The popularity of SUVs has exploded over the past 20 years, giving them by far the largest market share in today’s new vehicle sales. While this growth has increased the percentage of new model year vehicles equipped with all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive systems, those features alone do not define off-road capability. Those drivetrains can add confidence in slippery or snowy on-road conditions, but serious off-roaders need a vehicle with a combination of sufficient ground clearance and dedicated off-road equipment.
Those are the two areas iSeeCars focused on when identifying the best off-road SUVs. Starting with a required ground clearance of 6.5 inches or better, and then evaluating which off-road features contribute most effectively to off-road prowess, SUVs in 18 categories below were ranked according to 10 factors. The weighting for these off-road features were prioritized as follows:
- Two-Speed Transfer Case: Also known as a two-speed gearbox, this allows the vehicle to switch into a lower (or low-range) gear set for improved torque and pulling power, which can be extremely helpful when scaling or descending steep inclines
- Locking Differential: Unlike a limited slip differential, which tries to keep the wheels on each side of an axle from spinning on low-traction surfaces, a locking differential will lock both sides together, removing any possibility of one side spinning freely; most vehicles have a locking rear differential, though some, like the Mercedes G-Wagen, can also have a central and front locking differential that lock all four wheels together
- Skid Plates: Skid plates protect the underside of a vehicle by forming a shield between outside terrain and critical drivetrain components like the cooling system, oil pan, and transmission to greatly improve the durability of serious off-road vehicles
- Disconnecting Sway Bars: The most capable off-road vehicles, including the Ford Bronco Raptor and Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, can disconnect their front sway bars to allow additional suspension articulation under extreme off-roading conditions
- Winch: A winch can be mounted on a vehicle’s front or rear bumper, allowing an extended cable to be attached to a fixed location (like a tree) and then retracted to free an otherwise stranded vehicle; winches are common in the off-road aftermarket, but a few vehicles, including the Chevy Colorado, offer them as factory equipment
- Hill Descent Control: Hill descent control is a driving mode that controls a vehicle's speed while descending a sharp incline, ensuring it doesn’t begin traveling so fast the driver loses control or risks damaging the vehicle
- Multiple Driving Modes: In recent model years it’s become more common for off-road vehicles to include specific off-road driving modes; these driving modes coordinate everything from throttle response to transmission shifting to the suspension dampers to maximize a vehicle’s off-road capabilities
- Hill Hold Technology: Similar to hill descent control, this technology keeps a vehicle from rolling backwards when climbing up a steep incline; it lets a driver carefully release the brake and apply throttle versus feeling rushed in this process to avoid rolling back
- Full-size Spare Tire: Getting a flat tire is never fun, but it can be life threatening when traveling off-road where a tow truck or Triple A might never arrive; a full-size spare allows the driver to change a damaged tire and continue on without any outside aid
- Roof Rack Crossbars: Safely traveling off road can involve a lot of extra equipment, and having a roof rack with crossbars increases a vehicle’s storage capacity to carry this equipment
Some of these off-road upgrades, like a winch, are still quite rare on factory models, with only the Chevrolet Colorado pickup truck offering one. Others, like a rear-axle locking differential or two-speed transfer case are available on many SUVs. Some obvious off-road features, like all-terrain tires or excellent approach angles and departure angles, weren’t included in the list of 10 features because they are so commonly found in vehicles designed for rock crawling.
We also didn’t focus on powertrain designs because they don’t have a direct correlation with off-road ability. Whether equipped with a small four-cylinder engine like the Ford Bronco Sport and Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, or a large V8 engine like the Nissan Armada or Toyota Land Cruiser, these elements don’t matter when adventuring off the beaten path.
Use the lists below to find the best off-road SUVs that meet your size and pricing requirements.