A local Wyoming reader sent us a question asking which vehicle would be a good option as a photography work vehicle. Ron Hayes of Western Wildlife Images works as a professional photographer traveling all over the State and out in the wilderness of Wyoming. Hiking and packing big camera’s and lenses are part of the job, yes, but is a whole lot easier if that can be reduced. Therefore a little off-roading may be necessary at times to negotiate rough terrain, so something with 4WD/AWD and some ground clearance. He may also have to camp out and sleep in the vehicle,(those perfect photo moments sometimes require a lot a patience) so requests something that has folding seats, preferably with a 3rd row (for more room). Budget is around $20k. Good fuel consumption would be a bonus.
- Good ground clearance.
- AWD or 4WD.
- 3rd-row seating.
- Fold flat seats.
- $20k budget.
- Good fuel consumption a bonus.
Based on the criteria here are some vehicles we came up with. Obviously, prices of these vehicles will vary depending on year/mileage and condition etc. but most should be attainable for around $20k with without having crazy high miles.
This SUV is a mid-sized crossover that has 3rd-row seating (can seat up to 8) with the ability to fold completely flat. The 3.5 liter V-6 in the 4WD model gets EPA mileage ratings of 23 mpg on the highway, 17 mpg in the city and combines rating of 19 mpg. There is also a hybrid option for the Highlander that takes fuel economy up to 26 mpg combined. Ground clearance is 8″ so right up there at the top for ground clearance. Cargo volume is 95.4 cu.ft in the second generation Highlanders (2007-2013).Downhill assist and ‘snow’ mode would be beneficial in off-road situations. The downside of this vehicle is finding one. They are sought after and sometimes hard to find.
Jeep Commander’s were made from 2006 to 2010/11. A strong contender as far as the off-road portion and seating set-up. The Commander has 8.3″ of ground clearance. Depending on trim levels it can come with Jeep’s Quadra-Trac or Quadra-Drive four-wheel drive system as well as low range gears and limited slip differentials. A mid-sized SUV, the Jeep has 3rd-row seating which can also be folded flat along with the second row. Cargo volume is around 68 cu. ft. Engine choices include a 3.0-liter diesel, a 3.7 liter (gas), a 4.7 liter (gas) and a 5.7-liter HEMI V-8. You may automatically assume the 5.7 get’s the worst mileage. Actually, the 4WD HEMI is EPA rated at 19 mpg on the highway, 13 mpg in the city and 15 mpg combined, however, the 4.7-liter on E85 doesn’t get the best fuel consumption. A great option for off-road capability though.
Chevrolet Tahoe/GMC Yukon
A full-size SUV, the Chevrolet Tahoe has ample cargo space at 108.9 cu.ft. Whilst the Tahoe models years within budget (by a hair) don’t have fold flat seats like the newer models, but they are removable. The downside to removing the seats is that you either have to remove them completely (ie leave them at home so you’re without them completely) or compromise space by finding somewhere to store them in the vehicle. The other obstacle is that once the seats are removed, you are left with the brackets on the floor. For sleeping purposes, these would have to somehow be covered. A mattress would probably do the trick. The 5.3 liter V-8 is probably the most common engine to be found in the Tahoe. EPA fuel economy ratings are at 19 mpg on the highway, 14 mpg in the city and 16 mpg combined. Hybrids are also available with a combined rating of 20 mpg in the 4WD version. For slightly more room, the Suburban and Yukon XL could be options too, however, this might mean going over the budget slightly.
The nice part about the GM vehicles is that (depending on the year) they have OnStar capability (on a subscription basis). This could potentially mean emergency assistance in the middle of nowhere, which could be important for those exploring the wilderness. OnStar can use GPS coordinates to locate the vehicle. Although it is still possible to lose complete service, Onstar partners with various cell networks to provide coverage. A 2013 Chevrolet Tahoe has 9.1″ of ground clearance. The Tahoe/Yukon/Suburban/Yukon XL may also have the 2nd row with captains chairs in which case, the folding will not be completely flat.
The 2nd generation Toyota Sequoia is the top of the line full-size SUV from Toyota. It has a ‘true’ 4wd system where the driver can manually select 4H or 4Low. This makes this 3rd-row vehicle another great off-road contender. Ground clearance is amazing with 10″ available to negotiate rough terrain.The 2nd row of seats can slide and the 2nd and 3rd row fold flat. With the 2nd row being able to slide, the means the gap between rows( when they are folded) can be minimized. Total cargo volume is around 120 cu.ft. Engine choices include a 4.6 liter, 4.7 liters and a 5.7 liter. As an example for fuel economy, a 2011 Sequoia with the 5.7 liter V-8 is EPA rated for 18 mpg on the highway, 13 mpg in the city and 15 mpg combined. Higher end trim levels on the Sequoia will rival that of luxury SUV’s. This option may also break the budget a little dut to availability, however, is still possible. The Sequoia may also have the 2nd row with captains chairs in which case, the folding will not be completely flat.
A fifth-generation 4Runner, this mid-size SUV is smaller than the Sequoia and Highlander with around 89 cu.ft. of cargo volume. Third-row seating in the 4Runner is an option from the factory so not all 4Runners may have the 3rd row. If they do, the 3rd and 2nd row do fold flat. Also, a very capable off-roader, the SUV has features like crawl control in the higher level trims. The powertrain in the 4Runner is a 4.0-liter V-6 gas engine paired with a 5-speed automatic transmission. Fuel economy is EPA rated at 22mpg on the highway, 17mpg in the city and 19 mpg combined. Ground clearance on the 4Runner is 9.6″.
Third generation (2007-2017) Ford Expedition’s could be a possibility. Ground clearance is a little than some of the others, at 8.7″, but still more than some other SUVs. Engine choices are a 5.4 liter V-8 or the 3.5 liter Ecoboost (turbo) paired with a 6-speed automatic. 4 High and 4 Low possible with the BorgWarner two-speed transfer case. Fuel economy in the 4WD with the 3.5-liter engine is EPA rated at 20 mpg highway, 15 mpg in the city and 17 mpg combined. Cargo volume is around 108 cu.ft. The Expedition EL is a longer version of the vehicle and cargo volume on that goes up to 130 cu.ft.
Subaru Outback (wildcard)
The Subaru Outback and Forester almost have identical cargo volumes. Neither have 3rd-row seating, but with the Outback being a station wagon, it is longer, so we included this one as a wildcard. Ground clearance is 8.7″. Also, unlike the others, the Subaru is AWD and not 4WD, which does take away some of the controllability factors for off-road, but nonetheless, the complex symmetrical AWD system is still a capable vehicle. Cargo volume is around 71 cu.ft. (using a 2012 model year as an example). The previous generation has slightly less. Engine choices are a 2.5-liter H4 or the 3.6-liter H6 (somewhat rarer). Also available in a manual or automatic transmission. Fuel economy on a 2012 2.5liter auto is EPA rated at 28 mpg on the highway, 21 mpg in the city and combined 24 mpg.
Looking at the numbers for ground clearance, cargo capacity and mpg, (on paper at least), the Sequoia comes out the top choice, followed by the 4Runner. However, it also important to test drive these vehicles and make sure they are comfortable for your particular driving style. Another factor here is being able to find something reliable within budget. Model year, mileage, trim levels and availability will impact price. Always ask to see the Autocheck report for accident reports.
Luxury vehicles were not included here, as this would most likely mean going over budget or have higher miles. They also may have higher maintenance costs with fewer dealerships around (in rural areas) for support.
Do you have any other vehicle suggestions?
Let us know by commenting below!
Lauren has been working in the automotive industry both in the U.K and in the U.S. for over 10 years. A car geek, photographer, big game chaser and bagpipe player, powered by coffee. Send your questions to: