I’m Steve, recovering former Vanagon owner. For the better part of a decade, I owned a 1990 Volkswagen Westfalia Syncro Vanagon camper. Somewhere in there, we conducted an AJ reader poll and asked what you guys thought was the ultimate adventure vehicle. The Syncro camper—VW’s four-wheel-drive mini RV—came out on top, which I admit was pretty satisfying. Of course, most of the people who voted for the Syncro have never owned one, and even then I knew in my heart of hearts that the ultimate adventure vehicle would never be one that was so unreliable that every trip into the wilds was an expedition of doubt and anxiety. Eventually, I gave up on Vanzilla and sold it. (You can read my feature on this, The Economics of Vanlife, in AJ08.)
That left me with a conundrum: What the heck to drive? Van life is a taste that you can never really get out of your mouth, and the ability to go deep on four wheels has been a top priority for most of my adultish life. Even though my decision to sell the van was unemotional and without regret, I knew that whatever came next would have to stoke both my practical mind and my ever-hungry heart. A Camry wasn’t going to cut it.
This, then, was how I proceeded.
I knew from the jump that Vanzilla’s successor would have to meet specific criteria:
It had to be reliable, and I don’t mean reliable by Vanagon standards—I mean it had to have above average reliability compared to modern cars.
It had to have four-wheel-drive. Rock crawling isn’t my thing, but it would need to be able to handle ledges, ruts, sand, and the like. All wheel wasn’t going to be enough. And ground clearance had to be good. Approach and exit angles negotiable.
There had to be enough room to sleep inside full stretched out.
I had to love its vehicular aura—the way it looked. My wife and I have a rule: Whatever you buy, you have to love it. We learned that lesson through clothes, having bought pieces that were “okay” but that we then never really wore. Now we apply to rule to everything, including and especially items that cost thousands of dollars.
It would be my daily driver.
It would be used. My oldest kid was about to start college and I wasn’t willing to make a secondary major financial leap.
Whether new or used, there should be a community of owners. I loved being a part of the
Vanagon community and found the Vanagon forums a source of information and inspiration.
There should be a strong parts aftermarket for customizing, modding, and making it your own.
Narrowing It Down
My criteria filter the world of vehicles pretty quickly, leaving mostly pickup trucks and SUVs, and I’ve learned over the years that I’m an SUV guy. Access to everything in the rig without getting outside is important to me. Love pickups, especially old Fords, and Tacomas are kinda awesome, but I know what I know about myself.
So, then, SUVs.
Jeeps…I like the aesthetic, don’t love it, and know too much about their unreliability to trust one. Also, I once owned a CJ5 and the engine caught fire one night on the road to Stowe in 15-degree weather. I got the fire out, but the engine was done and so was my time with Jeeps.
Nissans…had two Pathfinders. They’re okay. The new ones are just giant station wagons. The Xterras are affordable and likable, but a little small for my needs.
Land Rovers…well, now, this is where it gets more interesting. Love the aesthetic of old school Range Rovers. Love the Discos. It goes without saying that I love the Defenders (most people with a pulse do). Capability is fantastic. Aesthetic…boom. Trail cred, yes. Aftermarket, yes. Community, yes. Heritage, yes. Reliability, um…erm…emphatically not.
Mercedes G-Wagens…let’s not talk about the cost yet. These are amazing vehicles, with off-road capabilities as legit as their luxury appointment. Their silhouette is butch but elegant. If you gave me one, I’d drive it. But there’s the extremely high d-bag factor—douche wagens, as so many people call them—and the extremely high cost. Used with reasonable mileage we’re talking $50K. My friend Scott Brady, owner of Overland Journal, has one and it’s amazing. But he’s badass and can pull it off and I’m not and I couldn’t.
You see where this is going, right? All paths pretty much lead to Toyota. Reliability alone leads me to Toyota. Which brought me to: 4Runner, Land Cruiser, FJ Cruiser?
First, the FJ. People love them or hate them. I love them, sorta, but am offended by the exterior size to interior size ratio. The FJs are pretty big trucks with ridiculously little usable space inside. Fun to drive, will go anywhere, but are expensive for what they are. Like the G-Wagen, if you’re giving me one, I’ll take it, but otherwise, nyet.
Second, Land Cruiser. What is there to say? One of the most capable off-road vehicles of all time. A gorgeous truck no matter which generation we’re considering. Drives great, tons of space. You can aim for Ushuaia and never look back. You can also pick up the Lexus version knowing that it’s 1) super luxe and 2) probably never been in the dirt.
But: cost. When I was shopping, mid-2000 models with 150,000 miles were going for $20K and up. There’s also the size factor, as they’re not as maneuverable, and the MPG, which in the real world is in the low double digits.
So, no Land Cruiser. That leaves just the 4Runner, and, if you’re anything like me, a somewhat obsessive fan of off-road driving and the vehicles that take you there, the 4Runner would likely be at the top of the list from the very beginning. Stock, it sports incredible off-road chops. It’s a Toyota and will run forever. There are bazillions on the road. Aftermarket, oi—where do you start?
For me, though, the question was which generation? The first and second were too old. The fourth, while still capable, doesn’t stir my heart—I like them, but something about their lines feels, I dunno…soft, I guess.
That leave the current generation, the fifth, and the third. New 4Runners are absurdly capable. If I’m buying a new truck, this is the one. The “angry” grill and aggressive edges absolutely do not get my heart racing (why does everything have to look like a Transformer now?), but if you want to roll off the lot and drive around the world in comfort and confidence, few match the 2018 4Runner. The TRD Pro is finely appointed with factory off-road specs, not to mention one custom paint scheme every year, and there’s something easy about buying it completely and spending your time having adventures instead of working on your truck.
OTTH, TRD Pros cost about $50,000, even used. A more affordable option, if you want to do the work, is buy a stock Trail edition and fine tune it yourself. That may be where I end up next, but it wasn’t this time around.
Thus, we come to the third generation. This is the workhorse of the 4Runner bloodline. Millions are on the road. A friend who works with Toyota told me their engineers think this is the best built truck they’ve ever made. Properly maintained, the 5VZ-FE V6 engine will easily plug 200,000 miles, and 300,000 is common. There are some issues, for sure. The dreaded “pink milkshake” occurs when corrosion in the radiator lets the engine and transmission coolants mix, ruining the tranny. But that’s atypical and easily addressed with maintenance. The lower ball joints can fail, but again, atypical and easily fixed.
The list of plusses is far longer:
Gorgeous (it’s embarrassing how long I can stand at look admiringly at a 3rd gen)
Once I made my choice, it took my three to four months of Craiglist and internet searches to find what I wanted: a white, 2001 SR5, four wheel drive with 130,000 miles. It was in Denver and on one of my trips to Boulder for the press check of Adventure Journal in print, I drove it, paid $9,000, and headed south, happily.
The drive home was so much fun. The 4Runner handled great, purred along, and did everything I asked it to. I crossed the Superstitious Mountains on dirt without a hiccup. When parked, I ogled it like a rube. Me happy.
It’s been a little over a year, and I’ve made the T4R mine. (I’ll talk more about that in other stories—about the Dometic fridge I installed, or the KO2 tires that turned its capabilities to 11.) It’s an amazing truck, and I’m thrilled with it in just about every way but one: This spring, I took my first trip with it moderately loaded with gear—gas and hi lift jack on the roof, full fridge inside—and I learned just how anemic that V6 is. On long grades through the Mojave, it strained at 4,000-4,500 RPM just to hit 60 mph. Gas mileage, loaded down on the highway, barely cracked 17. (New 4Runners have the same mileage with far more power.) Around town and on day trips, it’s everything I could want and then some. But with two people and a lot of gear…not so much.
It’s a reminder that, in the end, there is no perfect adventure vehicle, just a whole lot of them that come really, really close. Unless of course you find a V8 to drop into this 4Runner. Hey, now that’s an idea…