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Off-Roaders: which one is really king of the hill?

Everybody knows that the Land Rover Defender is the best 4x4, and that makes it the best classic off-roader of them all. Doesn’t it? Well, sort of. If you’re using your off-roader to go mud-plugging and staying off the roads, it’s certainly up there.

But in reality, most classic off-roaders are still very firmly on the Queen’s Highway. And that opens up a whole new criterion for judging greatness. And as wonderfully classless as the Defender is, relaxing you on the M25 on the way to the Bromley Pageant is not among its greatest talents.

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So, here are the best seven classic off-roaders – for enjoying on the road.

1) Range Rover P38


In case you hadn’t noticed, Range Rover P38s are cool now. It happened some time in 2015, when enthusiasts cottoned on to just how cheap they were to buy, and how the passage of time has been really kind to the way they look. Memories of stricken, suffering from electronic or air suspension breakdowns capable of doing the same to their owners’ brains, are beginning to subside. As are those of weak BMW diesels struggling to pull this hefty car along at anything resembling a decent pace. Now, it’s the prospect of the healthy rumble of their V8s, elegant well-trimmed interior, and square-rigged styling that’s likely to attract your attention. And that’s why they’re cool now.


2) Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen


The Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen’s appeal is very different to a Range Rover’s. And yet, in many ways, these two cars are impressively similar. They’re comfortable to drive on road, are available with some very nice petrol engines, and even to this day, are almost unbeatable off-road. Of course, the Mercedes-Benz is a more utilitarian-looking car, but unlike the Land Rover Defender, the G-Wagen was kept up to date technically by its maker. They’re not cheap, unless you want an early 230 petrol, but deliciously appealing, whatever one you go for.


3) Jeep Cherokee XJ


If anyone tells you that your Jeep Cherokee is a big, blundering off-roader, you should remind them that this was a car designed to be sold in Europe, and it’s smaller than a Ford Focus estate. Avoid the 2.5-litre turbodiesel and enjoy a square-rigged off-roader that looks better now than it did when it was launched more than 30 years ago. Truly brilliant off road, and rust aside, a dependable classic option.


4) Lada Niva


The original Soviet off-roader was actually styled in the early 1970s, and designed to ape the Fiat 127. As a consequence, this 4x4 has a petite footprint, and looks really rather elegant if you choose to ignore some of the worst 1980s special editions. It might be a little rough around the edges, but on the road, the Niva isn’t bad news at all. Heavy yes, but far from clumsy. Worth buying for curiosity value alone.


5) Toyota Land Cruiser


It might sound like a cliché, but it’s a true one at that – if you want reliability in your off-roader, then buy a Toyota Land Cruiser. It doesn’t matter which one you go for – a delicate early FJ40 to one of the most recent behemoths – you’ll get a tough and honest off-roader that’s so dependable, it was good enough to kill off Land Rover sales in countless export markets. Probably best not take one into Birmingham, then.


6) Ford Bronco


Known by millions as the car that OJ Simpson took part in the world’s slowest car chase back in 1994, the Ford Bronco is a great off-roader that’s supremely comfortable on it, too. Only sporadically imported into the UK, the Bronco is far from common, but worth seeking out. Little short of the Grand Canyon will stop one off-road, and that makes it a rare delight. Parts availability is great and simple mechanics make it a doddle to work on.


7) Range Rover Classic


Keeping the best ‘til last, the Range Rover Classic is still the king of the hill off-road. With perfect looks, an amazing driving position, smooth on-road driving and an image that can’t be beat, what else comes close? We’ll brush over the chassis rot they suffer from, and the late model unreliability, as we’d hope you’d know to avoid this when choosing yours. The only downside is that everyone loves a Range Rover Classic, and that means you’re looking at a lot of money these days for a nice one. At least if you do find a cheap one that needs work, you won’t struggle finding parts for it.

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