Here at TTS we love sports cars, q-ship sedans, even station wagons. We are confirmed CAR people. That said, we can appreciate all manner of vehicle, and we maintain that we can have fun driving just about anything. SUVs are often derided as the downfall of American motoring, and I’ll be the first to admit that when I’m in a normal car (read: anything smaller than an SUV) I absolutely loathe being surrounded by these high-riding monolithic soccer-mommy-mobiles. Unless, that is, I’m driving one as well. The dirty truth is there are times I like sitting up high – whether it’s when I’m sitting in traffic and want to see what’s going on ahead or when winter arrives with gusto. Now, a lot of the SUVs out there may be viewed as tools – poser-mobiles, if you will. But there are a handful we think you can drive without changing your name or zip code.
Here in Virginia we enjoy pretty mild winters. Heck, I can’t even recall any snow last year. But when winter comes, it comes with a vengeance. Having spent a number of my formative years in New England, we didn’t even flinch until there were at least 6 inches of snow on the ground, but even then it really wasn’t an issue until you got closer to about ten. Here in the Northern South I am firmly convinced there are three snow plows for all of our state’s 95 counties – and two of them are out of service at any given time. What that means is that as soon as we get more than a good dusting things come to a halt – unless you have the means to traverse the slippery stuff without the aid of the Department of Transportation. With all that in mind we’ve picked five SUVs for $5K or less that can get you where you want to go while not sacrificing your self-respect..
1. Toyota 4Runner
There aren’t a lot of vehicles that Car Geeks want to own that can be described as “the Camry of..” – sports cars and supercars jump out at me. But in the dark cold of winter, I’d argue that driving the Camry of SUVs might not be a bad thing. Toyota – particularly in Europe, Africa, and Asia – has a long and proud history of durable, reliable off-road vehicles. Who among us doesn’t fondly recall proper (Clarkson, May, Hammond) Top Gear and their affinity for the Hi-Lux? The 4Runner is a close relation.
This clean 1998 4Runner available on FaceBook Marketplace in Nashville, NC for $3,500 1998 is a 4WD and has the 3.4 liter V6 5VZ-FE motor delivering 183hp and 217 lb-ft of torque and indeed, Camry-like reliability. While it does require periodic timing belt changes, this is thankfully a non-interference unit. Even with this truck’s 270K miles, with straightforward maintenance it will go a lot longer. An old boss of mine drove a 3rd generation 4Runner like this for over 400K and still sold it for real money. Biggest issue he had was a rusty rear bumper which he replaced with hand tools for less than $100. Apart from rust, there really aren’t a lot of fail points beyond typical used car stuff.
For a sub-$5K SUV, I’m far more interested in condition than miles – and this truck gives the appearance of reasonably good care over its 22 years. The key accessories work (cold AC – great for a winter truck!) and I don’t hate the BlueTooth stereo in a vehicle where absolute originality is not paramount. I think I could very happily drive the Camry of SUVs. This is the not-uncool SUV for folks that want to change the oil and go. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
2. Volvo XC90
Just as being the “Camry of SUVs” carries a particular meaning, I’d argue the same most definitely applies to being the “Volvo of SUVs”. To those of us of a certain age, the name Volvo conjures images of boxy station wagons that could run for ever and ever like an Energizer bunny while at the same time being strong enough to withstand the weight of a half dozen cars stacked on top of it. I’m not ashamed to share that my 19 year-old college-student daughter very happily drives one of those old bricks.
Speaking again of Jeremy Clarkson, he has owned no less than three XC90s over the years. We also had a family friend in the UK who was a petrol head at heart and loved his fast Jags that owned and loved the XC90 as the “family” car. Basically, it appeals to balding, aging, later-middle-aged men. Suits me, how about you? To tell the truth, I’ve come close to buying one more than once. It is very Range Rover P38 from a luxury standpoint, not to mention the tall greenhouse. The XC90 also has a low cowl and those Volvo seats that you either love or hate. Add creature comforts like some of the best heated seats ever, and these are pretty nice places to spend your time. This 2006 XC90 on CraigsList in Gainesville, FL for $3,900 strikes me as a contender for our SUV bucks. Of course, the V8 doesn’t hurt my opinion. Developed by Yamaha, this 4.4 liter lump is good for 311hp and 325 lb-ft of torque.
Not unexpectedly, European V8-powered luxury and safety comes at a price. XC90s of this vintage are known to have transmission issues which car require a $3,500 replacement, and some early V8s experienced catastrophic balance shaft failure which, at this age would either total the vehicle or warrant dropping-in a used engine. The rule of thumb on the balance shaft issue seems to be not to wash the engine with water – it pools in a bad place and ultimately causes the failure. The transmission reportedly makes a whining noise prior to failure – so at least you get a warning…? Even so, buy a well-maintained car for cheap – ideally with a newer transmission – and drive it ’til it drops. Incidentally, this is the only 7-seater on our list for you big-family types.
3. BMW X5
So let’s say you like that European luxury, but you are one of those folks who
wants MUST have a manual transmission because you are a Car Geek, dammit, and three pedals are a way of life. For you I submit the BMW X5. First released in 1999, the X5 feels very much like a tall E39 5-series with a low cowl. Having been designed when BMW owned Land Rover, the ur-X5 received some of the trick technology developed for the Range Rover – notably the Hill Descent and Off Road Engine Management systems. Combine those with the excellent BMW M54 inline-6 and silky-smooth 5-speed manual, this is most definitely a driver’s SUV.
Although a 6-speed manual was available in V8-powered X5s, we love the inline-6, and would argue that speed is not necessarily job #1 in our SUVs. The 3.0 delivers a very healthy 235hp and 222 lb-ft of torque – more than adequate to propel you around, over, or through the nearest snow bank. Besides, it’s not always a bad thing if you can achieve regular mileage in the double digits – but admittedly that could have a little to do with the way I drive.
For $3,995, this X5 3.0 manual is available here on Craigslist in Manheim, PA – although with a couple of things we’d want to fix. Specifically, the radio pixels are a (well-known) mess, and that steering wheel leather has seen better days. Otherwise, this seller reports the other accessories functioning perfectly. Other things to check on the I6 X5 are the cooling system and oil leaks. Conventional wisdom on these is that they will go for long miles, but the automatic transmissions are fragile. Oh, wait! That’s happily not an issue here.
4. Land Rover Discovery
Here’s one for the self-wrenchers among you. I mean, Land Rover arguably invented the modern SUV in the 1970s – a comfortable and capable vehicle able to traverse the most obstinate of obstacles. We’ve long been Land Rover fans (HERE too), but admit that we are just a little scared of them. All of us will likely have heard that they’re great when they work, but they are riddled with electrical issues, suspension problems, and that engine? Fuhgeddaboutit! While these perceptions are no doubt based somewhere in reality, I don’t think they’re as bad as all that. Could they be?
When it comes to the Disco, I vacillate between the first and second generation. First released in 1989, a 1997 like this one in CraigsList near Chicago, IL for $2,995 represents nearly 10 years of development and improvement. Sure, it’s a little more utilitarian than the later versions, but there’s something to the simplicity of the original. Incidentally, Discos were based on the contemporary big brother Range Rover using the same chassis, driveline, and suspension. The 4.0 V8 is the same basic Rover unit that goes back to the 1960 Buick 215 – but in this truck delivers 182hp and 233 lb-ft of torque. For US-models like this one, the motor had the distributorless Generic Engine Management System (“GEMS”) that controlled both spark timing and fuel injection and was OBD-II compliant. It’s a remarkably smooth motor, even if you’re lucky to get more than about 15mpg downhill in a strong wind. There was a manual transmission available, but they’re rare as hens’ teeth.
This particular seller isn’t exactly forthcoming in the details department, but what can be seen in the ad isn’t terrible. We actually prefer these without the troublesome sunroofs like this, and, hey, how can you beat “decent tires and solid brakes”? Engine problems are ultimately repairable, and there is every likelihood that you’ll run into little electrical gremlins in places like the ignition, door locks, or even just a ghost in the machine. Check the cooling system and look all over for rust. Last, the air suspension is great when it works, but about every 6 years will need some love. Do it yourself for $500, or pay someone about 3-4 times that. When they’re right, they’re fantastic, but when they go wrong…. Well, you can handle it, right?
5. Mercedes-Benz ML320
The Mercedes-Benz ML320 is often the butt of jokes about “Alabama build quality” and “The Best or….This” among car enthusiasts. Even my own dear old dad, shortly before he died, chastised me for purchasing a (admittedly not great) ML320 saying “that really gives a new meaning to Totally That Stupid, doesn’t it?” 8 years later and that still annoys me. Regardless, although there were some early teething problems in terms of quality of assembly and materials, the W163 ML-chassis was actually a remarkably well-engineered vehicle and, after the bugs were worked out by about 1999, a pretty darned reliable one as well.
These days new SUVs are sleek, swooping things with LED lights, 20+ inch wheels, and the very latest in luxury. The original ML was developed first and foremost to be competent in its ability to do what a truck should do, but with a modicum of comfort and not cost the same as a small island – which its Gelandewagen older brother did and still does. The ML was intended to replace the G-wagen, but much like the Porsche 928 was to replace the 911 purists revolted and the company instead moved forward with both – separating them by price, equipment, and intended market. These days, while a G-wagen is $35K+ all day long, a comparable condition ML like this 320 in Wappinger Falls, NY can be yours for a paltry $3,250.
While the US-spec W163 ML could be had in either V6 or V8 configuration, I prefer the six. Both are great engines, but the 3.2 (and later 3.7) liter M112 215hp/229 lb-ft V6 is the same unit used in commodity C- and E-class cars so they are known factors and leave enough space in the engine bay for ham-fisted DIY-types like me to do a lot of our own work on them. Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t kick a V8 out of my garage, but it’s not a “must have”. What are musts for me are: working heat and AC (yes, I’ll drive it in the warm weather too), a comfortable driving position, a firmly-planted stance (read: NOT feeling like it will roll every time you round a corner), and seat heaters. Yup. Seat heaters. ML buyers should look for rust, and then look for more rust. Otherwise, look for leaky steering racks, rusty brake lines underneath, leaky fuel pumps, and engine misfiring/check engine lights. Electrical issues are not unusual, but are usually well-documented and pretty easy to repair. Except the door locks. Ask me how I know.
I would gladly drive any of the SUVs on a snowy winter’s day or through several inches of standing water – or even to the store or to my next drive-through COVID test if the mood struck me – but there’s only one that I’ve brought home. Twice.
As I type this, I can look out my office window at the second ML320 we’ve had in our fleet. That first one – the one my dad hated on – really wasn’t a great car. It was an early example, and has issues like rust that started in the *middle* of the door. Seriously. Fast forward a few years and we were looking for a good 4th car for both weather and for #1 daughter to drive to school. Say what you will about the ML’s homely looks or sub-par (for Mercedes) quality, but this car with just 117K miles has been a joy to won, drive, and maintain. I trust it to take as good care of my young drivers (younger daughter now lays claim to it) and knocking-wood it hasn’t let us down. So if we are putting money where our mouths are, I’d tell anyone that a well-bought, maintained ML can be a great car. But again, I’d roll the dice on any of these SUVs. I’m kind-of liking that Volvo..
As always: your mileage may vary.