What's the best way to get off-road if you're not into the ATV or motocross scene? The answer is a sport-utility vehicle. It's a truism in the industry that not all options in this category are the best off-road SUVs, which means that you need to do a little research before driving home in a trail-breaker. Japan, Germany, and the USA all build formidable off-road sport-utility vehicles, which provides plenty of options for drivers who want to tread where no tire has tread before.
Let's take a quick look at 10 of the best off-road SUVs.
Best Off-Road SUVs - #1 - 2012 Jeep Wrangler
The 2012 Jeep Wrangler is the prototypical sport-utility vehicle, and routinely listed as the best SUV for off-road driving. The Jeep Wrangler is available with two different four-wheel drive systems, including the Rubicon trim level's ultra-low geared setup, and it can also feature skid plates, locking front and rear axles, and an electronically-detachable front sway bar for additional articulation when rock climbing. Power is excellent from the Jeep Wrangler's 3.6-liter V-6, as it offers 285 horses and 260 lb-ft of torque, and transmission choices include a six-speed manual and a five-speed automatic.
Best Off-Road SUVs - #2 - 2012 Nissan Xterra
The 2012 Nissan Xterra truly shines as an off-road SUV when ordered in PRO-4X trim. This installs hill descent control for negotiating steep inclines, a hill start assist feature that prevents the mid-size sport-utility vehicle from rolling backwards, and an electronically locking rear differential. It also adds knobby all-terrain tires to grip through the mud that much better. Four-wheel drive and the choice between a six-speed auto and a six-speed manual transmission are offered with the Nissan Xterra, and its standard 4.0-liter V-6 generates 261 horsepower and 281 lb-ft of torque.
Best Off-Road SUVs - #3 - 2011 Toyota Land Cruiser
The 2011 Toyota Land Cruiser isn't just the most expensive and luxurious truck in the Japanese brand's lineup, but it's also the most capable when it comes to negotiating the rough stuff. Another model with a long history of being considered one of the best off-road SUVs, the Toyota Land Cruiser's plush interior trappings are complemented by full-time four-wheel drive, the Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (to minimize body roll and maximize articulation), and Crawl Control. Ample motivation flows from the Land Cruiser's 5.7-liter V-8, which has 381 horsepower and 401 lb-ft of torque on offer, and a six-speed automatic tranny handles the shifting duties for the vehicle.
Best Off-Road SUVs - #4 - 2012 Chevrolet Tahoe
The 2012 Chevrolet Tahoe is typically thought of as a tow vehicle, or a people mover, but when outfitted with the Z71 option package it becomes a serviceable, if heavy, off-road SUV. The Z71 package brings with it a rugged suspension system that is capable of absorbing the shocks provided by wilderness trails, as well as special 18-inch rims and rubber, and skid plates to protect sensitive areas of the Chevrolet Tahoe's chassis. The Tahoe features a 5.3-liter V-8 engine that has been tuned to provide 320 horsepower and 335 lb-ft of torque, and four-wheel drive is available with low-range gearing. A six-speed automatic transmission is provided free of charge with each and every version of the Chevrolet.
Best Off-Road SUVs - #5 - 2012 Land Rover LR4
The 2012 Land Rover LR4 might be aimed at the upper crust of SUV shoppers, but its fierce combination of specialized off-road equipment make it a formidable chariot in the mud and the muck. The Land Rover LR4 offers the brand's unique Terrain Response System, which calibrates the engine, transmission, and full-time four-wheel drive systems for the specific environment that the vehicle is driving in, and the SUV also features hill descent control, and the option of a locking rear differential to help improve traction. All LR4s are equipped with a 375 horsepower 5.0-liter V-8. Also capable of generating 375 lb-ft of torque, this unit is managed by a six-speed automatic transmission.
Best Off-Road SUVs - #6 - 2012 Toyota FJ Cruiser
The 2012 Toyota FJ Cruiser is styled to resemble the iconic FJ40, one of the best off road SUVs of all time and a vehicle whose spirit is captured by the modern vehicle. The Toyota FJ Cruiser is notable for its excellent approach and departure angles, which prevents it from getting hung-up on the trail or rockface, and when ordered with the Off-Road package it benefits from the installation of a locking rear differential, Bilstein shocks, and a few other small touches designed to provide peace of mind when driving miles from civilization. The FJ Cruiser is offered with a 4.0-liter V-6 under the hood, and the unit is capable of putting out 260 horsepower and 271 lb-ft of torque, sent to all four wheels (when optional full-time four-wheel drive is selected) via a six-speed manual tranny. A less hardcore four-wheel drive system is also available with the Toyota, and it is paired with a five-speed automatic gearbox.
Best Off-Road SUVs - #7 - 2012 Suzuki Grand Vitara
The 2012 Suzuki Grand Vitara is one of the few remaining compact SUVs that can be counted on to ply off-road trails with relative impunity. The stout Suzuki Grand Vitara is small in all the right places, which means that it can fit around corners and cross narrow passes that larger sport-utility vehicles just can't handle. Four-wheel drive with low-range gearing is optional on the Limited trim level, which also comes with a spare tire mounted on the tailgate for easier swaps if necessary. A 2.4-liter, 166 horsepower four-cylinder engine that additionally produces 162 lb-ft of torque is standard with the Grand Vitara, as is a four-speed automatic (on the Grand Vitara Limited).
Best Off-Road SUVs - #8 - 2011 Lexus LX
The 2011 Lexus LX 570 can be thought of as the even more up-market edition of the Toyota Land Cruiser. The Lexus LX shares the Land Cruiser's extremely capable off-road SUV platform, giving it a level of all-terrain prowess not seen in any other luxury truck outside of the Land Rover stable. Adding to its adaptive suspension system and full-time four-wheel drive is an adjustable ride height feature that can raise the sport-utility vehicle up in order to better clear an obstacle. Horsepower is excellent, measuring as 383 ponies from its 5.7-liter V-8, and torque checks in at 403 lb-ft. A six-speed automatic transmission is included with the LX 570.
Best Off-Road SUVs - #9 - 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee
The 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee is more than just a comfortable commuter - it shares important DNA with the Wrangler in the form of three available four-wheel drive systems, each tuned to deliver a specific level of off-road capability. The Jeep Grand Cherokee's Quadra-Drive II system includes the Selec-Terrain feature for optimal power and traction management under a wide range of driving situations, limited-slip differentials front and rear, a low-range transfer case, and hill descent control. It's also possible to install Quadra-Lift air suspension in order to give the driver control over the vehicle's ground clearance. Engines offered with the Grand Cherokee include a 3.6-liter V-6 (290 horses, 260 lb-ft of torque), and a 5.7-liter V-8 (360 horsepower, 390 lb-ft of torque), paired with five and six-speed automatic transmissions, respectively.
Best Off-Road SUVs - #10 - 2012 Volkswagen Touareg
The 2012 Volkswagen Touareg isn't quite as hardcore as some of the other SUVs on this list when it comes to off-roading, but its all-wheel drive system, excellent ground clearance, and solid power give it the ability to play around in the mud as long as the driver is aware of its limits. The Volkswagen Touareg features the choice between a 280 horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6 (that also generates 265 lb-ft of torque), and a 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6 that provides 225 horsepower and 406 lb-ft of torque. Regardless of which model is selected, the Touareg is outfitted with an eight-speed automatic transmission.