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"Dad," the e-mail read, "what about this one?" Our third "daughter" - not by blood, but by association - was asking. Having graduated from university and working on a post-graduate degree in archaeology, she is in need of a vehicle capable of getting her to work in what are frequently remote locations. She is a budding expert in military history, but a true novice in the field of mechanics and automobiles. The photo and description accompanying that e-mail showed a well-worn Jeep CJ, equipped with a jacked-up suspension, monster tires, big winch, roll cage and plenty of other obvious signs it had been used for some pretty serious off-road activity. She had learned of the CJ through a fellow worker.

"Not that one," I answered.

Like a sports car modified for even greater-performance, a modified off-road vehicle has the potential to be a major drain on the pocketbook.

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While there is a chance the changes have been done professionally and recently, the odds are that they were installed by an amateur, using aftermarket components of questionable quality.

Add to that the likelihood that they were installed to replace pieces that were broken due to heavy use or abuse and the outlook is even more troubling.

It certainly is possible that the alterations were done recently by a qualified technician, using quality or approved parts and the vehicle has not been taken off-road since. But that would not be enough to convince me the vehicle had not seen rugged use in an earlier period.

Such use strains every part of a vehicle - whether on the track or off-road. Everything from the transmission and brakes to the welds holding critical components together has been stressed.

In this case, the photos indicated the alterations had been well done and the description was open in that the Jeep was used for and capable of extreme off road use.

But, because of minimal or no mechanical knowledge or ability, it would have been a poor choice for this young lady.

Vehicles of this nature are best judged by those with similar tastes and abilities, most often purchased by friends or members of the same club or group who are familiar with it.

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Recently, I ran into a man who owns the heavily modified Datsun 510 I used in competition 25 years ago. He knew every one of the six owners it had after me. And each of them knew the previous owner.

My recommendation? Look for a compact SUV with all-wheel-drive, preferably one with a two-speed transfer case or ability to lock the system into four-wheel-drive. Buy it from a dealer, and get some sort of original or factory-backed extended warranty.

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