Home Cars 10 Best Classic and Rare Japanese Off-Road SUVs that Started the Trend in Today’s Industry

10 Best Classic and Rare Japanese Off-Road SUVs that Started the Trend in Today’s Industry

Vukasin Herbez November 6, 2018

Most people know Jeep started the true off-road vehicle segment in the early 1940s and Land Rover several years later. But today’s biggest car class, the SUVs, were started by Jeep and Range Rover in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively. In those days, Japanese car brands were almost completely unknown outside of Asia. The lineup of Japanese cars consisted of small, inexpensive economy cars which were uninteresting.

While most Japanese-made models were affordable runabouts, the Japanese also developed the off-road class. So almost all brands had quality off-road models that proved to be dependable and equal to American or European models. Over the years, Japanese off-road models turned into SUVs, so today there are dozens of Japanese models in that class.

But, this list is not about those modern SUVs that never leave the pavement. So, keep reading to learn all about the best classic Japanese off-road cars. These are the most legendary models that shaped the industry and started the SUV trend. Also, these cars have proven themselves off the beaten path and throughout the jungles and deserts of Africa. Some models are famous, and some are obscure, but all are Japanese and capable off-road machines.

1. Subaru BRAT

You might think the BRAT is a pickup because it looks like one. However, if you look close enough you’ll see two rear-facing seats in the bed that transform this compact truck into a passenger vehicle. They conceived the Subaru BRAT, which stands for Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transporter, in the late 1970s. They designed the BRAT o take advantage of the popularity of compact trucks in America.

However, there were steep import taxes for foreign trucks that threatened to kill all of Subaru`s profits. For that reason, the company thought of a genius way of selling the truck as a passenger car by installing two seats in the back. Although this would not be possible today due to safety concerns and standards, it was perfectly legal in the late ’70s when they introduced the car.

Thanks to its unusual features, affordable price and dependable mechanics, the Subaru BRAT was one of the most popular Subaru models of the 80s and a cool classic today. Some owners decided to remove the seats for more usable space, ruining the coolness and quirkiness of this unique car.

2. Isuzu VehiCross

Not too long ago, Isuzu SUVs were common and respected in America. During the ’80s and ’90s in cooperation with General Motors, Isuzu sold numerous models on the American market. This helped them gain a reputation for being durable and dependable vehicles. However, Isuzu realized that the future was in SUV models.

So, in the early 90s, they decided to produce a totally new and highly capable lifestyle model they called the VehiCross. Behind this strange name was an even stranger vehicle only available in a three-door specification. And they only came with a 3.5-liter V6 engine and automatic transmission. Isuzu designed the VehiCross to be a modern and even futuristic off-roader by giving it their best all-terrain technology and components.

But, in 1997 when they introduced the VehiCross, the market didn’t react the way it should. The vehicle was strange looking and some people even said it was ugly. However, it came in crossover form but in fact, it was a capable and quality-built off-roader. That is why the U.S. sales were slow and in 2001 they discontinued production of the VehiCross.

3. Toyota 4Runner

Toyota’s answer to the Bronco and K5 Blazer came quite late in 1984. It followed the same recipe as its competitors: a shortened Hilux truck chassis with a single cabin and a removable hardtop. The 4Runner came in time to battle with the second generations of the Bronco and the K5. And while it obviously couldn’t compete with the two due to a lack of V8 power, it gained recognition due to its ruggedness and durability.

But even without the V8 under the hood, the 4Runner was a great SUV for the period and especially capable in off-road conditions. Today, car fans consider the palette of inline-four engines the most reliable. So the best way is to find this version, despite the obvious lack of power like the V6 models. And if you wish to go off-roading in the 4Runner, the models with smaller engines have better all-terrain capabilities than their big-engine counterparts.

If you’re shopping for a classic off-road SUV, you have lots of great choices, depending on your tastes, budget and lifestyle. But, no matter what you want to take four-wheeling, there is an SUV to suit your needs and wants.

4. Mitsubishi Pajero

Mitsubishi introduced the Pajero in the early 1980s. And soon, it became popular in Europe, the Middle East and America. It was a simple but effective off-road SUV that came in many varieties and with a couple of powerful engines. The construction of the original Pajero was basic. It came with a ladder chassis and leaf spring suspension in the back.

However, its off-road performance was more than good. Over the years, they upgraded the Pajero to a more luxurious machine, and it even went racing. In the late 90s, they introduced the Pajero Pinin as a smaller, more affordable version of the original Pajero. However, with the introduction of European SUVs in that class and market, the popularity of the Pajero started to decline.

Today, Mitsubishi no longer sells the Pajero in Europe and its presence is limited to just a couple of markets around the world. They introduced the current generation in 2006 and it is long overdue for replacement. Most drivers would like to see a new Pajero soon. It could be a modern-looking and comfortable SUV.

But it should have off-road capabilities and powerful engines like its predecessors. The rumors circling the car industry stated that the new Pajero was in the pipeline, but they canceled the development due to Mitsubishi`s financial troubles.

5. Suzuki X-90

The 1990s were strange times when the Japanese car industry was notorious for producing some odd, funny vehicles. Back in the day, Suzuki was one of the biggest Japanese economy car brands with millions of buyers in the U.S. But, thanks to the successful and small Samurai SUV, the company wanted to explore the rising SUV market. However, they didn’t want to do that with the common Vitara and Grand Vitara models, but with something completely different.

So, Suzuki created a two-seater, two-door SUV with compact dimensions and a removable T-Top. And that’s how the Suzuki X-90 was born in 1995. Powered with a 95 HP, 1.6-liter four-cylinder, the X-90 had rear-wheel drive as standard or optional all-wheel drive. Still, it had limited interior and trunk space.

They officially sold 7,000 X-90s in America. But neither the buyers nor the motoring press understood what Suzuki wanted to say with this model. They discontinued the X-90 in late 1998. But up to this day, it remains as one of the strangest Japanese production cars of all time.

6. Toyota Land Cruiser FJ 40

The car that made the Land Cruiser nameplate world-famous entered the automotive market in 1960 as a purely utilitarian short-wheelbase off-roader. During the production run, which lasted until 1984 and until 2001 in Brazil, the J40 had dozens of iterations. Because some of them were particularly valuable due to unmatched off-road performance, it gathered cult status among mud-loving enthusiasts.

One of them is the FJ40, a version with a 3.8L inline-six engine. However, the ultimate version was the 2FJ40 with the power coming from a 4.2L inline-six. Also, the J40 had a few memorable diesel versions with the biggest one being the 2H 4.0L straight six. The J40 series was available in two or four-wheel drive. It also came with two or four doors or even as a pickup. But it was the two-door four-wheel drive model that is the most desirable one.

However, all versions can provide drivers with endless fun, especially since the J40 Land Cruiser is easy to modify and customize. The J40 provides phenomenal off-road performance and experience. But be sure to find a four-wheel drive model to squeeze the most out of this car, even though they come with a higher price tag. Once you sit behind the wheel of a Land Cruiser, there won’t be any mountains and creeks you can’t conquer in this legendary Japanese vehicle.

7. Suzuki Samurai

The Suzuki Car Company stopped selling cars in America following a string of models that weren’t successful or particularly good. But during the 1980s it was one of the bestselling Japanese brands in America. The reason was simple. Suzuki cars were affordable, dependable and simple. And along with their lineup of small hatchbacks, Suzuki sold the Samurai, a compact off-roader with a small price but big potential.

They sold the Samurai in the States from 1985 to 1989. However, a harsh Consumer Reports article interrupted its career because it stated the Samurai was a small death trap on wheels. The article explained that this little SUV was prone to rollovers, which had been the cause of many accidents, some even with fatal outcomes. But Suzuki sued Consumer Reports claiming that wasn’t true.

The case dragged on for 10 years, eventually settling out of court. Some independent reports proved the little Samurai was a bit unstable, but not as catastrophically as Consumer Reports claimed. Unfortunately, they did a lot of damage, so Suzuki withdrew the Samurai from the market, even though they continued to sell it in rest of the world.

8. Isuzu Trooper

In 1981, the Isuzu Trooper was the perfect car for the time. It was a relatively spacious, great-handling off-road SUV with dependable mechanics. Also, it had an attractive design and lots of character, which was something Japanese cars often lacked. The Trooper was a capable off-road vehicle but still retained a certain level of on-road highway manners.

These features made it equally at home on dirt roads, as well as on the interstate. But, their U.S. competitors all had V8s and bigger engines, so the Isuzu 2.8-liter V6 didn’t sound like much. But it was enough for all purposes and off-road driving. From today’s perspective, the Trooper looks a little boxy. But that’s how the SUVs from the 80s all looked.

Also, one of the key characteristics of this model is its impeccable build quality. This means that there are a fair number of survivors on the road today. And lastly, the Trooper has earned a cult status among classic SUV fans.

9. Nissan Patrol

Today, most U.S. customers recognize the Nissan Patrol as the Armada as a big, heavy luxury SUV in two-wheel drive configuration. But long ago, the Patrol was a serious off-road vehicle they intended for heavy-duty use with mechanics to cope with tough terrain. Nissan designed the Patrol as a competitor to the FJ 40 Land Cruiser.

However, the Patrol matured by the early 80s into a modern SUV with global appeal. Nissan redesigned its chassis and engines, as well as the interior and introduced the third generation Patrol in 1980. It was a boxy SUV with lots of interior room, tough mechanical components and undeniable off-road capabilities.

10. Suzuki Escudo/Sidekick/Vitara

In the late 1980s, the Suzuki Motor Company needed something to make buyers forget the Samurai scandal. They wanted to regain the position they lost in the compact SUV market. So, the answer was the new and modern model they called the Sidekick or Vitara. It was Suzuki’s global project to introduce a more on-road oriented model to appeal to the younger crowd. But, it was safer with updated equipment, making it more usable than the small, problematic Samurai.

They introduced the first generation Sidekick or Vitara in 1988. And it immediately met universal praise from car buyers and the motoring press. It was the right model for the times with cool looks, nice options, long and short wheelbase versions and an optional open top. It could be a family SUV, as well as a fun vehicle for weekend trips.

Under the hood were several gasoline engines. Although they were all relatively small in displacement and power, they were enough to help the compact Sidekick perform similar to or better than its competitors. The production of the first generation lasted from 1988 to 1998 and the replacement model was the Chevrolet Tracker.

Did you find your favorite in this list of 10 classic and rare Japanese off-road SUVs? Whether you like to go off-roading or prefer to stick to the pavement, there is one here for you.

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