What car should I buy for poorly maintained roads?
June 20, 2008 10:45 PM   Subscribe

Not driving for work, only for fun. Have been hitting a lot of poorly maintained roads... which car to buy?

I moved to Washington State (Seattle actually) 6 months ago, and my wife is finally able to move out here as well (house finally is selling, long story).

We used to both drive cars for 2-3 hours each day for a commute, but now we're either walking or taking public transportation to work.

I'm interested in hiking, and have taken my wife's old car (A VW Beetle, I get lots of strange looks) down many a dirt track, bumpy road, snow covered hill, etc, trying to find a trailhead.

For only driving on weekends and to trailheads, what kind of car would you get?

1. Able to take large rocks / bumps without a problem.
2. Should cost less than $5-8k used.
3. Should be somewhat reliable.
4. We won't have kids, so 2 seats are fine.
5. Should be able to handle moderate amounts of snow.

The obvious option is a Jeep Wrangler. I've also heard a few people suggest a Honda Element. Any other suggestions?

The main concern I have with Jeep Wrangler's is that I've heard they don't have a great reliability record? Anyone with a Jeep want to comment?

The main concern I have with an Element is it's too new to have many cheap used ones available. Plus I don't know much about its off-road capacity, though a few message boards have had some good comments.

I'd like a car with better mpg than a Jeep, but I figure I won't be driving enough to have it make a huge difference. I'm hoping the recent gas price hike might make used 4x4 vehicles cheaper :)
posted by ceberon to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total)
You'll probably get a lot of used Subaru recommendations, including one from me. Subaru outbacks/impreza's have decent ground clearance, can be outfitted with a guard for the rear diff and have decent 4wd performance.

The Jeep is going to be far more capable and a used 4/6cyl jeep more economical than the Subaru.
posted by iamabot at 11:02 PM on June 20, 2008

You could also look into light pickup trucks. A friend of mine has an old (80s) mazda B-series with a 4wd mode that is still running strong. Plus, having a pickup around is always handy.
posted by devilsbrigade at 11:22 PM on June 20, 2008

Response by poster: I completely forgot about Subaru's, there are an awful lot of them here in the Pacific Northwest. I imagine I can find a used one pretty easily.

The pickup is another interesting idea. We're living in an apartment so I'm not sure I'd need to haul anything around, but I imagine it could be useful in some cases.
posted by ceberon at 11:26 PM on June 20, 2008

We live across the Sound from you on the Kitsap Peninsula, and both my husband and I own Subarus for just that reason. If you get a wagon or hatchback type, you can stuff tons of things in them. And, if you pay just a little more and get a decent late model one off a four year lease, you will have a car that will last you for many years to come.

As an anecdote: we just moved out here from Philly, and drove ourselves across the country. We got caught in a terrible blizzard in Eastern Oregon on a smaller mountain there (in June!!!) and ended up going through at least half a foot of snow. His Subaru Impreza wagon did an amazing job plowing through the terribleness. He also takes it off roading whenever he can.
posted by nursegracer at 11:32 PM on June 20, 2008

Oh, and the Jeep Wrangler that I owned was horrible in the snow. It was 4 wheel drive, but we had to use our 2 wheel drive Suburban to pull it out quite often. And ABS is key!
posted by nursegracer at 11:34 PM on June 20, 2008

Love my 2001 Subaru Outback. Gets me everywhere in the snow and mud. 212,000 miles and counting -- no major hassles yet. I think you can find 'em cheap, especially with a few miles on 'em. It's great for most anything anybody might call a "road," and has never failed to get me to a trailhead. Anything with a defined trail, even heavily-rutted single track, and you should be fine. And in snow -- well up here in NE pretty much whenever there's a serious blizzard or ice storm it seems like it's just we Subarus and the plows out there through the worst of it. The majority of what ends up in the ditches or medians in those conditions seems to be yahoos in SUVs.

If you need to go off-road, though, that is, places with seriously big rocks or serious serious ruts -- the places the 4x4ers with the Mickey Thompsons dwell -- you will need a bigger ride. You will not get the clearance from an Outback thing that you'll get from a truck or a Wrangler, and the approach and departure angles are very shallow -- that is, the front and rear bumper hang out pretty far past the wheels -- so exceptionally-sharp transitions (uphills and drop-ins) present a problem. And there are a couple of spots in the exhaust system, specifically where the headers meet, that seem kinda vulnerable. Don't know if you can easily skidplate that -- I think a lot would depend on how hot that point gets. There are manufacturer and aftermarket skidplates for other parts of the car, though. And they even make lift kits for some Subies, though I'm not sure about this model.

Having cautioned the hell out of you, though, the only places I've been where it seemed my car wouldn't be up to the task are some of the Jeep roads in the Mojave Desert and a handful of really really really old/abandoned/completely destroyed trails up here in the Northeast, or long patches stretches of mud deeper than the hubs. I wouldn't do lumber skids with it, but BLM fire and forest roads have yet to present a problem.
posted by Opposite George at 12:07 AM on June 21, 2008

My personal preference is on demand 4WD over AWD for the uses you describe. Ideally this would be a front WD vehicle the rest of the time but they are few and far between. IMHO, the old Subaru Legacy or Toyota Celica wagons that were front WD with on demand 4WD (but you didn't have to lock the hubs) were the perfect car. I wish they still made them because I would buy one in a heartbeat. A Suzuki samurai is actually a fantastic off-roader and holds tons more stuff than you'd think. Not a great commute car but a better alternative to a Jeep for your uses imho.

For daily driving in snow and mud AWD is better but in your case that may not justify the getting-stuck or bottoming-out situations. If you decide you want the AWD utility and don't mind giving up true off-road capability the Subaru wagons are a good compromise as long as you don't get one of the ones with a head gasket problem. There are tons of websites on this issue so research should be easy. The other downside is to expect 25mpg tops.

I've owned or driven all the cars above as well as a few VWs. I keep coming back to the VWs because I get so bored driving the wagons. YMMV.
posted by fshgrl at 12:08 AM on June 21, 2008

Toyota trucks are invincible.
posted by Uncle Ira at 1:34 AM on June 21, 2008

I've used a Jeep Wrangler in the Colorado rockies for almost ten years now, and it still acts like brand new, it handles the conditions (rocks, snow, etc) like it was made for them (which it was) and it's the very definition of "fun to drive."

I can't comment on the Subaru, but if you can find a used Wrangler in your price range, I can't see why you wouldn't get it.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:04 AM on June 21, 2008

If you need to go down forest service roads, get to trail heads, and make it through the occasional snowy mountain pass, you want a Subaru or older Rav4. Better AWD system than an Element, decent ground clearance, very safe, pretty good mpg.

If you are talking about something more extreme, or you will be doing a lot of driving on back roads on the east side of the mountains (where you can end up in extremely remote areas, and where flat tires are more common), you want an off-road oriented light truck or SUV. There are lots of trucks and SUV's sold, but very few that have a substantive off road ability (most are on-road only, with big tires and high bumpers for looks only). The main choices would be a Nissan Xterra, Toyota 4Runner or Tacoma pickup, Jeep Cherokee (not Grand Cherokee -- the old boxy regular Cherokee) or if you want to look newer the Liberty is ok, Isuzu Troopers were considered ok (I've only driven the older design, not the newer smoother body shape), and the Nissan and Mazda pickups are ok though not as good as the Toyotas offroad. The Wrangler is a good option -- average reliability is poor, but many people (like myself) have used them hard and not had any problems. The short wheelbase makes it a really terrible vehicle in the snow, though, and if you get a soft-top one you won't be able to leave anything in the vehicle at a trail head. And they hold their value really well, so the same money will usually get you an Xterra or Tacoma in better shape. If you were buying new or almost new, the Toyota FJCruiser is a superb option, but not yet available in your price range.

If you were lucky enough to find one cheap enough, a Toyota Landcruiser is a nice truck, but old used ones go for too much money and usually need work, and newer ones aren't cheap though sometimes you can find someone selling one for less than it is worth. A LandRover Discovery would be a great option, except that they are astoundingly unreliable. Avoid the really rare and old vehicles (like 1960s LandRovers, old military vehicles, etc) because they will need lots of work and sometimes have difficult parts availability.

Basically, the default for getting to difficult trailheads in the northwest is a Subaru (or similar small suv-ish car, like an older Rav4 or Geo Tracker or the equivalent); if you need to do serious offroad driving the default is a Toyota or Jeep. That doesn't mean that there aren't other options (as I listed above, and there are some others, too), just that these vehicles perform really well in the local conditions, have good parts availability, and give really good value for money.

Whatever you buy, carry snow chains (even in the summer -- they help with mud holes, too), buy new tires for more traction and to avoid flats, get a good tow strap and other gear for getting pulled out (this company has a really good selection and decent pricing), and if you are going deep into the back country, especially on the east side, learn how to drive in difficult conditions, how to self-extract, and so on. The most important thing, and the hardest to learn, is when to turn around -- you ego will say "keep driving! don't be a wuss!" but getting stuck far from home can be difficult and expensive at best and dangerous at worst.
posted by Forktine at 7:11 AM on June 21, 2008

Spend $500 on a beater Festiva and put a lift kit on it.

No, srsly.

The suspensions are made in Brazil, designed for rugged unpaved roads. They get great gas mileage. They don't go very fast, and they're woefully underpowered, but they're tough as nails, easy to fix, and cheap cheap cheap.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:54 AM on June 21, 2008

4-cylinder 4x4 Toyota or Nissan pickup.
posted by box at 9:44 AM on June 21, 2008

I recently purchased a 2001 Nissan Frontier with low mileage, offroad package, and 4wd for $8500. It satisfies all your requirements and your could probably get one cheaper with a few less options. mefi mail me if you want pictures
posted by DJWeezy at 4:42 PM on June 22, 2008

BitterOldPunk's comment reminded me, while in Siem Riep, Cambodia (Angkor Wat area), everyone seems to drive a jacked-up Toyota Camry for the dirt roads there.

This would be a luxury version of BOP's recommendation.
posted by altcountryman at 1:53 PM on June 23, 2008

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