It’s hard to see footage or photos of upgraded off-road 4x4s tearing across streams or sand dunes and not see the appeal in owning one of these versatile and enduring machines. Unfortunately, diving headfirst into the world of 4x4s and off-roading is a daunting prospect, especially to the uninitiated. With so many different styles and models available — both new and used — things can get overwhelming fast. This problem is further exacerbated by the endless number of aftermarket part offerings out there.
So, to help take some of the headache out of hunting for your first off-roader, we’ve compiled this guide to how to buy your first 4×4. In this piece we’ll be exploring the various types of 4x4s, what to look for when shopping, what areas to consider, and where to buy, as well as a few general tips to help ensure you go home with the right ride and not a lemon on its last leg.
Basic Introduction To The 4×4
In a nutshell, a 4×4 — also commonly referred to as a four-wheel drive or four-by-four — is a vehicle with an engine that transmits power to all four wheels at an even rate, enabling the front and rear axles to spin at the same speed. This isn’t to be confused with an AWD vehicle which sees its front wheels spin at a different speed when cornering, considering the outside wheels are moving slower than the inside wheels. Unlike dedicated AWD vehicles, 4WD systems typically have on-demand or selectable four-wheel drive modes which are helped along by a transfer case or multi-clutch pack (in addition to two differentials versus an AWD’s three).
The Right Tool For The Job
When in the market for your first 4×4, the most important question to ask yourself is “what is my intended use?” Different 4×4 models each have their own strengths and weaknesses that make them more or less ideal to particular areas. Figure out if you’re procuring your 4×4 for hardcore off-roading and rock crawling, camping/Overlanding, fire road duties and some light exploring, or whatever else you’ve got planned. Hell, you might just want a daily commuter decked out in rugged off-road style. This question should help you better hone in on the exact make and model that best serves your particular needs. This question should also serve to help answer whether or not your intended use of the truck is going to require any aftermarket modifications.
Do Your Homework
If you’re unsure of exactly how you plan on using your 4×4, a good idea is to check and see what your local region has to offer in the way of off-roading. If you reside within a 45-minute drive of a sea of sand dunes, then it might be wise to invest in a desert-ready vehicle, though if you live somewhere nearby ample boulder deposits, a rock crawler might be a good choice. Determine what kind of 4x4ing you’ll realistically be doing and use that as a jumping-off point.
New Or Used
There are obviously a myriad of both positive and negative factors associated with buying new or purchasing a used classic off-road vehicle. A new vehicle will offer the latest and greatest in reliability, style, and comfort, though clearly costs considerably more than used options. Another perk of shelling out more cash for a new 4×4 is you can build it up exactly as you see fit, adding whatever custom or aftermarket options you want to better suit it to your intended use. This not only results in a bespoke 4×4 but also allows you to take part in the build process itself which is honestly pretty fun.
One massive downside to going the new route is that even the most expensive aftermarket parts add very little value to your car’s overall worth, at least in the eyes of the market. And while that’s bad news for new buyers, this gives the less-deep-pocketed a chance to snag a well-farkled 4×4 for a fraction of what it originally cost to piece together. Don’t get us wrong, you can build your own custom 4×4 starting with a used specimen, though it might require some refurbishment here and there before the build can commence.
Of course, buying used comes with its own potential pitfalls. Unlike a shiny new $50,000 4×4, used specimens are far more prone to suffering from cosmetic or mechanical problems and will almost always require more maintenance than their newly-bought counterparts. However, if you make sure to pay attention to a few specific areas (that we’ll touch on down the line), you can usually buy used with confidence.
Where To Buy
Don’t limit yourself locally. While your local AutoTrader or Craigslist may have a handful of potentially worthwhile finds, you’re far better off keeping your options open and casting a wider net. Check on eBay and Craigslist in other cities and states. Depending on how much you’re spending, a so-called “fly and buy” may be a solid choice, plus it enables you to get to know your new ride on the journey home. Also, when shopping for a 4×4, it sometimes helps to look beyond the regular means of purchasing. While new and used car dealerships and craigslist and the like are indeed quality resources, there are also police and dealer auctions to look into.
Find A Happy Medium: There’s no shame in buying a bit of a beater for your first 4×4, though make sure you don’t go too low. If you buy too tired a truck you’ll end up having to invest far more than it would have cost to just have purchased a half-decent 4×4 from the jump.
Crucial Areas Of Consideration
If you’re unsure as to where to start, here are a few important areas that should be considered before buying a 4×4. Some of these elements will only apply to used examples while others only extend to new vehicles.
Engine Type & Size: As the heart of a 4×4, the engine plays arguably one of, if not the most important roles in your decision-making process. The size and engine configuration will determine how much torque and horsepower an engine produces, as will whether or not it’s naturally aspirated or uses a forced induction system like a super or turbocharger. The number of cylinders is also important to take into account, as more cylinders usually mean more power, though it also means a more complicated and maintenance-intensive mill. Do some basic research about the type of driving you plan on doing and what type of powertrain best suits it. From there, you can make a more informed choice about what’s best for your wants and needs.
Spark Plugs: Spark plugs can also tell you a surprisingly decent amount about the state of a vehicle and how it’s been cared for. You want to see a properly-spaced, clean, (and dry) plug with a lead that’s not falling apart. Any dark coatings or deposits are a bad sign, indicating an improperly balanced fuel-air mixture, or one of several other possibilities.
Compression: One of the easiest ways to check the overall state of an engine is to run a compression test. This will give you more info about everything from the state of the head gaskets to the valve seals to the piston rings. Having a vehicle dyno-tested to compare its current output with its original stock horsepower figure is also a solid way of learning how much life and strength a lump has left.
Exhaust Smoke: Is any smoke coming from the exhaust? (Not including white smoke during a cold-start). If so, what color is it? White smoke typically means coolant is finding its way into the cylinders while black smoke indicates issues with the fueling system and blue smoke is almost always a sign of burning oil.
Leakage: Leaks are another really crucial thing to be on the lookout for, especially after the test ride or while it’s idling. Healthy engines don’t spit oil all over the place, so if you see a puddle collecting beneath the car or a ridiculous amount thrown all over the inside of the engine bay, it’s probably time to look elsewhere.
Transmissions: Transmissions are difficult and expensive to replace, so you want to ensure that the 4×4 you’re considering has a healthy tranny. To determine this you can run through the gears and feel for any jerking or lunging. This includes shifting into low and high-range 4WD modes to make sure everything connects smoothly. A hurting transmission will almost always emit some telltale noises as well.
Brakes & Cornering: Do the brakes feel solid? Do they still have plenty of bite? Do they make any grinding noises or do they cause the vehicle to veer to one side under hard braking? All important areas to check into. The steering wheel shouldn’t move on its own when on a smooth road, or slowly drift to one side if you let go. The steering itself should be consistent and free of vibrations and stiff points.
The Frame: Another area of tremendous importance is the chassis. You want to get down under the car with a decent flashlight and check for any cracks or rust in the frame. Think of cracks and rust like roaches or cancer, if there’s some you see, chances are there’s a lot more you aren’t seeing. And, like cancer, this stuff spreads and can take over a car before you know it.
Tire Wear: Bald tires are a blatant sign of neglect and are usually a decent indication that other elements of the vehicle have probably too been neglected. Uneven tire wear is another area to check for as this could indicate that the wheels aren’t properly aligned.
Suspension: Check the springs, shocks, and bushings on the suspension. If the truck lists in one direction (side-to-side or front-to-back) then it very well may need its suspenders replaced, the same goes for if a vehicle bounces back up more than once after you push down on the vehicle and compress its suspension. You’re also going to want to inspect the steering linkages and sway-bars.
Weight & Vehicle Dimensions: Depending on your needs and intentions, you may want a bigger or smaller vehicle. Factors such as how many passengers you want to accommodate, or if you plan on sleeping inside it (rather than using an off-road camper trailer) will help you figure out which size of the vehicle is right for you. The weight will also play an important role in many performance-related areas. Wheel size is also an area that should be considered.
Style: While this is an area that should hold more weight when considering a sedan and less for when buying a 4×4, but there’s nothing wrong with letting your aesthetic taste play a role in your final decision.
History & Reputation For Build Quality & Reliability: It’s hard to know how reliable a new 4×4 will be right off the lot, especially when its a newer or allurer generation model, though we can make some pretty safe assumptions based on the manufacturer and model’s history. Does it have a reputation for reliability? Have many recalls been issued? Do they have a good reputation for build quality and fit and finish?
Materials Used/Chassis Type: The chassis is the literal backbone of your 4×4, so it’s important to factor this element into the equation. The style of chassis, as well as the material it’s constructed from, are two areas you’ll want to look into.
Resale Value: How long you plan on keeping a vehicle and if you plan on upgrading in the near future will help determine how important this factor is to you. A simple look on a few classified sections should give you a rough sense of what a particular model’s resale value is. One surefire way to make sure you don’t end up too upside-down is to purchase an extremely affordable, sub-$10,000 adventure machine.
Other Accommodations: How important are options like infotainment systems, heated seats, built-in GPS? Figure out what you can and can’t live without and then act accordingly.
Mileage & Range: Depending on the type of driving you’ll be doing, you may want to pay close attention to this area. If you plan on doing some overloading, mileage and the size of your tank are going to be massively important. If the vehicle is going to be used for daily commuting, not so much.
Aftermarket part availability: If you intend to build out your own custom 4×4, you should probably be aware of the aftermarket part availability for the particular year/model/make you’re considering. While there are a lot of universal parts, buying a model with a large number of aftermarket offerings is always preferable.
Clearance: Again, depending on the style of riding you have in mind, you’re going to want to think about ground clearance (and suspension travel), along with how rugged and durable of a vehicle the 4×4 is.
More Gadgets, More Problems: As cool as all the available modern techno-wizardry is, it’s worth considering that the fancier electronic features a 4×4 is bestowed with, the more opportunities there are for gadgets to fail or malfunction, and if/when they do, they aren’t the kind of thing you can fix on the side of the road with a set of basic tools. When investing in a vehicle that you’re going to romp around pretty hard in, it’s sometimes better to keep it simple and as barebones and utilitarian as possible.
Don’t Let The Flash Fool You: As a novice 4×4 enthusiast, it can be easy to show up to see potential buy and immediately begin to focus on all the cool aftermarket bits adorning the vehicle. And while it’s perfectly fine to be excited about buying a pre-outfitted 4×4 that was pieced together on someone else’s dime, you don’t want to lose sight of what’s most important, namely the state of the chassis, engine, transmission, suspension, bodywork, etc.
The Test Drive
Obviously, you want to test drive any prospective 4×4 purchase you’re considering be it a rock crawler or Overlander, however, there are a few key areas you want to be sure to review during said test ride. Listen closely during the test-ride for any unhealthy-sounding noises. Whether or not you’re a trained mechanic, you can probably identify if an engine is making sounds that it shouldn’t. Go hit some speed bumps (at a reasonable pace) to see how the suspension acts and if it goes through its travel smoothly.
After the test ride (assuming the engine has been given time to warm up), let the thing idle for 10-15 minutes as this should reveal any possible overheating problems. If the engine is warm when you arrive to check out the vehicle, that’s a very red flag that will typically indicate that the seller is attempting to cover up some cold-start issues.
Don’t Settle Too Soon: Whether you’re buying your first motorcycle, boat, or 4×4, it’s important to get a decent feel for what you like prior to making a purchase. The only way to do this is to test drive a lot of different models. This will help you figure out the traits you value and which models do and don’t possess said traits. You really can’t know if you haven’t been behind the wheel, despite how much you might love its looks.
Do The Leg Work: Unless you feel like you have a decent grasp on everything happening beneath the hood, there’s nothing wrong with bringing a mechanic to inspect the car (or request the car be brought to a mechanic). The best time a mechanic can tell you a 4×4 is totally shot is before you’ve forked over the cash for it. Getting stuck with a lifted lemon that you purchased “as is” is a less-than-ideal way to kickoff your 4×4 career.
Telltale Signs Of A Good Or Bad Owner: This is another biggie as it will help clue you in on how the 4×4 in question has been treated over the years. Well-organized documentation regarding the service history and upkeep is almost always the mark of a caring owner. On the flip side of the coin, bad owners will exhibit signs such as using duct-tape and zip-ties as permanent fixes, unchanged fluids, abundant amounts of caked-on mud, untreated rust, and mismatched body panels — all of which are major red flags. Unfortunately, people won’t always be straight up with you when it comes to fully disclosing problems when selling used vehicles, but it still never hurts to ask.
Telltale Signs Of Hard Use: Used 4x4s that are thoroughly decked out in armor, lift-kits, auxiliary lighting, roof racks, and whatnot typically point to an owner that has pushed the machine pretty hard. After all, these mods were done for a reason. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the thing is in bad shape, though it’s important to be realistic about the overall state of the vehicle you’re considering purchasing.
Mechanical Medical Records: Ask for service records and receipts. Any well-organized motorsport enthusiast that’s taken good care of their vehicular pride and joys will likely possess ample documentation regarding their vehicle(s)’ maintenance and history.
Use Your Resources: Lucky for you we’re living in the 2020s and access to the internet means you have a world of information at your fingertips. There’re a handful of easy-to-use online resources that allow you to run a vehicle’s VIN and get a complete auto history that will reveal any serious prior damage.
Know What You’re Getting: Ask for a list of the non-stock elements on the 4×4 (aka aftermarket bits and upgraded parts). Inquire what parts have been replaced and if they were replaced with genuine OEM components or cheaper alternatives. Be sure to ask if the vehicle has been sitting for a long period of time. It’s always best to try and learn as much information as possible.
Predetermined Purse Strings
A massively important area to consider before making any purchase is your budget. Even the most modest of off-roading and Overlanding projects can quickly spiral out of control, costing an arm and a leg. It’s always a wise choice to consider your finances and then set a predetermined budget (that you’ll actually stick to). If you end up falling in love with 4x4ing, you can always circle back later for an upgrade, though it’s always advisable to ease into these types of relatively exorbitant hobbies. Lastly, if a deal looks too good to be true, 99% of the time it is.
It might also be best to decide before seeing a 4×4 what you will and what you won’t replace. If a truck needs an all-new suspension, an engine or transmission swap, or a complete new wiring harness, you’re almost certainly opening the door up to a lot of hassle and headache. Wheels and tires are a breeze to change, minor imperfections like dents can be hammered out and repainted, ripped seats can easily be reupholstered, but anything that requires paying for expensive mechanical parts on top of hours of skilled labor to install it is asking for trouble. If you know how to do your own wrenching buying a mechanic special will at the very least be a major time-suck.
Consider All Of The Costs
When budgeting for your first 4×4, you can’t just focus on the cost of the vehicle itself, and instead must consider the whole gambit. Insurance, registration, maintenance, fuel, upgrades and aftermarket parts, and any other gear you might need such as camping equipment or whatever other off-road essentials.
It’s also important to remember that chances are you won’t be recouping anywhere near what you put into a 4×4 build, so make sure you’re comfortable with this as you won’t be getting your money back when it comes time to sell. Even the most souped-up, updated, decked-out used 4×4 examples will only be worth a fraction of what the original owner put into building them, as aftermarket parts retain very little value.
The 12 Best Off-Road 4x4s You Can Drive Off The Lot
Gung-ho about the prospect of acquiring and building out your first 4×4 but aren’t privy to what today’s most popular off-roading platforms are? Well, our guide to the 12 best off-road 4x4s you can drive off the lot is here to help answer any model-related questions you might have so you can hit the dirt like a pro.