Tiny off-road SUVs have been replaced by modern subcompact crossovers, but we miss those little 4x4s that had the capability and ruggedness of more expensive loafers. Remember the Geo Tracker, the original Kia Sportage, the Ford Bronco II, Chevrolet Blazer ZR2, or even the Isuzu Amigo? Those budget-friendly mini off-roaders disappeared from Canadian new car dealers a long time ago, but the class still rules the road in other parts of the world. Here are five fun off-road SUVs we wish were sold here, but are glad you can still buy in other places.
This is one of the cutest off-roaders that has ever been sold, and it's the result of several generations of development since the Suzuki Samurai roamed our roads. The Jimny is compact, but it uses a real frame underneath and it has a low-range transfer case with suspension travel designed for the world's worst roads. The biggest engine is a non-turbo 1.5L four-cylinder, so it's not a powerhouse, but just look at how adorable and blocky it is. The interior also has controls that look like they could be operated while wearing oven mitts but is packed with practical storage cubbies and features that make the most of the small footprint. The model was briefly taken off the market in Europe because of emissions regulations, so what did they do? Tossed the rear seat and suddenly it's back in business.
The Niva is the vehicle that inspired this list when our eagle-eyed Editor in Chief Jodi Lai saw an astonishing number of searches for the 4x4 on our marketplace for new and used vehicles. While the Niva disappeared from Canada in the late 1990s, it is still on sale in other parts of the world. Now called the Lada Niva Legend, to differentiate it from the new Niva, it soldiers on getting only the smallest updates to help modernize it. By modern, we mean that it still has a stick shift for the transmission, the transfer case, and for low range, meaning that you get 1970s levels of levers by your right knee, but hey, the manufacturer calls it the first-ever SUV with a monocoque chassis and a locking centre differential. We don't doubt that claim, but since it's the same chassis that launched in 1976, it's no longer exactly impressive. Still, the Lada Niva Legend, in three and five-door variants, is a cool off-roader we'd love to take to the woods.
Want a Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen but don't want to spend the $150,000 that one of those luxury machines costs because you're actually planning on taking it off-road or because you have a real-world budget? Check out the BAIC BJ80, a sort of mini G-Wagen that is built in China. Somehow, despite having the same boxy lines as the G, the BJ80 is more adorable. Maybe it's the angry grille on such a small model? The interior of the BJ80 is more Mercedes copy, paste, and shrink, and it has gas and diesel engine options, along with part-time all-wheel drive with low-range, and a "professional off-road chassis and powertrain," whatever that means. An updated version gets a 3.0L V6 and a more modern chassis, and, like the real G-Wagen, this off-roader is used by its local military. The best part, though, is the price, because this mini off-roader rings in at $100,000 less than the real deal with current exchange rates.
When is a Jeep not a Jeep? When it is a Mahindra Thar! The Thar is the latest in a long line of Jeeps from India that started when Mahindra began building them under license from Willys in 1948. The model saw very few changes until just last fall when it was finally replaced, but built until the end of the year, the Mahinda Thar looked as close as you could get to a Jeep from the 1950s without buying a real Jeep from the 1950s. The brand tried to sell it in North America using a slightly different face and the Roxor name, but while that effort was blocked in court by copyright claims, the Thar tharnders onward. This fun off-roader uses a small 106-hp diesel engine and a serious 4x4 system mounted to a ladder frame that's still close to the original help it drive over just about anything. And while the new one is starting to arrive at dealers, it still looks exactly like a Jeep, but this time just slightly more modern. It'll still offer a diesel (or gas) engine, all-terrain tires, airbags, and a price that starts under $20,000.
The UAZ-3909, called the Combi, is exactly what it looks like: A Soviet-built family of vans designed for going almost anywhere that first launched in 1965. Today, they're still made and known for their reliability, which frightens us as to what constitutes reliability in the regions where it is sold. It looks like a big, beefy seven-seater, but it's actually significantly shorter than a Kia Sportage, and not larger than the Kia in any other dimension. Still seats seven, though, somehow. With a diminutive wheelbase, it looks like a cartoon but it offers a fuel-injected engine, a five-speed manual, and a low-range transfer case with mechanical drive linkages and available Spicer locking differentials. Safety features include "inertia reel seatbelts" but only for front passengers — rear seat passengers are on their own with the Combi. It does have a front door seal and "a box for small things in the dashboard," which is probably a Google Translate quirk for the Russian word for "glovebox," but the most interesting feature is an ERA-Glonass device, a Russian automated emergency response beacon. Tiny, tough, and where the only luxury feature is knowing you'll arrive, this is a pretty cool 4x4 van.
Special Mention: Tata Yodha
The Yodha is just a typical mini truck with a payload that somehow eclipses all but the largest domestic full-size pickups. But it's called the Yodha, like the little green guy. Yes, in Hindi it means Warrior, which seems like a good name for a pickup, but we want a two-tone model, green for the top of the cab and brown flowing robes for the rest.