How I Made My Cheap SUV Perfect For Sleeping, Camping And Off-Roading

You don’t need to spend $50,000 to have a legit overland SUV you can off-road in all day and sleep in at night. You don’t even need to drop $15,000. I’m about $7,000 into my 1998 Mitsubishi Montero so far; here’s how I’ve got this budget-friendly rig set up without sacrificing too much comfort or safety.

There are two types of car projects people seem to want to hear about: bottomless-budget masterpieces and rowdy crapcans held together by spit and luck. Those are both fun, of course. But if you’d like some inspiration on a build that’s decent, doesn’t suck to ride in, and didn’t cost tens of thousands, this one’s for you.

(Full Disclosure: Accessory supply company Dometic took care of food, fuel, and route planning for a Baja trip so we could test its new generation of portable refrigerators and batteries. However, the company’s requested I don’t share any info or images of those not-for-sale-yet items until 2020 so we’ll have to circle back to that later.)

Overlanding is a trendy subculture of the off-road scene right now. People have been loading up 4x4s with adventure gear and heading out into the horizon for a lot longer than Instagram has been around, though.

The idea is basically that you go car camping, but to really epic spots, and to do that you need an off-road vehicle with life-supporting accessories (cooking stuff, water, beer, maybe a sunshade) to be your home for days, or weeks or… years.

Like any other hobby, overlanding is something you can do cheap and dirty or spend all you want on. My objective is to find a “reasonably inexpensive but not uncomfortable or dangerous” way to do this.

Now that everybody has sufficient context to understand what we’re talking about here, let’s get into the how.

The Vision

I love a lot of different automotive “looks,” as in, low riders, period-correct muscle cars, clean Porche 911s (I’m basic, sue me), and yes, overlanders, but my favourite vibe is “2000s tuner car.”

People who are nodding with me now will remember reading about B-Series Hondas, 4G63 Mitsubishis, and of course RX-7s, Supras and Z32 300ZXs on forums and the many sport compact car magazines that existed. For everyone else: just picture the cars of the OG The Fast And The Furious.

Before you wonder why we wandered off-topic from camping: A longtime dream of mine has been to combine the tuner design flavour and attitude with off-road functionality of a Japanese 4×4. So, when I found myself owning a Mitsubishi Montero, that became my vision.

Some vehicles that gave me inspiration, in varying degrees, include Pajero Evos, Tommi Makinen-era Evos, photographer Matt Moghaddam’s Toyota, racer Vaughn Gittin Jr.’s F-150, and builds like this Forester that look tough-but-clean.

The Platform

Everybody loves Toyota Land Cruisers, a vanguard of the overland scene, but the Mitsubishi Montero has a lot of the same attributes and the trucks cost way, way less money. Both SUVs have classic Japanese design, robust body-on-frame skeleton, large interior capacity, true low-range four-wheel drive, optional locking rear differential, and international parts support.

Contrary to what most people might think, the Montero is not that hard to get parts for. These vehicles are quite populous internationally. Somebody was even selling the second-gen as a new car in China this decade. But I only learned that after buying one because it looked cool and it was cheap.

Every variant of this Mitsubishi has its perks, but once I started researching inexpensive Land Cruiser alternatives I became smitten with the styling of the second-generation Montero, particularly the facelifted variant produced for model years 1998, 1999 and 2000 (colloquially called “Gen 2.5”).

Those huge hips, expansive sunroof, dramatic dashboard gauge pod, and tall skinny sportiness really spoke to me. And the more I looked at these vehicles, the more I realised one would be the perfect base for a Tuner Overland mashup build.

The JDM aesthetic’s on point. But more importantly, so are the specs. Mitsubishi advertised a wild 42-degree approach angle when this thing was new, and a little lift and tire upsize boosts the modest 20 centimetre ground clearance and 20-degree departure and breakover angles.

A locking rear and centre differential grant extreme traction, and this is one of the few SUVs of its era with four-wheel disc brakes and ABS that still works in low range. A 24-plus gallon fuel tank paired with a 19 mpg cruising economy claim let you go a long way without having to juggle jerry cans, and selectable four-wheel/all-wheel drive gives you the option of Subaru-style all-wheel-drive traction on wet or snowy roads or fully locked truck-style four-wheel drive when you need to crawl.

1.9 cubic metres of cargo capacity makes a fine little apartment, too. And did I mention that immense safari sunroof?

I spent three months of aggressive searching, focusing on 1998 or ’99 Winter Package models (the version featuring the essential factory rear air locker and heated seats), in generally decent condition. I found a white one on Craigslist, stopped to see it on the way home from an unrelated road trip, made a deal and returned a few days later with an envelope full of money to begin my Montero build.

How I Found One Of The Best Budget Overlanding SUVs

When it comes to shopping for 20-year-old cars you’re planning to drive hard, ask any Craigslist junkie, any real project car addict, and they’ll tell you that finding something with close-to-good maintenance history is almost as important as finding the make and model you’re looking for.

That can make all the difference between having a good base for your build and having a basketcase that needs major time and money to get back to stock condition before you start saddling it with upgrades.

The guy who sold me this Montero seemed pretty good about pointing out the truck’s faults, had receipts for some major service items on the vehicle and had already done a little work prepping the truck for off-road use.

When I picked it up, it had Bilstein 5100 shocks up front to smoothen the ride over rough terrain, OME springs in the rear to help add some lift and payload capacity, a roof rack, a couple of long-throw lights, a high and tight prerunner-style front bumper, and 33-inch BF Goodrich KO2 all-terrain tires.

I brought it straight to C&A Auto, a known Mitsubishi Montero expert in Van Nuys, to have a scrutinous professional shakedown performed and get some fresh brake pads installed.

After getting it back with a thumbs-up from the shop and driving the truck around town, it didn’t take long for me to decide I loved the suspension’s super soft ride and big ground clearance but hated the tax those heavy tires were putting on the truck’s accelerating, turning and stopping abilities. I also realised I couldn’t reach the comically high roof rack and got sick of the Mad Max-vibe from the homemade bumper.

Capability Modifications

Here’s how the rig looked when I first got it:

So I sold the battering bar and re-installed the stock bumper, which the previous owner had been kind enough to give me along with the truck when I bought it. I sold the roof rack too, along with the Hella spotlights mounted to it.

I painted the engine cover red on a spare Sunday, and used some goofy stick-on emblem letters to write the engine code on top. A whole bunch of stickers of my own design have been installed here and there to make the truck seem more special and interesting. I knew to take a deep breath and step away from the accessory catalogue before going full third-world taxi and adding those fluffy seat belt pillows… But it was too late–I totally got some fluffy seat belt pillows.

After the roof rack removal I was a little closer to fitting into my apartment complex’s parking garage, but the major gains I got in both performance and practicality came when I switched the Montero’s wheels for the BFG 33s on stock 15×7-inch alloys to 31.6-inch Cooper Discoverer AT3 tires on 16×8-inch Konig Countersteer Type X (0-offset, matte bronze) wheels.

Changing my old, water-contaminated brake fluid out for some fresh DOT 4 stuff seemed to speed my stopping, too. But the wheel swap saved me about 10 pounds per corner and reduced the wheels’ rotational mass significantly, boosting every appreciable aspect of the truck’s performance.

Granted, I sacrificed a little ground clearance and puncture resistance (the Coopers are six-ply, the BFGs are a whopping 10) but being able to hit 20 mpg on the highway and fit into most Los Angeles parking structures was worth the trade-off.

And of course, the bronze Konig wheels, styled after the legendary Volk TE37s (those are slightly lighter but twice the price) was the first major step in executing the Tuner Overland concept.

Why This SUV Is So Cosy To Live In

Finally! Sorry if you didn’t care about my artistic vision and just wanted to skip straight to the practical part of this process. As you saw in the video above, specifically at the 02:06 mark, this Montero’s third row of seating has been removed and replaced with a platform that divides the cargo area horizontally.

This was the previous owner’s idea: He showed me how the seating latches could be used to anchor this platform, which is itself bisected, and hinged so that it acts as a hard cargo cover behind the second row when I’m just driving around town. But when I fold the second row up, I can actually split that platform so it effectively doubles in size and turns the whole truck cab aft of the front seats into a flat sleeping area while preserving a sizeable storage shelf below.

I know, it’s confusing to describe, hence the video. Just scroll back up real quick and peep it if you haven’t already.

For gear organisation, I got some boxes from The Container Store and labelled them because I’m Extra like that. For those who don’t know, The Container Store is generally ripoff and you can often find the same stuff it sells for less if you do a little online digging. But the ’Store near me is in the fancy Century City mall and I really like the draft lattes at La Colombe there.

Anyway, those overpriced plastic bins carry basic tools (pretty much just zip-ties, a knife, and tire changing stuff), groceries, and the kind of things I always go “damn, why’d I forget my (raincoat, sunglasses, beach towel…)” over.

We can get into everything I carry in-depth another time, this post is already getting a little long, but we can’t skip the sun protection. With a retractable accordion-style window blind on my windshield, I can just point the truck east, close the shade and keep from getting woken up at dawn. For hanging out in the daytime, I just bring a portable canopy. It’s cheaper and more versatile than a vehicle-mounted awning.

The Cost

I paid $US3,500 ($5,116) for this ’98 Montero in December of 2018, with about 288,072 kilometres on it and the above-described accessories. I sold the tube bumper for $US200 ($292), the roof rack for $US100 ($146), and took the five nearly new-BFG tires worth about $US1,200 ($1,754) and put them on my 1975 IH Scout which was in desperate need of new shoes. So, you could say, the truck effectively set me back $US2,000 ($2,923) plus tax, title, registration and insurance costs.

My wheels and tires were another $US2,000 ($2,923), and I’ve spent maybe $US750 ($1,096) more on fluids, consumables, stickers, random trim pieces that were missing, stupid accessories, and a rebuilt OEM radiator (the truck had a JB Weld’d one when I bought it). So without digging through my receipts, I guess I’m into the truck for about $US5,000 ($7,308).

$US5,000 ($7,308) from riding the bus to having a very cool-looking (I think) vehicle that was/is down for 1,900 kilometres of Baja exploring at the drop of a hat, and still had air conditioning and heat and four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and airbags.

It’s not a lot of money, and it only cost about another $600 in food and fuel for me to have a week of being off the grid and living the dream on the Baja peninsula for a few days. The only thing that broke was, weirdly, the turn signal switch and the replacement was annoyingly expensive (like more than $150) but at least the installation was easy.

Oh, and you better believe I spent another $15 in coins at the carwash hosing the truck’s body and belly for any traces of salt water after I got home.

The Future

Some late-night wheeling in Baja convinced me I could use some more headlights, which will be mounted down low, and I’m going to add a rear-facing dust visibility light for desert racer coolness at some point too.

Next time I get a windfall or find myself able to save up for a few weeks, I’d like to have the truck resprayed with a cheap single-stage white paint job which I could then lay some sweet Evo-style strobe graphics over. Once that’s done, I’ll pretty much just be replacing consumables, changing fluids and repairing trail damage as needed and hopefully be enjoying this four-figure bugout mobile for as long as I’m physically able to ride in it.

But, it is a project car, so it might never really be “done.” Stay tuned for a longer writeup on the thing’s first big Baja trip and more updates as I spend more time with the truck.

This story originally appeared on Jalopnik.


Leave a Reply