BULLBAR is the cornerstone of all four-wheel drive builds. It’s the building block that will define your 4x4 more than any other accessory.
Consider this: There are two identical 4x4s sitting in the workshop about to be transformed into off-road rigs. One is going to be fitted with a sleek, colour-coded steel bumper with a hidden winch mount; the other is destined for a no-nonsense five-poster. It’s obvious the direction both of these builds will be taking, and what each vehicle will be used for.
However, with so many options on the market, it can be difficult to narrow down what will work on your 4x4.
In years gone by it was a whole lot easier: look at the three or four bullbars that would fit your 4x4, buy the one you liked the look of and fit it. These days we’re spoilt for choice, with options ranging from hidden winch mounts inside the factory bumper right through to steel bullbars that’d mow down a full-grown cow without flinching.
So we’ve decided to cut through the marketing jargon and bring you the ‘no BS’ guide to buying the right bullbar for your 4x4.
We have enlisted the help of some of the largest bullbar manufacturers in the world, in order to establish what the real differences are between steel, alloy, and plastic, and we’ll outline the pros and cons of every bullbar design you can imagine. Most importantly, we’ll tell you what is legal to fit to your 4x4.
WHAT’S IT MADE OF?
BEFORE you worry about polished fairleads and built-in bottle openers, the first major decision is the actual material your new bullbar will be constructed from. In days of old you chose steel if you wanted something heavy-duty, or alloy if you liked your adventures on the fancy side. With the introduction of plastic and high-strength alloy bullbars, things aren’t so simple anymore.
The main factors to consider are density and tensile strength. Put simply, density is the heaviness of a material at a set volume, so in this case 1cm3 of steel, alloy or plastic. Tensile strength is the maximum force a given material can handle before failing.
At first glance steel is the clear winner in the tensile strength game, with a rating of roughly 2750kg/cm2, compared to aluminium with 2300kg/cm2 and LLDPE (linear low-density polyethylene) with 305kg/cm2. Of course, all of this is dependent on the quality of materials used, but it still doesn’t take into account a lot of very important factors.
The first is density. A 1cm3 chunk of steel will weigh three times as much as a same-sized cube of aluminium, and almost 10 times as much as LLDPE in the same size, meaning you could have a 10cm thick slab of LLDPE for the same weight as 1cm of steel. This is something engineers take into consideration and use to their advantage.
Adam Craze from Ironman 4x4 said: “With better grades of aluminium, we can design an alloy bar with the strength properties close to that of a steel but with a weight saving of around 30 per cent.”
By using aluminium or LLDPE, companies are able to offer close to the same protection levels but with a drastically reduced weight over the front suspension, eating into the GVM considerably less in the process. Adam Hixon from SmartBar claims this decrease in weight sees their bars reducing fuel consumption by as much as seven per cent.
The next major factor to consider is how they hold up over time. Traditionally this has been one of the biggest drawcards of steel. It has a higher endurance limit than aluminium, which means small forces applied to aluminium, like repeated knocks and harsh corrugations, will eventually take their toll, whereas steel will either fare better or not be affected at all.
So what does this mean for the buyer? Essentially nothing. In terms of importance, the materials used run a very distant second place to design. They’re essentially tools for the engineers to work with to meet a desired outcome. Material thickness, quality and internal bracing can mitigate any potential advantages of one material over the other. Aluminium can be run at a thicker gauge and can have additional bracing or different material compositions to bring it up to comparative strength levels with steel. Likewise, LLDPE can be UV-stabilised for longevity and have additives mixed in to up its tensile strength while still being easily repairable and potentially safer for pedestrians.
Ultimately the real difference for consumers is essentially what you can see. Steel requires far less work and is cheaper to purchase, making the off-the-shelf price cheaper. Aluminium will generally weigh less, giving you an increase in fuel economy. Plastic can be lighter again, improving fuel economy and safety levels. While steel may traditionally be used for strength (and alloy for show) it all comes down to build quality in the end. Stronger materials won’t make up for bad design and shoddy quality.
WHAT’S IT LOOK LIKE?
WHILE the grizzled old man behind the tiller of a half-rusted FJ45 might disagree, for a lot of people the aesthetics of a bullbar place pretty highly on the want list. But it’s important to know the key differences between designs before plonking the credit card on the counter.
Most popular bullbars are essentially based off a lower bumper replacement in plate-steel, plate-aluminium or roto-moulded plastic. These will generally offer mounting options for accessories such as winches, driving lights, bash plates and aerials. They’ll provide reasonable protection for low-height impacts and interfere minimally with the overall design of the vehicle. Jason Lock from Uneek4x4: “Looking at the styling of the latest vehicles, why would you hide the bold OE design with a farm gate?” This stand-alone style has been hugely popular for Australian companies like Uneek4x4, Rhino4x4 and TJM on our Loaded Lux build.
Further protection can be added in the form of posts or hoops. A single centre hoop can provide additional protection for a radiator and engine in the case of an animal strike, while three hoops will protect the entire frontal area including headlights. The post-style bullbar is a variation of the three hoop design, but with additional room for larger driving lights.
At the opposite end of the scale are tube bars such as the XROX. Popular for their simple design and incredibly low weight, tube bars offer little protection for animal strikes on the wings. However, they provide unsurpassed ground clearance and approach angles required for rock crawling and tight technical tracks. “[They provide] a great approach angle and are generally more aggressively styled,” said Sara Smith from Opposite Lock.
Common in rural areas, five-post bullbars push the other way, and are popular for people willing to sacrifice off-road ground clearance for increased frontal protection.
Much like the material selection, the basic look of the bullbar is only half the picture. Quality bullbars often have extensively designed mounting systems to spread the load through the chassis and substantial bracing to absorb impacts evenly wherever they strike.
“[With our bars] all the loads from winching and kinetic recoveries are directed equally into the chassis rails without compromising the airbag compatibility. By not sending the winch loads through the airbag crumple zones TJM can provide incredible strength in the mountings, while reducing load on the chassis rails thanks to minimal overhang,” Laura Hayes from TJM said.
THE DEVIL’S IN THE DETAILS
YOU may have noticed a common theme in this article: The way a bar is screwed together is more important than the sum of its parts or how shiny the colour-coded powdercoating is. This is because it’s pretty tricky to get a bullbar right, but bloody easy to get it wrong.
Bullbars are a massive investment, and if they let you down even once it’s all a waste. So here’s a thorough checklist to make sure you’re getting exactly what you need:
- Does it suit your needs? There’s no use fitting a five-poster cattle grate when your 4x4 spends its life on local tracks.
- Airbag-compatible: This is flat-out not negotiable. If your 4x4 has an airbag, the bullbar needs to be certified as airbag-compatible.
- ADR-compliant: Any Joe Blow can weld together a few sections of plate-steel, but will the bullbar meet relevant ADRs to suit your model?
- Will it fit your 4x4? Manufacturers are notorious for changing minor things throughout the life of a vehicle, so ensure the bar you’re buying fits the 4x4 you’re driving.
- Will your accessories fit? Different bars can have allowances for different accessories. Ensure the bar you’re buying will fit the winch and driving lights you intend to run, with provision for other accessories like sand flags and aerials.
- Will ground clearance be affected? Don’t make your 4x4 worse off-road for a few extra country-pub points. However, if you’re racking up thousands of kays of red dirt roads where animal strikes are a very real occurrence and you rarely head into any technical terrain, a loss in off-road ability could be justified against increased strength and passenger protection.
- Does it have recovery points? Getting bogged will eventually happen, so don’t be stuck scratching your head looking for recovery points that don’t exist.
- Will your accessories work with it? High-lift jacks don’t work without high-lift jacking points.
- Do you need to modify your 4x4? Some bars require cutting frame horns, relocating washer bottles or cutting the OEM bumper.
- Will your 4x4 work like it used to? Modern 4x4s have a swathe of gadgets including impact prevention systems, headlight washers and front parking sensors. Make sure there’s provision for them in the new bar.
- Will you need to maintain it? If you loathe routine maintenance, a polished bar that requires up-keep should be way down your wishlist.
- Can it be repaired? Will a minor bingle put you up for the cost of a whole new bullbar, or can it take a few knocks?
I HEARD THAT’S ILLEGAL
THE 4x4 industry has changed drastically in the last 20 years, with annual pushes for tightened regulations (and almost as many successes). In the eyes of the law there are a few major reasons why, with the first and no doubt largest reason being safety. Years ago you were lucky to walk away from a low-speed collision without a steering wheel stuck through your chest. Now crumple zones and airbags are all designed to keep you in one piece in the event of an accident, and it’s something bullbar manufacturers take very seriously.
For a bullbar to be sold and fitted to a modern vehicle it needs to meet the Australian Design Rules that were relevant when the vehicle was built. The good news is that if you’re behind the wheel of a 20-year-old vehicle, you’re home free as there were no rules or laws regarding bullbar designs until the late ’90s. If your 4x4 has rolled off the lot in the past two decades, things get a little more complicated.
There are a few no-brainer rules in there including no forward-facing tabs, rod holders or accessories. Sharp edges and burrs are also on the chop list, as are bars that cover stock headlights – although indicators and park lights are allowed to be relocated into the bar.
The bar also can’t restrict your view out past 11 metres, which puts a stop to excessively high bullbars. They also can only lean forward up to nine degrees (or 75mm) and any step-ups larger than 100mm have to be with hoops, not posts.
New bullbars need to be fitted with a compliance plate that states not only who made it, but what vehicle it’s designed for and that it has been tested to comply with ADRs for that model. If the vehicle has airbags fitted, crash testing needs to be undertaken and noted on the compliance plate.
So where does that leave the punter? Well, put simply, one-off bars are essentially illegal without testing, even if they’re accurate to the millimetre. OEM 4x4 manufacturer bars all comply and, in most cases, won’t affect the ANCAP rating. And with large manufacturers changing their designs to suit years ago, and doing the crash testing to back it up, it’s an even playing field.