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5 top off-road SUVs that have real rock-crawling capabilities

Photo courtesy Subaru of America Photo courtesy Subaru of America

Most SUVs these days are mild-mannered crossovers, with unibody construction, lots of creature comforts, and road tires that hardly ever get dirty. Not these four-wheelers. All, with the possible exception of Subaru’s Outback, have the required rock-crawling bona fides—and even the Subie, which has all-wheel drive, has been known to wander off the tarmac on occasion. So if you seek something a bit more rugged than what many SUVs have to offer, give these bad boys a look.

1. Ford Bronco Sport

Photo courtesy Ford Motor Company

Photo courtesy Ford Motor Company

After a quarter-century hiatus, Ford has reintroduced the Bronco and Bronco Sport SUVs for model year 2021. The Bronco Sport, which debuted first, is a Mexican-built, unibody, subcompact SUV based on the Ford Escape platform, and it’s ready for off-road duty from the get-go.

Even the Base model Sport, with its 3-cylinder engine, comes with AWD and a knob that lets the driver choose between modes such as Sand and Slippery. The Badlands trim level—with higher ground clearance, all-terrain tires, a more sophisticated AWD system, and a four-cylinder engine—is a capable rock-crawler.

Though it favors premium fuel for best performance, the 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine is smooth, quiet, and gives zippy acceleration. The Sport rides rather hard, and its steering is light but accurate. Every Sport comes with a generous suite of advanced safety features. Its 2,200-pound towing capacity is chintzy, but the spacious cargo area can hold a pair of mountain bikes upright. —Peter Bohr

Base MSRP: (Four trim levels): $29,400–$36,100

Safety ratings: NHTSA: 5 stars overall; IIHS: good (all crash-related ratings), Top Safety Pick Plus

Basic warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles

Read more: Car review: 2021 Ford Bronco Sport First Edition

2. Jeep Wrangler

Photo courtesy FCA US LLC

Photo courtesy FCA US LLC

The Jeep Wrangler’s heritage reaches all the way back to G.I. Joe’s Jeeps of World War II. But the Wrangler, which hadn’t received a makeover in a decade, was ripe for one in 2018.

Unlike most contemporary SUVs, the Wrangler isn’t a crossover. It continues with body-on-frame construction and two solid axles. There are still 2- and 4-door versions (80 percent of buyers pick the latter), and the classic military-inspired Jeep look remains.

But there are new weight-saving aluminum doors, an eTorque mild-hybrid turbo 4-cylinder powertrain with a new 8-speed automatic transmission, new electro-hydraulic steering, a new “power” top, a re-engineered canvas top, new infotainment touch screens, and added advanced safety features.

In terms of comfort, performance, handling, and efficiency, the Wrangler is in a different league from its forebears. Sure, the ride is still stiff, and there’s some wind rush at speed. But it’s vastly more civilized on the road, with no compromises to the amazing off-road ability that’s always been a Wrangler trademark. A plug-in hybrid version, the 4xe, became available in 2021. —Peter Bohr

Base MSRP: (11 trim levels): $30,700–$76,200

Safety ratings: NHTSA, IIHS: not yet rated

Basic warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles

3. Land Rover Defender 110

Photo courtesy Jaguar Land Rover North America

Photo courtesy Jaguar Land Rover North America

The Defender is the vehicle you’ll want when the San Andreas Fault lets go and destroys the freeways—it’s the real deal, not some wimpy crossover SUV.

The 2021 Defender is the successor to Defenders last sold in the U.S. in 1997. Rather than a steel body-on-frame design, though, the new Defender (which comes in two models, the 2-door Defender 90 and the 4-door Defender 110) has an aluminum monocoque body and 4-wheel independent suspension. Loaded with sophisticated technology, it offers a plethora of specialized driving modes—from rock clambering to river wading. Tall, wide, and hunky, it’s a Tonka toy for adults.

But features that make the Defender so capable off road make it less than ideal on it. High ground clearance means it’s a long reach to enter or exit the cabin. The suspension can take big hits but doesn’t coddle occupants with a soft ride. The massive all-terrain tires are noisy on pavement. A heavy brute, even the mild-hybrid 6-cylinder Defender swills premium petrol.

Some buyers enthralled with the Defender’s rugged style will never venture off road; for them, other Land Rovers are better suited to daily driving than the Defender. —Peter Bohr

Base MSRP: (Five trim levels): $53,100–$116,000

Safety ratings: NHTSA, IIHS: not yet rated

Basic warranty: 4 years/50,000 miles

Read more: Land Rover Defender 110: A real off-road SUV

4. Subaru Outback

Photo courtesy Subaru of America

Photo courtesy Subaru of America

Although no one car model can do it all, the wagon-like Subaru Outback, redesigned for 2020, is capable of doing more than most crossovers when it’s time to get outta town.

In fact, parking a sixth-generation Outback in your garage might very well expand your horizons. With an easily accessible roof rack and nearly 76 cubic feet of cargo space inside, there’s little need to make hard choices about what to take on your next road trip.

And speaking of hitting the highway, the 2.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder, which produces 260 hp, provides an excellent balance of strong acceleration and good fuel economy: 26 mpg overall. (A nonturbo 2.5-liter 4 is also available.)

The Outback’s suspension delivers a respectable ride and decent handling on the pavement. When we left the asphalt behind, the standard AWD system and nearly 9 inches of ground clearance let us tackle rutted, overgrown dirt tracks without breaking a sweat.

The cabin is roomy and comfortable, though a tad dull. Factor in top safety scores from NHTSA and IIHS, though, and you’ve got a vehicle fit to take you just about anywhere you want to go. —Alan Rider

Base MSRP: (8 trim levels): $28,100–$41,100

Safety ratings: NHTSA: 5 stars overall; IIHS: good (all crash-related ratings); Top Safety Pick Plus

Basic warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles

Read more: Subaru Outback: A vehicle fit for almost anywhere you want to go

5. Toyota 4Runner

Photo courtesy 2021 Toyota Motor Sales, Inc.

Photo courtesy 2021 Toyota Motor Sales, Inc.

Old school. The Toyota 4Runner wears that mantle proudly—which is a good thing, because there aren’t that many truly off-road-capable SUVs out there anymore. Its last serious redesign occurred in 2010.

The midsize 4Runner’s burly body-on-frame construction, available 4-wheel drive with low-range gearing, and nearly 10 inches of ground clearance enable it to tackle some seriously gnarly trails. Our TRD Pro test model upped the ante with a front skid plate, locking rear differential, and Toyota’s clever Crawl Control (think low-speed, off-road cruise control). All 4Runners have LED headlights and a 5,000-pound towing capacity.

A comfortable interior also makes this rugged SUV pretty easy to live with every day. The cabin gets props for its straightforward controls, updated infotainment cluster, roomy backseat, and 90-cubic-foot cargo hold. Toyota’s Safety Sense P package of advanced safety features is standard.

As you might expect from such an anachronistic vehicle, there are downsides, including a stiff ride. We also found that the thirsty 4.0-liter V6 (17 mpg combined) had a somewhat touchy throttle. But if your goal is to go where the crowds aren’t, the 4Runner is a hard beast to beat. —Alan Rider

Base MSRP (Eight trim levels): $38,500–$53,300

Safety ratings: NHTSA: 4 stars overall; IIHS: good (all crash-related ratings)

Basic warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles

Read more: Car review: Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro

Peter Bohr and Alan Rider each have more than three decades’ worth of experience driving and reviewing the latest cars and light trucks the automotive world has to offer.

With AAA’s free Car Buying Service, members can enjoy a no-hassle experience when purchasing a new or used vehicle. Get estimated pricing and access to online inventory before visiting a AAA-recommended dealer near you. For details, go to AAA.com/auto or call 800-709-7222.

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