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Critics’ Choice: Best Off-Roader for $15,000

We asked our writers to find their dream off-roader on Carsforsale.com. The only catch, do it with a budget of just $15,000.

Finding the Perfect Used Off-Roader

2021 Jeep Wrangler - media.stellantisnorthamerica.com
2021 Jeep Wrangler - media.stellantisnorthamerica.com

Whether you’re looking to do some rock crawling, baja-style racing, or overlanding, the typical journey into off-roading begins with a hunt for the perfect vehicle. In this, our inaugural Critics’ Choice, we tasked three of our writers with finding the best off-roader listed on Carsforsale.com. With a price ceiling of $15,000, there are a lot of potentially strong picks out there. Each of us landed on vehicles that best suited our intended use cases and reflected our own particular personalities and biases. Note that each of our picks are a starting place, a canvas on which to construct our ultimate off-roader. Lifts, tires, roof-top tents, and all the rest were not included in our $15,000 budget. For more off-roading add-ons, check out our articles on the best off-road tires, our top picks for must-have overlanding gear, and the best off-road trails in the US.

Let us know in the comments which of us you thought won this challenge, and what other challenges you’d like to see us take on in the future.

Chris Kaiser – 2006 Porsche Cayenne

Porsche Cayenne Transsyberia - porsche.com
Porsche Cayenne Transsyberia - porsche.com

Consideration Short List:

Naturally, my first inclination when considering a $15,000 off-roader was a Toyota in the form of either a Tacoma or 4Runner. Their reputation for durability is a huge plus in their favor when you’re looking to get from heck and back on rough trails and through remote regions. I also considered another light truck with a reputation for ruggedness, the Ford Ranger. In fact, I found an excellent 2011 example complete with a lift and chunky off-road tires. I even considered the Lexus LX 470, derived from the venerated Toyota Land Cruiser.

But then I reflected a moment, asking myself this: what’s the coolest off-roader I’ve ever seen? The answer was clear. From rally racers, to mudding trucks, to modded-out monsters, nothing surpasses a safari 911. Lights, lift, knobby tires, and a roof rack all look at once odd and perfectly at home slapped on the iconic silhouette of the 911. Plus, the 911 has rally racing in its blood. However, since I’m well out of budget for basically any generation 911 that’s not falling apart, I figured I have to put my fantasy aside and return to the realm of Land Cruisers. And then I recalled the Porsche Cayenne Transsyberia.

2006 Porsche Cayenne Turbo S - carsforsale.com
2006 Porsche Cayenne Turbo S - carsforsale.com

What’s that exactly? Back in the early aughts, when the Cayenne was still a new thing, Porsche figured a good way to prove the new SUV’s bona fides was to enter it into a 4,500-mile rally across the Russian known appropriately as the TranSyberian Rally. Not only did the Cayenne prove a worthy off-roader, but it actually won the race. To commemorate the win, Porsche even built 600 special TransSyberian Edition Cayennes for the 2009 model year.

Setting my sights on a first-gen Cayenne, I decided I wanted, at minimum a Turbo. The most plentiful trim is the Cayenne S which came with either a 3.2L V6 or a 4.5L V8, and while the latter makes a respectable 355 horsepower and 310 lb.-ft. of torque, this is a Porsche after all. The Cayenne Turbo, which adds twin turbochargers to the same V8 for 444 horsepower and 457 lb.-ft. of torque. Pretty good. But then I found my Cayenne, a Turbo S, which Porsche offered for just one year, that tuned the twin-turbo V8 all the way to 514 horsepower and 531 lb.-ft.

Even with all that power, is the Cayenne really a worthy off-roader? You might be surprised. In addition to the requisite four-wheel drive and center locking differential (which is also limited-slip for good measure), there’s also the self-leveling, adjustable height suspension, and the fact that the Cayenne’s engines, including our twin-turbo V8, are dry sump lubricating, ensuring that uneven trails don’t lead to sloshing, uneven oil distribution in the engine.

Perhaps the biggest attraction for the Cayenne comes down to fatigue management. While this might not matter to the twenty-somethings reading this, for you older guys, you’ll know what I’m getting at. The Cayenne Turbo came with standard air suspension. So, after a weekend out on the trails, jouncing and jostling, the Cayenne can provide a smooth and pleasant ride once you’re back on the pavement. That this Cayenne Turbo S can also scoot from zero to sixty in five seconds is just icing on the cake.

Jesse Batson – 2014 Jeep Cherokee

2014 Jeep Cherokee Latitude - carsforsale.com
2014 Jeep Cherokee Latitude - carsforsale.com

Consideration Short List:

There are millions of cars to choose from on Carsforsale.com, but the off-roader I chose in this friendly competition is a 2014 Jeep Cherokee. It has a price of $13,888 with 96,000 miles. Jeep has always been one of the best off-roading brands and this 2014 Jeep Cherokee Latitude is no exception. True to form, Jeep produced an impressive off-road capable crossover with the Cherokee Latitude.

With a 3.2L V6, this Cherokee makes 184 to 271 hp with 171 lb-ft of torque. The engine is paired with a 9-speed automatic transmission, working to provide a refined, smooth ride even when covering rough terrain or plowing through the packed in snow. An on-demand 4WD allows the vehicle to offer a slightly better fuel economy when the Cherokee isn’t driving all four wheels in all driving situations. The EPA estimate on fuel economy is 19 MPG in the city and 27 MPG on the highway.

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2014 Jeep Cherokee Latitude - carsforsale.com
2014 Jeep Cherokee Latitude - carsforsale.com

For off-roading fun, this vehicle has new Kelly Edge A/S 225 65R17 tires. Luggage, gear, or bicycles can be stored on top with the chrome roof rack crossbars. The 3.73 axle ratio is suitable for regular light towing up to 5,000 lbs. if equipped properly. The cargo area is equipped with a 12v outlet, which can be handy when using air compressors and other things.

It’s hard to go wrong with black coloring on a vehicle. The inside is where this Jeep Cherokee is really sharp, though. This particular Latitude has Nappa leather upholstery. It looks to be taken good care of as well. A bit of two-tone coloring on the dash gives the inside a little flash, too. The digital dash is from 2014, so it’s not as expansive as some are today, but it’s easy to read and won’t leave you squinting, trying to determine how much gas you have left. Simply put, it gets the job done just fine. The 2014 model had more passenger space than most of the other competition at the time, so not only are the seats comfortable, but nobody also has to suffer a leg cramp while on the adventure.

Who doesn’t want it all if they can have it, right? So, let’s talk about the other aspects that come with this choice. Beyond the off-roading ability and passenger space, there is some infotainment to be had here. This is a 2014, so you won’t find a 10 or 12″ infotainment screen. This 2014 Cherokee does have a five-inch infotainment screen, though. The digital instrument cluster is given 3.5″ of space. Since it’s under a decade old, the 2014 Jeep Cherokee Latitude also comes with Bluetooth integration as well. A voice-operated radio, or the touchscreen, can control the 6-speaker stereo.

The 2014 Jeep Cherokee has a 5-star overall safety NHTSA rating. It’s equipped with front, side, and side-curtain airbags. Body Side Reinforcements and a post-collision safety sensor system are there for increased safety, too. Also, this Jeep Cherokee has a rear crumple zone, minimizing any impact from behind. This used vehicle comes with new front and rear brakes as well. There are no reported accidents, but, of course, any time you’re searching a used vehicle on Cars For Sale, you can do so confidently by looking at Free Vehicle History Reports. Those are backed by government data through the NMVTIS.

Jesse McGraw – 1988 Suzuki Samurai

1988 Suzuki Samurai - carsforsale.com
1988 Suzuki Samurai - carsforsale.com

Consideration Short List:

My two colleagues are more focused on keeping things newer, more comfortable on the road, and tacking on a bunch of aftermarket gear later. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great choices for day-to-day travels, but we’re focusing on off-road ready vehicles guys. I started my search by looking for a ride that can go straight from the dealership lot and deep into the trails. There were Hummers, some Land Rovers, Toyota Land Cruisers, and plenty of Jeep Wranglers in varying years and with different aftermarket bits added on. In the end, I decided to reel it in and focus on a model that deserves some recognition for its short period in the spotlight, the Suzuki Samurai.

Basically a rebadged version of the lauded JDM Suzuki Jimny, the Suzuki Samurai was a smash hit when it arrived in America during the 80s. If this off-road oriented compact SUV would have stood its ground and Suzuki would have kept improving upon it, the Jeep Wrangler may not have had the success it sees today. On what grounds can I say that? Well for one, the Suzuki Samurai holds a Guinness World Record for driving to the highest altitude by car, a record previously held by Jeep.

1988 Suzuki Samurai - carsforsale.com
1988 Suzuki Samurai - carsforsale.com

While the Guinness World Record version may have had some additions to it, this 1988 model I found is still a worthy off-road choice. This model is from the year that  Suzuki made improvements to the Samurai like a larger anti-roll bar and a softened suspension to really soak up the bumps. The fifth gear ratio was also lowered to help the compact SUV to get more power on the highways when you’re traveling between trailheads. The model I found is a hardtop, but you can find some soft top ones out there too if you want to have an open-air experience out in the wilderness.

This 1988 Suzuki Samurai has a 4×4 drivetrain with a transfer case shifter, 5-speed manual transmission, and a 1.3L I4 engine that had a throttle-body fuel injector. That 1.3L got a combined 25 mpg and only made about 63 horsepower and 74 lb-ft of torque in 1988. That’s a little underpowered, but that won’t stop the Samurai from carrying its little 2,220-pound self over some rough terrain. Probably won’t be pulling anything behind it though.

The inside of this Suzuki Samurai is actually pretty nice for how old it is. It’s been kept in relatively good condition and features a radio, air conditioning, heating, manual crank windows, a front passenger “oh crap” bar, and seating for up to four. Obviously, my competition is a little more up to date in terms of technology and comfort, but the driver will have a lot more fun going where those other two can’t.

The dealership I found this Samurai at is called Select Jeeps Inc in League City, Texas and they seem to have a pretty good selection of more than just Jeeps. They’ve got a great lineup of good-looking Suzuki Samurais, plus plenty of other off-roading and classic car options available. I might have to travel down myself to pick up one of these Samurais they have listed before they’re gone.

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Chris Kaiser

With two decades of writing experience and five years of creating advertising materials for car dealerships across the U.S., Chris Kaiser explores and documents the car world’s latest innovations, unique subcultures, and era-defining classics. Armed with a Master's Degree in English from the University of South Dakota, Chris left an academic career to return to writing full-time. He is passionate about covering all aspects of the continuing evolution of personal transportation, but he specializes in automotive history, industry news, and car buying advice.

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