Just because U.S. drivers are buying more pickup trucks and SUVs doesn't mean they can take all of them off road... or would know what to do with them on dirt or sand once they get there.
Last year, the Ford (F - Get Report) F-series of pickup trucks were the best-selling vehicles of the year, according to MotorIntelligence. That's 40 years as the best-selling truck in the U.S. and 35 as the best-selling vehicle. Nearly 821,000 F-Series trucks were sold in 2016, up 2.4% from a year earlier. That outpaced GM's (GM - Get Report) Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup (almost 797,000, down nearly 5.5% from 2015) and Fiat Chrysler's (FCAU - Get Report) Ram series of pickups (489,400, up 8.7% from 2015). The Toyota (TM - Get Report) Camry (388,600), Honda (HMC - Get Report) Accord (345,000) and Nissan Altima (307,400) midsize cars all remained massively popular, as did the smaller Honda Civic (367,000) and Toyota Corolla (360,500), but there's little question that last year was the year of the SUV.
With gas prices still below $2.40, U.S. vehicle buyers purchased more than 6.7 million sport utility vehicles and crossovers in 2016. While just 1.8 million of those were the truck-based SUVs that rose to prominence in the '90s and early 2000s, more efficient car-based crossovers saw sales grow twice the rate of standard SUVs year-over-year.
Both standard SUVs and crossovers combined still fell short of the number of cars sold during the same span (7 million), thanks largely to low gas prices, but their renewed popularity is raising questions amid a new presidential administration. In June, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a Midterm Evaluation of its goal to raise fleet-wide average fuel efficiency to a 54.5 miles per gallon (roughly 38 miles per gallon on window stickers) by 2025. The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute found that cars and light trucks purchased in 2016 got an average of 25.2 miles to the gallon.
That's actually down from 25.3 mpg the year before, and 25.4 the year before that, and it's made the EPA a little anxious about whether or not automakers can hit that 2025 mileage mark.
While 25.2 mpg is far better than the 19 miles per gallon that the Department of Transportation measured for the same pool of vehicles in 1995 -- and is closing in on double the average mileage of the light-duty vehicles on U.S. roads in 1980 -- it's the less more versatile gas guzzlers that tend to perform best off of the asphalt. They come at a premium, too. According to Kelley Blue Book, even an unmodified full-size pickup will run you $46,182, on average, while a full-size SUV goes for nearly $61,000. With summer here and the dunes, deserts and deep mud calling, we've pulled from multiple sources and came up with 15 of your best options for off-roading this season.
These vehicles will get you onto that rugged terrain, but novices may want to invest in roadside assistance to get out of it.
Starting price: $25,645
Consider this the beginner's model. That 8.7 inches of ground clearance may help you out in a blizzard, but it's going to be of limited use over more varied terrain. That all-wheel drive will keep you grounded on gravel, but don't think it'll save you on the sand. We know that these are primarily school shuttles, but for folks or families who'll be doing some trail driving in national forests or parks this summer, that 35.5 cubic feet of cargo space (73.3 with the seats down) and 29.4 miles per gallon will serve them better than a sedan. That said, this is as lightweight as this list gets.
Starting price: $38,445
We don't know what's up with the '90s Xtreme theme restaurant name, but the Jeep Wrangler's Rubicon package has been the gold standard for this 4x4's off-road capabilities. It's the Jeep you see with the doors off long before it gets to the dunes. It's the Jeep with the spot for a winch already built into the front bumper -- which already has fog lamps and removable caps. The rock rails, the slush mats, the low crawl speed, the locking differentials, the skid plates, the disconnecting sway bar for uneven terrain, the tow hooks... all of this makes the Rubicon an easy off-road entry point.
Starting price: $51,695
The Jeep Wrangler gets all the World War II credibility, but the Ram family of trucks has some relatives who served as well.
The Dodge Power Wagon is the offspring of the 3/4-ton WC trucks used during World War II. When it came back home in 1945, it was introduced as the first civilian vehicle with four-wheel drive. Its eight-foot cargo bed, 3,000-pounds of payload capacity and flathead inline six-cylinder engine made it a workhorse from the start, but it wasn't until 1961 that it began to resemble the modern Ram pickups. Today, the Ram Power Wagon is basically a Wrangler in pickup form -- though there's an actual Wrangler pickup on the way. The Heavy Duty Ram's solid axles and coiled suspension sit slightly higher than the 2500, while the locking front and rear differentials can pull this 4x4 out of just about anywhere. Like the Wrangler Rubicon, the sway bar disconnects with the push of a button and allows more suspension in rugged terrain. It takes some serious muck and mountain to get this sucker stuck, but the electric winch behind the front bumper is a nice last resort.
Starting price: $40,960
All of those Super Bowl ads featuring the Tacoma TRD Pro flying over dunes emphasize the fact that, for a long time, Toyota's made the only truck this size capable of doing such things. When Ford abandoned the Ranger and the Chevy Colorado briefly disappeared, the Tacoma got this segment all to itself. Having a 3.5-liter V6 that only got 18.5 miles per gallon combined didn't matter. Its part-time four-wheel drive with automatic limited slip differential was fine, but the off-road suspension with Fox coil-overs and rear remote-reservoir shocks made it a foreboding beast. While it's getting a lot more competition lately, those newcomers are going to have to wrest the crown from the Tacoma if they want to unseat Toyota mid-sized pickups as perhaps the best utility vehicles on earth.
Starting price: $83,545
Considering it was built to ford rivers up to three feet deep, the Range Rover doesn't tend to think much of kicking up some dust.
The vehicle comes standard with Range Rover's Terrain Response system that shifts both power and stability when the driver chooses conditions including snow, rain, mud and sand. The system's stability control, traction control Hill Descent Assist and Corner Braking Control keep it moving forward in the most adverse conditions while its suspension gives it roughly a foot of ground clearance when the rubble gets too rough. This is a luxury model, so your cash is going more toward the leather interior, heated front seats and touchscreen communications and entertainment system, but the Range Rover is built primarily for the elements. With all of those safety features, you're in good hands.
Starting price: $78,255
The Land Cruiser is the most expensive Toyota available and the last in a dying breed of big, affluence flaunting gas guzzlers. You'd the Land Cruiser and its 15 miles per gallon after gas prices flirted with $4 a gallon last year, but there's still a large market for a 5.7-liter 381-horsepower V8 that just bulls its way over trails. With a cushy independent front suspension for passengers and a solid-axle rear suspension that adjusts to speed and terrain. All that technology, including turn-radius-reducing brakes and Crawl Control is costly, but its perfect for the job.
Starting price: $114,400
No, it isn't the most populist of SUVs, nor the most fuel-efficient at a paltry 13.5 miles per gallon, but it's out there. It's a member of a luxury SUV class that has watched sales soar 26% this year, and it doesn't apologize for being terrible at the pump.
If you're buying a G550, chances are you're paying more attention to the 5.5-liter V8 engine, the 382 horsepower, the 7,000-pound towing capacity, the off-road features, the driver-assisting technology, the Nappa leather seats, the privacy glass and the touchscreen entertainment system. The cost of gas is clearly someone else's concern and a small line item among your annual expenditures.
Starting price: $42,400
They don't make them like this anymore, but that's why it's so valuable years after it's purchased. The 4Runner is a mix of the big school and soccer shuttle families want and the gear-hauling weekend vehicle its remaining adherents desire, but it's definitely seen better days. Toyota was selling 129,000 4Runners in at their peak in 1997, but low gas prices and a brand resurgence brought sales from less than 20,000 in 2009 to more than 110,000 last year.
Sure, it only gets a combined 18.5 miles per gallon, but the TRD Pro package gives you a meaner look, more forgiving Billstein shocks, a 4-liter, 270-horsepower V6 engine, terrain selection, Crawl Control and locking rear differential. Combined with an extra inch of ride height, this 4Runner is a throwback SUV built for original sport-utility purposes.
Starting price: $49,265
You didn't think Ford was going to let the folks at Chrysler have all the fun, did you?
This off-road package debuted in 2010 but just received a facelift about a year ago. The F-150's new aluminum body sits on the Raptor's steel frame, but "torque-on-demand" locking differential, 3-inch Fox Raching Shox with variable dampening, a new 3.5-liter, 450-horsepower EcoBoost engine and a terrain selection system with mud, sand and "Baja" modes are all new additions. Perhaps the best feature? An available TORSEN front differential that increases climbing grip by transferring torque to stable front wheels while pulling up steep slopes or over obstacles.
Starting price: $43,095
We were trying to decide between this model and the Grand Cherokee's Overland series, but this one ticked all of the important off-roading boxes for nearly $5,000 less. In either case you're getting a 3.6-liter V6 engine, Quadra-Track 4x4 with snow, sand, auto, mud or rock modes, air suspension and a full towing package. The Trailhawk, however, comes with a rear differential that automatically transfers power to stable wheels for more effective traction in rough terrain. It doesn't have a navigation system or Xenon headlights but, then again, it isn't a luxury SUV trying to masquerade as an off-road vehicle.
Starting price: $40,995
We've already thrown a ton of off-road pickups onto this list, so what does the mid-size Colorado have that the competing Tacoma TRD doesn't? Well, there's the available 2.8-liter turbodiesel engine and the standard front and rear electronic locking differential, but the 26 miles per gallon combined don't hurt either. With a wider wheelbase and an improved suspension from the base Colorado, the ZR2 is aiming for a corner of the market that the Tacoma TRD has held exclusively for a number of years. This is a strong first offering.
Starting price: $52,930
For years, this was just a terrible pickup: outdated, poor gas mileage, dreadful comparisons to competitors. In recent years, however, Nissan stepped up its game by dropping a 5-liter, 310-horsepower Cummins diesel engine into its more high-end models and tricking them out with NissanConnect information and entertainment systems, mobile apps and heated and lighted tow mirrors. The Pro-4X builds on all of that by adding Bilstein off-road shocks, a locking rear differential, skid plates and Hill Descent Control. Unfortunately, all of this is just a stopgap measure until the Titan's Warrior package arrives within the next year or so, but it's the best of what Nissan has and is a marked improvement from previous off-road forays.
Starting price: $51,680
Don't scoff at the ENFORM touchscreen, three rows of seating, fold-away rear seats, rear entertainment system or wood trim. All of those frills are masking a 3.6-liter, 301-horsepower V8 engine, 6,500 pounds of towing capacity, coil-spring suspension, gas shocks and full-time four-wheel drive with electronic locking differentials and TORSEN limited-slip center differential. It's still very much a 17-miles-per-gallon luxury vehicle, but it isn't some helpless little trail-trekker, either.
Starting price: $89,880
So what if you wanted a Lexus GX that was absolutely monstrous? Well the 5.7-liter, 383-horsepower V8, 7,000 pounds of towing and 6,000 pounds of curb weight ought to be enough for you. Granted, you'll have to lock those differentials manually now, but you'll still have Crawl Controls with turning assistance, height control that raises the suspension up to three inches to accommodate rough roads and terrain selection with rock, rock and dirt, mogul, loose rock, or mud and sand modes. The upsized price reflects the amount of vehicle you're getting, but there are few more plush ways to explore the rugged back country?
Starting price: $26.895
The Trailhawk's $26,895 remains a fairly low point of entry that gets you a whole lot for your money. The Active Drive Low system allows you to switch from four-wheel-drive to front-wheel drive once you hit pavement, while its terrain selection system makes accommodations for both downhill and rocky terrain. The nine-speed transmission, 2.4-liter engine, skid plates, two front tow hooks and one rear tow hook are all huge upgrades over the base model, but the biggest luxury is having all of these features in a compact-SUV upgrade over the Wrangler without having to pay Grand Cherokee prices.