Large SUVs are similar to full-size pickups in most respects, but in some cases, they offer larger tires and slightly better breakover and departure angles. Only the Ford Excursion offers a diesel option and a solid front-axle design, but the Lexus GX 470, Toyota Land Cruiser, and Land Rover LR3 are good seven-seat options with outstanding trail abilities.

Midsize SUVs have a trail-friendly size advantage while maintaining room for five people and cargo. The most capable in this class are also among the most expensive-Land Rover Range Rover and Mercedes-Benz G-Class. The Hummer H2, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Mitsubishi Montero, Nissan Pathfinder, and Toyota 4Runner, however, can all go much further than most of their owners will ever attempt. Likewise, at the luxury end of the spectrum, the Porsche Cayenne, Volkswagen Touareg, and Volvo XC90 are as at home in Death Valley as Palm Springs.

On tight trails, compact utes are desirable for their maneuverability, though they are largely car-based, light-duty designs with modest power. While the CR-V, Santa Fe, RAV4, et al can manage more than you might expect, the Jeep Wrangler is the standout trail machine of this size. The Rubicon version is perhaps the best factory off-road vehicle offered, and starting at $28,000, the most expensive compact, as well.

What to add
Prior to selecting any new vehicle, you need to assess how you'll be driving it. "Off-road" is often more "off-highway" driving, on fire roads, trails, and sand dunes, or areas restricted by mandate, common sense, or the Tread Lightly! guidelines. Many people buy a 4WD and go on one trail ride to say they've done it, only to spend the next 35 months with higher payments, insurance premiums, and fuel costs.

Most front-wheel-drive cars and minivans can make it through snow or along a graded dirt or gravel road, and four-wheel drive does not repeal the laws of physics. Only the tires connect your vehicle to the ground, and if none have traction, it doesn't matter what kind of drive system you have. That said, a proper off-road setup can open a world of exploration and recreation, enabling the driver to escape civilization and venture into the wilderness. When selecting and setting up your vehicle, it is important to honestly assess your needs and get the right equipment for the job. If trail riding, camping, and boat launching top your recreation list, then you will likely be pleasantly surprised with the capability and performance offered by the latest 4x4s.