Sports utility vehicles aren't all what they used to be. Today, the rude beasts of yore have mostly evolved into crossovers that assume the silhouette of a rough-and-tumble SUV but have more in common with a minivan than a Ford Raptor. And that, frankly, makes a lot of sense. With a crossover, you get to imagine the potential for adventure without the drawbacks inherent in genuine off-road rigs: ponderous handling, heavy, low-range gearboxes. But what if you're the kind of guy who still wants the ability to ford a creek without drowning? Or ascend a mountain without taking a step? In our imaginary off-road world, where most of us are well served by cars disguised as trucks, are there any SUVs out there that can still handle terrain more fearsome than the ski-resort parking lot? The answer is yes. There are plenty of SUVS that meet the bulk of our criteria: respectable ground clearance, no less than 5,000 pounds of towing, underbody skid plates, and locking differentials. They're out there – you just have to know what to look for.
1. It's based on a rear-wheel-drive platform.
If you want to separate the poseur 4x4s from the credible ones, the first thing to investigate is which end of the vehicle handles the power. Any 4x4 that's based on a rear-wheel-drive setup will be solid – when you don't have to cram the whole transmission and engine under the front end, everything can be more robust. At its price range, the Dodge Durango is one of the last badasses that ride on a rear-drive platform. We happened to be driving a Hemi Durango during a winter storm that flooded our road; the Durango plunged into and plowed through the water without hesitation. The same could not be said of a few other so-called utility vehicles being pulled from the drink by a tow truck.