I recently read an article about ‘affordable’ cars under $50,000 and had to laugh. You can get a great vehicle for less money. These are some of the best adventure vehicles under $10,000.
Is $50,000 affordable? Sure, if you’re wealthy. But most of us need to keep a little tighter lid on spending.
Fortunately, the used auto market is full of awesome cars, trucks, and vans that, with a little elbow grease, will show you great times and provide reliable transportation for years to come.
A word on our selections: We chose these cars for their availability to the masses and practicality to get you out to the fun. And no, it’s not all-encompassing. What’s your favorite? Tell us in the comments below.
These are some of our favorites that leave money in the bank for other equally important tools and toys.
Jeep Cherokee XJ (1987-2001)
The Jeep Cherokee (shown above) is a classic American off-roader with lots of upgrade options. And it can be had for a pittance.
Price: A buddy just purchased a stock model for $3,000 with just 125,000 miles. After adding a lift and tires, his final bill was about $6,000.
The good: Stock Cherokees are easy to come by and easy to upgrade. A 4-inch lift installed by a good mechanic costs just under $1,000. Add some good tires and other mechanical fixes, and you’ve got a great vehicle. Many used models are already lifted and ready for the trail.
The bad: Old Cherokees take a lot of wrench time and tend to have lots of small issues that can lead to headaches — O2 sensors, dashboard lights, check engine lights, and oil leaks are some common problems.
Why Cherokee? If you want a tough-looking vehicle with few frills that can go damn near anywhere, the Cherokee delivers.
Suzuki Samurai (1985-1996)
The pint-size Samurai is basically an oversized four-wheeler, but these things go just about anywhere — just not the interstate! — especially when lifted and customized.
Price: A 1995 model in “good” condition has a Blue Book value of $1,651. Expect to pay much more if it isn’t a pile of rust. Street values on a good example are generally in the $4,000 to $10,000 range, especially when heavily modified.
The good: Samurais are tiny, and they can go places most 4x4s simply won’t fit. The little four-cylinder 4x4s will crawl rocks with the best of them and are a hoot to drive with the top down.
The bad: Sales in the U.S. stopped in 1995, so finding one in decent shape is tough. They are tiny, entirely inappropriate for highway driving, and would be horrible in any kind of accident. This is a toy car in the truest sense.
Why Samurai? If you just want to buzz around off the main road, these little guys are super fun to drive, easy to work on, and have plenty of power for their meager weight. (I used to tow a small boat 1,200 vertical feet over St. Thomas with one!)
Ford Ranger XLT (1998-2011)
When I bought my 2000 Ford Ranger in late 2014, it had 130,000 miles, a bright-red check engine light, a dinged side panel, and crappy tires. And $3,000 later, it’s a great truck that has dragged me all over the Rocky Mountains in all sorts of weather. All in? $6,500.
Price: Rangers vary widely depending on age, but a savvy buyer should be able to get into a decent early 2000s model for around $5,000. Lower mileage will cost more.
The good: The Ford Ranger XLT was made in massive quantities, so it’s easy to find. It’s also easy to find cheap parts and work on these smallish trucks.
The bad: You will probably spend some time with a wrench, as high-mileage Fords aren’t the most reliable vehicles on the road. I’ve put a fair bit of work into this truck, but it’s still $20,000 cheaper than buying new.
Why Ranger? If you want a pickup that easily fits into a normal parking spot, this is one of just a few midsize options.
Toyota 4Runner (1995-2009)
The 4Runner is a reliable and capable SUV. And with thousands of used models on the road, they are possible to find with moderate mileage for under $10,000. This date range covers the third and fourth generations of this model.
Price: A quick search of Craigslist brings up dozens of choices, with some dipping well below the $10,000 mark.
The good: The 4Runner is a long-running, reliable vehicle that’s comfortable for four adults. It’s a good around-town car, comfortable on long drives and capable off road.
The bad: Interior storage is somewhat small for such a large vehicle. They also come with a Toyota price tag, so expect to pay a fair chunk of change, even for vehicles with high mileage. While they’re OK off road, clearance is not spectacular and approach angles are limited.
Why 4Runner? Although many SUVs have gone the way of cars, the 4Runner has a body-on-frame design, meaning fair off-road performance.
Subaru Outback (1994-Present)
It’s been called the “state car” of Colorado, Idaho, and pretty much everywhere else that gets lots of snow. With full-time all-wheel drive, the Legacy Outback is a solid performer on modest off-road terrain and absolutely amazing on snow. It’s also spacious, efficient, and runs forever.
Price: These have been around a long time, so the range is vast. You should be able to find something from the early 2000s with moderate mileage for around $5,000. These things regularly run up to 300,000 miles or more, so don’t be afraid of miles. Just expect some significant maintenance bills.
The good: At the Grand Canyon for an ultramarathon, a local called it a “mud sled” while my crew was discussing the condition of fire roads they needed to drive to reach aid stations. These things really are rugged, especially for a car. They have decent clearance and rip around fire roads with aplomb. Inside, they are as roomy as most SUVs, yet they sit lower and get respectable gas mileage. They are very reliable.
The bad: You may be branded a tree-hugging hippie. Why? Well, if you’ve ever driven through Boulder, Colorado, you’ll know. If you’re cool with this, or just don’t give a hoot what others think, the Subaru is an excellent vehicle.
Be certain to check the antifreeze and oil for signs of bad head gaskets, a common problem with this model that is expensive to fix on the two-sided boxer engine.
Why Outback? These are great cars that seat five in comfort with lots of room for extras inside. You can lay down the seat and sleep in the back. You can expect lots of trouble-free miles from the Outback so long as you avoid overheating and the head gaskets are good.
Toyota Tacoma (1995-2004)
Ah, the Taco. These early models were truly small trucks before they got nearly as big as Tundras. Reliable, capable, and good-looking, Tacomas hit all the high marks.
The good: Classic good looks and a vehicle that can’t be killed, there’s good reason this is one of the most popular pickups in the world.
The bad: The stock suspension isn’t considered adequate by most serious off-roaders. If you’re going to push it over tough terrain, you’ll want an upgrade. Also, good luck finding a bargain. Many Tacomas pushing 200,000 miles also push the $10,000 mark. Some Tacomas are prone to frame rust (many were recalled), so be sure to check the frame carefully.
Why Tacoma? They will run and run and run. These things are legendary.
Isuzu Trooper (1991-2002)
Boxy with a big interior, the Trooper is a workhorse of an SUV. Shoot, you can fit bikes in the back without taking the wheels off, and it’s the only truck in which we’ve fit a tandem (removing the front wheel).
Price: Troopers were available in the U.S. through 2002, so you’ll have to choose from an older model. Most cost well under $5,000, with lots of beaters under $2,000.
The good: We can’t think of any other midsize SUV with the interior space of a Trooper. These things are basically large 4×4 boxes on wheels. And that’s awesome in the space department. They also get decent gas mileage and have fairly high stock clearance.
The bad: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and these are, well, boxy. They’re also tricky for the home mechanic and require a lot of specialized tools. Reliability can be a problem with older Troopers, as can be finding a qualified mechanic.
Why Trooper? Want to sleep in the back of your SUV? This is your steed. They have ample interior space but maintain a modest external presence.
Toyota Land Cruiser 80 Series (1990-1997)
Sadly, it’s nearly impossible to find a 60 or 70 Series Land Cruiser that isn’t a pile of rust and is running for under $10,000. But if you shop smartly, you should still be able to find an 80 Series Land Cruiser around that $10,000 threshold.
Price: You can get a quality 80 Series for $10,000, but expect it to have high miles. The “Toyota tax” is in full effect here, as fans have continued to pine after nice examples. Prices for nice examples are only going up at this point.
The good: With a Land Cruiser, you’re joining the ranks of legions of devoted fans. These things have been everywhere and are well-respected off-road machines anywhere in the world. They are excellent expedition vehicles, and customization options are endless.
The bad: Get ready to choke when you fill the tank. The 1990 model gets 11 mpg in the city and 13 mpg on the highway — unless you can find a rare-in-the-U.S. Turbo Diesel. Watch out for head gasket problems and valve gasket oil leaks.
Why Land Cruiser 80 Series? Comfortable seating for up to five passengers, legendary reliability, and genuine off-road capability are just some of the reasons people around the world love these beasts.
VW Vanagon Multivan (1979-1990)
It’s the classic VW bus but with a better, water-cooled engine (that means the heater works). With high clearance, the Vanagon is pretty off-road capable, especially with chains.
Price: These old babies have held their value. Well-maintained models from the mid-1980s still bring close to $10,000 on Craigslist. That said, many can be found for much less if you’re willing to do some work.
The good: The Vanagon is huge inside and carries up to seven passengers in reasonable comfort. It has all kinds of conversion potential. If you’re lucky, you may even find one of the Westfalia camper models.
The bad: Can you say underpowered? You will always see the Vanagon in the far right lane, creeping up mountains at a snail’s pace. The saving grace is first gear is really low, so it will always get going.
It was manufactured between 1979 and 1990, so you’ll be looking at an old model and should be ready to wrench her.
Why Vanagon? These vans have classic styling, tons of room, and can handle easy off-road conditions with their high clearance.
Chevy Silverado (1999-2006)
The Silverado was named Motor Trend’s Truck of the Year four times since its introduction in 1999 and has two distinct generations, before and after 2006. The new models are nice but hard to find in a 4×4 under $10,000. The ubiquitous full-size Chevy is available in many trims and configurations that should fit any taste in a backroad explorer.
Price: Nice Silverados under 200,000 miles should be easy to find between $5,000 and $10,000. Newer models under $10,000 will likely have high mileage.
The good: Silverados are big trucks, but they’re pretty easy to drive and are remarkably comfortable inside. This is a full-size truck, and thus a 4×4 model will get you anywhere you should need to go.
Feeling frisky? Beef it up with a lift and go get weird. Want a camper? Slap on a topper and toss in a mattress. Boom.
The bad: Well, they’re kind of huge. You won’t enjoy parallel parking in downtown Denver. And filling the tank? Ouch.
Why Silverado? If you’re looking for a full-size pickup, this is one great choice that’s easy to find at a good price on the used market.
Mitsubishi Montero (1991-2006)
The Montero comes from the Pajero family of Mitsubishi 4×4 SUVs still sold today around the globe. Sadly, the last new one sold here in the U.S. in 2006. Lucky for us, though, they’ve fully depreciated at this point and offer an incredible value on a fun and unique off-roader.
Price: It’s becoming harder to find a nice example of a second-gen Montero, but they can be found for under $5,000 if you look hard enough. You can get a nicely maintained third-gen Montero for $5,000-8,000.
The good: The Mitsubishi Montero has lots of interior volume, proper off-road capability, and an off-road race pedigree. With the seats down, even tall people can sleep inside.
The bad: With 147-210 horsepower on tap, the Montero won’t get you to your destination quickly, but it will generally get you there. High mileage and lots of rust are common.
Why Montero? Race-breed swoopy body lines, interior volume that will swallow all your gear, and a proven rugged drivetrain make the Montero an attractive budget option for any adventure.
Toyota Corolla (2000s)
Why, you ask, is the measly Corolla on this list? Because I’ve taken one on more adventures than any car other I’ve ever owned, and I still own one to this day — it’s nicknamed the “off-road-ola.” It often gets chosen over my truck for one serious reason: gas mileage.
Price: $2,000 give or take
The good: Cheap, reliable transportation that is remarkably spacious for two adults. The back seats fold down to allow long items (skis) to fit in the trunk. Stick on a bike rack, and you can carry a full summer’s worth of camping gear with no trouble.
And you better believe this thing can off-road (OK, within reason).
The bad: It can’t really off-road. It’s a car. Factor in the price of a roof rack; you’ll need it!
Why Corolla? If you are strapped for cash, a Corolla will get you there reliably for very little money. Want to road-trip to Yosemite with a bunch of climbing gear? Turn the key and go. Need to drive from the Midwest to the Pacific Ocean for some R&R? Turn the key and go. These things are tiny tanks that run on a little fuel and crossed fingers.
So those are some of our favorites. Yes, there are tons of vehicles that can get you into, and hopefully out of, adventure. Got a favorite we missed here? We’d love to hear your story in the comments below.