Choosing an Adventure Rig

Out of all the topics I want to tackle here, I feel most excited to talk about adventuring. Although my passion for it all but died out in high school, after seven moves in as many years, it reignited in college: when I had to decide whether my profession would be the anchor that kept me stationary or the means to a nomadic lifestyle down the road, I chose the latter. This choice has informed every major decision I have made since then, and will continue to influence my actions in the future. Today I want to talk about the first choice it touched, my decision to buy a new car, and the journey that led me to a 2018 Toyota 4Runner.

As my last year of college rolled around, I had some decisions to make. Having driven the family Subaru Forster since high school, the most expensive decision I faced dealt with its replacement. Although reliable, efficient, and capable1, it had come time for me to buy my own car, and I wanted something different. In particular, I wanted a larger vehicle capable of supporting multi-day backcountry trips, and something better suited to off-road driving. The Forester had impressed me, but could not handle the long-term adventures in austere environments that I had planned.

The Candidates #

Rather than jumping right to another SUV, I wanted to explore all my options. I had only minor complaints about the Forester, and so I suspected a similar vehicle would check all my boxes, but I did not want to rule anything out without doing my due diligence. I have since formalized the process of choosing an expedition rig. At the time, I considered just four options: a car, a truck, a van, and an SUV.

A Car #

Although I had set my sights on a larger and more capable vehicle, the idea of owning a small car did appeal to me for three reasons. First, I could buy one for half the price of almost anything else. That has an undeniable draw: less money spent toward a loan means more for adventures. I could also choose something sporty; like Ricky Bobby, I wanna go fast, too. I also liked the idea of an efficient vehicle. Compared to a truck or mid-size SUV, a small car could get up to twice as many miles to the gallon, which would cut my gas bill in half. Again, more money for adventuring. I could also get to most places on a paved road, so maybe off-road prowess did not matter as much as I thought it did. These made for a convincing argument, but I did not want to wake up five years later hoping for a decent trade-in on a $20,000 investment. I knew that if I went this route, I would regret it for the same reasons I did not want to keep the Forester, and so I kept searching.

A Truck #

I also thought about getting a full-size truck. Plenty of storage space, and enough power to pull or carry anything else I might need, sounded like a great idea. These vehicles can also handle almost any terrain. At over $50,000 for my target model, though, before taxes and dealer fees, I could not justify getting one. At the time I saw no reason to buy a truck without an absurd amount of power, and so while I could have chosen something smaller and saved some money, I decided that at that point I might as well just get a mid-size SUV with a shorter wheelbase and more internal cargo space. Today I would spend more time considering a Tacoma or something similar, but I stand by my initial choice.

A Van #

I briefly considered a van, too. Although at the time I had not yet discovered the VanLife movement, I reasoned that a large van could fill the role of a small RV. The idea seemed interesting but too far-fetched to work, and so I moved on without investing much time into it. Had I known then what I do today, I would think much harder about this, too. This may be the easiest and cheapest way to sustain lengthy adventures in the long-term, in all but the most inhospitable environments.

An SUV #

With that, I had come full-circle back to an SUV. Priced near the middle of the pack, I would save versus a truck while also getting a vehicle capable of tackling tough off-road terrain, with enough space to live out of during an expedition. I would also have to spend the least amount of time, energy, and resources transforming an SUV from a showroom model to a viable backcountry adventure platform. I felt this type of vehicle would best suit my needs, and so I began narrowing my search from here.

Finding the Best Vehicle #

Consumers tend to allow the wrong factors to influence this process. Blind loyalty, because their family has always driven a certain brand. Nationalism, as if the parent company’s owners’ nationality ought to influence one of the most expensive investments they will ever make. Fuel efficiency when gas prices peak, yet casual disregard for it when they fall. Marketing campaigns. Fad technologies. People buy cars for all sorts of bad reasons, but I wanted to do better. How could I strip away folk wisdom, ignorance, and short-sightedness, though? How could I ignore all the tired tropes, and the flashy accessories, to find vehicles whose cost best matched their worth? I could do this by focusing not on the sticker price, a figure the manufacturer believes most consumers will value their product at because of the factors above, but rather by focusing on reliability and longevity — two metrics I could approximate as one, by examining resale value. Years down the road, when they have traded those ephemeral criteria for meaningful ones, the amount of money the average person will exchange for a given vehicle is a much better measure of its actual worth. This is the criterion by which I began narrowing my search.

For new cars, Kelley Blue Book and sites like NADA Guides track the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, the actual invoice paid by the dealerships, and where — in that range — buyers tend to fall. For used cars they also estimate trade-in value, on top of the typical range one can expect when purchasing from a dealer or private party. This is phenomenal information to have in a negotiation. Buyers can also use this information to see approximate resale value over time. How valuable does the average consumer consider this vehicle versus its original sticker price after three years? How about five? Every year these stats get summarized in a handy article. Check them out here, if you feel curious: 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019.

Since 2010, Toyota and Jeep have dominated these lists. In particular, the FJ Cruiser until it got discontinued in 2014, then the Tacoma, the 4Runner, and the Wrangler. I had already ruled out mid-size trucks like the Tacoma, so I took it out of the running. My final decision came down to three factors. First, I had not heard good things about the Jeep as a daily driver. Its roots stretch back to the Army’s need for an ultra-capable off-road vehicle in World War II, and none question its prowess in that environment; on the pavement, out of its element, a mechanic friend of mine and another long-time owner both recommended I get something else. Price also concerned me: a base Wrangler with similar options as the 4Runner would have set me back about $10,000 more. Toyota’s spot at the top of the resale charts, year after year, sealed the deal; I started shopping for a 4Runner.

Trimming It Out #

At the time, Toyota sold six versions of the 4Runner. Disregarding the luxury trim levels left me with just three models: the SR5, the Off-Road, and the TRD Pro. The SR5 lacked Toyota’s impressive Crawl Control, a locking rear differential, and a 4x4 drivetrain — all basic necessities for venturing off the pavement. The Pro boasted a slick interior and better suspension, but I did not care about leather seats and planned to install aftermarket suspension anyway; I chose the TRD Off-Road and saved about $6,000. Next, I had to decide whether to buy used or new.

New Versus Used #

Almost no one recommends new cars. Their value drops by thousands as soon as they leave the lot, and 10% per year after that. The best hold 60% of their original value at sixty months; most do not get anywhere near that figure. This applies to most vehicles, but less so to those at the top of the resale pack: on average, 4Runners depreciate at about 5.5%. This made the prospect of buying one from 2013 for $27,000, with the average odometer already over 70,000, less appealing. I would have also had a hard time getting a loan for that amount for a used vehicle, as a college student without a job and with mediocre credit. I applied for one loan and got a counteroffer for half the amount at over 10% interest. Had I decided to get something else, I may have gotten something used; I chose to get a 4Runner, though, and in this case, the savings did not justify several years and tens of thousands of miles of unknown use. I also had no plans to sell my new car, which meant minimizing this “loss” did not play as big a role in this process as it could have.

The Buying Process #

Once I knew what I wanted, I went to my local Toyota dealership. It should not have surprised me that if you show up wanting a vehicle with reasonable evidence that you can pay for it, the salesmen work pretty hard to get you into that car; about a week after my first visit, I drove off the lot in a 2018 Toyota 4Runner. I feel like I could have gotten it for a lower price, but as a college student, I also had mediocre credit and no job at the time. The dealership financed the entire purchase. I chose to do this rather than make a down payment to keep money in my bank account. I paid about halfway between Dealer Invoice and MSRP, which I can live with. I plan to have it paid off by mid-2021, about a year before the loan comes to term, which reduces the amount of interest I will end up paying.

I believe I made the best choice possible given the resources at my disposal, the adventures I had in mind, and my approach to travel at the time. Had I known more about the VanLife movement, I would have thought much harder about a van; with more time, money, and expertise at my disposal, I might have turned a mid-size truck into a small adventure camper. I may still explore those routes one day; until then, though, I will continue my journey down this path in one of the most capable vehicles on the road.

 Once, while camping, I used the Forester to pull a small trailer through a copse of trees toward a small shelter. Later that night, when I discovered inches-deep ruts leading back to the main road, I realized that part-way through my ride I had buried the SUV up to its frame in mud. At the time, I had not even noticed.