Mad Max:Fury Road took home the most awards of any movie at this weekend’s Academy Awards, and rightfully so for those badass cars and incredible effects. But what if you need to cross a harsh, unyielding wasteland in an ordinary production car rather than a souped-up war rig running on guzzoline and adrenaline? A good desert rig must have the off-road capability, storage and reliability to handle a serious trek. Here are fifteen vehicles, both old and new that are likely to handle the extremes better than most.
Remember, one-third of the Earth’s landmass is desert.
1 2008-2016 Toyota Land Cruiser
The Land Cruiser has a legendary reputation for off-road ruggedness that stretches back more than six decades. The latest model, the Land Cruiser 200, is a 5.7-liter V8-powered beast that packs 381 hp channeled to an 8-speed automatic. It can handle a payload of 1,320 pounds and tow more than four tons. So even though the burly V8 only delivers around 15 mpg, the Land Cruiser can easily support the weight of auxiliary fuel tanks. The four-wheel drive system operates all the time and has a Torsen center differential to put the torque where it’s needed. The only downside for Land Cruiser ownership is the steep price of entry: more than $80,000.
2 1998-2016 Volvo XC70 (Cross Country)
The old-school boxy-but-beautiful Volvo 240 series wagons were, sadly, never offered with all-wheel drive. But these beasts were some of the longest-lived wagons in the world and cemented Volvo’s reputation for safety and quality, a reputation that would endure. In 1998, Volvo added a high-riding all-wheel drive model to the lineup, the V70 XC (Cross Country). For close to 20 years now, the Cross Country nameplate has been used for Volvo’s most durable AWD wagons. These cars wouldn’t be the very best for a desert trek that involved heavy off-roading and deep sand. But we had the opportunity a decade ago to take a lap of Baja, Mexico in an XC70, and came away impressed by its durability and traction. Today’s models offer a generous 72 cu-ft. of storage for gear and return up to 31 mpg on the highway. Good news for when you need to haul gear across a post-apocalyptic wasteland and don’t know when you’re find more gas again.ADVERTISEMENT – CONTINUE READING BELOW
3 1949-1979 VW Beetle
In a list full of big, tough, boxy trucks and SUVs, the original cutesy-looking Bug might feel like it doesn’t belong. Don’t be fooled: These cars were hardy vehicles with excellent off-road ability. Because the Beetle’s rear-engine configuration put so much weight over those rear drive wheels, these little VWs became the blueprint for the original dune buggies of the 1960s. Countless Beetles were lifted, cut, and flared to accommodate bigger tires and driven all over the desert landscapes of the Southwest. The stock flat four-cylinder didn’t make much horsepower, but those engines are fuel efficient and exceedingly easy to work on. And because so many Beetles were produced, the global parts supply is plentiful. Just be sure to keep an eye on the temp gauge when you’re out on the sand, because Beetles are, of course, air-cooled.
4 1998-2016 Subaru Forester
Not all 4WD systems are created equal. The powertrains used in Subarus are known for offering exceptional traction in slippery conditions. A good desert vehicle needs to be reliable too, and no matter the year, the Subaru Forester has proven to be one of the most robust in the company’s lineup.
Today’s 2.5i models come with a six-speed manual transmissions standard and an all-wheel drive system with a unique viscous coupling locking center differential that can split torque equally front to rear. It’s also the lightest model and has the lowest combined gear ratio and offers 8.7-inches of ground clearance for comfortable rough road travel. A version of Subaru’s 2.5-liter flat-four cylinder engine has been under the hood of American Foresters for 20 years, and they are so reliable that owners of other manufacturer’s vehicles tend to swap them into their cars when the original engine run out of life.ADVERTISEMENT – CONTINUE READING BELOW
5 1992-2006 Hummer H1
The H1 has plenty of faults. It’s enormously wide, slow, and utterly impractical for use as street vehicle. But none of that matters when your miles from pavement and trying to survive a desert expedition. That’s what this bad boy was made for: As an all-terrain military vehicle, the Hummer was purpose-built to perform well in a hot, sandy environment.
The H1 drivetrain is sucked up into the chassis, providing around 16 inches of ground clearance. When the dunes get really deep, you can reduce the air pressure of those massive 37-inch tires right from the cab by using the Hummer’s central tire inflation system. Most models come with a reliable GM-built diesel, and spare parts can be sourced globally because the Hummer has been in service with the U.S. military since the early 1980s.
6 2004-2016 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited
The best Wranglers for a desert adventure are the long-wheelbase Unlimited models. These long Jeeps arrived in 2004 as stretched Wranglers, but when the model was redesigned in 2007, Jeep installed four full doors and much more room inside for people and stuff. To make them even more capable off-road, the Rubicon package adds larger axles, locking differentials, a disconnectable front swaybar for increased wheel travel, and a transfer case with ultra-low gearing. It’s hard to imagine a stock vehicle available today that’s as well suited for off-road travel.
For you, the desperate desert traveler, the most valuable asset the Rubicon Unlimited offers is its popularity. Jeep enthusiasts worldwide have embraced the vehicle, as has the 4WD aftermarket, so there are huge catalogs of upgraded replacement parts available for this vehicle.ADVERTISEMENT – CONTINUE READING BELOW
7 1979-1985 4WD Toyota Hilux Pickup
The early Toyota trucks are some of the most reliable and durable 4WD vehicles ever sold in the U.S. These little pickups helped to forge Toyota’s legendary reputation for quality. Finding one with anything less than 200,000 miles is considered “low mileage” thanks to the simplicity and durability of the 20R four-cylinder engine.
These indestructible Toyotas were available around the world, so although the oldest of these models are closing in on 40 years old, replacement parts are still around. Thanks to the robust solid axle and a high-riding leaf-sprung front suspension, these little Toyota pickup have incredible ground clearance and off-road capability. In terms of traction, reliability and fuel consumption, these models would be excellent desert runners.
8 1979-2016 Mercedes G-Class
The Mercedes-Benz G-Class or G-Wagen—currently known as the G550, the AMG G63, and AMG G65 here in the US—is plenty popular amongst the “Real Housewives” crowd and Hollywood celebrities. Don’t let the glitz fool you. These Mercs might be popular on the streets of Beverly Hills, but the near-bombproof, slab-sided SUVs have their roots in the military and are respected throughout the world for their off-highway talents.
The modern G-Wagen is particularly popular in the United Arab Emirates, where long-distance desert-running is a natural part of off-road driving. These heavy-duty machines have body-on-frame construction and stout solid axles with locking differentials at each end for true four-wheel drive. The G-Wagen is so popular in these wealthy desert climes that the company recently offered a wild long cab six-wheel drive pickup version of the truck, called the G63 6X6 with huge 37-inch tires.
No matter which G-Wagen you choose, they’re all a little thirsty. So we’d mount extra fuel cells before taking off across the desert.ADVERTISEMENT – CONTINUE READING BELOW
9 Suzuki Samurai 1985-1995
With a wheelbase of just under 80 inches, Suzuki’s trucklet is small machine, one that might seem like an odd choice for taking on the Earth’s more extreme climates. The little’s Samurai’s secret is its weight. This thing measures barely over a ton, so with the right tires, it will float easily over dunes that would otherwise bog down heavier trucks. The simple solid axle, leaf-sprung front and rear suspension along with manual steering, manual hubs, and a manual transmission meant the Samurai offered simple, reliable 4WD performance and excellent durability. These trucks were very inexpensive to buy new and repair, so stocking up on parts for that desert adventure wouldn’t be hard on the wallet.
10 2010-2017 Ford Raptor
Of all the vehicles here, only the Raptor was designed specifically to dominate the desert. The original Raptor took Ford’s mega-selling F-150 pickup and increased its off-road capability with a new long-travel suspension. With more than 11 inches of wheel travel up front and 13 in the rear, those original V8-powered Raptors were perfect for deep sand running.
The last-generation Raptor ended production in 2014, but there’s an all-new one on deck for this fall and it’s packing a 3.5-liter turbocharged V6, a ten-speed automatic, and a new four-wheel drive system with six preset drive modes. New Raptor or old, this is one truck that, with no modifications, could cross just about any desert around the globe quicker and easier than just about any vehicle ever made.
11 1993-1997 Land Rover Defender
The Defender goes back decades. The original Land Rover models that date to 1948 are some of the most capable adventure machines the world has known. So when Land Rover returned to the U.S. and brought the Defender 110 across the pond in 1993 (just 500 were brought in, and all were white) the trucks became instant classics. Today, these Land Rovers and their shorter D90 brethren are very collectible. But that wouldn’t stop us from using them for what they were designed to do: blazing a trail through tough terrain.
Like many on this list, the Defender is a great workhorse because of its simple mechanical makeup and no-frills interior. The only is poor fuel economy. So we’d certainly upgrade any North American spec Defender with larger fuel tanks. Better still we’d consider swapping in a fuel-sipping diesel from a European market Defender and perhaps even a few heavy-duty drivetrain parts from military-spec Land Rovers.
12 1983-2002 Isuzu Trooper
The utilitarian Isuzu Trooper launched in the early ’80s and was tough, simple, and very boxy. The early 2.2-liter four-cylinder models were slow but reliable. A redesigned model came in the early 1990s, and these second-generation trucks are seriously capable machines.
Troopers rode on a heavy-duty frame with an independent suspension up front and a coil-spring, solid-axle suspension at the rear. That suspension delivered excellent wheel travel to handle the rigors of desert two-track and dune driving. In other words, here’s one SUV that’s extremely comfortable when the roads get rough. Later models have a powerful 3.5-liter V6 and a sophisticated Borg-Warner “torque on demand” four wheel drive system that added to the Trooper’s breadth of capability. The Trooper was sold globally under a variety of nameplates, including our personal favorite—the Australian-badged Holden Jackaroo.
13 2015-2016 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4WD Van
A desert excursion requires room for lots of supplies. What better vehicle to haul them than a 4WD van with payload of more than 3,000 pounds? We can imagine loading the back of that van with gear or contacting an upfitter to transform the empty box into a mini motorhome.
The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter is really in a class of one. No other van sold in North American offers a real 4WD system with low-range gearing. The Sprinter’s tall stance comes from a suspension lift of just over 4 inches up front and 3 inches in the rear. So rolling along over dusty desert two tracks shouldn’t be a problem. And since every 4WD Sprinter comes with a turbo-diesel V6, both fuel economy and power are well matched to the chassis.
14 2005-2016 Dodge (Ram) Power Wagon
When Dodge brought back the legendary Power Wagon nameplate more than ten years ago, 4WD fans were blown away by its capability. The big Dodge had a taller suspension, locking differentials and an automatically disconnectible front swaybar. For slow-speed adventure, the Dodge was easily one of the most capable pickup trucks made. Thanks to a big 5.7-iter Hemi V8 and a later 410-hp 6.4-liter V8, the Power Wagons have the underhood prowess to really spin those big 33-inch tires.
Unlike any other pickup truck, Power Wagons have always had a standard front-mounted winch. And that could be a helpful when a member of the desert convey is buried in a sand dune.
15 1982-2006 Mitsubishi Montero
Think of the Montero as Mitsubishi’s answer to the Toyota Land Cruiser. Three generations of the boxy SUV were imported to the U.S. and each one gained roominess and refinement. But for hardcore use, our pick would be the SR model from the 1990s.
The later versions of these rare machines had a larger 3.5-liter V6 along with a heavy-duty rear axle fitted with a locking differential. The SR also came with adjustable shocks to allow the driver to tune the ride quality for “soft,” “medium,” and “hard”. This was a rare option back in the mid-1990s.
The Montero was known as the Pjero in other parts of the world and was produced in a large number of countries including India, Columbia, China, and of course Japan. So finding parts for these workhorse SUVs wouldn’t be too tough. Trouble is, the Montero is rare here in the U.S, so finding any generation in good condition is a challenge.