrangler very often, but the latest generation is more useable than ever on the road as well as more capable off it. That Jeep has carefully preserved the much-loved design – whose circular headlights, slatted grille and strict geometry are recognisable still from the original Willys MB jeeps first deployed in World War II – is only part of the appeal. The interior is now more spacious and less cheaply- and sparsely finished, which goes hand-in-hand with the improved efficiency of the car’s downsized engines and better road manners (everything is relative, mind).

Of course, the Wrangler is still spectacular off the beaten track, especially in three-door Rubicon trim with its locking differentials, knobbly tyres, specialised axles, underbody bracing, and outstanding approach and departure angle statistics. For expeditions in true wilderness, the Jeep yields to almost nothing.

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Land Rover Defender

After a preamble that lasted more than a decade, Land Rover finally showed off the long-awaited follow-up act to the original ‘Land Rover’ in 2019 and launched the car in showrooms earlier this year. Having switched from a ladder frame construction to a monocoque, and for plenty of reasons otherwise, this new Defender is more of a successor than a direct replacement. Some feared that it wouldn’t be capable of quite the same kind of mud-plugging, rock-hopping, water-fording, slope-scaling and axle-twisting as a result.

The new Defender can do all that and more, however. With approach and departure angles of around 40 degrees and ground clearance of as much as 291mm thanks to its height-adjustable air suspension, this car has all of the right vital statistics. Yet, it’s the style in which it tackles offroad driving, and the way it eases the load on the driver to select just the right transmission mode and keep to just the right line through those ruts, that impresses.

Land Rover offers a couple of four-cylinder diesel engines, and a more powerful four-cylinder petrol, as well as range-topping six-cylinder petrol. The upper-of-two D240 diesel would be our pick, which combines useful torque with respectable fuel economy, drivability and refinement – and needn’t cost as much as some of the other versions of the car.

The car’s 4×4 capabilities are beyond question, and the way in which it sets about its work offroad makes it seem like a car built for people who don’t even like offroading. But offering all that in a car that also rides and handles so well on the road puts the icing on the cake, and makes this car stand head and shoulders above its rivals. ‘The best 4×4 by far’ has been given a whole new lease of life.

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Land Rover Discovery

You might wonder why the fifth-generation Land Rover Discovery doesn’t sit higher up this list, even given the calibre of the cars above. It is, in the grand scheme, terrifically competent off-road but matches that with wonderful road manners for an all-round package that none of the others can quite compete with. Everywhere the Discovery goes, it does so with a calm assurance.

It isn’t, however, as capable as any car on this list when the going gets tough. For a product with at least one eye on luxury, the interior technology needs revitalising, and the powertrains should be more efficient. Hugely likeable, mind.

Mercedes-Benz G-Class

The best off-roaders tend to stick around. Both the Wrangler and the Land Cruiser have been with us for decades, and it’s the same with the G-Wagen (technically now the G-Class, but you’ll forgive us the nostalgia).

This Mercedes – the only one without an official’ end of production’ date – recently received the only truly substantial redesign in its 40-year history. Underneath, you’ll still find a ladder-frame chassis, although the front suspension is now fully independent and the whole setup was part-developed by AMG. The result is car with locking differentials, improved ground clearance and same immense off-road abilities as before, but now also one that handles predictably and, at times, even quite enjoyably on the road too. A move to rack-and-pinion steering has made the biggest difference.

Our pick the is the creamy straight-six diesel in the G350d, although it’s possible to get a full AMG G63 with a twin-turbocharged petrol V8 making almost 600bhp.

Nissan Armada

Although the current-generation Nissan Armada is relatively new in the United States, it’s a bona fide offroading legend in other parts of the world. This generation of the Armada arrived for the 2017 model year, but it’s been on sale elsewhere for much longer as the Nissan Patrol. It’s a model with decades of history and a pedigree equal to that of the Toyota Land Cruiser or Land Rover Range Rover. Thousands of explorers depend on the Patrol every day.

Regardless of what you call it, the Armada is an old school, body-on-frame SUV. It’s not as refined as modern crossovers, like the popular Rogue, but it can also go places that they can only dream of driving to. It’s equipped with four-wheel drive, a low range gear, and a 5.6-litre V8 engine rated at 390 horsepower and 394 pound-feet of torque. Nissan claims this hulking SUV can tow up to 8,500 pounds when it’s properly equipped.

The Armada isn’t just a big brute. Thanks to its enormous footprint, it has seating for up to eight across three rows. Nissan also equipped the Armada with some simple but handy techs features, such as a video rearview mirror and an alert system that reminds the driver if anything (like kids or pets) is left in the rear seats. General Motors was admittedly the first to offer both features, but they make a lot of sense in a big three-seat SUV like the Armada.

The Armada is also available with an 8-inch touchscreen and 13-speaker Bose audio system. An optional rear-seat DVD entertainment system with dual 8-inch monitors, USB, HDMI, and VTR ports, plus wireless headphones can help pacify children and teens on longer trips. Nissan also offers an array of driver-assist features and a 360-degree camera system. It’s everything you’d want from a family SUV, but with added off-road capability.

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Ram 1500 Rebel

Pickups tend to be tall and rugged, but not every model in the segment is capable of serious offroading. Trucks make a good foundation to build an off-road vehicle on, but those who want to exploit their potential fully will need to install the right equipment. Thankfully, adding the right equipment is exactly how Ram created its Rebel model.

The Rebel is based on 1500, the brand’s bread and butter truck (and America’s second best-selling vehicle in 2019). While the Ford F-150 Raptor takes the formula of upgrading a basic truck even further, the Rebel is a more sensible package that more people will be able to get the most out of.

The list of upgrades over the standard 1500 models includes 33-inch Goodyear Wrangler DuraTrac tires and an electronic locking rear differential to aid traction. It also gets a 1-inch suspension lift, which helps improve ground clearance and a skid plate that protects the vital mechanical components. Like other 1500 models, the Rebel is available with air suspension. Still, the standard suspension is a coil spring setup with Bilstein shock absorbers that feature a remote reservoir design intended to keep them cooler, which improves performance.

The Rebel is available with the same powertrains as other Ram 1500 models, including a 3.6-litre V6 teamed with Ram’s eTorque mild-hybrid system, a 5.7-litre Hemi V8, or the EcoDiesel 3.0-liter V6. The ubiquitous Uconnect infotainment system — including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto — is available as well.

Toyota Land Cruiser

Another icon – one that has historically been the workhorse of choice in the Australian Outback, a place where breaking down simply won’t do. This is an old-school off-roader with body-on-frame construction and big numbers in all departments. For towing, wading and low-ratio, grind-it-out driving across the truly inhospitable ground, the Land Cruiser scores very highly, and basic-spec Utility versions, identifiable by their steel wheels, are genuinely affordable.

But while you can choose the 2.8-litre turbo diesel Toyota with air suspension and leather seats, don’t expect it to ride and handle like a monocoque SUV from Audi or Mercedes-Benz. It’s a different beast; less sophisticated on the M40 but in another league in places where you might need a car like this, with a reputation for mechanical dependability so jealously regarded by every one of its competitors.

For some people’s life situations having a specific use, the vehicle is not always an option. If the need to haul passengers or to sleep inside the rig outranks the desire to shred the trail, but the itch to get dirty from time to time still lingers than the Toyota Land Cruiser is a perfect choice. Seating seven full-grown adults, the Land Cruiser is like a bus that can be driven off-road to the most remote locations possible. The Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS) is an intelligent stabiliser adjuster that continually tunes the suspension characteristics as the vehicle drives over rough terrain. Ample power and torque are produced by a 5.7-Liter V8, giving this almost 3-ton machine grace as it lumbers off the beaten path. Robust skid plates protect the front suspension, radiator, fuel tank, and transfer case, making this the most thoroughly clad 4×4 on the list.

Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

It’s no secret that consumers love the Tacoma as the junior pickup from Toyota continues to outsell it’s larger sibling the Tundra almost two-to-one. Toyotas have long been known for their great reliability and amazing ability to hold their value. Still, dirt lovers have long adored the Japanese offering for their awesome off-road abilities. The top tier off-highway ready Tacoma model is the TRD Pro, which sits a head above the other in the line as it is perched steadily on Fox 2.5-inch Coilover shocks and 30.5-inch all-terrain tires. A throaty cat-back exhaust keeps the V6 barking loud while the engine and front suspension skid plates protect from debris on the trail. While on the trail, Toyota has you covered with a slew of proprietary features like Multi-terrain Select, Crawl Control, and Hill Start Assist Control, ensuring even the novice off-roader will make the most of their day in the dirt.

Some of these vehicles are designed to crawl up boulder-strewn slopes where one crimped brake line will bring an abrupt halt to activities. Others are designed to bomb across loose surfaces at heroic speed, and in a manner entirely at odds with the cars whose incredible traction will haul them across impossibly slippery terrain at no more than walking pace.

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