Turn on your television for perhaps 20 minutes and chances are you’ll see at least one commercial for sport utility vehicles.
And chances are, in some portion of the commercial, they’ll show the SUV bounding over hills, through the desert, or speeding up to a mountain campsite.
And perhaps you think, “I’m getting an SUV. Maybe I’d like to do that stuff.”
And you can if you get the right SUV. But many of today’s SUVs are basically cars with SUV bodies – they lack the features to do even basic off-roading, and if you attempt some of the serious stuff they show on TV, these car-based versions could easily be damaged beyond repair.
That’s because the vast majority of sport-utes never (intentionally) leave the pavement, yet there remain plenty of SUV customers who take the first word in SUV – sport – seriously. For true off-pavement enthusiasts we’re providing this guide to the best SUVs for off-roading.
First, you’ll need an SUV that has either all-wheel-drive or, for the more rustic stuff, four-wheel-drive. AWD vehicles are typically front-wheel-drive in most circumstances, with some power going to the rear wheels when needed, such as on slippery pavement. AWD vehicles, with some exceptions, are not as well equipped for off-roading as 4WD SUVs. Those are mostly called “crossovers” and that’s important because non-crossover, 4WD vehicles are more rugged. They utilize primarily rear-wheel-drive power distribution until you shift them into four-wheel-drive, when you anticipate either rough weather or an off-roading opportunity.
4WD vehicles are also more likely to feature dedicated all-terrain tires, a locking rear differential, and advanced off-road driving modes that include features like hill descent control and crawl control. While several automakers produce extremely capable off-road SUVs, you may have to select a specific trim level to get all of the best off-road features.
We’ve compiled a list of vehicles that, ranked in order of off-road capability, will ensure some S in your SUV. Those lower on this list are best used for basic, cow-trailing-type off-roading. You’ll need something higher in our rankings to ford streams and plow through serious mudholes.
Keep in mind, too, that some of the top-ranked off-roaders may ride more roughly, deliver lower fuel efficiency, and forgo some common luxury components you’ll find lower on the list, all while generating more tire and wind noise than you may find acceptable. You should carefully consider your wants and needs to better find a happy medium between on-road refinement and off-road prowess.
The Top 28 SUVs for Off-Roading
1. Jeep Wrangler
iSeeCars Quality Score: 9.2
Reliability Score: 8.5
Retained Value Score: 9.8
Safety Score: Not Available
Average New Car Price: $42,754
Average 3-Year-Old Used Car Price: $40,178
The Jeep Wrangler is the king of the off-road adventure, though it finally has competition with the introduction of the Ford Bronco. Unlike the Bronco, the Wrangler has “straight” axles like most pickup trucks. Take a pencil and hold it horizontally and press down on one end – the other end moves up. That’s how a straight axle works; it’s all connected. A vehicle with independent suspension is just that – one side of the suspension works independently of the other side. The Wrangler is the only new SUV sold with a straight front axle, which works great off-road, but will provide a slightly rougher ride on pavement. The Wrangler’s construction is body-on-frame, and it comes in two- and four-door models. Power is from a four- or six-cylinder engine, with an optional Hemi V-8 also offered. A plug-in hybrid has just been added to the model line, providing instant torque and quiet off-roading when desired. Models such as the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon and the Sahara contain all the off-road equipment you will ever need, including the all-important tow hooks, front skid plates and rear skid plates, and there’s a wide range of additional off-road equipment offered by Jeep dealers.
2. Ford Bronco
[ford bronco scores]
The long-awaited, new-for-2022 Ford Bronco takes a model name from the 1970s, and despite its traditional, angular body style, the Bronco is entirely up-to-date. It is aimed squarely at the Jeep Wrangler, and its presence in the market should generate some genuine competition between the two off-road kings. A turbo four-cylinder is standard; a turbo V6 engine is optional. Like the Jeep, the Bronco is offered in two- and four-door configurations; and like the Jeep, the roof and doors come completely off. Plenty of safety features are standard and more are optional. As with the Jeep, the price can rise quickly according to the features you want. And also like the Jeep, we predict that the Bronco’s resale value will be very high. Thanks in part to the independent front suspension, the on-road ride is better than the Jeep’s, but nowhere near as comfortable as some of the less aggressive SUVs. The Bronco is not to be confused with the smaller, Escape-based Bronco Sport; check it out at number 28.
3. Toyota 4Runner
[toyota 4runner scores]
The midsize four-door Toyota 4Runner is another of the comparative old-school SUVs that are capable of some serious off-roading, especially depending on the model you chose, and whether you partake of dealer-installed optional equipment such as larger tires and wheels. Compared to the Wrangler and Bronco, 4Runner customers give up a bit of off-road capability in return for Toyota’s legendary dependability. Power is from a V-6; standard is a part-time four-wheel-drive system, with the Limited model offering a four-wheel-drive system that can safely remain engaged.
4. Land Rover Defender
[land rover defender scores]
The boxy, hard-to-get Land Rover Defender is basically the European version of the Jeep Wrangler and Ford Bronco. Engine choices are a turbocharged four-cylinder, a six-cylinder and a supercharged V-8. It’s possible to option up a Defender to well over $100,000, so be careful out there. It’s available as a two- or four-door and can carry as many as seven people. The Land Rover Defender is an excellent off-roader while being nimble and relatively refined on road.
5. Land Rover Range Rover
[land rover range rover scores]
One of the best off-road vehicles built anywhere is one that virtually never goes off-road. The muscular Land Rover brand ambassador has maintained its off-road chops while turning into one of Hollywood’s more desirable on-pavement rides. The freshened 2022 model is the first time the Land Rover Range Rover is offered with third-row seating. Another feature is four-wheel-steering, which allows the rear wheels to turn in and out slightly, trimming the turning circle considerably and making it easier to maneuver. Power is from a hybrid six-cylinder and a supercharged V-8, with an electric version coming in the near future. If you can afford it, and can afford to get it filthy and perhaps dented and scratched up a bit, the Range Rover will take you anywhere you want to go.
6. Toyota Land Cruiser
[toyota land cruiser scores]
After 60 years, the heavy-duty Toyota Land Cruiser has been discontinued in the U.S. for the 2021 model year, though it is still sold in many overseas markets. We include it here because it’s sort of a poor-man’s Range Rover, though it’s quite expensive on its own, nearing $90,000 at the end, and maintaining stellar resale value. Luxurious, but never over-the-top like a Range Rover, the Land Cruiser has a reputation as being nearly bulletproof. The thirsty V-8 delivered a dismal 13 mpg city, 17 mpg highway, but had plenty of low-end power to tackle most any terrain, even though it weighed in at nearly 6,000 pounds. Two- or three-row seating was offered. We may see a brand-new Land Cruiser soon, as its corporate twin, the Lexus LX, remains on the market with a thorough redesign and V-6 power.
7. Jeep Grand Cherokee
[jeep grand cherokee scores]
Long one of the best compromises between good off-road capability and street smarts, the new-for-2022 Grand Cherokee maintains that tradition. Engines are a six-cylinder or a V-8, plus a turbocharged four-cylinder hybrid model. Rear-wheel-drive is standard, but there are three four-wheel-drive configurations available. True off-roaders might want to select the Trailhawk model, which offers air suspension and sway-bar disconnect. It’s a pretty fancy vehicle to take rock-crawling, but if you ask a properly-equipped Jeep Grand Cherokee to do it, the answer will be “Yes.” Worth noting: The previous-generation Grand Cherokee is also available alongside the redesigned model as the Grand Cherokee WK.
8. Mercedes-Benz G-Class
[mercedes-benz g-class scores]
Perhaps the strangest vehicle on the list and one of the priciest ones, the Mercedes-Benz G-Class has found favor with celebrities such as the Kardashians, who – like most owners – are unlikely to do any off-roading anywhere, ever. Known also as the Geländewagen, the G-Class has so many off-roading features you’ll be pulling out the owner’s manual to see which button does what. Powered by a twin-turbo V-8, the G-Wagen has plenty of acceleration and a very good ride despite its militaristic styling. A premium ride, similar to Land Rover’s Range Rover, the G-Class 550 model starts at about $135,000.
9. Lexus LX
[lexus lx 570 scores]
As mentioned in the Toyota Land Cruiser summary, the Lexus LX has long been a dressed-up Land Cruiser. The Land Cruiser was discontinued with the 2021 model, but a 2022 Lexus LX 600 has emerged completely redesigned with a twin-turbo six-cylinder replacing the V-8. Still a traditional body-on-frame configuration with a straight rear axle, there’s nothing old-school about the latest advanced technology throughout the LX’s plush cabin, making it ideal for a Saturday night on the town, followed by some dedicated off-roading on Sunday.
10. Land Rover Discovery
[land rover discovery scores]
A turbocharged four-cylinder engine is standard in the Land Rover Discovery, but off-roaders may prefer the turbocharged six-cylinder engine for its low-end torque. There’s an optional air suspension that will increase comfort and performance on- and off-road.
11. Land Rover Range Rover Sport
[land rover range rover sport scores]
Sort of the sportier little brother to the Range Rover, the Land Rover Range Rover Sport can be equipped with plenty of off-road equipment, including optional low-range gearing. Power is from a six-cylinder engine or a supercharged V-8. A third-row seat is an option.
12. Nissan Armada
[nissan armada scores]
Nissan has seldom touted the off-road capability of its big Nissan Armada, but properly equipped, it can get the job done. The first thing you need is its full-time four-wheel-drive, an option for the SUV that comes standard with rear-wheel-drive. A two-speed transfer case and hill start assist are part of the four-wheel-drive package. We like its big V-8 that has plenty of torque and horsepower to handle most any challenge, on-road or off. The old saw, “It can pass anything but a gas pump” applies here – the four-wheel-drive Armada is thirsty.
13. Infiniti QX80
[infiniti qx80 scores]
The luxurious INFINITI QX80 is the dressed-up twin to the Nissan Armada, so much of the Armada’s description applies here, including the fact that four-wheel-drive and the computer-controlled transfer case comes as an option. There’s an old-school vibe to the Armada and the QX80, which is not a criticism.
14. Nissan Pathfinder
[nissan pathfinder scores]
There’s nothing old-school about the Nissan Pathfinder, thanks to a redesign for 2022. The Pathfinder, properly equipped, has always been a capable performer off-road, and the new model is no different. Smaller than the Armada, the Pathfinder still offers a third-row seat, and is powered by a six-cylinder engine instead of the Armada’s V-8. Four-wheel-drive is an option.
15. Toyota Sequoia
[toyota sequoia scores]
Full-time four-wheel-drive is an option for Toyota’s big three-row SUV, which is powered by a healthy, and thirsty, V-8 engine. If the Toyota Sequoia feels a little dated, that’s because it is – an all-new model is coming for 2023. Instead of the V-8, the new third-generation Sequoia will be powered by a twin-turbo V-6 hybrid powertrain. The four-wheel-drive system is part-time and controlled through a transfer case.
16. Jeep Grand Cherokee L
iSeeCars Quality Score: Coming Soon
Reliability Score: Coming Soon
Retained Value Score: 8.5
Safety Score: 9.5
Average New Car Price: $51,878
Jeep has never had an SUV large enough to seat three rows of passengers comfortably, so it created one by extending the Grand Cherokee by nearly a foot, adding considerably to the interior space. All the off-road componentry available in the Grand Cherokee is available in the L version, but the extra length will make the L a bit more challenging to drive on tight trails.
17. Jeep Wagoneer
iSeeCars Quality Score: Coming Soon
Reliability Score: Coming Soon
Retained Value Score: 7.7
Safety Score: Coming Soon
Average New Car Price: $72,845
As the Jeep Grand Cherokee L is the company’s solution for three-row seating, the Wagoneer and premium Grand Wagoneer answer the need for something to counter vehicles like the Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban, with the Grand Wagoneer aimed solidly at the Cadillac Escalade. Being Jeeps, the Wagoneers have some sophisticated off-road equipment, but they’re too big for serious off-roading. Power isn’t a problem, though, as both come with muscular V-8s.
18. Subaru Outback
[subaru outback scores]
One of the most capable car-based crossovers, the Subaru Outback doesn’t have the ground clearance of some of the more capable SUVs, but there is a new Wilderness model that sits up higher and is more adept at cow-trailing than the standard model. With the optional turbocharged four-cylinder, the Outlander can hold its own, and still manages to serve as a daily grocery-getter and car-pooler.
19. GMC Yukon/Yukon XL
[gmc yukon scores]
GMC’s Yukon models, essentially the same as the Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban, are traditional body-on-frame vehicles, and as such are inherently more rugged than a unibody crossover. With optional four-wheel-drive, the Yukons have the power and adequate ground clearance for off-roading, but their weight and length makes them less nimble than smaller, lighter competitors. A new independent rear suspension helps smooth out the on-road ride and handling, and V-8 power makes serious towing possible.
20. Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban
[chevrolet tahoe scores]
[chevrolet suburban scores]
What’s said above applies to the Tahoe and the longer Chevrolet Suburban. As with the Yukon XL, the Suburban’s extra length – nearly 226 inches total – makes tight, curving off-road trails a challenge, as does the weight of nearly three tons. The Z71 package is the best choice for an off-road capable version.
21. Ford Explorer
[ford explorer scores]
The Ford Explorer started out life as a smaller, more agile off-road-capable vehicle, but grew into the present alternative to the family sedan, leaving off-road pretenses behind. That said, the Timberline model has such off-road accouterments as steel skid plates, a terrain management system and a limited-slip rear differential that make the Explorer a genuine trail boss. Four-wheel-drive is optional on the Explorer. The standard engine is a four-cylinder EcoBoost.
22. Ford Expedition
[ford expedition scores]
The much larger Ford Expedition, like the GMC Yukon, is too big for confidence-inspiring off-road trails, but the turbocharged six-cylinder engine has the power to make it work. That said, the Expedition, like the Explorer, has a Timberline package with items such as a “Rough Road Suspension” that helps off-road handling and ground clearance.
23. Hyundai Palisade
[hyundai palisade scores]
The rear-drive Hyundai Palisade, like its stablemate, the Kia Telluride, is offered in all-wheel-drive, but until now makes little mention ofoff-road capability. That changes with the Palisade’s XRT model, which has 20-inch tires, “skid plate design elements” and other features to at least look like it’s ready to go to the mountains.
24. Dodge Durango
[dodge durango scores]
The Dodge Durango has never touted its off-road ability, leaving corporate cousin Jeep to that role. But with optional four-wheel-drive, the Durango, which shares a platform with the Jeep Grand Cherokee, could be called upon for occasional off-roading, though it doesn’t offer a specific model for it. Six-cylinder- and V-8-power are offered. New Car Price Range: $34,320-$66,275
25. Cadillac Escalade
[cadillac escalade scores]
The full-size Cadillac Escalade luxury SUV has a lot in common with the Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban, but its more elegant nature would preclude getting too down ‘n dirty. It would not preclude life on a horse ranch, with the ability to drive from one pasture to another. A big V-8 is standard, and ground clearance is adequate.
26. Volvo XC60
[volvo xc60 scores]
Designed for an “all-road experience,” the Volvo XC60 has inadequate ground clearance for lively off-roading, but with all-wheel-drive, it can certainly hand23le muddy, rutted roads with little problem. Hill descent control is offered.
27. Porsche Cayenne
[porsche cayenne scores]
A dark horse here, the Porsche Cayenne was partly developed in off-road situations that make it more capable there than you’d assume from a vehicle with a “Porsche” badge. With air suspension, there’s a healthy maximum air suspension of 9.6 inches, and the approach and departure angles are in the ballpark of serious off-roaders. That said, few are likely to take the Porsche off road, but it offers genuine capability if needed.
28. Ford Bronco Sport
[ford bronco sport scores]
The Ford Bronco Sport is an Escape-based SUV, a little brother to the bigger and very off-road-capable Bronco. But it can be a good off-roader in its own right, albeit in more delicate situations. It has, Ford says, “standard 4x4 capability, G.O.A.T. Modes (Goes Over Any Type of Terrain) and a HOSS suspension system, [so] Bronco Sport is your gateway to the great outdoors.” There’s 8.8 inches of ground clearance on the Badlands model with the optional off-road tires.
Top 10 Off Road SUV Features
Before picking an off-road SUV you should also consider which features are essential to your off-roading plans. Many of the items listed below in our Top 10 Off-Road Features will be found on only the most ambitious vehicles like the Jeep Wrangler and Ford Bronco, while others are simply vehicle specifications to be aware of before you decide to buy.
Ground clearance: This one is critically important when climbing over rocks. It’s the distance, in inches, between the ground and the lowest-hanging part of the vehicle, be it a muffler, an axle or a shock absorber mount. Highly-capable off-road SUVs might give you a generous 10-plus inches of ground clearance, while vehicles that are more car than true SUV will give you less. It should be an easy question to answer when looking at vehicle specs.
Two-speed transfer case (or “low” range): Imagine there are two transmissions – one with a normal set of gears, and one that is a much lower range, where top speed might be 40 mph. That second transmission gives you more pulling power over the range of the gears, but isn’t for on-pavement use unless you live in Alaska. It’s called a two-speed transfer case not because it gives you two speeds, but two sets of speeds based on the gearing. Note, however, that some vehicles manage to offer impressive off-roading capability without a transfer case.
Approach angle: This is another measurement, typically given in degrees, not inches. If you drive your vehicle towards a suddenly steep part of the trail, and you try to climb it but the bottom of the front of the vehicle drags on the ground, you’ve just found your approach angle. It’s the angle in which you can climb an immediate obstacle without dragging a part of the chassis.
Departure angle: The opposite of approach angle, departure angle is the angle at which you can climb down a hill onto a flat surface without the tail of the vehicle dragging on the ground.
Breakover angle: Similar to ground clearance, it’s the angle of an obstacle you are trying to drive over, such as a mound of dirt, without the center point of the vehicle dragging, or worse, getting “high-sided” and caught on the obstacle, often requiring help to lift the vehicle to get it free. Imagine a low-riding vehicle dragging on the ground when it drives over a steep railroad crossing, and you have a vehicle with a poor breakover angle.
Suspension articulation: This is how much travel, in inches, the front and rear suspension has as it moves from its lowest point to its highest. The best off-roaders will have a high amount of suspension articulation. A lot of articulation will better keep all four tires on the ground as one side of the vehicle drives over a large rock.
Sway bar disconnect: The sway bar is an important part of the suspension that keeps the suspension relatively level when cornering on pavement. But off-road, it limites the suspension articulation we just discussed.The most dedicated off-road SUVs have a button that disconnects the sway bar at low speeds. It’s especially helpful when rock crawling.
Water fording: How deep of a creek can you cross without issue? That’s water fording, and it’s the specification the best off-road SUVs will be proud of. It involves making sure electrical parts are isolated from water penetration, and that the engine can still get air when part of that engine may be under water. Of course, there’s still a big question the SUV specifications can’t answer for you: Exactly how deep is that creek? So forder beware.
Hill descent control: Quite a few SUVs with any degree of off-road capability might have hill descent control – it’s essentially a setting that allows the transmission to “creep” down a steep hill, limiting the SUV’s speed without the driver even having to touch the brakes. It adds both safety and confidence during serious off roading.
Hill start assist: This is also widely available – it allows the vehicle to gently apply the brakes when it senses the SUV is on a steep hill, stopped. Rather than let the vehicle roll backwards, the brakes hold it in place until forward motion is initiated through throttle application. This technology is common in manual shift vehicles driven on the street, but it’s also available for off-road oriented SUVs with automatic transmissions.
Not all SUVs are created equal when it comes to off-road capability. Whether you want the occasional off-road adventure, or if going off the beaten path is part of your daily driving pursuits, there is a capable SUV to suit your needs.
More from iSeeCars:
If you’re in the market for a new or used car, you can search over 4 million used and new cars with iSeeCars’ award-winning car search engine that helps shoppers find the best car deals by providing key insights and valuable resources, like the iSeeCars free VIN check and Best Cars rankings. Whether you want an SUV, coupe, convertible, sporty sedan, or hatchback, car buying has never been so easy.
This article, the 28 Best SUVs for Off-Roading, originally appeared on iSeeCars.com.