We’ve traded archaic leaf sprung suspension for multi-link, fully adjustable coil spring arrangements. The manual locking hubs have gone, in their place you’ll find a plethora of acronyms, all designed to make off-roading easier and minimise the strain on your 4X4. And while it is true the modern 4X4 can do more and do it easier, entering the family wagon in an off-road competition is a sure fire way to ensure you’re sleeping on the lounge for the foreseeable future. To help keep you in the good(ish) books we’ve made a short list of the 5 best budget 4X4s to take the grinder to and line up for a shot at mud and glory.
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Bigger and uglier than its Toyota counterpart, the GQ offers what no other vehicle does. Cheap, reliable strength. Couple that with the almost unbelievable rear suspension flex and a near perfect wheel base in the two door model, and it’s clear why they have been a competition favourite for years. Expect to pay around the $5,000 mark for a decent runner. From there a bolt-in lift kit, mud tyres, and bar work front to back will get you on the tracks. The front end is notorious for abysmal flex so factor in at least one locker to be competitive.
Front and rear diffs are surpassed in strength only by GU units, if you break these you’re doing well.
The five-link rear suspension makes the flex very rear biased. Not overly stable, but enough travel to walk through most obstacles.
Put simply, if you’re building a 4X4 to compete in and it’s not a Suzuki, you’re entering a fight with both hands tied behind your back and a sprained ankle. They’re cheap, nimble, easy to modify, and small enough that just about any part you fit will be an upgrade. Hunt around online and they’ll often turn up in various states of complete for sub $3,000, around the price of a new set of tyres. A healthy guard chop, some longer leaf springs, front and rear axles from a Toyota FJ62 with auto-lockers and a second hand set of 37in tyres are enough to have you competitive in the rocks.
With a narrow track and narrower body Sierras and LJs are able to squeeze through tight spots where others require expensive rear steering. Sierras have a huge following with our mates in the States, so aftermarket parts from the USA are just a click away.
FJ40 LAND CRUISER
Throughout its various forms the 40 Series LandCruiser has become an icon of the off-road world. Classic styling meets serious off-road ability, the perfect combination for a competition 4X4 with a little style. While pristine examples have sold recently for over $100,000 across the pond (obviously to someone who’s never driven one over outback corrugations on a 40ºC day), with some careful searching you can still pick up reasonably rust free examples for under $2,000 locally. They’re the original rock crawler so the path to capability is well trodden. A decent suspension set-up (spring over or links are equally popular), FJ62 axles and power steering conversion with a dirty big V8 between the chassis rails and you’re ready to rumble. It’s old school cool and exactly what a 40 Series LandCruiser should be.
Leaf spring suspension isn’t known for comfort, but it’s cheap and easy to achieve serious articulation.
The 45 Series ute has all the off-road credentials of the SWB 40 with half the sheet metal to dent.
SOLID AXLE HILUX
The early solid axle HiLux earned its spot on our budget rock crawlers list for a very good reason. With a weekend worth of fabrication, a couple grand’s worth of parts and some second hand mud tyres you could enter just about any competition you wanted. It’s a bargain when you consider running examples without current registration can be picked up for as little as $500. The early 84-85 Xtra-Cab is the pick of the bunch, maximum interior space, easily upgradable transfer cases and a factory braced front axle. A mix and match of factory leafs with extended shackles and upgraded steering are popular upgrades, although you’ll need aftermarket axles for anything larger than a 35in tyre.
Factory solid axle Luxies have a curve in the front chassis rail for clearance, up travel and a low centre of gravity which makes for a capable 4X4.
The stock front axle is weak in stock form, but upgrades are readily available to handle up to a 40in tyre.
The JK Wrangler might be stretching the budget angle a little too much, but dollar for dollar it’s one of the most capable rock crawling platforms available today. When you take into account you can literally buy every component off the shelf to bolt in coilover suspension, a Hemi V8, full width axles and bolt-on high clearance fenders for large tyres and low centre of gravity, the higher purchase price seems a lot more reasonable. Cheaper examples can be had for sub $15,000 but a $20,000 budget will net you a more solid foundation for your build.
Axle manufacturer Dana offers bolt in Dana 60 conversions that’ll handle a 54in tyre, almost makes it too easy.
Factory 5-link suspension front and rear make the JK one of the most capable 4X4s straight out of the box.