Picking the Vehicle After You Sell the Perfect Adventure Vehicle

The calculus is never particularly easy but always especially fun.

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.

Secondary Considerations

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:

Huge aftermarket
Huge community
Easily modded
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…


Steve Casimiro is the editor of Adventure Journal. Follow him on Instagram at @stevecasimiro.
Showing 46 comments
  • Ben

    The “thneed” of 4wd is why you paid more, got less, and suffer poor mpg.

    A good FWD with those done tires will get you to 90% of the places.

    The Dodge Promaster van, gas or diesel, FWD, mounted with good tires, will swallow your gear, get you out and back from the boonies.

    My Promaster diesel got 25.5mpg on my latest road trip to BC, slept inside comfortably crossways (74” inside width), bikes and dogs all happy and safe.

    Van life lives on.

    • Steve Casimiro

      Ben, you bet it will. I’m also interested, more interested, in that last 10%. Or the 9%, anyway.

  • Tobin

    Ha! Good article. We went through the 4Runner mode, but it just felt too heavy and wasn’t too good for hauling firewood and large dead animals back from the woods. Ben has a point on the 2WD, but if you factor in the mud/snow issues, there are lot’s of places a 2WD even with killer tires would leave me stranded. Glad you like the 4Runner – they are awesome if they fit your profile. Been a Tacoma and 1st gen Tundra for many years now. Starting to look at 3/4 ton PU for an Alaskan camper as retirement is looming.Look forward to your review of those beasts!

  • Pat

    Having owned newer as well as older ones, the ’96-’04 Tacomas/4Runners have not yet seen their equal. The newer models sport more tech, but are no more capable or reliable, and surely not as easy to work on.

    What seems particularly ironic–considering the brand also gave us the Prius–is that Toyota seems exceptionally lazy about improving the fuel economy of these trucks and SUVs. I don’t know that you care, though, considering you added a bunch of weight and dramatically worsened the aerodynamics with accessories.

    If you don’t need to carry more than two people, I’d suggest removing the rear seats before trips. easily done with a socket, saves space, and removes weight. Also gives quite a bit more headroom when camping inside.

    • Justin Housman

      05-’15 Tacomas have such better interiors though. Plus, about 50 more hp for the same mpgs if you run the six cylinder.

    • Steve Casimiro

      I do care about MPG, for environmental, cost, and range considerations. If I didn’t, I may have gone for the LC.

      As for the rear seats, yes. I keep a ratchet under the passenger seat for quick removal of the bottoms. At 6’0″, I can’t full stretch out without doing that. Fridge and gear boxes on the right, bed roll on the left, and I’m set.

      Sidenote: I love the idea of sleeping platforms for the underneath storage, but value the headroom more.

    • Brian Popiel

      I always thought Toyota’s mpg on its truck/suvs was embarassing. I just bought a new Tundra…I tan maybe sqeak out 17 mpg if I’m hypermiling, while Ram & Ford both have half-tons pushing 30 mpg. Heck, I just sold a 10 year old Ram 3500 diesel that hit 17 fully loaded with gear & work tools. Toyota needs to fix that ASAP.

  • Lew Lamar

    I have a 1997 4Runner with 207,000 miles on it. It has been great for camping and snow trips over the years. It also has a manual transmission. I’m really looking forward to a 4WD camping trip to the Grand Canyon in September.

  • Jason

    I’m still smitten with the Honda Ridgeline I added in the comments of the original Reader Poll for the ultimate adventure vehicle! The haters like to diss it’s off-road capabilities, but it’ll go 98% of the places the Taco goes, with much better comfort during the other 99.9% of the time you are using the truck. Besides, it only has to get to the trailhead: 4WD touring is sooo much better on two wheels. Motorcycles FTW! Not even the most capable vehicle can match a used $1500 bike that can go anywhere.

    • Steve Casimiro

      Ah, well, that’s another rabbit hole. I was thinking about getting an old Honda XR250, but don’t have the room, don’t want more weight on the back, don’t need another toy.

  • Bill Bradshaw

    I owned a ’96 T4R, 5 spd manual trans,loved it.
    @ 20k miles, selling Toy Dealer installed the TRD supercharger.(Toyota Racing..)
    , was added to drivetrain warranty(if dealer installed)
    Required no re-programming, beyond
    Freeing intake and exhaust

    Sold it at 225k miles… still miss it.

    but it was definitely worn.

  • Dean Cebuliak

    Your article was identical to my thought process and research this spring. Ended up with a 2018 forerunner trd off road. Justified the gas with less hotels, and have started customizing it. Rhino rack, ko2 tires, trd wheels, 2nd battery, fridge, awnings, etc. Not perfect but love the newer features. Happy adventuring.

    • Steve Casimiro


  • Jose

    1st gen Lexus GX470. You can find them in the teen’s, with 120,000+ miles.

    Based on the 4th gen 4runner, but with the V8.

    • Steven

      Just get a 4th Gen 4R with a V8 for a little cheaper.

  • Tait

    Pardon a bit of proof-reading, but:

    By “predecessor” did you mean “successor”? Also, “Domestic” = “Dometic”?

    Feel free to reject this comment if you don’t want it posted. I’m not trolling, just wanted to let you know.

    • Steve Casimiro

      Tait: There Will Be Typos. Especially with auto-correct. But sometimes just human error. Thanks letting us know.

    • Erik

      Tait, it actually is a “Dometic” brand fridge.

  • JLo999

    Where do the Subaru’s stack up in this discussion?

    • Dan

      I’ve had 3 land cruisers. Loved each one, absolutely amazing on and off road, especially with lockers. Plenty room. Horrible MPG, however knew that I would NEVER be stranded, and never had been. Now… I have subaru outback. Super capable, passing tricked out jeeps left and right while on mountain trails, hilarious. I’m now envious of the Subaru Crosschecks with 2 inch lifts and KO2s. Once I was driving my 86′ CJ7 very carefully down a rocky trail when I happened upon a man camping in his old Toyota celica, he said, “it’s not about what you’ve got, it’s how you drive it.” He was absolutely correct, I was ashamed, but I never forgot it.

      • Steve Casimiro


        I’m glad you shared this. Justin Housman and I were talking last week when we were at OR about envisioning turning more road-oriented rigs into light off-roaders. I’ve seen some amazing Subis modded out. The vehicle I’ve been imagining customized it the Mercedes GLA 250. A year or so ago I was traveling and rented one on a whim. SO much fun to drive, and the 4Matic all-wheel-drive handled the dirt roads I took it on near Estes Park fantastically. Ground clearance is about 7 inches. And despite driving it like a rental, I averaged almost 35 mpg.

        Now I keep picturing it with a rack, KO2s, a little lift. You can find them used with lowish miles for the mid $20s. Absurd? Well, maybe. Well, yes. But so what?

  • Dan Murphy

    Had a ’99 4Runner 5 sp. for 9 years, 175K miles. Loved the thing, solid as a rock, engine was bulletproof. Maintenance was minimal. With the 6 cyl, I got 20 mpg. Bikes fit inside standing up. I wanted to keep it longer, but northeast winters and salt started eating it up, and I had to let it go. Keep an eye on the rear bumper rust. That gen is famous for seeing rear bumpers rusting from the inside. Sand/dirt/salt accumulates inside the bumper – just hose it out when you can.

  • Kevin

    Steve, Thanks for this great article. I was anxiously waiting to see what your new adventure mobile conversion would look like. Did you consider a Tacoma or other truck with a cap at all?
    On a side note, Why did you get rid of the Sequoia?

    • Steve Casimiro

      Kevin—see reply to Gard. As for Tacoma, I just don’t like driving pickups as much. Truck platform yes, but interior no.

  • Levi

    Re:Cummins crate motor. I know you know. The itch will be scratched. Just don’t be the first.

  • Gard

    Casi, every paragraph of this I kept thinking “1st generation Sequoia.” Then you had me at V8.

    • Steve Casimiro

      Yeah. I had a first gen Sequoia for 18 years. The best vehicle I ever owned by far. And, laughing/crying emoji, it’s the most capable vehicle that gets the least respect. It’s also painfully fuel inefficient, no fun to park, and a nightmare around parking garages.

      It was the perfect vehicle for me when my kids were little—big enough to haul family and friends and gear, and equipped enough to get up and down most Forest Service roads (especially with appropriate rubber). But for the eight years or so that I had the Syncro, it mostly sat there cause the van got better mileage, was more fun to drive, and would go places the Sequoia wouldn’t. Once I got rid of the van, and now that one kid has flown the nest and the other was about, its days were numbered.

  • Matt

    Great article. Coincidentally I’m in pretty much the opposite situation. After owning a 2000 4Runner 4×4 with a manual transmission for 9 years I’m looking at other options. The 4Runner has been incredibly reliable and very capable off road, especially with the factory locker, a small lift, and 32″ tires. Even with these modifications it still averages ~17mpg in mixed driving and 20-21mpg on long freeway drives. But, there are a few downsides. For one thing space is somewhat limited when packing for extended camping trips for 3 people. Everything fits, but it is tight. I prefer not to put things on the roof due to the increased air resistance and higher center of gravity (an issue when rock crawling). A bigger issue is the small factory gas tank which leads to limited range per tank.

    We also have a 2010 Tacoma DCSB and are starting to take that on camping trips. It gets similar mileage but has a larger tank and of course has more storage space. The downside is that it is much longer and doesn’t fit as well on tight trails. We’ll see what the future holds.

  • TheWoodsman

    Without a solid front axle (non-locking front diff) and huge overhangs the 4Runner will never be as capable as the other true off-roaders you mention. A good trade for interior space and reliability though. You paid way too much from what I’m seeing though- next time try Idaho, Montana and New Mexico. Stay away from rusty Utah though, 4Runners melt in the winters here.

    • Steve Casimiro

      That’s true about solid axles, but then this comes down to what your most extreme intended use is. Two-wheel-drive will get you up and down 90 percent of the dirt roads in America (that’s, um, a non-scientific estimate). I want a vehicle for the space between that 90 and that last 1 percent that is the realm of solid axles and specific-purpose rigs.

  • Frank Turano

    Great SUV, i’m in the process of losing mine. At 240K it will no longer pass emissions. Bought it in 05 with 10K miles drove it like I hated it. Replaced timing belt at 90K, still working. Looks great inside and out, underneath is a rusty mess. Engine is totally gutless.

    It won’t let you down, enjoy.

  • doug moore

    Congrats Steve, you picked well.

    Wife and I have had our 02 SR5 4×4 for about 5 years, and it’s great to head out for your adventure and not care about the weather/storm/terrain that looms. With proper skills and equipment, all is well.

    One thing we did is get some proper off-road training.

    In our 1-weekend class, we learned about tire repair, tire pressures, winching safety, how to pick the correct line in various types of terrain among lots of other stuff I would never have thought of. Our instructor took the class on a 2 hour trail run through some rugged stuff that I never thought possible with our Runner. Yet, with my wife behind the wheel, we got through it just fine – we were both amazed. Rubicon here we come? Probably not. But everything else? We’re in!

    Have fun!

  • Jonas

    Great article, my thoughts on the topic are very similar. I also had a ’97 4runner with the very rare manual transmission and 3.2L 4 cylinder engine for 8 years. I now have an AWD honda element and have taken it to the limit of its capabilities on logging roads. Vanagon syncros have always seemed appealing but the maintenance issues have kept me away.

    Not sure what my next vehicle will be but I’ve considered all the ones you mention, and even had a unimog fascination for a while.

    Happy trails!

  • Rob

    Wow this really resonates for me Steve. Really enjoyed this and your article on Vanzilla in AJ 8. I had a 91 T4R in which we chased powder, dirt and surf all over the west and Baja. I shed a tear as I watched her loaded onto a flatbed at 275k, as a donation to our local public radio station. I got a 2000 Eurovan as a nod to the practicality of airbags and functioning a/c coupled with a comfortable place for my wife to breastfeed our new daughter and then proceeded to regularly visit my local Indy VW expert mechanic playing whack a mole with electrical and mechanical gremlins. I was finally done when she left the familly stranded in the Northern California coastal mountains in 105F heat at the start of a 2 week road trip with no cell service. Deflated, I crumbled and now have a 4×4 sprinter on order. More than I want to spend sure but it will be a family weekend mission enablement tool. Still miss my 4 runner, best vehicle I ever owned.

    I’d love to hear more vanzilla stories!

  • Jeff

    It’s too bad the 4th gen 4Runner was dismissed so quickly, seeing as it is the only one with a V8 option. As somebody else said, the Lexus GX470 should have been on your list too. However, you can’t go wrong with the 3rd Gen 4Runner. I had one before my GX470, and there are still alot of things I miss about that vehicle. Shoot, aside from the engine, I prefer almost everything about it. Great little vehicles.

    • Steve Casimiro

      Yeah…maybe I was too quick. Was thinking that this weekend as I saw a nicely appointed one roll down the road.

    • Steve Casimiro

      Isn’t the GX470 based on the Prado, not the 4Runner?

      • Jeff

        The GX470 is almost identical to the Prado body, but they are all on the same chassis. Shares suspension components with the 4Runner and FJ Cruiser. Several aftermarket bumpers and skids are also just modified 4Runner parts.

    • Kevin

      I’ve got a agree with Jeff. I just sold my 4th gen Limited V8 4Runner. It was such a solid truck even with 213k. Bonus: my wife loved it too because of all the creature comforts. I never had a problem with that thing that I couldn’t find extensive information about in the online community. I’d buy another one in a minute, or anything else with that engine in it. 18-20 mpg is about what we averaged plus 7000lb towing capacity…

      • Steve Casimiro

        Why did you sell it?

  • Jamie Gallant

    Amazing how many comments this post got Steve. For me, it just made me miss my ’01 4Runner I sold a few years back when I moved to New Zealand. I even had the same roof rack… le sigh.

    It had 288,000 miles on the clock and in the end there were some issues with the chassis. I asked the dealer who took it what would happen to her and his response was:

    “She’ll be over in Syria in about 6 months”. I like to think she’s still storming through the desert somewhere, hopefully still on the right side of history.

  • Steve

    Good timing on this post. I’ve dreamed of building out a Sprinter since my contractor neighbor parked the first one in town next to my driveway in the early 00’s, under the Freightliner badge. But lately family, financial, and practical realities have edged me towards contemplating a daily driver and a small camper. I’ve always loved the 4Runner, and I’ve thought about trading in our 06 Suburban for a new(er) 4Runner. But now I’m wondering why I would get rid of the Suburban that has treated us so well, it would be an awesome camper vehicle with a pretty minimal build out. Only problem is that #suburbanlife has absolutely no cool factor.

  • JS

    I’ve owned 8 Toyota trucks — 2 4Runners and 6 pickups — among a slue of many other vehicles (VW bus, various Subarus, CJ7, and various domestic trucks). Toyotas, by far, have been the most reliable. Right now I drive a 1st gen Tundra double-cab with a canopy. While I loved my 4Runners and Tacomas, I found them to be too small for the gear I sometimes take for river trips and multi-day White Rim trips. Plus, I sometimes pull a ski boat. I first switched to Tundras in about 2006 when I discovered how much cheaper they were than used Tacomas. Although the V8 is undersized in comparison to what is in the 2nd and 3rd gen Tundras (I’ve had one of each) it offers plenty of power for what I do. The gas mileage is not great, but I have a commuter car for daily driving, and justify the poor MPG since it just applies to trips. I’ve always driven trucks with stock suspension, but a few years ago (at about 150k miles) the Tundra’s rear end started getting soft so I spent about $1,500 adding Old Man Emu struts and added a leaf to the rear springs. I can’t believe how much better the truck performs off road….it sucks up bumps on rough two-tracks and the suspension articulates noticeably better than when it was stock.

  • Rus Southwood

    My ’07 Sprinter has taken me up some pretty rough forest service roads, and every other road from Miami to Whistler, for 310,000 miles. Great ground clearance, good turning radius for a van, and 15-20mpg, with a platform bed and tons of gear. It’s also my daily driver, fits in the same space as a full size pick-up, but parking garages are right out. Just hoping it lasts long enough that I can find a “reasonable” deal on one of the new 4×4 Sprinters, but super hard to find.

  • Hobart Flect

    I had a 1998 4Runner 5-speed maual that was a fabulous vehicle but alas no power, got a 2006 4Runner with the V-8: AWESOME VEHICLE and now you can’t get them with the V-8. Obviously the perfect truck would be the new 4Runner with the 5.7L V-8 they put in the Tundra: that would be optimum! And Toyota wouldn’t be able to make them fast enough to keep up with demand…

  • Marco Ochoa

    I have a 2004 4Runner SR5 4×4 with 301,000 miles bought it new with 75 miles. It’s been the most bulletproof, reliable vehicle I’ve owned. Only thing is, mileage is terrible.

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