Proper off-roaders are hard to find in the age of the Chelsea tractor. And it’s tempting to imagine that few four-wheel drive SUVs tackle anything much tougher than a succession of speed bumps on the daily school run or commute to work. But actually off-roaders, or 4x4s, are bought by thousands of drivers who depend on them to get them over rough ground in all weathers, or tow a horse box, boat, caravan or trailer.
The vast majority of modern, road-focused, so-called 4x4s are hopeless when the going gets rough. But for those drivers who want proper off-roaders, there is a surprising amount of choice. The most important thing to remember here is that cars designed to be good off-road are invariably poor on it. The requirements for coping well with a rough surface – vague steering, a flexible, forgiving ride and high ground clearance don’t make for a good on-road experience. Here’s our pick of the best three to take you up hill and down dale for £5000.
Proper off-roaders: Land Rover Defender – What you’re looking for
These are one of the original 4x4s, arguably the best, and probably the most plentiful. You won’t be short of choice when it comes to Land Rovers so the question is what do you want it for? Assuming it’s for hard-core off-roading, look no further than the Defender.
This direct descendent of the very first Land Rover comes in three basic sizes. The 130 is the biggest and most luxurious (relatively speaking), the 90 the shortest and the 110 in the middle. The numbers represent the space between the wheels (wheelbase) in inches. There’s a huge variety of body shapes but keen off-roaders usually go for the 90 as its compact dimensions mean added agility.
Proper off-roaders: Land Rover Defender – What are they like?
The compromises begin the moment you get behind the wheel. Anyone who’s more than six feet tall is unlikely to be able to get comfortable. The seats have very limited adjustment. The controls are confusing and the handbrake almost impossible to reach. Get underway and you’ll find the steering feels vague, and the car seems to wander around the road alarmingly, while making lots of noise and bouncing over bumps. Fans call it charm and charisma. Where the Defender makes up for these deficiencies is when you go off-road, where it’s pretty much unstoppable.
Proper off-roaders: Land Rover Defender – What you’ll get
You won’t be short of choices when it comes to Defenders. For less than £5000, you’ll be limited to older models, think mid-90s to mid-80s. All the models we found had done more than 100,000 miles so the chances are any model you come across will have been well used and probably had multiple owners. The good news is, to have made it to 20 or even 30 years old, Defenders will likely have survived the poor reliability that blighted so many of them. They may even have been restored or have had reconditioned or entirely new engines fitted.
Proper off-roaders: Toyota Land Cruiser – What you’re looking for
This is a large, comfortable family car that can really handle itself when the road runs out but you need to keep going. It came in three-door and five-door bodystyles, so choose the latter if you need to transport lots of people or stuff, as it could seat up to eight.
The ideal version for this budget was sold between 2003 and 2009. These aren’t cheap and the car has a formidable reputation for capability and reliability so is sought after. This means the mileage will generally be high for £5000. Therefore it’s important to go on condition and service history; a Land Cruiser that’s enjoyed annual servicing and a caring owner should prove seriously enduring.
Proper off-roaders: Toyota Land Cruiser – What are they like?
At 4.85 metres long this is a beast to park at the local supermarket. But the advantage of size is that it’s accommodating for a large family and there’s a lofty driving position that gives a commanding view of the road ahead. It’s much more civilised than the Land Rover Defender: a Rolls-Royce by comparison, in fact. The dashboard is properly laid out, the driving position good, seats comfortable front and back and there’s comparatively little noise on the move. The Land Cruiser uses a 3-litre four-cylinder diesel engine with 161bhp, which gives fair performance and around 29mpg. With a long wheelbase, and top spec versions featuring adjustable air suspension, the Land Cruiser makes a good tow car.
Proper off-roaders: Toyota Land Cruiser – What you’ll get
The best version to seek out is the post 2003 Land Cruiser, which was a lot more comfortable than the model it replaced and brought great improvements in terms of gadgets, gizmos and safety. But these are in short supply. For £5000 we found a 2006 3.0 D-4D with 66,000 miles on it.
Proper off-roaders: Suzuki Jimny – What you’re looking for
Among off-road aficionados, Suzuki has long had a reputation for making great 4x4s. Despite sounding more like a small garden bird than a rugged off-roader, the Jimny can more than cut it in the rough stuff. It’s also got near bullet-proof reliability so you’ll find models for sale that go back to when the Jimny was first launched in 1998. But in a world where every other small off-roader is rather soft, the small Suzuki offers something no other car can.
Proper off-roaders: Suzuki Jimny – What are they like?
Although the Jimny is still made, it really is a car from a bygone era. However, it is well equipped, with parking sensors, iPod connection and sat nav. Also like the other cars here, the Jimny is in its element off-road. It has a separate chassis, low ratio gearbox and high ground clearance to help navigate uneven terrain. But it’s on road where it struggles with vague steering and a bouncy, noisy ride. There’s only one engine, a 1.3-litre, which is adequate around town but struggles on the open road.
Proper off-roaders: Suzuki Jimny – What you’ll get
The Jimny is still made and according to Suzuki has something of a cult following. The result is that there are plenty around for all budgets. For £5000 we found a 2007 57-reg car that had enjoyed two owners but only done 50,000 miles. Bearing in mind these cars are renowned for their off-road ability, it’s sensible to find out what kind of life they’ve led. Ideally you won’t want one that’s regularly been thrashed to within an inch of its life on an off-road course.