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Looking for a high-mpg, non-truck vehicle that can handle off-road duty

Working in construction puts my car in a lot of wear-and-tear situations. So far my 2000 Honda Civic has held up, but I know it’s only a matter of time before I’m forced to replace it in a hurry. The problem is, I can’t stand SUVs, I can’t see myself in a truck, and I have a hard time parting with the Civic’s consistent 35+ mpg. Is there a perfect car out there that has a quality track record, off-road capability, everyday city life functioning, and is reasonably priced? The only lead I’ve got so far is the high ground clearance and AWD of the Subaru Outback…

High mpg and “off road” are like two opposite poles. You can get one but not the other. AWD Subaru Outbacks get horrible mileage if you are used to the 35+ mpg of a Civic.

If you’ve gone this far with a 2000 Civic, your best bet is to get another one. The Civic has little ground clearance. Perhaps you can fit some after market wheels and tires the have a slightly taller aspect ratio. Lately tires seem be be fatter, have shorter sidewalls and are fitted on wider rims. This is the opposite of what you need. Older style narrower tires on less wide rims could give an extra 1-2" of ground clearance and not hurt mpg or performance at all.

I think new Civics either come standard with limited slip differential, or it is available on some models. Limited slip would be a big improvement in going off road compared to your current civic.

The smaller Subaru Forester might be a good choice; it has good mileage and good ground clearance. The most frugal might be the Suzuki SX4, which has AWD, good ground clearance and gas mileage close to the Civic.

Take both of them for a drive to see if that’s your kind of vehilce.

+1 for Subaru. A friend here in Colorado maintained mountain-top communications sites around the state. He regularly drove his Outback up logging roads, to the tops of mountains and in all weather conditions. Other alternatives would be RAV4, CRV, Hyundai Santa Fe or Tuscon, but none of these have the AWD history of Subaru.

It also depends upon what you mean by “off-road” – flat maintained dirt/gravel roads are different than steep logging roads up mountain sides. Just about any 2WD can handle the former while AWD or 4WD with adequate ground clearance and suspension is required for the latter.


You might consider just parking closer to the road so that you don’t have to drive through the ruts on the job site. If your tools are too heavy to carry, you might find a cart that will get your tools to the job from the car. Be careful carrying heavy tool boxes. My cousin’s husband used to carry two large tool cases for work. He paid for it with debilitating back injuries and spent many miserable years after an early disability retirement. I don’t write this to scare you, but to remind you that anyone can hurt themselves if they don’t take proper care.

I have done many things with many vehicles, I think for me a better description of what exactly you need to do would be helpful.

Thanks for the responses, all.
What I’m looking for is this (again, it may not exist, as UncleTurbo points out)–a vehicle that can handle dirt roads both well-maintained and in the process of being built, often featuring large rock fragments. Most of the use, however, will be on city streets and highways (this would be my personal vehicle, not just a work vehicle). In other words, I want a truck that looks like a car, or a car/hatchback/wagon that can perform closer to a truck than a typical sedan.
I’d say the only things my Civic is lacking are 1)ground clearance, 2) sturdier wheels, and 3)an undercarriage designed to get knocked around.

One way to approach it might be to look at a group of vehicles together and see if any of them appeal to you. You might try the government gas mileage site:

Find a few examples in each class and then look at the ground clearance and other factors that appeal to you.

An SUV is what you NEED, whether you like it or not…Some are made in 2wd configuration, much cheaper, and will meet your needs…

I think a crossover that looks like a car such as the Suzuki SX4 would be your best bet.

I think you need a 2WD Honda CRV if they make such a thing. Honda longevity, decent gas mileage, more clearance, OK but not great gas mileage. A Ford Escape Hybrid might be worth a look.

If you live outside of road salt country, and you stumble over a late 1970s-early 1980s East Asian hatchback with a manual transmission for sale, you might want to follow up on it. My 1979 Mazda GLC had excellent road clearance and got 30+ mpg even in town. But finding repair parts will be a hassle. And with your usage, you will probably need repairs.

In a new car, I dunno. They mostly seem to be designed for driving somewhere like Detroit or Kanagawa – paved and flat as a pancake. I think that the designers think anyone concerned about road clearance is a rural hick who will probably end up in a pickup truck anyway.

my question is actually very similar. We for many years had a Camry and an Odyssey. The Odyssey died at 197K miles, and we got a Prius, which we adore. The 1999 Camry has 207K miles, so we need to be prepared with our next choice. Another Prius would be easy. However, we miss being able to fit 6 people sometimes, and would like more cargo space when the four of us take off for a weekend. So, what’s the best mix of safety, fuel efficiency, cost, that sits 6? Thanks!!

If the Civic has worked OK, but you want ground clearance, I’d go for a 2WD CRV or Rav4.

I’m curious why you say you can’t stand SUVs. If it’s only because of “green” reasons, keep in mind that your situation really justifies the use of an SUV.

Have you considered getting a beater truck to use just for work and then keeping the Civic for your normal driving?

Easy, another Odyssey, though there’s plenty to choose from. Like the Mazda 5, Chevy Uplander(not sure if it’s still in production or not though), Hyundai and Kia make one, Toyota Sienna, and I think Nissan make one as well. Anything else will feel cramped(Crown Vic, Town Car, Sable, etc.) when fitting 6 adults in the vehicle, with the only cargo space the trunk has.

@Drsved: A Mazda5 or Kia Rondo would be ideal IMHO.

Please don’t think that good advertised ground clearance makes for an acceptable off road vehicle. So called high ground clearance of a Subaru, is incidental to off road as it quickly “disappears” when you add a load or hit a bump as it’s independently sprung and very car like vulnerable underneath. The owners manual recommends you drive only where you would drive a FWD car. The added ground clearance gives you some advantage in snow…Not to be used off road. Solid axles are the only non specialized vehicles that are economically going to give you decent off road performance. Can you say compact PU. You’re asking the impossible. Cars are built to specific needs that can only be affordable if the needs do not conflict.

Get a compact 2wd PU and a matching FG cap with a limited slip rear differential. They look very carlike, are inexpensive, economical to about 25 mpg and have sturdy underpinnings.

Dagosa,does any truck maker offer a 2wd,4cyl PU,with a LSD-seems like you couldnt get one on the last generation S-10?-Kevin

Newer Tacomas have LSD option throughout most of their line. At one time, I priced dealer installed units for mine. I would consider that route on my next 2wd PU…I have all 4wd now. Compact trucks in 4wd are really stiff riders. With the right balance, even non LSD 2 wd trucks can be decent on “rough” roads.