Cheap Thrills: Top Five Classic 4x4s For $5,000

We’ve rounded up a collection of five classic used 4x4s for about $5,000. These are the last or the first of a generation of vehicles, or their simplicity makes them worthy, or they are just plain cool. The best part is that you can find many examples of these classic used 4×4 machines for right around or less than $5,000.

Let’s be honest. You’re not going to find a hot classic like a first-gen Ford Bronco or Chevy Blazer for much less than four or five times that money, but you can, with a little digging, find good running examples of all five of these classic used 4x4s that would the start of a great project.

Chevy K1500 Blazer (1992-1994)

One of our used 4×4 examples is the third-generation Chevrolet K1500 Chevy Blazer. It’s the last version of the full-size two-door Blazer before being renamed the Tahoe in 1995. Built on the GMT400 truck chassis, it was the first Blazer with an A-arm front suspension instead of the solid front axle found in the first- and second-generation Chevy Blazers. However, solid front axle swaps are common and not all that difficult on this vehicle. Plus, you get modern TBI fuel delivery to a standard 350ci (5.7L) LO5 small-block (iron block and heads) V-8 engine that was rated at 210 hp and 300 pound-feet of torque.

Built on the GMT400 truck chassis, the third-generation Blazer was the first with an A-arm front suspension instead of the solid front axle found in the first- and second-generation Chevy Blazers. Photo

A 6.5-liter turbocharged Detroit Diesel V8 was added as an option for the 1994 model year. You could get a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic (4L60) transmission for the 5.7-liter gas V8, but the 6.5-liter turbodiesel was only mated to the four-speed automatic. Keep in mind that GMC was selling the same two-door full-size SUV under the name Yukon, so there many thousands of these rigs out there in one shape or another.

Nissan “Hardbody” D21 series (1985-97)

Tired of looking at 20-year-old Toyota Tacomas going for $15,000? Yeah, me too. That’s why I’m recommending you look at the D21 series of Nissan pickup, known in the US as the “Hardbody.” The Nissan Pathfinder was derived from the Hardbody truck in the same model year with its chassis code of WD21. It was first offered with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine (Z24i) until 1989. For the 1990 model year, it was replaced with another 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine (KA24E). This version used a single overhead cam with three valves per cylinder, and it produced respectable power for a four-banger of the time with 134 horsepower.

The Nissan Hardbody (4×2 pictured) was offered in two body configurations, the Standard and the King, with standard bed lengths of six feet and longbed at seven feet. Photo

The 3.0-liter V6 (VG30i of early years or VG30E of later years) gave a modest bump in power, but by 1996 it was unavailable in the US due to Nissan’s inability to meet new OBD-II emissions requirements. A five-speed manual overdrive transmission and an automatic transmission were available, and 4×4 and 4×2 variants were built in quantity. A limited slip differential in the rear axle was standard on the top-of-the-line “SE” trim level.

Jeep Wrangler YJ (1987-96)

Another classic used 4×4 is the Jeep YJ. It was the first of the “Wrangler” variants still being built today in the form of the Jeep JL. Manufactured and marketed as the replacement for the venerable Jeep CJ series, the new Jeep Wrangler YJ was unveiled in February 1986 and began production in March, going on sale on May 13, 1986. The new grille shape and rectangular headlights were met with derision from much of the off-road enthusiast press, and it acquired the nickname “Yuppie Jeep” because of its focus on creature comforts. But it has recently gained a new popularity because of one of the things we like most about the Jeep Wrangler YJ – simplicity.

Initially not given much love by the off-road press, the Jeep Wrangler YJ has recently gained a new popularity because of its simple and easily modified leaf-spring suspension design. Photo

Jeep YJ retained a traditional leaf spring and shock absorber suspension setup that makes it easy to lift. The Jeep Wrangler YJ was available with a 2.5-liter AMC inline four-cylinder engine, or the optional 4.2-liter AMC inline six-cylinder engine. In 1991, a fuel-injected 180hp 4.0-liter AMC variant replaced the 4.2-liter inline-six.

This was the era of the dreaded Renix (a joint venture of Renault and Bendix) fuel-injection system and the flaky Peugeot BA-10 five-speed manual. Luckily, the Jeep YJ only got the 2.5-liter with the Renix system from 1986 to 1990, and the 4.0-liter fuel-injected engine didn’t come to the Jeep YJ until 1991; plus, it came with the better Chrysler-designed fuel-delivery system. The BA-10 five-speed manual was only available in model years 1987 to 1989 on the 4.2-liter AMC inline six.

Ford F-150 (1997-2003)

The 10th-generation Ford F-150 is also one of our picks for a classic used 4×4 for $5,000. Some did not like the swoopy nose styling and the sleeker overall body lines; to them, it just wasn’t “truck” enough. Ford realized that the pickup truck market was trending toward more personal use over work use and responded with a contemporary look for the F-150 while maintaining the traditional styling of the F-250 and F-350. We think the 1997 to 2003 Ford F-150 would make a great project for anyone building a 4×4 for adventure travel.

The newly redesigned 10th-generation Ford F-150 was targeted at the growing personal-use pickup buyer, but retained all of its work-use capabilities, as pointed out in this classic advertisement. Photo

Model year 1997 to 2003 Ford F-150s had it all – plenty of power, creature comforts, a sturdy backbone, and yards of cargo area for whatever you needed to bring along. A 4.2-liter V6 engine was standard, and the 4.6-liter V8, one of Ford’s new Modular engines, was an option. By mid-1997, the larger and more powerful 5.4L Triton V8 engine was added as an option and was the first overhead-camshaft engine offered in a full-size pickup truck. A rear-hinged rear door on the curb side was added to all versions to improve rear seat access. Due to its popularity, the Super Cab model got a fourth door, making it the first pickup available with four full-size doors from the factory.

Toyota 4Runner (1990-95)

If you’re looking for a midsize SUV for your next project, think about the second-generation Toyota 4Runner. We found plenty of them across the US for under $5,000. Sure, many of them had in excess of 200,000 miles on the odometer, but what can you expect with a 30-year-old vehicle. The second-generation 4Runner benefits from complete design and conceptual change away from the Toyota pickup truck as basis for its architecture. Production began in 1989 for the 1990 model year and ran to 1995. The new 4Runner offered a fully integrated steel body mounted on the existing frame, as well as coil-spring rear suspension.

The same great engines found in the Toyota pickup at that time–the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine (22R-E) and the 3.0-liter V6 engine (3VZ) could be found in the second-generation 4Runner. Photo

Nearly all of them were built as four-door models, with some two-door models built until May 1993. It came with the engine options also seen in the Toyota pickup at that time – the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine (22R-E) and the 3.0-liter V6 engine (3VZ). A four-speed automatic transmission and a five-speed manual transmission were available. The older style gear-driven transfer case was retained for the 2.4-liter I4, but a new chain-driven transfer case came with the 3.0-liter V6. Small cosmetic changes, including a one-piece front bumper and modular headlights, were made for 1991 and 1992 model years. A wide-body version with extended fender flares and wider wheels and tires was also added.

About the author

Stuart Bourdon

A passion for anything automotive (especially off-road vehicles), camping, and photography led to a life exploring the mountains and deserts of the Southwest and Baja, and a career in automotive, outdoor, and RV journalism.
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