Top 6 budget 4x4 classics to help you survive the winter

Fed up with getting stuck in the snow? Here are six four-wheel-drive classics for under £5000, proving that not all off-roaders are expensive or as utilitarian as a barn

At the time of writing, Britain has become the latest global laughing stock. With snow carving up the landscape and temperatures dropping to -12 degrees Celsius across the land, the UK is currently enduring weather conditions most Scandinavians would bless a ‘good summer’. Well, unless you are currently in Scotland...

While the weather may be instigating havoc on the roads, many people have taken leave of their senses and panic bought six month’s worth of provisions – most of which will end up in the bin. The same mantra appears to apply to the drivers’ hell bent on making travel as dramatic as possible; using high revs to spin wheels and employing the nearby shop as a stopping mechanism.

Yet, all of this can be avoided. If Mother Nature insists on turning the commute into a bobsleigh run guaranteed to catch your saloon or coupe out, getting yourself a comfortable, dependable and economical four-wheel drive is far from financially crippling. Here’s our six 4x4 champions that pick all the boxes.

Suzuki Jimny

More of a roller-skate than a car, don’t write off the humble Jimny as hairdresser’s fodder. Piloting one down the motorway may result in a prescription for Prozac with cartoon-like lane wander mated to a harsh ride, but for low-speed off-road manoeuvres you can’t go wrong.

As far as running costs are concerned, for a light utility vehicle at least, you won’t be sweating it at the petrol pumps with a frugal 1.3-litre engine under the bonnet. This may sound like a trouble child in the wilderness, yet the low gearing means you’re unlikely to find yourself bogged down.

It’s a 1990s fossil that’s hard not to love, with a dated yet hard wearing interior and legendary Japanese reiability. For long distance motorway cruising a Jimny makes no sense – you would have to be demented or Ray Mears to survive a day behind the wheel – but for tackling snow and ensuring you reach your destination as the rest of the country grinds to a halt, nothing else on the market offers so much ability for so little money. Should the sun appear, there are drop-top variants out there for the brave…

Infamous for performing a roll-over that Lassie would be proud of in crosswinds and offering the refinement of a cliff face, the cute looks, low price and endearing driving experience will leave you chortling smugly as you pick your way between stranded BMX X5s and Mercedes MLs.

Land Rover Freelander

Laughed at by many, the mocking firmly stops when this little hero pulls you from the frozen ditch. While it may not run with the trademark Land Rover low-range gearbox, nor hold excessive ground clearance, the plucky little 1.8 K-series engine and gruff diesel range (Td4 or L-series) provide enough grunt to escape nasty situations when it counts. If feeling flush and 18mpg doesn’t turn your stomach, the 2.5-litre V6 makes for a proper load-lugger when Mother Nature descends.

Hugely practical and employing four-wheel traction systems that shame far larger and more expensive rivals, you can collect a well-heeled Freelander MkI for as little as £500. However, while the allure of a cheap Land Rover may seem hard to ignore, unless it’s a base spec diesel from the late 1990s, go for the most solid example you can afford.

There are bucket loads of Freelanders out there that have been run into the ground and are probably being punted off because the K-series head gasket has gone or the electronics have developed a mind of their own.

Unlike a Jimny or lesser brand-new crossover vehicles, the Freelander offers comfort and safety paired with relative economy and genuine off-road ability. So long as you keep the charmingly nicknamed ‘Hippo’ free from beaching there is very little that can stop you. Fit winter tyres and keep the servicing regular for a real winter warrior.

Don’t believe us? We undertook a serious challenge with a largely stock Freelander earlier this year.

Fiat Panda 4x4

Proof you don’t need a lumbering great leviathan to get from A to B when the going gets tough, the little Fiat Panda 4x4 provides the perfect tonic for those requiring four-wheel drive grunt without the excessive size.

These days, everything has an ‘all-wheel drive’ option. However, no such car is capable of tackling extreme weather with hatchback pragmatism on a budget. Hopping from snow crest to undulated ice river with the effective snort of a GlaxoSmithKline-sponsored mountain goat, it remains small wonder that Alpine farmers refuse to part with their Panda 4x4.

Capable of running on fumes for dozens of miles and providing hilarity with faithful mechanicals, on road snow doesn’t stand a chance. Unless you drive like an utter lunatic and fire the little Panda into a snow bank twice its size, you won’t be getting stranded anytime soon.

Later MkIII and current MkIV versions have proven credentials, propelling themselves across the rough stuff in a manner that would leave seasoned off road professionals floored, but nothing touches the charm or jaw-dropping ability of MkI and MkII models. Have a gander at our Fiat Panda 4x4 buying guide to secure yourself a solid example.

Other great cars

Jeep Grand Cherokee

Having resided within the deepest deprecation trough for over a decade, just because the understated bulk is from the land of Donald Trump and the guzzling V8, doesn’t necessarily mean fuel consumption would leave oil sheiks reaching for their smelling salts. In fact, it’s rather civilised – even if there is no legroom for rear passengers and the garish front end blends into the country backdrop like MC Hammer on a camping trip.

First generation models now attract a cult following, but for a dollop of extra sophistication and mechanical prowess the second incarnation of Jeep’s Grand Cherokee makes for a sound winter investment.

It may not be as economical as its rivals and provide low-key brand presence to ensure no one wants to know about your car down the local pub, but as the snow piles and roads take Wacky Races form, your American bruiser will make short work of getting you home for apple pie and the latest episode of American Dad!

Alright, we can admit that the steering is over-light for on-road driving and largely useless off the beaten track, with a bouncy ride destined to regurgitate your child’s lunch back up into the footwell, but as the snow passes under the Jeep’s hull and successful tracks are made for the front door as the world turns white, the Grand Cherokee will fast become your best friend.

A 4.7-litre, 217bhp V8 was available from spring 1999 and makes a great noise from deepest Americana, but the most sensible option remains the 3.2-litre VM turbodiesel.

Nissan Patrol

The very earliest models in the Nissan Patrol range now make for a rare sight, either having corroded away to dust or been worked into the ground. However, there are still plenty of newer models lurking around in the classifieds, just don’t expect sophistication across any surface; taking the Patrol into town feels like introducing Crocodile Dundee to the Royal family.

We doubt any of that matters when carting your family around safely, which is why a well maintained Patrol harbours a reputation for indestructibility as a Tonka-toy off-roader that provides Land Rover Defender levels of capability without the eye watering price tag.

Compared to a Mercedes G-Wagen, the Patrol shakes off rough treatment and will pull you through long after the German tank has shivered back towards civilisation.

Seven seaters are available, with long and short-wheelbase examples sharing the same rugged ability for passage through impossible conditions. Getting up to speed is also largely impossible, working the brusque diesel units hard on main roads with wind noise from all angles to assault the senses.

Quality will appear lack-lustre compared to other SUVs and safety provisions largely come second to practicality, but what 4x4 can offer comfort, elegance, ability, feasibility and decent fuel consumption on a budget?

Oh, wait…

Range Rover

Let’s get one thing straight – Range Rover Classics are expensive. While tougher than old boot and always yearning to bathe in mud, purchasing a solid first generation Range Rover to plunder through salt, snow and Mother Nature’s worst is effectively flushing money down the toilet. Newer models remain far from the financial grasp of enthusiasts or the needy, leaving two models for you to choose from.

Although you must select your Rangie with caution – pick a good one and you’ll have thousands of trouble-free miles exploiting classiness and usability. End up with a complete lemon and you’ll end up rocking back in forth in your garage wishing you were dead.

If your budget allows for an excess of £5k, a third generation L322 will take care of you like a dedicated butler with SAS training. Should the bank account dictate otherwise, a healthy P38a (second incarnation) can usually be purchased for anywhere between £1k-£3k.

Although styling may be a tad different, both incarnations offer the same approach to mad weather conditions. Akin to relaxing in a wing back chair as the outside world collapses, while others run around in a frenzied panic, snapping up all the bread and screaming about the end of the world, you’ll look up from your cup of tea and roll your eyes.

Instead, you'll be stepping into your luxury barge and forcing the snow drift out of the way, wafting into the manic supermarket and calmly buying asparagus for the homemade risotto your are attempting to make, drinking port in front of your log fire.

As everyone else slides around and quakes with fear in the face of a blizzard, you and your passengers will swan by with confidence, discussing that day’s politics and which caviar to buy.

All joking aside, with a low-range gearbox mated to insane axle articulation, not to mention the strongest drivetrain on the market, a Range Rover will get you far further into Snowpocalpyse than any other 4x4. Even granddaddy Defender will tag along in your tracks.

Here’s why the P38 makes for the pick of the bunch.

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Pictures courtesy of Gavin Bushby, Ann Brown, MagicCarPics, Jeep Media UK, Calum Brown, Suzuki Media, Nissan, Andy McCandlish and Jaguar Land Rover

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