7 Unusual Off-Road Options That Aren't Jeeps
Looking to have fun off-road, but don't want to join in with the Jeep crowd? Wanting to drive something 'different' is the primary impulse behind the entire customization component of the automotive hobby, and sometimes starting out with a unique platform already gives you a leg-up over the more common rigs you'll encounter out on the trail.
Still, you don't want to get stuck just for the sake of walking your own path. You need something that will get you home at the end of the weekend, not just raise eyebrows at the trailhead.
Which off-beat off-roader is right for you? Check out our suggestions below.
1. Isuzu VehiCROSS
The Isuzu VehiCROSS was so ahead of its time in styling that looks like someone parked a time machine in a mud pit. First displayed at the Tokyo Auto Show in 1993, Isuzu would raid its parts bin to bring the production model to America for the 1999-2001 model years.
What does that mean for off-roading fans? Despite its Mars Rover vibe, the VehiCROSS relies on tried, tested, and true hardware lifted from the Isuzu Trooper, one of the most ubiquitous rebadged automobiles of all time. This includes its 3.5L, 215hp V6 and much of its four-wheel drive system, a 'Torque-On-Demand' setup that shuttles power to the front axles as needed in normal operation. It did have a beefier suspension setup than the Trooper, making it a fun and rugged off-road option that combines out-there looks with low production (just over 4,000 sold) rarity.
2. Mazda MPV
Wait a minute—off-roading in a minivan? If that's a hard no for you, then you might want to check out of this list right now, because the Mazda MPV is the first of a couple family haulers we're suggesting you tackle the trail with.
Built on a platform derived from the 929 luxury sedan, the first-generation (1989-1991) Mazda MPV was a weird mutt of a vehicle. While it didn't feature sliding side doors like most other vans of its ear, it did offer a V6, a manual transmission and rear-wheel drive, with the option of a locking four-wheel drive system much like you'd find on a truck-based SUV. It wasn't intended to be used anywhere other than on slippery, loose surfaces, with the owner's manual actually warning against its operation on dry pavement.
Another bonus: The MPV actually came with a slight suspension lift in 4x4 form, meaning you can more easily fit off-road tires underneath it.
3. AMC Eagle
When is a station wagon not just a station wagon? When it's the AMC Eagle, a wood-paneled cross-breed that offered not just a four-door wagon model but also a coupe, sedan, a hatchback and later the Sundancer convertible.
It's hard to stress how truly odd the Eagle was when it first went on sale in 1980. Not only were there no other four-wheel drive cars on the market at that time, but AMC went all-in on the outdoorsy look by jacking up the ride height on its Concord/Spirit models and renaming them after the bird of prey. The full-time four-wheel drive system was a licensed Ferguson Formula design similar to what had been used on the Jensen FF in the 1960s and 70s, and allowed for the retention of an independent front suspension.
4. GMC Safari/Chevrolet Astro
The second minivan in our round-up of unusual off-road options is actually a two-for-one. Both the Chevrolet Astro and the GMC Safari were box-like eight-passenger models that provided an available all-wheel drive system starting in 1990. Surprisingly, it was another Ferguson Formula partnership, and was paired with the van's venerable 4.3L optional V6.
The stock all-wheel drive system will only get you so far off the beaten path, but both the Astro and the Safari can be swapped to a full low-range NP233 transfer case from the S10/S15 pickup trucks using nothing more than a floor jack and simple hand tools. Once installed, you've got the go-anywhere capabilities of a true locking four-wheel drive system combined with the versatility of a van you can sleep in when it inevitably breaks down on your next weekend trek.
5. Toyota RAV4
The first-generation Toyota RAV4 was offered as both a four-door and a two-door model, with the latter adding the extra bonus of an available removable top.
Sound like any other off-road 'utes you might have seen scrambling through your local mud pit? While the RAV4's all-wheel drive system and suspension aren't nearly at the level of similar-sized vehicles like the Suzuki Sidekick, its short wheelbase makes it nimble on the trail, and upgrades such as a lift, taller tires and a skid plate are all out there for the enterprising explorer who wants to drive something different.
6. Subaru Outback
It's hard not to see a lot of the AMC Eagle in the Subaru Outback. Brought to market in the 1990s in a bid to expand the Japanese brand's market to include more than just AWD-seeking northeasters, the Outback perfectly timed the rising SUV craze and quickly became a best-seller.
It also happens to be a fairly capable off-road chariot. Depending on whether it is sporting a manual or an automatic transmission, the Outback's all-wheel drive system either locks power distribution at 50:50 front and rear, or more actively manages it in the moment to seek out the best possible traction. A set of taller springs, decent tires and perhaps the XT edition's turbocharged engine, and you're good to go for anything that doesn't involve dedicated rock-crawling. Consider, too, the Subaru Forester, which shares much of its platform with the Outback wagon.
7. Toyota Tercel 4WD Wagon
If you're not afraid of fragility, or intimidated by the task of trying to find parts for a mid-80s Japanese car that very few people actually bought, then consider the Toyota Tercel 4WD Wagon.
Although slower than molasses with their 62hp four-cylinder engines, the little wagons are surprisingly tough, and their on-demand 4x4 system is particularly adept at parsing treacherous terrain. With a small but dedicated underground of owners sharing information on homemade skid plates and which lift kits and tires fit best under the wagon body, the Tercel 4WD is a very unique ticket to get you away from it all.