Originally Posted by ILOJ
"Capable' for my needs is occasional moderate trail (Snow / Dry / Wet), but not 'rock crawler' capable. Honestly, 99% would be daily driver, weekends driving sometimes snow covered mountain passes in the PNW - for the 99%, just about any vehicle would do, but AWD or 4WD will save me the hassle of putting chains on the few days a year that they are required by DOT. Most likely, the more 'capable' the vehicle, the more I would start venturing off road into 'funner terrain. Also need it to be nice enough for the occasional client lunch, but a really butch lifted Wrangler with light bars and winches is cool enough for client lunches - in a different way.
A 4Runner would be tops on that list for me buying new. Also, and I know I am beating a dead horse here, a 2005-2007 100 series Land Cruiser with relatively low miles will be the cheapest of the bunch, the most luxurious, and the most all around capable in stock form. It will also outlast all of them while being generally trouble free to 300K miles.
As a reference point, I bought my 1995, which was $52K sticker price new, in 2005 for $13,800 with 105K miles. It had some modifications (to which I have added) and a full baseline on all maintenance.
It has 213K now, many of which have not been particularly friendly, on nothing but ongoing maintenance, all of which I do myself. The 100 series is notably more refined and modern, and is pretty much a luxury tank.
In any case, if you'd venture more off-road, even not rock crawling, then the key feature is making sure you buy an actual 4x4 with a low range transfer case. Even for forest service roads, etc., low range gearing is the feature that matters most because you can crawl any ascents/descents and handle the unexpected at very low speeds and throttle.
From there, the tradeoffs in suspension are important. A fully front and rear independent suspension will drive most like a car, but you give up suspension articulation off-road. IFS/IRS cannot maintain contact with the ground very effectively where suspension travel is required. Solid axles are far superior here, but they add major unsprung weight and each wheel cannot act independently on the way to the mall.
So a Jeep Grand Cherokee with a low range transfer case and fully independent suspension would be excellent for occasional off-road use while maintaining road performance, but lose its capability quickly enough if you decided this getting off-road thing was a lot of fun. That's why most 4x4's moved to independent front /solid axle rear designs. That's the XTerra, 4Runner, FJ Cruiser, Land Cruiser, etc. The Wrangler is still solid axle front and rear - it gets dinged for this in car reviews, but then, this is what solid axle performance looks like when you need it.
Body is level, the axles and suspension articulate through the terrain. An extreme example, but you can see what is going on here, so it's hopefully useful. Anyway, that's why I think that staying with low range, rear solid axle, maybe a rear diff locker if you can get it, but IFS and base AWD is a great balance. You get a ton of severe conditions capability, good road manners, and some capability to spare, and all you really give up is hardcore wheeling.
I like the Toyotas because I think they did the best in designing a five-link rear suspension that mates well with IFS. People wheel them pretty hard, and they are somewhat more capable than they look on paper because of this. Jeep has gone the other way - either fully independent suspension or solid axle in the Wrangler. The Grand Cherokee and Cherokee are also unibody - saves a lot of weight, improves handling, and their subframe designs are plenty sufficient for light off-roading.
An Outback lacks low range gearing, you can't lock a center diff, and you'd have maybe 25% of the capability of a 4Runner (and that is being generous). In return of course, you get a car for the 99%. That to me is always the question: are you addressing the 1% need or the 99%? Or compromising to address both, reasonably?