BULLBAR BUYERS’ GUIDE
Steel, alloy or plastic? Full hoops or none? Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about arming your 4x4 with the right bullbar.
ABULLBAR 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-theshelf 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
Laser-cutting bullbars at ARB.
Aluminum Ironman 4x4 bars are almost as strong as steel, but weigh up to 30 per cent less.
Bullbar engineering and manufacturing at the ARB factory. The Smartbar is made from LLDPE, so it weighs much less than a steel bullbar.