You may already own a 4×4 truck or Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV) with the intention of modifying it to make it more capable on the trails and stand out from the crowd. Or maybe you are looking to purchase your next 4WD vehicle and want to consider all of your options. Either way, we are going to break down the advantages and disadvantages of trucks compared to SUVs for a variety of common situations. While there are a lot of great trucks and SUVs on the market, we are going to specifically look at the Jeep Wrangler and Jeep Gladiator, along with the Toyota Tacoma, Toyota 4Runner, and Ford Bronco. These are some of the most popular 4x4s on the market, with body-on-frame construction and a true low range for impressive off-road prowess and robust aftermarket support.
It should be obvious that a truck has a bed, and an SUV has an enclosed cargo area. If you are regularly carrying sheets of plywood, loads of topsoil, or large appliances then a truck is a better choice. That was traditionally what trucks were primarily used for, but with truck cabs getting longer and beds getting shorter, the line between truck and SUV gets blurred. Then you add the ability to remove the second row of seats for cargo, or add a camper shell, and a truck starts to look more and more like an SUV. In our experience an SUV with four doors makes it easier to access gear and does a better job of sealing out dust and water than a pickup truck with a camper shell on it. A truck gives you the option of adding a wedge camper or slide in camper though, which is not possible with an SUV.
SUVs almost exclusively use coil springs for the rear suspension, while most pickups use leaf springs. This is not always the case though, the Jeep Gladiator, Ram 1500, Ram 2500, and Toyota Tundra all use coil springs. In our experience, the use of coil springs offers a more supple ride, and links with the proper geometry eliminate the axle wrap that can occur with leaf springs. That said, leaf springs do a better job of handling variable loads from an empty bed to a loaded trailer. The internal friction between the leaves also limits sway that can occur when pulling a single axle trailer. Trucks also tend to have a longer wheelbase than SUVs, which increases stability when towing. Regardless of whether you have a truck or SUV, we recommend adding a brake controller to help slow down the load on the road and on the trail.
Trucks and SUVs both have the ability to be incredibly capable on the trail. As noted above, SUVs tend to have shorter wheelbases that make them nimbler. Consider that the Jeep Wrangler has a 118-inch wheelbase, while the Gladiator has a 137-inch wheelbase. Similarly, the Toyota 4Runner has a 109-inch wheelbase, while a four-door, short bed Tacoma has a 127-inch wheelbase. The longer wheelbase decreases the breakover angle and can require three-point turns around tight obstacles and switchbacks. The bed of a pickup can be removed and replaced with a tubular flatbed to eliminate any concerns about damaging sheet metal, but we generally only see this on purpose-built rock crawlers and not vehicles used for daily driving.
So Which is Better?
The Jeep Wrangler and Gladiator and the Ford Bronco have a removable top, while the Toyota 4Runner and Tacoma have fixed tops. The removable top sheds weight, lowers the vehicle’s center of gravity, and greatly improves visibility on the trail, particularly if the doors are removed as well. You need to ask yourself how often you plan to use this feature though, as the Toyotas are considerably quieter at freeway speeds and better sealed from the elements on the trail.
There really is no wrong answer when it comes to buying a truck or an SUV, it is just a matter of preference and priorities. Which vehicle is best for your use comes down to a variety of factors including how your time is split between daily driving and trail use, if you need to pull a trailer or move large objects regularly, and just how difficult of trails you intend to run.