For those about to adventure, we salute you.
Well, even if you just want to look like you’re about to, that’s cool with us. Either way, there are all kinds of crossovers, trucks, and SUVs that look the part and play it, too. Some are more serious than others, of course, which has its pros and its cons.
That’s where this list comes in. We took the legwork out of finding the most adventure-ready vehicles on the market at the moment and distilled them into this list of the 10 best that are out there. Sort of. See, picking just 10 might seem easy, but there are at least a few that are mechanically identical or thereabouts, making it impossible to have one on the list but not the other. So consider this the top 10-ish out there.
Anyway, back to the matter at hand. Not all off-roaders are created equal, but then not every adventure is, either. Maybe you don’t plan to go overlanding – or you do, but the vehicle you want doesn’t align with the one you need. That’s why this list has a nice spread, ranging from the most civilized adventure machines out there to the most serious.
1. Jeep Wrangler / Jeep Gladiator
This isn’t an outright ranking but rather a collection of the best adventure vehicles out there, so there’s no particular order to the 12 10 nameplates listed here. However, the Jeep Wrangler and its fraternal twin, the Gladiator pickup, seem like as good a place as any to start, with even the cheapest trims providing a rare kind of capability.
The Wrangler isn’t exactly the most cooperative vehicle to drive on the pavement, bucking and wandering about like it’s possessed, but it’s virtually unstoppable where it ends – particularly in hardcore Rubicon guise. That’s where all the important mechanical parts get a once-over to amp up the already impressive capabilities afforded by the solid axles front and rear, low-range transfer case, and short overhangs that make virtually any and all obstacles obsolete.
The Rubicon trim adds off-road goodies like an amped up suspension, electronic disconnecting front sway bar, and locking differentials both front and rear. And there’s the assortment of engines offered, not just under the Rubicon’s hood but the Wrangler in general. Four- and six-cylinders, gas or diesel power – there’s even a plug-in hybrid version available that provides all kinds of off-road fun in pure mechanical silence.
Much of the same applies to the Gladiator, with the exception of that gas-electric powertrain, with the same mechanical parts to go with a longer wheelbase that makes it a little more tameable on the road, and a bed on the back to toss all your stuff. It also breaks with Wrangler tradition by offering 2,722 kg (6,000 lb) of towing capacity.
2. Hyundai Santa Cruz
The latest unconventional truck to hit the market won’t make it much further than a rough cottage road, but the Hyundai Santa Cruz delivers the right kind of capability for city dwellers in particular. Instead of an all-out adventure rig, this compact pickup will get you and your gear to most camping spots with ease, while its stature makes it more manoeuvrable around town than even a midsize truck like the Gladiator.
All-wheel drive is standard in Canada, as is a retractable tonneau cover and an in-bed trunk like the one in the slightly larger Honda Ridgeline (see, there are benefits to unibody trucks, people). A 2.5L turbocharged four-cylinder is nestled between the fenders, with 281 hp and 311 lb-ft of torque on tap. That’s plenty for moving this truck’s mass whether loaded with extras or not, with a tow rating of 2,268 kg (5,000 lb) that your author admittedly barely tapped into during testing, but it remained untroubled nonetheless.
There’s also all kinds of capacity in the bed or on the roof (rails are standard), but best of all, the Santa Cruz is nimble. It might not have big-time ground clearance – at 218 mm (8.6 in), it’s similar to any one of Subaru’s crossovers – or rock-bashing skid plates, but it’ll snake its way along moderate trails while driving an awful lot like a car on the road. It might not have bro-dozer energy, but that suits us just fine.
3. Ford Ranger Tremor
If you’re convinced the Santa Cruz (not to mention the similarly sized Ford Maverick) just won’t cut it for what you have planned, the Ford Ranger Tremor is a slightly larger offering with even bigger off-road aspirations. It’s not a Ranger Raptor, but that’s kind of the whole point, and this is a nice rig that doesn’t go too far overboard.
It builds on the Ranger’s FX4 package by adding a beefier suspension and, most importantly, proper all-terrain tires. It also looks the business, with an exposed skid plate under the front bumper to go with recovery hooks – perfect for pulling stray Santa Cruzes out of the mud. (Kidding, of course.)
The Ranger Tremor’s revised suspension setup means it stands 247 mm (9.7 in) from the ground compared to the rest of the lineup’s 225 mm (8.9 in), while the shocks have been moved and the front control arms have been strengthened. Coupled with the turbocharged 2.3L four-cylinder that powers it, the all-terrain tires it rides on, and the four-wheel drive system that also feature terrain management settings, and this Ford can roam further than you might expect.
4. Subaru Outback Wilderness / Forester Wilderness
Subaru’s entire lineup of crossovers is surprisingly capable, with full-time all-wheel drive and the same 220 mm (8.7 in) of ground clearance providing a great springboard for adventure. The new Wilderness trims take the baked-in capability to another level through meaningful upgrades – some you can see, and some you can’t. Think of it like Subaru’s version of the Trailhawk sub-brand Jeep bestowed on all its models not named Wrangler or Gladiator.
The first to get the Wilderness treatment was the Outback, with the Forester following shortly thereafter. The wagon-like Outback would likely be our pick for its improved performance, with a turbocharged engine that the Forester lacks. Otherwise, everything else is the same, starting with a stilted suspension – the Outback Wilderness has 241 mm (9.5 in) of ground clearance, while the Forester Wilderness has 234 mm (9.2 in) – to go with a selection of skid plates underneath, all-terrain tires, a full-size spare, and more robust roof rails that can accommodate rooftop tents.
Form and function collide both inside and out, with plenty of styling cues that do more than just look cool, including scratch-resistant body cladding and waterproof upholstery. Our off-road experience with Subaru’s products already left us impressed, and these new adventure-ready offerings provide even more to like.
5. Ford Bronco Sport Badlands
Much of the same is true of the Ford Bronco Sport Badlands, which is the top trim in this small SUV’s lineup. While every Bronco Sport features four-wheel drive, this one gets an upgraded twin-clutch system that reacts more quickly to surface conditions and splits torque accordingly. It also adds two extra settings to the terrain management system specifically tailored to rocks and mud, so it’s possible to take this thing just a little further off the beaten path.
The reinforced roof rails mean it can handle a tent up top with ease, while the inside is filled with clever solutions like the same kind of seatback webbing as the Wrangler Rubicon, and carabiner-style closing hooks along the rear window sills to keep bags from spilling. There are even small flood lights on the inside of the tailgate, great for night camping, and a bottle opener hidden above the passenger-side taillight.
Badlands or otherwise, the Bronco Sport isn’t as spacious inside as the Outback or Forester; nor does it have the ground clearance of their respective Wilderness models. However, it does have a turbocharged four-cylinder engine that’s handy for getting out of jams, and there’s enough space in the back to stand a pair of mountain bikes upright with their front wheels removed.
6. Ford Bronco
If it’s the Bronco badge you’re after but your off-road aspirations are aimed higher than what the Escape-sized version can handle, this’ll do the trick. After years of waiting – and a little more waiting, as production delays hold up deliveries – the Ford Bronco is back and ready to do battle with the Jeep Wrangler for off-road supremacy.
Available in two- and four-door body styles (just like the Wrangler), and with a removable roof and doors (just like the Wrangler), the Bronco can be had with locking differentials, beefy off-road suspension, and massive mud-terrain tires – all the stuff you’ll need to keep up with the Wrangler Rubicon out on the trail.
With two turbocharged engines to choose from (though only the four-cylinder can be fitted with a manual transmission), low-range four-wheel drive gearing, and a handful of terrain management settings to cycle through, the Bronco is ready to tackle trails right out of the box. But, with its independent front suspension, this rig’s on-road manners put it a clear step ahead of its rival from Jeep.
7. Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro / 4Runner TRD Pro
While any version of the Toyota Tacoma or its platform-mate 4Runner offer impressive capability right out of the box, it’s their TRD Pro trims that truly make these two worthy of a shared spot on our list. These are old-school off-roaders with rock-solid reputations for reliability for good reason: they’re all but unkillable.
Upgraded suspension components, skid plates, a locking differential, and a terrain management system that can dig and crawl its way out of axle-deep sand (yes, really) are all part of the TRD Pro package. Like the Bronco, these Toyota twins – fraternal, of course, not identical – utilize independent front suspension, which isn’t quite as robust as the solid axle used by the Wrangler and Gladiator, nor can it articulate quite as much; but it’s undeniably more relaxed and comfortable as a result.
These two can also be fitted with all kinds of accessories, both from the dealer and beyond, to enhance capability and cargo management, so you can get you and your stuff deep into the great outdoors. They aren’t exactly aging gracefully next to their newer rivals, but their capability and reliability remain unquestioned all these years on.
8. Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Bison
Unlike the Tacoma, the Chevrolet Colorado doesn’t have that top-to-bottom capacity for adventure. For starters, four-wheel drive isn’t standard, and even once it is the Colorado lacks the various settings and four-wheeling fundamentals of its rival Toyota.
However, the Colorado ZR2 – and the pricey Bison package in particular – is a leaps-and-bounds upgrade for those looking for some serious off-road chops. For starters, it has front and rear locking axles, essential for keeping the wheels spinning at the same rate on loose surfaces and over large obstacles. But then the suspension uses specialized dampers developed by Canadian firm Multimatic that are durable and configurable for a variety of conditions.
On top of all that, the front bumper is tapered to provide improved clearance – as if the 254 mm (10 in) of ground clearance wasn’t enough already – while the rocker panels are fitted with extra protection against trail damage, and the all-terrain tires are meaty enough for the gnarliest conditions you can find. Oh, and did we mention you can get this thing with a diesel engine?
The Bison package, meanwhile, adds bumpers from off-road outfitters AEV, the front featuring a spot for a winch, while the rear corners get rock sliders, and the fuel tank, differentials, transfer case, and engine get beefy skid plates. Jeep Gladiator Rubicon owners might have something to say, but as far as midsize trucks go, this is about as hardcore as they come.
9. Toyota RAV4 Trail TRD Off Road
With the exception of the Bronco Sport, the Toyota RAV4 Trail and its optional TRD Off Road package is easily the most mild-mannered sport utility on this list. It’s still worthy of its spot, though, with this Canadian-made compact not trying to be anything it isn’t.
So what is it? For starters, it’s a RAV4, which means it’s as practical as it is popular. It might not be exciting, but it makes the most of its compact footprint by offering tons of space for people and stuff – ideal for family life or adventure (or both). It’s also equipped with all kinds of advanced safety features, which are handy in between adventures. Forward collision warning with pedestrian and cyclist detection, and automatic emergency braking; lane-departure warning with lane-keep assist; blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert; and adaptive cruise control that works in stop-and-go traffic.
The RAV4 Trail separates itself from the rest of the lineup mostly visually, with chunky wheel arch mouldings, unique bumper treatments, and robust roof rails. On the technical side, the all-wheel drive system features active torque vectoring that can split the available torque from side to side, while the drive mode selector gets some extra settings for mud, snow, and rocks.
And then the TRD Off Road package adds skid plates and a tweaked suspension system. It’s not going to make it quite as far down the trail as the Forester Wilderness, mind you, but it works well as an adventure shuttle while remaining mild-mannered and easy to drive from Monday to Friday.
10. Land Rover Defender
As the lone luxury vehicle on this list, the Land Rover Defender can hold its own against just about any of the others here. Much like the Bronco, it’s back after a long hiatus and has big shoes to fill – and it does so admirably.
The doors and roof don’t come off, but you can get your Defender with two or four doors, the choice is yours, while engine options range from good to great. There’s a turbocharged four-cylinder along with a straight-six that features a 48-volt mild hybrid system, and there’s a V8 version on its way. Of course, all engines come paired to an all-wheel drive system with low-range gearing for rough stuff, and there’s a whole host of terrain management settings to run through.
Where the Defender plays its premium trump card is with its available air suspension that can provide 291 mm (11.5 in) of ground clearance, more than any other vehicle on this list, and it can wade through water as deep as 900 mm (35.4 in). And if you want it to look the part of a world-conquering adventure rig, Land Rover will gladly sell you accessories like a massive roof rack, side-mounted storage bin, and even a snorkel to keep the Defender breathing clean air out on the trail.
That’s one helluva list if you ask us. Not all 10 (or 12) were built to take you to the ends of the earth, but that’s the whole point. But every single one of them is sure to make your next adventure that much more enjoyable.