Find me an inexpensive, reliable, good mileage 4wd hiking vehicle
January 22, 2009 2:22 PM   Subscribe

As an avid hiker, I'm looking for a (much) more capable trailhead vehicle than my current 98 Ford Escort. Requirements are inexpensive, good mpg, 4wd (preferably on demand and with 4low), good clearance, reliable and inexpensive to maintain. For reasons I can't fathom, I've been thinking about importing a Suzuki Jimny from Japan and have some questions about that too. I live in Canada (Vancouver).

I use my car almost exclusively as a trailhead vehicle. Almost every weekend from April to November, I will drive 2-4hrs on well-maintained highway followed by 0.5-2hrs on logging roads. These roads range from decent gravel roads thru potholed and washboard-y dirt roads to decommissioned roads plagued by washouts, waterbars, ruts, fords, etc. The road surface can range from hard-packed conglomerate to dust which turns into a sticky gumbo after a rain.

What I need is a true 4wd with clearance and torque. Pure power isn't as necessary as far as I can see. I don't drive fast and can deal with something that isn't going to be able to maintain 70mph up a steep hill. Vast amounts of storage are also not required. I want something that I know I can trust and maintain economically for at least a decade (preferably a few). Manual or automatic doesn't matter (I can learn manual if I have to). And I know nothing about vehicle maintenance so that can't be too specialized and / or expensive. Good mileage is important - I'd rather not go below 25mpg highway and would prefer something comfortably in the 30s. Finally, I will be buying used so let me know if there is a particular model year of a given car I should look at.

Living in Canada, I can import a car from Japan if it is older than 15 years old. This isn't bad because most used cars in Japan have low mileage (it isn't hard to find a car with <60K miles on it) and are in good condition. This would cost me between $9-12K CDN. The Suzuki Jimny appeals to me. Something about it's off-road reputation and small size (I'm a sucker for small). But I can't find out much else about it. Specifically:
1. What type of mileage should I expect? I've seen quotes of 45mpg for a 1990 era 660cc engine but don't know if I can trust that.
2. How reliable are they and can I get parts easily for it in Canada?
3. How much space is behind those rear seats? I usually go hiking by myself or with 1 or 2 others. How many 60 liter packs would fit back there? Would fitting 4 people with packs be out of the question for a short while (bearing in mind that I've fit 7 people with packs and snowshoes in a Jeep Wrangler before)?
4. Are there particular options / models I would need to avoid and why?
5. I'm a slender 6ft tall. Will I fit?
6. Or is this just a bad idea and there are alternatives that are less expensive in the long run and just as capable?
posted by dithered to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
If you "know nothing about vehicle maintenance" then I don't think you should consider importing a 15 year old vehicle from Japan (also, aren't cars right-hand drive in Japan?).

Get yourself a Subaru Outback wagon. 4wd, good ground clearance (based on your description of using it on fire roads), good mileage, reliable, and they are everywhere - fixing should be a snap.
posted by gyusan at 2:39 PM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

A Toyota Matrix has excellent cargo room and backseat clearance, and you'll have no problem sitting in it if you're 6' tall. One of their models comes in 4wd if that's absolutely necessary. You can pick one up used within your budget range. It's like an Outback with a little less cargo room but more legroom for the back seats (I test drove both when looking for something that would work for our family of 3). If you need more cargo space than that, consider getting a roof-mounted cargo trunk. I've fit three people and their 3 50+ liter packs in it, and 4 wouldn't be a problem either.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 2:57 PM on January 22, 2009

Oh, the Pontiac Vibe is the exact same car but built in a different factory, so look around for that as well. I believe our Matrix XRS was actually manufactured in Canada, and I think Vibe is built in Mexico (or California?).
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 2:58 PM on January 22, 2009

Subarus may be out of the running if you insist on 4wd instead of AWD. The Outback has a better suspension than the regular Legacy, but I don't know if can handle the terrain you are describing.

Although it will probably do better than your Escort.
posted by mkb at 3:02 PM on January 22, 2009

Used 4wd Toyota Tacoma 4 cyl (if you can find it), or 6 cyl if you can't.
posted by iamabot at 3:07 PM on January 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

Wait a minute, the Suzuki Jimny is the same as the Samurai right? The Samurais were sold in Canada (according to Wikipedia anyway) so you would only have the same trouble finding parts as with any 15-year-old vehicle. But if you're going that old, why bother importing?
posted by mkb at 3:12 PM on January 22, 2009

Old Subaru. Brat or Loyale. The Brat is called Brumby in Australia. It's like a pick-up truck. Both of these have gen-u-wine 4wd, some with dual-range.

As mkb notes, the Subaru Legacy/Outback has AWD. The manual-shift models have a bomb-proof viscous-coupling drive system. The difference between the Legacy and the Outback is two inches' ground clearance.
posted by jet_silver at 3:17 PM on January 22, 2009

I would suggest the Suzuki Samurai or, even better as you're a 6-footer, the slightly larger Suzuki Sidekick (also sold as the Geo/Chevy Tracker). Newer Subarus are NOT true 4WD (and have a crappy torque curve), although the earlier (pre-1986 or so) models are 4WD with an actual transfer case with low range.

Metafilter's own quonsar is a two-tracking fiend, and he was (and maybe still is, afaik) driving a Geo Tracker, I think.
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 3:31 PM on January 22, 2009

As a long time Toyota 4x4 enthusiast (self-link to personal vehicle site, self-link to forum I run), I'd suggest any older Toyota 4x4. I am personally fond of the 1984-1995 Toyota trucks and 4Runners, which are cheap and virtually indestructible, and with a few tweaks can be made to do all sorts of un-Godly things off-road -- stuff that will make your knuckles white and your knees weak. The newer ones are good as well, but the older ones are classics for a reason, have myriad aftermarket suspension and drivetrain parts available, and are still going strong decades after they were originally built.
posted by mosk at 3:47 PM on January 22, 2009

I'll 3rd Mosk's suggestion. Awesome vehicles. And the 4 cylinders in those have plenty of power and good gas mileage.
posted by atm at 4:37 PM on January 22, 2009

Subarus don't have the clearance you want, and neither do Vibes/Matrices.

4wd, 4-cylinder, 5-speed compact pickup. Toyota (Tacoma or pre-Tacoma pickup, 4-runner or Land Cruiser only--the others are too big), Nissan (Hardbody's better than Frontier, maybe consider an Xterra, even) if you can't find a Toyota. For your needs, I probably wouldn't consider any of the American nameplates.

On preview: What everybody else said, pretty much.
posted by box at 4:40 PM on January 22, 2009

Nthing others: Toyota pickup. Maybe Nissan pickup (I had one for 10 years that worked well). You are asking for things that are pretty much mutually exclusive...if you want ground clearance and real 4wd with a 4wd low option, then you cannot have good gas mileage. It sucks.

Seconding or thirding others who say that a Subaru/Vibe/Matrix won't have the ground clearance that you want (I've bottomed out Subarus in the snow, and thrashed the undercarriage of many a passenger car on dirt roads). It sounds like you want a true 4wd.
posted by fieldtrip at 6:35 PM on January 22, 2009

Best answer: I think the people recommending the Vibe/Matrix didn't read the question very carefully, or maybe don't know what a western logging road looks like after a solid rain. Subarus are ok (about ten times as capable off-road as a Matrix), but won't take you the places an actual high-clearance vehicle with 4-low will.

Personally I'd have trouble justifying the fuss and bother (and perhaps expense) of importing a right hand drive vehicle that might be hard to find parts for, when I could buy any of a dozen trucks locally and buy parts for them in any small town I broke down in. And as someone who rented a Jimmy once overseas, I can assure you that seating is emphatically cramped for tall people -- they are really small vehicles.

The Toyotas with 4-cylinder engines are great (though the 84/85's really are getting kind of long in the tooth, and are usually pretty thoroughly abused when you find them). Pickups or 4Runners are equally good for your purposes, too. Buy by condition, not year.

Jeep Wranglers and Cherokees (not Grand Cherokees -- the regular boxy ones) are rugged and capable, though a bit less reliable than the Toyotas. Ford Rangers are the same as the little Mazda pickups, and while they are a bit less capable and reliable than the Toyotas, they can usually be found for less than half the cost which can make them a better deal. And the Nissan pickups are quite solid and capable, too. I've never owned one, but people get a lot of use out of the Suzukis (rebadged as Geo Trackers, I think) -- the four door models are a lot more comfortable, but all of them are cramped for tall people.

Any of these, again, should be bought by condition first and foremost -- you don't want anything that has been beaten hard and put away wet by drunk 16 year old boys all its life. Avoid anything that has been jacked way up, or has lots of "performance" modifications. Get down on the ground and look underneath, and if the skidplates are beat all to hell take a pass on that car -- there are plenty of others out there that have not had such tough lives.

Whatever you buy, budget for new heavy-lugged tires and the other basic safety equipment for off-road driving. And go out and get stuck a few times close to home, so you can learn the limitations of the vehicle and yourself, and avoid the problem of getting stuck deep in the woods.

But all that said, I'm not sure any of these will get the mileage you are looking for, unless you find an imported diesel-engined truck. Even a Subaru barely gets 30mpg, and pretty much anything with 4-low is lucky to break 25 downhill on a good day. Personally, in your situation, I'd prioritize capability over efficiency (have you ever priced getting towed out of the woods?), but that's a call you'll have to make.
posted by Forktine at 6:53 PM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Check out the Suzuki Sx4, it's the closet to what you want that I've seen. It's surprisingly capable off-road, has better clearance than the Subys and gets better mileage as well. A toyota pickup/ pathfinder or Nissan will also work well.
posted by fshgrl at 8:56 PM on January 22, 2009 imports the Suzuki Jimny. You could just drive to New Westminster to check it out if they have one in stock.
posted by lunaazul at 11:52 PM on January 22, 2009

Forktine's got it:

Real Hi/Lo rugged clearance 4WD = best results of
Realistic Round town 15-20mpg/Highway 20-25. Period.

Weight and gearing will wreck your town MPG. Lack of aerodynamics (clearance?) and gearing for the latter.
posted by lalochezia at 11:39 AM on January 23, 2009

Subaru's AWD wagons are great on wet or snowy roads, and on regular-car-accessable dirt roads. Anything that even hints at "off road," though, they are not up to. They don't have the clearance or the low-range FWD you'd need. Even snow deeper than ~10 inches on a road gives them fits.

Great cars, but they're not for off-roading.

I like Jeep Wranglers and Cherokees (as noted above, not Grand Cherokees). It's difficult to get one of those stuck. But if you want good mileage, forget about it. 12-15 mpg if you're lucky.
posted by rusty at 12:15 PM on January 23, 2009

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