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Open Air Off-Roaders: Which $35,000 4x4 Rig is Right for You?

There is something distinctly American about the open air 4x4 experience. Call it a spin-off of manifest destiny, or purely a result of our abundance of wilderness, the idea of adventuring off-road seemingly calls to every generation. Whether it is the overland rigs of the expansive western states, the mud-boggers of the southeast, or the beach-running Euros of the northeast, the rig of choice is as seemingly diverse as the definition of barbecue. 

Jeep CJ7 with Trail Grapplers

In the early 2010’s, automotive enthusiasts seemingly turned a corner, however, and adventurism seemed to go from a niche hobby to a nearly ubiquitous lifestyle among millennials and gen-x’ers. The idea that mainstream on-road brands would be pitching off-road packages for crossovers was unthinkable 10-15 years ago. Furthermore, as traditional off-roaders simply aged up to their peak earning years, former import fans grew out of their Civics and Celicas and turned to both classic and modern off-road Toyotas and Nissans that could hold the whole family, and still be modified to their heart’s content. Prices have responded, and classics that were once throwaways are now bringing significant money.

Toyota FJ40

Surprisingly, as cars and trucks have become increasingly automated and comfortable, there still exist options that follow the classic recipe. The question for many off-road enthusiasts, therefore, is whether their hard-earned money is better spent on the aesthetics and experience offered by the vintage models, or the reliability and modern amenities offered by something new. Considering a modest budget of $35,000, what are the options? 

Jeep CJ7

The CJ-7 model, released in 1976, was an attempt to “modernize” the historic platform, giving passengers more space, as well as allowing for an automatic transmission with the additional space due to the upsizing of the chassis. These changes not only made Jeeps more accessible to a wider variety of people, but laid the groundwork for the brand’s commitment to function over form, even as buyers demanded more and more livability out of the 4x4.

Jeep CJ7

The CJ-7 has remained a popular choice for many off-roaders, especially for rock climbing and mud-racing thanks to the lightweight body and nearly infinite aftermarket. Quite literally, if someone has thought of a way to modify a CJ7, it has most certainly been done, and done again. Even for mild off-roading, the CJ7 offers reliability, easy upkeep, and an interior that, although certainly retro, is a step above the military inspired offerings of the brand. 

Jeep CJ7 Rear Photo

Perhaps because of the sheer amount of CJ7s produced during the model’s nearly 10 year run, the prices of well maintained or mildly restored examples has remained somewhat lower than contemporary competitors (especially the first generation Bronco). Looking at auction sites, CJ7s in the $30-35K price range are either low mile original examples or finished projects with upgraded powertrains. While a CJ7 won’t match the on-road manners of a modern 4x4, there’s no reason to think a model in this price range wouldn’t be a solid daily driver for an enthusiast that knew what they were getting into.

Jeep CJ7 front detail

Toyota FJ40

Considering the pantheon of pre-modern off-roaders, the FJ40, before recent times, was a bit of an underdog. Originally released in 1960, the FJ40 was the third iteration of Toyota’s Land Cruiser series. Although it still maintained much of its military inspiration, the FJ40 eventually would receive more powerful engines, low range gearing, power steering, air conditioning and disc brakes. Sales ended in the US in 1983, but production lasted until 2001 in the Brazilian market. 

Toyota FJ40

Before the modern resurgence, the FJ40 in America was just another Toyota to most off-road enthusiasts. It was not uncommon to see models with engine swaps from modest donors when the Toyota engines gave out, as the idea of preservation wasn’t really on the mind of most owners. The FJ’s were either tools or play things, and because of that, the renewed appreciation for the model has been met with relatively higher prices. 

Toyota FJ40 Rear Shot

Similar to the CJ7, FJ40s in the low-$30k range are either well preserved moderate mileage examples, or on-trend mild restorations. The FJ40 community seems to value authenticity or OEM styling more than the Jeep community, so finding a decent model with out-of-era modifications actually presents a decent opportunity for savings. Companies like Icon and The FJ Company have set the bar for FJ40s extremely high. Imported late models generally will fall outside of this budget, but do offer more modern amenities than US models sold in the 60s and 70s. 

Toyota FJ40

Jeep Wrangler JL

 Jeep’s JL Wrangler needs no introduction on this site, and is by all means the standard (and for a long time only) open-air off-roader for the American market. The fourth iteration of the Wrangler, the model that falls into this budget is the two-door Sport. The base model is powered by a turbo 2.0L that makes 270hp and routes power through an 8 speed automatic transmission. A six speed manual is available, but requires upgrading to the V6. 

Jeep Wrangler Offroad

While a new Wrangler would be an upgrade in most regards to technology, the Sport model still includes manual windows, cloth seats, and seventeen-inch steel wheels. For an off-road enthusiast, none of those things are a hindrance, and for some, may actually be a selling point. 

Jeep Wrangler JL Off-road

For under $35,000, the chance to enter into the Wrangler ecosphere with a full factory warranty should be a tempting proposition. The platform is inarguably the standard as far as modern open air 4x4s, and the options for improvement are only as limited as one’s wallet and time. For a modern vehicle, the JL Wrangler is still remarkably transformable, with removable doors and a windshield that can be easily lowered. 

Jeep Wrangler JL jumping  

Ford Bronco

Whereas the Wrangler has been the only new option for open air wheeling for years and years, Ford finally decided to bring some competition with their new Bronco. Available in two or four door configurations, with either a turbo 4 or 6 cylinder powerplant, this classic revival has already made huge waves in the scene. For $35,000, the only hypothetical option would be the base model two door with the 4 cylinder. Interestingly, this combo allows for a 7 speed manual transmission, a huge bonus for off-road enthusiasts. 

2021 Ford Bronco

Aftermarket support is currently more limited than the Wrangler, but that is barely worth mentioning considering the vast difference in time on the market. Given that many of those that ordered the Bronco at announcement are just now taking delivery, the community is at the beginning stages of what will surely be a massive market for customization. 

Ford Bronco RTR

One caveat that needs to be addressed for this current market is the availability of new vehicles, and whether they’d even be available at MSRP. At the time of writing, the supply chain for all new vehicles is disrupted, with new models largely absent from showrooms and used models being sold for unheard prices. And that’s hardly taking into account the huge uptick in 4x4 popularity. Even though the Wrangler and Bronco both start under $35,000, the chances of finding one at that price currently is slim to none. With patience, however, the market will correct. 

  Ford Bronco 2 door

Obviously, there’s a huge spread of off-road capable vehicles between the ‘70’s classics and the modern offerings, but the opportunities for an affordable open-air experience is shrinking. Obviously any Jeep Wrangler is a contender in the space, and there are retro Japanese offerings that occupy that goofy-adjacent space that may be off-putting to more conservative off-road enthusiasts. The Isuzu Amigo, Chevrolet Tracker, and Suzuki Samurai are all out there, and despite their less than macho reputations, they certainly aren’t getting cheaper as Radwood-types begin to scoop them up. 

Nitto Trail Grappler on Jeep CJ7

It can be said that now is the worst time to buy a car, but with no end in sight to supply chain issues, a vintage market that seems to be growing exponentially every year, and no immediate competitors in sight, there may not be another chance to affordably purchase many of these models. Vintage or modern, take your pick, but you might not want to wait too long. 

Jeep JL Wrangler Flexing

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