Surf’s up! And with that pronouncement comes many trips to the ocean, gulf or lake all summer long. Small numbers of beaches around the country still allow people to drive right along the shoreline, typically in a 4×4 or some other type of off-road vehicle so that they won’t get stuck.
If you’re headed to the North Carolina Outer Banks, to Oceana Dunes in California, to Surfside Beach in Texas or to some other beach access destination, there are a handful of vehicles that are best suited for beach travel. We’ll take a look at five of the best cars for the beach here.
Remember, follow the rules for beach access, and always stay off the dunes!
1. Jeep Wrangler
The easy leader here is the Jeep Wrangler and for two primary reasons. First, this 4×4 has a pedigree that stretches all the way back to World War II where such “general purchase” vehicles were built by Willys and Ford, and were used by the Allies to help win the muddy European Theater. Second, this model is affordable, whether bought new or used. A new one can still be had for under $25,000 and there are many more on the used market that can be purchased for much less.
Today’s Wrangler is powered by a 285-horsepower, 3.6-liter V6 engine and is available in standard and extended wheelbase editions, the latter known as the Wrangler Unlimited. No matter which model you choose, you will want to ensure that it is properly outfitted for the beach. Likely, you will be operating your Wrangler in 4-Lo and running around in 31- or 33-inch off-road rubber. Tip: air down your tires to about 10 psi and you’ll be in great shape. Replenish the air once you leave the beach. And be a kind citizen, too, by using your winch to extricate a neighbor who found himself stuck.
2. Land Rover Defender
Some experts would place the Land Rover Defender ahead of the Jeep Wrangler, but this model is no longer imported to the US as it doesn’t meet current emissions standards. However, Land Rover sold the Defender for four years during the 1990s and you may be able to find one that still gets the job done, especially when driven off road.
Unlike the earlier Wranglers with four- and six-cylinder options, the Land Rover Defender comes with a 3.9-liter V8 engine that’s paired with a four-speed automatic transmission. Both its horsepower rating (182) and fuel economy (12/14 mpg city/highway) are underwhelming. But just like the Jeep Wrangler, the Land Rover Defender offers both hardtop and soft top options. If you cannot find a Defender and have the cash to buy new, the Land Rover LR4 might do.
3. Toyota 4Runner
Toyota has a history of building tough, off-road capable vehicles. Indeed, the first Jeep-like vehicles were built in the early 1950s to supply America’s war effort in Korea. Later, various Land Cruiser models were released, including the widely-respected Toyota Land Cruiser or J40.
Today, you can buy a Toyota 4Runner that is constructed on the platform underpinning the Toyota Tacoma pickup truck. A third model, the FJ Cruiser, was built from 2006 to 2014 and points directly to that earlier J40. As for the Toyota 4Runner, this traditional body-on-frame SUV stays true to its roots and is powered by a 270-horsepower, 4.0-liter V6 engine. Choose the “Pro” edition and you get high performance shocks and an aluminum skid plate. You also get a locking rear differential, a terrain select system with four modes and a kinetic dynamic suspension system with crawl control.
4. Nissan Xterra
Like the Toyota 4Runner, the Nissan Xterra has retained its truck-derived body-on-frame layout. The Xterra shares its bones with the Nissan Frontier, a midsize pickup truck. People don’t buy the Xterra for its on-road elegance — it is sorely lacking in that department — but they do appreciate its versatility on the trail as well as at the beach.
Choosing the Xterra means overlooking a few other shortfalls, such as its noisy cabin. But you get a washable cargo area outfitted with ceiling hooks and floor cleats as well as an under the load floor storage box. You also get a 261-horsepower, 4.0-liter V6 engine paired with a five-speed automatic transmission, available Bilstein off-road performance shock absorbers, hill descent control, hill start assist and roof rack off-road lights.
5. Subaru Outback
Some may argue that the Subaru Outback isn’t ideal for the beach, but we shouldn’t assume that every beach has a quagmire just waiting to engulf small, all-wheel drive vehicles. Even so, you may want to deflate your tires below 15 psi to get enough grip while pushing across the sand. Ground clearance on the newest models now measures 8.9 inches, so you have some room to work with.
Perhaps the best argument for the Subaru is that once you are off the beach (with tires properly reinflated) you have the most comfortable on-road vehicle of the five. Its symmetrical all-wheel drive system automatically sends power to all wheels for maximum traction and adjusts that power when conditions are slippery. Furthermore, if yours comes with the available 3.6-liter six-cylinder engine, you have nearly 250 pound-feet of torque at your disposal.
Find Your Beach Buy
So, you currently do not own one of the listed best cars for the beach? You can remedy that deficiency by shopping on our site for used car deals, including certified pre-owned cars. And, yes, please obtain your CARFAX report to rule out any cars that may have taken a dunk, were totaled by the insurance company and retitled in another state.