The beloved and hardwearing SUVs that still endure.
The 1990s were a transitional phase for the automotive industry as standard safety equipment improved dramatically. However, the technology in things such as anti-lock braking and traction control wasn’t too complicated so would remain relatively trouble-free. It was also the time when the technology required to meet emissions regulations started to really catch up and engines could breathe properly again. At the same time, fuel was relatively cheap so heavy vehicles with big engines were economical enough for people to run them comfortably.
Most importantly, the 90s were the decade when the full-sized SUV really took off as a family hauler in the suburbs and peaked in the 00s before the recession hit. Since then, we’ve seen the rise of the crossover SUV, but that’s a whole other article. What we’re concentrating on here are the true SUVs of the 90s, the body-on-frame off-road capable machines beloved as working vehicles as well as recreational family cars. These are the hardwearing, the reliable, and the capable, and the hard to kill.
The Defender has never been the suburban cruising vehicle of choice as it’s as utilitarian on the inside as it is outside. Comparison with the Jeep Wrangler often ends up in heated debate if one side is British and the other American. The Defender is really a truck and a working vehicle whereas a Wrangler is all about recreation and lifestyle, so beyond their off-road credentials there’s not actually much to compare.
Old Defender’s are rare in the US, but that’s not the only reason they’re expensive. They will take beating after beating and keep coming back for more. We'll find out soon enough if that'll be the case for the next generation.
When it comes to Toyota SUVs, the J80 is the daddy. It’s reputation for reliability in extreme conditions has led the Land Cruiser, along with the Hilux, to be used by aid-workers in the most unstable and remotest of places on Earth as well as by the most despicable militant groups in the world. The J80 is an overbuilt wonder of the modern automotive era and owned and loved by everyone from despot warlords for their ruggedness to suburban moms for their size, comfort, and convenient cupholders.
The 1990 G-Wagen was a significant revision rather than a new generation. It was an evolution of a design that came to life as a civilian version of a military vehicle in 1979 and ran until 2018, which means it’s rugged, proven and already had 11 years under its belt before the chassis and interior upgrade as well as the addition of anti-lock brakes, full-time four-wheel drive, and three electronic locking differentials. The G-Wagen is loved by the rich as a status symbol, but used seriously by people that need something that will keep going in the harshest climates.
The second generation Trooper got a complete redesign, and Consumer Reports told the world it had a propensity to roll over when swerving to avoid an object in the road. Isuzu sued, and you can make your own mind up on that one, but the Trooper endured. Equipped with any flavor of the 3-liter engines, the Trooper will make you look like a last century arms dealer but also run forever. If you want a real seal of approval though, the Australian outback is one large and harsh environment for a farmer to break down in, and the Trooper was rebadged as the Holden Jackaroo and Monterey to be sold down under.
Remember when Mitsubishi made awesome cars? Back in the day, they made the kind of exciting vehicles Jackie Chan loved to show off in his movies, and that includes the Pajero. It even had a racing pedigree and off-road chops to go along with being a comfortable, reliable, and affordable family vehicle. It was simple so not a lot to go wrong in the first place, but it was also reliable enough for the Dakar Rally where Mitsubishi kicked ass in the 90s.
The civilian version of military HMMWV, affectionately known as the Humvee, came with the plates used to increase payload capacity removed, softer springs in the suspension, and a much more comfortable interior. Or, according to a friend of ours that spent time in Humvees during service, an actual interior. They were relied on by the military in war zones so the reason you don’t see them much at all anymore isn’t because they all just fell apart bumping over curbs in mall car parks.
In 1992, the Suburban entered its eighth generation with the GMT400 platform, fitted with either the 5.7-liter small block or the optional 7.4-liter big block. There was also a 6.5-liter turbo diesel lump, but any option was more than enough power for most uses. A 90s Suburban is an epic family or trailer hauler and the Secret Service’s vehicle of choice - although black Suburbans don’t actually come from the factory stocked with Ray Bans or Oakleys.
The second generation of Explorer showed up in 1995 with an improved chassis to help its ride on the road and, despite coming with Firestone tires in 1996 that fell apart at higher speeds, is still around today. The engine options consisted of the tried and tested European Cologne V6 in 4.0-liter configuration, or the just as reliable all-American Windsor 5.0-liter V8. The recipe of spacious and comfortable reliability is why the Explorer is still a go-to for a straightforward and reliable SUV.
The second generation 4Runner ran from 1990 to 1995, but what you really want is the third generation. It wasn’t fast, or as capable as following generations, but with the 3.4-liter V6 rather than the four-cylinder engine it could just about get out of its own way. What you had then was an inexpensive, practical, and relentlessly reliable SUV.
The YJ generation Wrangler started in 1986 and ran until 1995, although some will claim it ran until 1996 but we’ve never seen a YJ with a 1996 title. The YJ’s 4.0-liter engine is as reliable as a Swiss watch, but it wasn’t until 1994 that Chrysler took care of the hydraulic throwout bearing and actually gave it a proper external master/slave cylinder clutch. The TJ refined the recipe of the AMC straight-six engine with solid axles and a simple and solid transmission while adding coil sprung suspension, and that means the only real danger to that generation Wrangler is poor maintenance and rust.
Throughout its long lifespan, the Forester has proven that you can have both a trick all-wheel drive system and rugged reliability in one package. The first generation started with a computer-controlled, continuously variable, multi-plate transfer clutch that allowed the Forester to detect when a speed difference between the front and rear wheels and compensate for the loss of traction. With a set of appropriate tires, the first generation is still formidable in slippery conditions whether it has the automatic or manual transmission installed.