Currently reading: Top 10 best 4x4s and off-road cars 2024
Where we're going, we don't need roads: these 4x4s are capable on just about any surface

When it comes to steamrollering the sales charts you really need an SUV these days, especially as the appeal of their rugged looks and raised ride heights shows no signs of waning. Yet despite their off-roader-aping style, these machines are little more than family hatchbacks with some tough tinsellng: drive any farther off the beaten track than the odd gravel car park and you'll be left marooned and mired in mud. If you really want to climb every mountain and ford every stream, then you'll need a proper rough-and-tumble 4x4. 

And that's exactly what the cars listed here are: genuinely capable mud-plugging machines that have been designed to tackle the sort of terrain that would make a mountain goat think twice. As ever, the choices when it comes to this class of car aren't straightforward, because some prioritise off-road performance above all else, while others are the consumate all-rounders, as happy bouncing over boulders as they are tearing along asphalt.

And that's before you start getting bogged down (metaphorically, not literally) in the details about breakover angles, wading depths and axle articulation, not to mention locking differentials and low-range gear ratios.

Yet whatever your offroading wants or needs, there should be something in our top 10 topography-tamers that should suit your requirement and budget.

The best off-roaders and 4x4s


1. Land Rover Defender


Having switched from a ladder-frame construction to a monocoque, and for plenty of reasons otherwise, this Land Rover Defender is more of a successor than a direct replacement for the old model - and some feared that it wouldn't have quite the same kind of mud-plugging, rock-hopping, water-fording, slope-scaling and axle-twisting prowess as a result.

The Defender can do almost all of that and more, however. With approach and departure angles of around 40deg, and ground clearance of as much as 291mm thanks to its height-adjustable air suspension, this car has all the right vital statistics. And yet it's the way in which it tackles off-road driving, and the way it eases the load on the driver to select just the right transmission mode, to maintain just the right amount of forward momentum and hold just the right line through ruts, that really impresses.

Its square-rigged predeccessor's all-wheel drive system was simplicity itself, but the latest car's is the height of sophistication, with the brand's trick Terrain Response system allowing even off-road novices to tackle the most challenging obstacles.

Land Rover now offers four-, six-, and eight-cylinder engines for the car, but the P400e plug-in hybrid has become the only four-pot available, while all the diesels are now in-line sixes. The range-topping P525 V8 certainly has performance and presence to spare, but the D300 diesel is our pick of them all, because it combines plenty of torque with respectable fuel economy, drivability and refinement, and it needn't cost as much as some of the other versions of the car.

For fleet users and urban dwellers, of course, the P400e plug-in hybrid (which has a claimed electric range of 27 miles) will have its own particular appeal.

The Defender is available in both three-door 90 and five-door 110 and 130 bodystyles (the last with a long rear overhang that slightly impairs its departure angle), as well as as a Hardtop commercial if you prefer. Whichever you go for, you'll find it's a wide, tall and heavy car that isn't ideally suited to the narrowest of tracks or green lanes. But that acknowledged, this 4x4's capabilities remain beyond question, and the way in which it sets about its work off-road makes it seem like a car built for people who don't even like off-roading.

Offering all that in a car that also rides and handles so well on the road is the icing on the cake, and it makes this car stand head and shoulders above its rivals. 'The best 4x4 by far' has been given a whole new lease of life.


Read our review

Car review

Original military-chic civilian off-roader enters a fourth Wrangler-badged generation

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2. Jeep Wrangler


That Jeep has carefully preserved the much-loved design - whose circular headlights, famously seven-slatted grille and strict geometry are recognisable still from the original Willys MB jeeps first deployed in World War II - is only part of the appeal.

The interior is spacious and less cheaply and sparsely finished than you might think, and that goes hand in hand with the improved efficiency of the car's downsized engines and better road manners (everything is relative, mind).

Of course, the Wrangler is still spectacular off the beaten track, especially in three-door Rubicon trim with its ladder-frame, locking differentials, knobbly tyres, specialised articulating axles, underbody bracing and outstanding approach and departure angle statistics.

It just wouldn't be as nice to live with every day as the Land Rover Defender, hence its second-place ranking. That's partly down to on-road manners that are considerably less salubrious than those of its British rival, with far less accurate handling, a more hyperactive ride and ear-bashing levels of 'refinement'. Still, if you're handy with a spanner, you can remove the Wrangler's roof for some wind-in-the-hair thrills.

3. Toyota Land Cruiser


Another icon, and it's one that has historically been the workhorse of choice in the Australian Outback, a place where breaking down simply won't do. This is an old-school off-roader with a body-on-frame construction and big numbers in all departments. For towing, wading and low-ratio, grind-it-out driving across truly inhospitable ground, the Land Cruiser scores very highly. Basic-spec versions are genuinely affordable, while top-spec cars offer packed-out equipment rosters and seating for up to seven.

It might have sophisticated suspension, but don't expect it to ride and handle like a monocoque SUV from Audi or Mercedes-Benz. It's a different beast: less sophisticated on the motorway but in another league in places where you might actually need a car like this, with a reputation for mechanical dependability and unbreakable toughness that's jealously regarded by every one of its competitors.

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4. Mercedes G-Class


The best off-roaders tend to stick around. Both the Wrangler and the Land Cruiser have been with us for decades, and it's the same with the G-Wagen (technically now the G-Class, but you'll forgive us the nostalgia).

This Mercedes recently received an update, but underneath you'll still find a ladder-frame chassis, although the front suspension is now fully independent and the whole set-up was part-developed by AMG.

The result is car with three locking differentials, improved ground clearance and the same immense range off-road abilities as before; but it is now also one that handles predictably and, at times, even quite enjoyably on the road. 

However, Mercedes has also been cute with the period details, so the G retains the old car's traditional doorhandles with push button locks, while the catches themselves are similar - meaning the doors close with same retro 'clack'.

Our pick the is the creamy straight-six diesel in the G400d, although it's possible to get a full-on Mercedes-AMG G63, with a twin-turbocharged petrol V8 making 603bhp, assuming you've got a Premier League footballer's budget to spend and don't mind attracting attention - not all of it positive. 

5. Land Rover Discovery


You might wonder why the fifth-generation Land Rover Discovery doesn't sit higher up this list, even given the calibre of the cars above. It is, in the grand scheme, a terrifically competent off-roader, but it matches that with wonderful road manners for an all-round package with which none of the others can quite compete. Everywhere the Discovery goes, it does so with a calm assurance.

It isn't, however, quite as gritty, grippy or tenacious as some cars when the going gets really tough. That said, few are as easy and stress-free to drive in the rough stuff: the brand's advanced Terrain Response system does much of the hard work, meaning all you need do is steer the Disco up hill and down dale. In fact, with the Progress Control function engaged all you need to do is steer, while the system works like an off-road cruise control to keep your speed exactly on point for tackling the rough stuff.

A facelift for the 2021 model year brought new six-cylinder engines of both the petrol- and diesel-sipping varieties, as well as updated suspension and some fresh interior features. It also kept a likeable and very versatile car high in our estimations - although the need for seven seats means there's no room for the battery and motor required to deliver a plug-in hybrid version. The appeal is spreading, too: after a slowish start in showrooms the Discovery is starting to sell like hot cakes as buyers cotton on to its compelling blend of luxury, refinement, space and off-road talent.

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6. Ineos Grenadier review


The Grenadier is up with the best when it comes to conquering the wilderness, where its abilities in the rough match those of the British classic that has so clearly influenced its design.

In keeping with traditional 4x4 mechanical philosophy, the Ineos features a ladder-frame chassis and a pair of live axles. But to this it adds sophisticated BMW engines (a choice of 3.0-litre six-cylinder petrol or diesel units), a ZF eight-speed automatic gearbox and a Tremac dual-range transfer ’box for proper rock-crawling ability.

Factor in ground clearance just shy of 260mm, a trio of differential locks and approach and departure angles of 35.9deg and the Grenadier is as unstoppable in the rough as you'd expect, barely breaking a sweat as its scrabbles up and over challenging terra firma.

Off-road ability and a no-nonsense utility underpin the car's character, but there's also softer side to the Ineos. Its interior is roomy and melds thoughtful ease of use with just enough luxury to appeal to the premium badge brigade, while our limited taster on the road revealed a machine that's closer in spirit to the Mercedes G-Wagon than the latest Defender: capable and easy to drive but lacking the dynamic polish and refinement to be truly at home on asphalt.

7. Ford Ranger Raptor


The original Ranger Raptor was something of a mixed bag, with a weedy 2.0-litre diesel failing to match the talents of a chassis that fooled you into thinking you could tackle a Dakar Rally stage. Happily, the newer version retains its predecessor's high-speed off-road prowess, but it now packs a little more muscle in the form of a 288bhp turbocharged 3.0-litre V6.

In truth, this makes the Raptor brisk rather than quick on the road. There's enough punch to surprise more than a few slumbering sports saloons, though, while the rortier engine note is much more pleasing to the ear than the old four-pot diesel's drone. It's still a big car, mind, and with chunky off-road tyres and long-travel suspension it lacks the precision, poise and grip on asphalt that you'd normally expect from a go-faster Blue Oval model. The 10-speed auto ’box can prove a little indecisive when left to its own devices.

As before, it's the Ford's uprated suspension that shines the brightest, with clever electronically controlled Fox 'Live Valve' adaptive dampers that help to smooth any terrain that rolls under its wheels. On the road that means a supple and controlled ride, while in the rough stuff the Ranger can tackle ragged and torn terrain at speeds that would likely leave traditional 4x4s being swept into a carrier bag at the end of the route.

It's still a niche choice, and you'll need access to a deserted quarry or a gravel rally stage to really unlock the Raptor's true potential. But that doesn't stop us wanting one.

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8. Suzuki Jimny


Suzuki markets the Jimny as the world's only lightweight proper off-roader, which is all very true, refreshingly. The car weighs just over 1100kg but uses a ladder-frame chassis with rigid-axle suspension at each end, and it has a low-ratio four-wheel-drive transmission.

This thing really works in the rough, as we've demonstrated with a twin test against a Toyota Land Cruiser. Indeed, with tiny overhangs, its approach, breakover and departure angles are all superior to those of the Jeep Wrangler, which is quite something; and being so small and light makes it surprisingly spry on mud and gravel and pleasingly easy to handle.

You will also, we guarantee, fall for the Jimny's kei car looks. Which is just as well, because its naturally aspirated 1.5-litre petrol engine isn't particularly economical, its boot is tiny, its road manners are only a notch or two above dismal and it can be particularly alarming when you need to stop in a hurry.

If there's a downside, it's that Suzuki UK withdrew the Jimny from sale in 2020 due to its incompatibility with tightening emissions laws, and it was replaced with a commercial version. That means the Japanese machine is now a strict two-seater (although boot space has increased massively), so it won't suit families looking for a compact off-roader.

Yet given the fact that most Jimnys are bought as fun runarounds, this change in classification shouldn't be too much of a problem for many owners, while plumbers, electricians and delivery drivers needing to access customers in the hardest-to-reach locations now know where to look for their next van.

9. KGM Rexton


This is the full-sized, go-anywhere off-roader for the value-savvy buyer. The KGM (formerly Ssangyong) Rexton hasn't always been as tidy looking a car as it is now, but it has always been a proper 4x4. In this latest version you get seven seats, a ladder-frame construction, lockable mechanical four-wheel drive (with low-range), electronic hill descent control and a 201bhp, 2.2-litre diesel engine. And all for a price that, in the cheaper of two available trims, can start with a '3'.

The car performs better than it rides – its ladder-frame chassis makes it feel a little crude on the road over lumps and bumps – but it handles acceptably well for a big car, and its engine and gearbox do a decent job.

For serious mud-plugging, the Rexton's fixed-height, steel-coil suspension, along with clearance angles that are, in some cases, only just above 20deg, aren't world-beating. But if it's mostly tracks and fields you have to cross, and you want a big, cost-effective way to cross them, the Rexton might be worth investigating.

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10. Dacia Duster


For heading off the beaten track on a tight budget, the Dacia Duster still takes some beating. It's not as cheap as it was (there's no all-wheel-drive entry-level Access version now) but it's still cracking value regardless of vehicle type. You'll struggle to get a similarly specified supermini for the same amount these days.

In terms of off-road kit, the Duster isn't as comprehensively specced as others in this list, but you get enough to be able to tackle the wilderness with confidence.

The trick four-wheel drive system allows you to choose front-wheel drive for the road, while an Auto mode quickly engages the rear axle when it detects wheelspin; Lock mode sets the torque split at 50/50 for the best off-road traction. There's also a shorter first gear for climbing steep slopes plus hill descent control for scrabbling down the other side. 

Yet the Duster's best off-road attributes are decent ground clearance and a relatively low kerb weight, allowing it to tiptoe over some obstacles that would sink heavyweight rivals.

James Disdale

James Disdale
Title: Special correspondent

James is a special correspondent for Autocar, which means he turns his hand to pretty much anything, including delivering first drive verdicts, gathering together group tests, formulating features and keeping topped-up with the latest news and reviews. He also co-hosts the odd podcast and occasional video with Autocar’s esteemed Editor-at-large, Matt Prior.

For more than a decade and a half James has been writing about cars, in which time he has driven pretty much everything from humble hatchbacks to the highest of high performance machines. Having started his automotive career on, ahem, another weekly automotive magazine, he rose through the ranks and spent many years running that title’s road test desk. This was followed by a stint doing the same job for monthly title, evo, before starting a freelance career in 2019. The less said about his wilderness, post-university years selling mobile phones and insurance, the better.

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TStag 2 February 2023

The Land Cruiser is not what buyers in the UK want. They were selling less than 500 a year recently in the UK. Land Rovers Defender has nailed this in a big way, the 2 year waiting list says it all.

iamamirrahmati 21 October 2021
Audi Quattro; I am a Joke For you?!
WinstonAlexanderson 16 July 2020

New defender is absolute masterpiece

Jaguar land rover is on an absolute roll.What a beautiful car the new defender is, and a fantastic year to follow for JLR, brilliant work lads!