Recently, we took a look at the best expedition vehicles from around the world. This group of vehicles consisted of some of the classic 4x4s that have set the standard for overland and vehicle dependent travel. Unfortunately, in their best forms, almost of all of those vehicles are either unavailable or difficult to obtain within North America.
Thanks to escalating safety requirements and increasing amounts of electronics and comfort features, the pool of legitimate expedition and overland vehicles in North America seems to be dwindling.
In creating the list for North American vehicles, we set a few ground rules. First, these vehicles don’t HAVE to currently be available brand new. However, the more recently the vehicle was available on the showroom floor, the better. Second, the vehicles had to be legally imported and sold as North American Specification (NAS). Sure, there’s a handful of Troopys out there, and gray market 110s, but for the purposes of this list, they don’t count. With these rules in mind, we now present our list of the Best North American Overland Vehicles.
If you’ve read our first article, you might wonder how the Defender can go from 2nd best in the world to 5th best in North America. The answer is this: NAS Defenders are old, expensive and petrol powered. While you can pick up a late ’90s or newer Defender 110 in great condition for a reasonable price almost anywhere in the world, stateside that privilege will run you north of $50,000.
Land Rover only brought in a few thousand Defenders in the mid-90s, most of them of the short wheelbase D90 variety. Because of that limited supply, they fetch a premium price tag, often selling for more now than they did new 15 years ago. The only Defender 110s legally imported were the 500 brought in by Land Rover in 1993. These vehicles are approaching 20 years old, many of them have high miles, overheating and rust issues. There are far more Defender 90s around, and they fetch a lower price, but the difference in space between a 90 and 110 is significant. In a 90, you have to be far more selective in what you pack and access can be a bear. Add to that, all of the NAS trucks have the 3.9 or 4.0 V8 motor which is far less reliable than the diesels found overseas.
That being said, it’s still a Defender. The truck is amazingly capable, robustly built and has all the charm and character you would expect. All of the drawbacks listed above don’t outweigh the pluses of the venerable Defender platform.
When the Toyota Tacoma was first introduced into North America in 1995, it represented a break from its storied sibling, the Hi-Lux. Since then, the Tacoma platform has grown in reputation and become a respectable and highly capable 4×4 in its own right.
Stateside, the Tacoma has been offered in a regular cab, extended cab and 4-door double cab layouts, as well as short- and long-bed configurations. These options allow excellent flexibility in cargo and packing arrangements to meet the varying needs of overlanders. While the drivetrain options are limited in North America to only petrol, they all come with Toyota’s legendary reliability.
Much like it’s brother the Hi-Lux, the decrease in sheet metal when compared to a SUV means an increase in payload capacity. Although a pickup does offer a few compromises in terms of cargo security, a variety of options including truck bed toppers, Flip-Pacs and rail-level mounting systems for roof top tents make the Tacoma an easily modifiable platform for overlanding and expeditions.
The first generation Tacomas (1995-2004) are perhaps more well loved for their reliability and durability than the current generation (2005-present). This may be due to a handful of issues that plagued the early 2005 and 2006 models. But all in all, the Tacoma is one of the best available expedition platforms in North America.
In North America, the Discovery, surprisingly, makes for a better expedition vehicle than the Defender. All NAS Discoveries are V8s, which means they suffer from the same problems as the Defenders, but they rank higher for a handful of reasons.
For starters, the Discovery is plentiful. Most soccer moms have long since abandoned the Discovery in favor of the latest “flavor of the week” SUV status symbol. If you search around, a clean low-mileage Discovery can now be found for an affordable price. This means you get far better bang for your buck relative to most other vehicles. Second, the Discovery is comfortable. The Discovery is MUCH more comfortable than a Defender especially over long distances. The doors seal shut, the seats are better, the heater actually works and it has air conditioning.
Lest you think the Discovery is a poseur vehicle, it still is based on the same boxed frame chassis as the Defender and the suspension set up on the Series I is almost identical. This means the Discovery has almost the same capabilities off road, while offering a cargo capacity somewhere between the 90 and the iconic and cavernous 110.
The Discovery was available in the U.S. from 1994-2004, giving you a broad selection of vehicles from which to choose. Of the Series I Discoveries (94-99), the best examples are the ’97, the last year the manual transmission was available, and the ’99, regarded as being the most reliable of the bunch. If you’re looking for something newer, of the Series II’s (1999-2004), the 2004 stands out as the pick of the litter. The ’04 features a 4.6L V8 which gives great power and is the only year of the Disco II’s to feature a factory center differential lock.
Starting in 2005, the LR3 replaced the Discovery II in North America. Named as the Discovery 3 everywhere else in the world, the LR3 was a significant upgrade in comfort, level of appointment and stock vehicle capabilities over its predecessor. But the vehicle also featured an upgrade in price and significant electronics.
The 80 Series Toyota Land Cruiser is one of the quintessential overland vehicles offered in North America. The 80 Series makes for a great platform due to its huge cargo capacity, reliability and relative ease of modification. All in all, it’s a great starting point for an overland vehicle.
The 80 series has a loyal following in the U.S. and a vibrant aftermarket to support it, meaning there’s a plethora of modifications available and a good knowledge base.
Available from 1991-97, the youngest example of an 80 Series is 13 years old. Despite this, low mileage and well-cared for examples can still be found for reasonable prices. With Toyota’s legendary reliability, these vehicles are less subject to wear and tear than other marques of similar vintage. If you’re thinking of picking one up, try to find a ’93 or later, as it has a much welcomed upgraded motor.
The Jeep JK Unlimited Rubicon’s spot at the top of this list is well deserved. This truck is the overland vehicle that Jeep always could have made, but never did, at least not until 2007. Starting with the JK body style, Jeep stretched their extended “Unlimited” to a 4- door long wheel base vehicle. In its Rubicon form, this vehicle features upgraded differentials, front and rear differential locks, heavier duty suspension and a whole host of other great upgrades like electronic sway-bar disconnects. Straight off the showroom floor, this is one of the most capable 4x4s ever built.
Sure, the JK has a lower build quality and level of appointment than competitors like the Land Rover and Land Cruiser, but it is still a simple and beefy vehicle overall. The new V6 engine is still a bit new, and has a way to go before it gets the reputation of Jeep’s old “straight-six” engine.
Many aftermarket companies have begun to take notice of the potential of the JK platform. Lots of great aftermarket solutions for overlanding are starting to be built up from this truck including the EarthRoamer XV-JP and the Adventure Trailers Habitat.
Despite its relatively minor shortcomings, the JK Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon is an amazingly capable 4×4 that can be bought right off the showroom floor. There’s great aftermarket parts available and it comes with that classic Jeep styling. Now, if only they’d give the U.S. a CRD engine.
At the end of 2009, Toyota released an all-new 2010 model year Toyota 4Runner. In standard form, the 4Runner is a run-of-the-mill SUV. Toyota added a number of neat features to the Trail Edition which could put it in the running for an excellent overland vehicle. First, the new Kinetic Dynamic Stabilizer System, or KDSS, allows for variable handling on the vehicle, along with disconnectable sway bars. Prior to this, KDSS was only an option on Toyota’s top of the line 200 Series Land Cruiser and Land Cruiser Prado (aka Lexus GX 470). Second, the truck features Crawl Control – a throttle control system that allows for even throttle and speed in both uphill and downhill situations. In addition, the new 4Runner has an optional rear locking differential, further enhancing its capabilities off road.
That’s a lot of electronics for an overland vehicle, and time will tell whether it’s up to the task. But on paper, the new Toyota 4Runner Trail Edition is certainly worthy of consideration.