The Wagoneer’s gone, which means my backup commuting vehicle is either my bike or my wife’s patience. Secondarily, we’re down to the miniscule towing capacity of the Mazda5. It’s time to start shopping for a new truck or SUV to do Truck Stuff. The plan was never to reduce the number of cars in the fleet, but fill the Wagoneer’s slot with a vehicle better suited to our real needs. Ok, wants. But like, really well rationalized wants.
- Ability to tow a LeMons car (or two?) in an enclosed trailer with tools and spare parts on board
- Ability to take the family camping at the end of a rutted dirt road 1000 miles away in summer or winter (thus: 4×4 and AC-equipped)
- Ability to work and haul dirty stuff around without causing too much stress about “ruining it”
- Ability to do all of the above with reasonable durability and ease of maintenance
- Cost less than $8k, but preferably more like $5k
With those in mind, here’s what’s on the shopping list…
1974-1991 “Box Body” 3/4 Ton Suburban
They’re not the best at anything, but they’re cheap, simple, durable and have near-infinite aftermarket support. If I find a ’91, I get EFI and an overdrive-equipped heavy duty 4L80E transmission.
2001-2004 GMT800 3/4 Ton (2500) Suburban
The GMT800 brought with it a new generation of engines: the 6.0L LS-based LQ4 and the Last of the Big Blocks 8.1L Vortec. Either’s backed up by the same 4L80E as the ’91 ‘Burb, but these sport independent suspension, four corner disc brakes and a number of modern car features that normal people obviously prefer. My fear with this era of GM quasi-luxury truck product is the end-of-life of a million little electronic gizmos that require a multi-hundred-dollar “module” to repair. I’m skipping the ’92-99 GMT400s for being the worst of both worlds: old by age and engine tech, but still having IFS and high luxury feature content (aka stuff to break).
1999-2005 Ford Excursion
A Powerstoke-equipped Excursion would be damn-near perfect for what I’m trying to accomplish here, but they’re $12-15k regardless of mileage or condition. As a result, I’m defaulting back to the 6.8L Modular/Triton V10 as the nominal power plant. I don’t really like “Mod” motors, nor in the wake of owning an FE-powered wagon and Buick 350-powered Wagoneer do I want to end up with another oddball powerplant, but the base 5.4L just doesn’t have the stones to move the Canyonero-like Excursion and the payload I have planned. Newfangled OHC engines aside, the Excursion sports heavy-duty solid axles holding up leaves at all four corners. While unimpressive to most automotive reviewers, they’re cheap to lift and have half the wear points of the GMs’ IFS.
Crew Cab Pickups
I’ve only got two kids, so the third row is more of a “bonus” in the event of extended-family gatherings or field trip duty. There’s something to be said for being able to drop an engine or load of dirt in the bed and not worry about it. Right now they’re lower on the list because a 3/4 or 1-ton 4×4 Crew Cab of almost any brand, power or age costs the same as the above SUVs and having lockable, enclosed storage trumps being able to do the cool dramatically-drop-stuff-into-the-bed truck ad trope.
Dark Horse Candidates:
4×4 Vans of Any Kind: If it’s space you want, a van’s unbeatable. Unfortunately, few are 4x4s and the converted Econolines are so ridiculously expensive as to be offensive. Older 4×4 conversions (like this one or this one) tend to be a notch too “Sketchy Mountain Man” or “fundamentally dynamically unstable” to really fit the bill.
Ford Bronco Centurion: These ’80s/90s conversions were the aftermarket’s answer to Ford never offering a Suburban competitor. Take an F250/350 crew cab, add Bronco and voila! Alas, they’re rare and hard to find in the right specification. Their interiors tend to be of the conversion van school of thought: lots of tufted velour and unnecessary wood added in (I’d prefer Line-X). Ironically, there’s one permanently parked at a shop by my house, but they refuse to part with it.
Modernized Classics: Every once in a while someone repowers a ’72 Suburban or Wagoneer or Travelall with the engine, trans and axles of something newer. Sometimes the AC even works. Rarely do such vehicles show up in my price range in non-clusterfnck condition, but hey, a guy can hope. Also, here’s one.
The Case for Bigness
Why not a 5.3L-powered Tahoe or Suburban 1500? Why not a Sequoiah or Land Cruiser? Expedition? Honestly they’d all probably get most of the job done just fine. I could go cheaper or newer and get halfway decent ride quality or mileage. The thing is, we already have a reasonable vehicle in the Mazda5. We’re only going to use The Beast for Beast-grade tasks, so to compromise the ability to tow the bigger trailer or haul more crap defeats the purpose of this role. The same logic applies to getting a 4×4. 99% of our miles will be on dry pavement, but Caltrans has a penchant for requiring chains on 2wd vehicles at the drop of a
hat snowflake, and I’d still like to do the occasional offroading just for the sake of it.
I’ve already test-driven one of the above and have a few more lined up, so stay tuned for more updates.