Are you a tough mudder? I'm not talking about that messy fitness craze, I'm talking about off-roading. You'd prefer your car to do more of the hard work in the mud than you do, and the trails you hit are no place for one of those "soft-roading" all-wheel-drive crossovers. Maybe you have that unplowed road to your winterized cabin, or no road whatsoever to a favourite fishing spot. Whatever it is, it's only accessible with a capable, rugged four-wheel-drive vehicle.
For whatever you do, you're going to need room for the coolers and fishing tackle – not to mention the kids' strollers and the dog. And you might even need a little grunt for a snowmobile or boat trailer, yet the truck can't be so big that it doesn't fit between the trees – so let's look at some rugged, mid-sized SUVs with lockable differentials and decent power and tow ratings. Of course, you want a bit of extra gas money for that boat, so we'll keep the prices at less than $12,000.
What better nameplate for off-roading can you find than Jeep? The Grand Cherokee is legendary for its ruggedness off the pavement, and there are plenty available anywhere from 2005 – a redesign year – to 2008 models in this range. That Grand Cherokee offered a new level of luxury and refinement for the car along with a standard 3.7-litre V-6 and an optional 4.7-litre V-8, which gave the SUV a tow rating of 6,500 pounds. Three levels of four-wheel drive were available, with the top Quadra-Drive II offering high and low range and locking diffs, so you'll get in and out of almost anywhere. But this Grand Cherokee has been known to have problems with interior equipment and the transmission, and it has recalls concerning an engine that will turn itself off and a transfer case that sometimes won't work.
The Nissan Pathfinder went through a slab-sided, boxy redesign in 2005, which you can enjoy up to around 2007 in our price range. Again, it's a capable performer both on the road and off, and it adds a third row of seating – though, really, it's only suitable for small, contortionist children. It is, however, one of the roomiest SUVs in its class. Power comes from a big 4.0-litre V-6 that delivers decent fuel economy (for its size) and a tow rating of 6,000 pounds. Only a few small recalls for this model, including a replacement for the infotainment screen because the clock resets every 45 days. How annoying.
If you want to have it all – dependability, on-road comportment and off-road capability – then look at the Toyota 4Runner. You can find it in the same year range as the others here, and it comes with that legendary Toyota reliability – it's labelled a "good bet" by Consumer Reports. It comes standard with a 4.0-litre V-6 but find the optional 4.7-litre, 270-horsepower V-8 and you're good to pull 7,000 pounds. Despite riding on a ladder frame and having a solid rear axle, highway driving is car-like and comfortable, yet it can still tackle just about any terrain. It also came with an available third-row but, again, one that's only useful in a pinch. The only major recall regarding these model years was concerning – you guessed it – a stuck accelerator pedal.
Ooooh, look what you can afford here: a Land Rover Discovery II. How about that one? It depends, if you want to get back from your fishing hole or not. While Land Rovers have the capability to ford through rivers and over rocks, their dependability is questionable, especially from this era. Wonky electrics and general shoddy workmanship means there's a good chance it will let you down at the worst possible moment.
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