If you don’t need to manage more than an oversized, rain-wet strip mall speed bump or an unpaved, thinly graveled road, any unibody crossover will do.
And even if you want to tackle something a few degrees more serious, a stock Jeep Wrangler 4x4 can handle most off-the-beaten path adventures.
But what if neither of those will do — and you want a steed that’s the equivalent of a honey badger on wheels that also happens to trounce anything a dealership can provide? You have to go with a rough and ready custom 4x4 outfitter, and it has to be truly special in terms of capabilities and refinement.
To that end, we’ve selected five great custom 4x4s that will make mincemeat out of your everyday, run-of-the-mill versions.
Jonathan Ward is a phenom when it comes to building some of the best custom 4x4s on this beautiful rocky planet. The FJ44 is hand-built from tip-to-toe in Los Angeles to painstaking levels of specificity. He assesses his customers like a Rorschach test combined with a doctor’s physical to determine their wants and needs. The Toyota Land Cruiser-based FJ44 is the first ICON 4x4 four-door, and it’s appropriately powered by a big 5.7-liter GM LS V8 with 390 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque. Of course, you can upgrade to a turbodiesel or a 457 hp V8 if the “base” engine just isn’t enough.
Power gets put down to all four wheels via a robust Atlas II transfer case, but it doesn’t end there. The FJ44 gets powerful sport brakes, ARB front and rear locking diffs, a Mercedes-Benz spec canvas soft top to keep out the elements, LED auxiliary lighting, a full-length roof rack with ladder and even its own battery trickle charger. The interior is military-grade but still bespoke, with a locking gun safe console, full heated seats throughout, billet aluminum pedals and removable drain plugs .... just in case you decide to ford that river that stands between you and serious bragging.
East Coast Defender is the premier Land Rover Defender builder in the states, and for good reason. They take the already capable Defender 110 and bring it to the modern age with myriad engine upgrades, in the event the 3.9-liter Range Rover V8 isn’t enough. Upgraded Terra Firma suspension components add ground clearance, and you can opt for those beautiful black Kahn wheels with huge BFGoodrich All-Terrain rubber for even more off-road prowess. You can also choose to outfit the interior with bespoke treatments like diamond-quilted leather seats, carbon fiber trim and whatever else you heart desires and your bank account can handle. Prices start at $99,995 and only go north.
Sportsmobile will take your very ordinary 2008-2014 Ford E-350 Cutaway van with barn doors and convert it into a global dominator. Upgrades like an Atlas II transfer case, Fox 2.0 performance shocks, a locking differential and military grade suspension mean it’s so much more than a family vacation mobile relegated to Disney duties. The beefed up castings, knuckles and hubs, along with an extra heavy duty steering arm, equate to a bombproof-ness that can withstand brutal driving conditions on the expedition of your dreams (or nightmares).
It’s the large SUV to end all large SUVs, not just because of its imposing size, but the monstrous upgrades available. Hennessey takes a base Ford F-250 Lariat pickup and turns it into a full-sized SUV with 2nd row captain’s chairs and room for up to 8. The exterior grille and fascia treatment give it a Ford Raptor SUV aesthetic that can’t be matched, and you can bump up the power to an unearthly 650 hp via supercharging or even a 440 hp, 6.7-liter PowerStroke Diesel with a tectonic plate-moving 880 lb-ft of torque. A Warn winch, suspension and tire upgrades, unique VelociRaptor badging make this beast of burden even more special. To call it zombie-ready would be an understatement. (Note: Prices start at $159,500 and orders require 6 months to complete the specialized build.)
The Brute is primarily focused on overlanding, where long distances and high cargo capacity come into play. Inspired by the utility and size of the Defender 130, the Brute has four full doors for your outdoorsy friends and a pickup bed for loads of gear. Under the hood is a 3.6-liter 285 hp, 260 lb-ft V6 mated to a 6-speed manual, or you can opt to upgrade to one of two HEMI V8s: a 5.7-liter with 360 hp and 390 lb-ft or a big 6.4-liter with 475 hp and 465 lb-ft. The guts consist of a modified frame that extends an additional 23 inches in front of the rear axle and 16 inches back for the bed. The frame also gets a boost in strength to take that off-road punishment you plan on doling out. Three types of AEV’s DualSport suspension systems provide extreme off-road abilities and great on-road manners. You’ll certainly beat everyone to the punch with your Jeep pickup, and AEV badging, gauges, a mandrel-bent steel tube bumper with water storage capability and an individualized AEV plaque will let them know it’s about special as a Jeep can get. Prices start at $45K and climb as you upgrade, of course.