Winter has arrived in Minnesota. I myself was made aware after my half hour commute became a three hour snow blind odyssey last week. This makes it a rather pertinent time to start our new reader poll series where we ask you, the reader, to help us determine what you view as your favorite cars for various topics.
Let’s start with what your favorite cheap 4×4 and AWD vehicles are. While 4 wheel power is not a prerequisite of a Minnesota winter, it often gives us an excuse to buy some sort of awesome 4 wheel drive vehicle we otherwise couldn’t justify. Our rules for this were simple, it has to be 4WD or AWD and has to be under $7,000. That price point was chosen because you aren’t forced to find a zombie of a car but it’s a price that can still be feasibly bought by most people as a daily driver. We will list our staff picks, honorable mentions and then finally the Top 5. In this list we are also including pricing. While this is not exact, this is the expected price for an example in reasonable condition but you can certainly find a deal for less than we’ve listed.
We will start off with some staff picks for what would be a good option, these are cars we personally would choose but might be a bit out of other people’s wheelhouse.
Ryan: 1985-1994 EA82 Subaru GL/Loyale ($200-$6,600)
I chose this car from personal experience with my EA82 Subaru GL-10 Turbo at home. That car is dreadfully unreliable, a simple trip down the road is a question of if you will even arrive or not, all to often resulting in the latter option. That being said, if you get one of the non-turbo models, you have one of the most capable AWD cars around. There are times in the dead of winter where, if my GL-10 is running, it can get through snow that nothing else in my stable can handle. The standard drive mode is FWD but it has a push-button 4WD for low speeds, when an EA82 is in 4WD you can get through anything your tires can grip. With any of the EA82 cars, they will be very slow, making at most 90 HP or 110 HP on a turbo model at a high cost of reliability. However, performance can be had since the car only weighs 2200 lbs and it has engine mounts and an ECU location that fit a more modern EJ series engine without issue.
The EA82 can either be an avant-garde sleeper or a mountain goat that can get anywhere at it’s own leisure. With the rarest variant in concours condition being worth $6,600 on a good day and driving examples being literally given away, it’s great value for money. The major killer of these cars is rust, the bodywork on this car is about as thick as aluminum foil and can rust very quickly. Mechanically, almost every EA engine left in existence has cracking between the valves on the head, in the majority of cases this is no issue but if they’re overheated too much, the cracks can enter coolant galleys and it’s game over for that engine. If maintained though, an EA82 can drive indefinitely and through anything.
Erik: 2003-2010 E83 BMW X3 ($2,500-$7,000+)
For Erik’s pick, the first generation of the BMW X3 is hard to beat. I will admit, at first glance, hearing Erik say a crossover is his winter warrior weapon of choice made me question his mental health, but after some research I see what he is getting at. These cars, to the average person, are just old luxury crossovers and have the danger of being a depreciating maintenance nightmare but there’s more to them than that. The depreciation of this truck is it’s greatest ally, while it’s hard to justify $10,000 for a crossover of any sort, when you’re comparing something like this in price to a mid-2000’s Accord, it looks really good.
Mechanically the E83 X3 is just a lifted up E46 325/330Xi, with how good the E46 was, suddenly, the E83 X3 looks really appealing. Better yet, there was a manual version of the X3 available which is a huge boon to the allure of this truck. When you look even further it actually has a beefier transfer case than the standard E46 and, with that inline-6, it has some decent grunt to it. The creature comforts like heated leather seats and all the fixings you’d expect from BMW really beat out what most other manufacturers offer and it honestly looks really good, especially for a crossover. One of the most overlooked parts of a truck like the X3 is that it has parts availability, while my pick would leave you in your driveway while you search for the world’s last EA82 distributor, these trucks are a dime-a-dozen. This truck is actually a really good idea if you’re looking for something German.
There were a number of interesting picks that I would have loved to have make the cut but unfortunately only got one or two votes. The first honorable mention comes from Ben Hsu at Japanese Nostalgic Car with his vote for the Isuzu Trooper/Acura SLX noting that they’re hovering around $2,000 so you have $5,000 left over for repairs you will indelibly have. Suzuki seems to have had more votes than any other brand other than Subaru but no single chassis got over two votes, cars like the Kizashi and the SX4 are great buys for cheap.
There was a strong argument for the Audi Quattro AWD system and it was in 6th place for total votes. American offerings like the Jeep Cherokee XJ, Chevy Tahoe and Ford Bronco II were mentioned as well. The most interesting car that didn’t make the cut however was the Camry Alltrac, which was made from 1988-1991 and has an interesting story in-of itself that you can read here. Finally, you can’t name the Camry Alltrac without also mentioning the Previa Alltrac, so it is worth name dropping that van too.
Top 5 4×4 Vehicles Under $7,000:
5.) Mitsubishi Montero ($800-$7,000+)
If you looked at almost any Mitsubishi from the 1980’s and 1990’s, you would never imagine how they could have put themselves in the position they’re in today. The first two generations of Montero particularly stand out among Mitsubishi’s products. Known internationally as a Pajero or as the Dodge Raider, the Montero quickly gained a name for itself on par with the Toyota Land Cruiser and the Nissan Patrol during the SUV boom. The mechanical stoutness of the Montero can be seen with it’s rally victories at Paris-Dakar, Australasian Safari and Northern Forest during the 1980s.
When looking for a Montero, the 5-door models are the most common however some digging can source a significantly more aesthetically pleasing 3-door model. At a price point where you can find a just-shy-of-concours model within our range, this truck gives you the ability to go anywhere in 1980s style. The vast majority of Monteros have been beaten back into the earth however, so be diligent looking for any signs of rust or poor maintenance. Some of the most common issues include cracked cylinder heads, head gasket failure and damaged valve seals. As great of a truck as it is, the endangered nature of the Montero is one of the causes it ranked so low on our list.
4.) Jeep Wrangler ($1,500-$7,000+)
Birthed from a need for basic wheeled transportation for the military in the 1930s, what we know as the Jeep Wrangler originally was sold as the CJ which stood for Civilian Jeep. The original designs for the CJ date back to 1944 but it’s first production was July 17, 1945 and it continued under the CJ moniker until Chrysler acquired production rights in 1986 and gave it the new name “Wrangler.” Although it has gained creature comforts and evolved immensely in the last 70+ years, the Wrangler still does offer a very good off road vehicle and you can even get the original CJ-2A design as the Mahindra Roxor ATV today. With the vast quantities on the road today, the Wrangler might be the most attainable single vehicle on this list. A flawless or heavily modified Wrangler can run you north of $20,000 but a drivable example can be found for as little as $1,500.
That being said it can get through most snowy situations with very little trouble but that comes at a cost. The short wheelbase and tall center of gravity of the 2-door Wrangler makes the truck unstable in some situations. When you combine that with amateur drivers, it explains the vast quantities that you see stuck on the side of the road. Another issue in older Wranglers is that they are notoriously drafty with a canvas top that isn’t the best at keeping in heat. With Minnesota winters being colder than they are snowy, this creates a large issue in our climate. If you don’t get over confident and can keep it sealed up, a Wrangler can be a very good option for winter. The biggest killer of these trucks is rust, especially at the leaf spring shackles. Mechanically, the 4.0L L6 is one of the best American engines ever designed and can run indefinitely assuming it has been properly maintained. For transmission, as always aim for the manual option.
3.) RD1 Honda CRV ($1,000-$4,500)
The first generation Honda CRV was Honda’s first in-house designed SUV after they had a handful of rebadged Isuzus previously. Powered by a bored and stroked out Integra B-series engine, the RD1 chassis CRV is extremely reliable in stock form but it also has room for additional performance as well. The main failure point of this engine is cracked cylinder walls due to their thin nature, but this is rare outside of aftermarket turbocharged form. While available in FWD, it is not recommended since a manual AWD version was sold stateside. The Real Time AWD system of the CRV is bulletproof with failures resulting only from extreme neglect.
If you can’t leave well enough alone, there are plenty of aftermarket parts available for the RD1. Not only were there different versions available around the world with unique parts but Honda’s factory tuning division, Mugen, had a catalog for the RD1 including bodykits, exhaust and suspension, among other items. With a B-series engine that was evolved from a Non-VTEC Integra, it is common to see the “CRVtec” swap done with B16 or a B18C cylinder head and ECU. There are over the counter conversion kits available for this swap, which takes out all of the guessing work and creates a sizable bump in power. The main detractor that keeps the RD1 out of second place is the worry of theft. With a sought after B20 engine and extensive parts that have cross-platform fitment, the RD1 can attract thieves like most other 1990’s Hondas. That being said, if you keep comprehensive insurance on the truck, it will get you through nearly anything.
2.) Modern AWD Subaru Platforms ($1,500-$7,000+)
Every Subaru sold in America and made by Fuji Heavy Industries since 1997 has been AWD so it is very hard to exclude them from this list. The WRX is arguably one of the best AWD platforms in history and it’s racing pedigree doesn’t lie. Another positive of the Subaru AWD system is a native 60/40 split, none of that “Active AWD” garbage that goes 100/0 then turns on AWD once you’re already flirting with disaster. You don’t need to look towards the bottom end of Subaru’s performance catalog for a good car in this price range though, nearly every modern Subaru platform will do great in winter. Something as simple as your standard Outback has the potential to be a great car or, if you want something more unique, try something with an H6 like an SVX or an Outback H6. Unfortunately Subaru hasn’t made an manual H6 since the 1980s, so it would require a manual swap for good measure.
When looking for trouble spots, these cars can very easily succumb to rust if not cared for correctly, if possible find one in Colorado or the pacific northwest. Those areas are lousy with FHI products and they don’t salt the roads so it is much easier to find a clean example for pennies on the dollar compared to Minnesota. If you’re mechanically inclined, finding one with a leaking head gasket that is still running could be a chance to save a lot of money if you do the job yourself. Make sure the car has even tire wear as these are fulltime AWD and the transmissions can shred themselves to pieces relatively quickly with mismatch tire sizes and wear. These cars are lego kits, engine swaps and manual swaps are fairly simple and there is an extensive aftermarket for nearly every modern Subaru.
1.) Toyota 4Runner ($2,300-$7,000+)
For our first place pick, choosing anything but this truck would be a crime. The Toyota 4Runner, regardless of what generation you get, has always been an extremely capable off roader. Based off of the Hilux pickup, this truck is endlessly reliable with it’s most common killer being rust. You can also get just about any combination of powertrains you want; manual or automatic, 4 or 6 cylinder, NA or turbo, solid front axle or independent. Diesel variants even existed outside of the United States but procuring one of those would blow us out of the $7,000 budget. The highway driveability of the 4Runner outperforms it’s competitors by leaps and bounds with minimal sacrifice to performance. These reasons firmly put the 4Runner into first place for the best 4×4 under $7,000.
The most sought after 4Runner generation is the original N60 generation. These had a removable fiberglass topper for summer fun and early models had a solid front axle which is sought after by off-roaders. This is the generation built off the Hilux that Top Gear famously tried, and failed, to kill. The second generation is a good pick as well but is slightly more issue prone than the original, not that it’s a low bar by any means. If you do find yourself a second generation as these will be the most common in this price range, watch out for head gasket issues on the 3.0L 3VZ V6 and make sure the rear electric window works otherwise the tailgate won’t work. Regardless of what 4Runner you buy, these come from Toyota’s golden age when they had their finger on the pulse of how to make a good vehicle and it’s hard to go wrong.
If you missed the poll on Facebook and have a vehicle you think would be good for this, feel free to tell us in the comments.