Good Clearance and AWD or 4WD? No SUV's please!


I need help finding a good used car. I will be moving to an area where I will need AWD or 4WD for the winter to get through the dirt roads. I prefer station wagons (no SUV’s please!) but still need decent clearance to avoid scraping bottom on these roads. I also would prefer to spend $3000, but might be able to do up to $5000. I’ve been looking at Subarus, but wonder if they have any better clearance than any other sedans out there. Any ideas?


Given your budget Subaru is about it.

However small older SUV’s may fit the bill like the Geo Tracker and Toyota RAV4.

Not sure of your apprehension of a “SUV” however the two just mentioned deliver similar mileage albiet with less comfoft.


Thanks. SUV’s have 2 problems as I see it - gas mileage and driving like a truck. Also, for space, I believe station wagons have most SUV’s beat, so the SUV’s don’t even have that. If I found one without these issues, I’d consider it… but I doubt it has been created yet.


A Subaru Outback is just about the only station wagon that fits your criteria. Shop carefully, because in your price range there will be a lot of high-mileage cars.

Another possibility is the Forester, but they might be more money than an Outback. Functionally they are equivalent. The Outback might be slightly longer but the Forester is taller, so interior room is very close to even.

My guess is that a RAV4 or a CRV will just about match the Outback in gas mileage, assuming you stick with a 4-cylinder engine.

Be aware that from about 1997 through the early 2000s Subaru 2.5 liter engines are prone to head gasket problems.


If you’re looking at Subarus, I’d steer clear of all the Outback models, the ones with the 2.5L, even after 2000, they were trouble prone. An older impreza or legacy with the 2.2L in your price range could probably be found. But despite the tough appearance, Subarus will rattle themselves to pieces on a dirt road - I had a Forester and was very underwhelmed by its off-road performance, among other things. The ground clearance was no different than a Toyota Corolla, and the approach and exit angles were worse.

I like the small SUV suggestions above, including the Rav4 and Tracker.

But if you’re really looking for a rugged stationwagon, I’d recommend the original Jeep Cherokee. It rides like a truck, yes, but the 6-cyl will get 22 to 23 mpg (not much worse than a subaru) and this vehicle is very capable offroad and dependable. Mid-90s models in your price range with around 100k on the clock are plentiful.


With only $3K to spend, you won’t have a lot of choices. If you live somewhere where road salt is not an issue, you might see if you can blunder into a 70s vintage econobox in decent shape – Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, etc. My 1979 Mazda GLC had much better road clearance than modern cars (and it got OK gas mileage as well). But it pretty much dissolved before its 20th birthday.

Have you actually seen the roads where you will be moving in the Winter? Where I live in Northwestern Vermont, the unpaved roads do not actually require 4WD-AWD. In fact, for most of the year, they are better than the major streets in NorthEastern cities. Fewer and shallower potholes. But that won’t be true everywhere.


$3000? An older Subaru might be suitable, but for $3000 I don’t think you’ll end up with a very reliable vehicle.

Don’t count out a Toyota RAV4. It’s built on a car chassis, not a truck chassis, and drives like a car. I believe it gets just as good gas mileage as a Subaru Outback wagon, and most RAV4s are more reliable than most Subarus, period. (Of course there are individual exceptions, so whatever you’re thinking about, get it checked out before you agree to buy it by an independent mechanic you trust.)

Good luck,


Rugged? Yes. Reliable? Hmmmm.

And, yes, they are VERY capable off-road. On-road, they have a killing ride and handling that is…let’s just say…not very safe.


Subaru…as mentioned. But why the no SUV please ? If you want ground clearance, other than a “jacked up” wagon (Subaru) there is little to choose from that isn’t a SUV. As soon as you go AWD or 4 WD you move out of the economy realm. RAV 4s, CRVs and other car based “SUVs” are not trucks and no more stigmatized than a Subaru…they are just as economical, and in the CRV maybe more so than in some Subaru models. And I would argue, with there more “box” designed, more practical given the outstanding overall handling of the Subies.
I would shop all in that price range…


Jeep 6 cyl and 22 to 23 mpg is very optomistic. Have “tripped” in many of them over the years with officiating buddies and never seem over 20 mpg for all round milage city/highway.
Even 4 cyl RAV 4, Subies and CRV struggle with 22/23 overall when you include city/highway.
The older Jeep straight 6 I thought was one of the better motors in it’s time otherwise.


SUVs are today’s station wagons. Some are more truck-like; just stay away from the ones that drive like a truck. And if it is AWD, not 4WD, odds are it is more like a car anyway. In your price range, you are looking at an older vehicle. A 2000 Suzuki Grand Vitara might work.


I agree with these points however buying a $3000 car it really is indifferent whether a Toyota nameplate or Subaru nameplate or GM name plate is affixed to the vehicle. It really just past ownership driving habits, maintenance and a lot of luck which will be reliable.

Whatever you decide to do PAY a trusted mechanic for checkover as a $3000 vehicle (AWD/4WD) is likely in need of work or well worn.


Wow. Thanks so much for all of the info! I will expand my search to include the RAV4, CRV, Vitara, etc…
To answer some questions -
I have seen the roads - any car can get down them in the summer. But they are not township roads, and the homeowner’s assoc. dissolved years ago. It is up to people who live there to plow out. My home is the farthest one on the road (1 mile) at a dead end at a creek. I have been told by neighbors that in winter you need AWD or 4WD.
I do realize that $3000 is nothing to get a truly decent car with, but all my $ is going into the home. That is the decision I have made and I am happy with it. Cars come and go tenfold while we still call the same place home.
I appreciate ALL of the advice. Keep it coming!


Here’s my suggestion:

You’re not going to get much of an AWD/4WD car for 3000 bucks, other than a very old subaru or even an old AMC Eagle.

However, you could easilly get an old 4wd pickup truck for 1000 or so and just park it at the end of the maintained road in the winter. With $2000 you can buy a 2wd car that drives better, gets better gas mileage and is more reliable than a $3000 dollar AWD vehicle would be.