Six of the best 4x4s from the 1990s – glory days

By Evan Spence 10 Min Read

People always say they like older 4x4s, and that the peak of off-road engineering was made during the 90s. Many had solid axles, coil springs, and large-capacity engines. But they were slow, unsafe, and kind of crap in an endearing way. What they lacked in features, they made up for in off-road ability, ruggedness and ease of working on them. Which is why I keep buying vehicles from that era. 

There is a long list of vehicles I’d love to include, but there has to be a limit. This article is just my opinion too, so please don’t feel upset if I’ve left your pride and joy off the list. Instead, use this as a positive, jump in the comment section and tell the world about what you think the best four-wheel drive from the 1990s is. Here are my top six.  

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LN106 Toyota HiLux

This is a personal favourite of mine. The vehicle I should never have sold. It was a 1996 dual-cab LN106 I named Smokey Joe. I bought it in mint condition, with a full ARB catalogue thrown at it. And I beat the absolute snot out of it. For years. And it always got me home. Sometimes missing a rear tailshaft driving in front-wheel drive, or with a slipping clutch, or with a dodgy universal joint. Things definitely went wrong with it, but like I said, it got me home every time. I miss Smokey Joe and regularly find myself looking for it online hoping it will pop up for sale. 

Pros: 

  • Super capable off-road 
  • Easy to modify and work on
  • Loads of aftermarket upgrades available locally and from the USA

Cons:  

  • So slow. So, so, so slow. SLOOOOW. 
  • Hard to find clean examples, they’ve all been driven by people like me 
  • I kept killing tailshafts and centre bearings, but you’re probably not as reckless as I was in my youth

Nissan GQ Patrol

Out of every four-wheel drive on the market, I reckon I’ve had the most fun driving GQ Patrols. And I’ve had a fair few of them, too. From a SWB Ford Maverick (the same thing really) on 35s, to a LWB TB42 carby powered motor, to a holy grail TD42 Silvertop powered GQ wagon. I seem to keep coming back to GQs. And it’s easy to see why. They are strong. They’re capable. They are easy to work on. Parts and knowledge are everywhere for them. And you can build them into whatever you want them to be. That ticks all the boxes for four-wheel drivers. But that doesn’t mean they are perfect. Nor does it mean they can actually do 480km/hr down Mooney Mooney Bridge… if you know you know.

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Pros: 

  • Strong driveline
  • Awesome platform to create anything you want from tourer to rock crawler
  • Parts and knowledge everywhere  

Cons: 

  • Rust, particularly in the roof gutters, is what will kill a GQ
  • CV Joints aren’t as beefy as you’d think in the GQ
  • Thirsty petrol motors 

Toyota 80 Series LandCruiser

What can be said about the 80 Series LandCruiser that hasn’t been said before? While I personally am yet to own one, many people who do literally call them the best four-wheel drive ever made. That might be a stretch, but there is certainly a compelling argument for owning an 80 Series. I personally think they are a bit boring, a Camry with a transfer case if you will. But there’s nothing wrong with that. The 80 Series is also in many ways, like the GQ Patrol, a proper four-wheel-drive first, and a car second. It wasn’t designed to be super comfortable, or powerful. It was designed to be rugged, reliable and long-lasting. The fact you still see so many of them out on the tracks is a testament to that. Long live the 80 Series.   

Pros: 

  • Incredibly reliable 
  • Incredibly capable 
  • And incredibly practical 

Cons:

  • Factory turbo diesel engines are stooopidly expensive 
  • Non turbo 1HZ engines are Stooopidly slow 
  • Petrol engines are Stooopidly thirsty 

Read more about the 80 Series LandCruiser here

Mitsubishi Pajero

I owned an NL Pajero, and it was the biggest pile of crap I’ve ever owned. It had non-stop cooling system issues, it had rust, and the transmission didn’t feel like shifting gears from time to time. The 4WD system also had issues, with the lights on the dash flashing at me constantly. I bought a nugget basically. But I’ll never hold that against Pajeros or their owners. Why, even after all that trauma? 

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Because they rock! Sure, I bought a bad example. But there was a reason I bought it in the first place. They are so comfortable and make for terrific touring vehicles. They are also super strong driveline-wise. You don’t hear of people busting diffs or even CV joints on the older model Pajero. Seriously over-engineered in that department. 

You could get a 2.8L turbo-diesel engine, a 3.0L petrol and a 3.5L petrol. So there were appropriate solutions for different needs. Sadly, the NL Pajero, which was the pick of the lot, was recalled recently for a dodgy airbag. Customers were told to sell them back to Mitsubishi, and from what I understand, they were crushed into cubes. 

Pros: 

  • Strong driveline and awesome rear Limited Slip Differential  
  • Incredibly comfortable 
  • Bargain price point in the used market 

Cons: 

  • I had loads of overheating issues – but I bought a lemon
  • Torsion bar front suspension is a bit rubbish 
  • Spark plug location under inlet manifold – who’s idea whas that?!

Jeep XJ Cherokee

Underrated in Australia at the time of release, the XJ Cherokee has gained a popular following globally. In the second-hand market, they are absolute bargains. You get solid axles front and rear, a reportedly bulletproof 4.0L straight-six petrol engine, and thanks to the monocoque chassis design, the XJ Cherokee is super light as well. With relatively small diff centres, they have great clearance with smaller tyres than you’d need on say a Patrol or LandCruiser too. Parts and upgrades are cheap to source from America, with everything available to transform the XJ into capable touring 4x4s right up to full-blown rock crawlers. 

Pros: 

  • Cheap as chips motoring 
  • Proiperly capable off-road 
  • Huge aftermarket support 

Cons: 

  • Rust in tailgate 
  • Oil leaks from the engine are a factory feature
  • Thirsty engine that seems to dislike crank position sensors 

Toyota 90 Series Prado

In my opinion, the 90 Series Prado is the most underrated four-wheel drive of all time. They can be had for a song on the used car market, and there are plenty of upgrades available to better their off-road ability. The 3.4L petrol engine will outlive Keith Richards, as will the little 2.7L 3RZ which apparently doesn’t mind a little tickle with forced induction. There is also a 3.0L turbo-diesel engine, which is the motor of choice for long-distance tourers. With coil springs at all four corners, the 90 Series Prado rides well and has loads of ground clearance from the factory. You can even get upmarket Grande models with leather-like seating and wood-like trim. Best of all, some came with twin fuel tanks giving the 90 Series solid range while out exploring. 


Pros:

  • Stupidly cheap to buy used 
  • Strong petrol engines
  • Excellent ground clearance 

Cons 

  • They are fairly basic inside, which could be a pro for many
  • Ball joint failures have been reported – and they don’t look pretty 
  • Head cracking issues with the 3.0L turbo diesel 1KZ motor 


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