THE $2500 BUILD
LET’S assume you’ve just bought a standard four-wheel drive, and on your first foray into the scrub it didn’t perform nearly as well as you’d been led to believe by the manufacturer’s impressive marketing. The trouble is you’ve just about spent your entire budget on the vehicle and you only have a couple of grand left to make improvements. Where do you start?
Nothing will improve the off-road performance of a standard four-wheel drive as much as a decent set of tyres. Whether you’re going to spend most of your time driving on the blacktop, touring Australia’s vast outback, or climbing nighimpossible tracks on the weekends with your mates, there’s going to be a tyre that’s just right for you, and it will have an LT (Light Truck) casing.
Regardless of the tread pattern, an LT tyre will perform better than a passenger tyre in every scenario, except perhaps on-road comfort. An LT tyre’s heavier bead and sidewall construction means it can handle higher inflation pressures for carrying heavier loads, as well as lower pressures for driving off-road without fear of staking the sidewall.
Choosing the right tread pattern will depend on what type of four-wheel driving you’ll do:a highway terrain tyre for mainly on-road driving, an all-terrain tyre for gravel and dirt road touring, or a mudterrain tyre for extreme off-road conditions where maximum grip is required.
The price of a decent set of all-terrain or mud-terrain tyres will depend on what size your 4x4 requires, but for most popular vehicles you’ll be looking at around $280$380 a pop. So budget for around $1200 a set plus fitting and balancing (and add $300 for a matching spare), meaning half of your $2500 budget will be spent on rubber. Don’t be tempted to skimp on quality rubber – go for a reputable brand and you’ll always get good value for money.
You might be tempted to spend the other half of your budget on a shiny new bullbar and set of driving lights, but the next best way to improve your vehicle’s offroad performance will be to give it a lift with a new suspension system.
A sensible 50mm (two-inch) suspension lift consisting of new springs and shock absorbers can cost as little as $500-$600 on a vehicle such as a GQ/GU Patrol, 80 Series Landcruiser or a Suzuki Jimny – though you can spend more than $1500 on a modern 4x4 ute.
No matter what suspension system you opt for, make sure the spring rates have been designed to suit the equipment fitted to your vehicle and the load it will most regularly be required to carry. In other words, a vehicle fitted with a bullbar, winch and dual-battery system at the pointy end, and carrying a canopy, drawer system, fridge and recovery gear down the blunt end, will need heavier spring rates than a standard vehicle with no load on board. The shock absorbers should be engineered to work with the chosen springs, so it’s always best to purchase a matched suspension system rather than separate components.
If you have any money leftover after tyres and suspension, the next item on your shopping list should be a snorkel. Not only will it reduce the risk of your engine ingesting water (and therefore the potential for very expensive mechanical damage) but it will also keep a lot of the dust out, especially if fitted with a pre-filter. A decent snorkel will set you back $300-$500 plus fitting. While there are plenty of el cheapo snorkels on the market, this is one area in which you really don’t want to be stingy; a properly engineered snorkel will also be designed to ensure efficient airflow to your engine so it won’t suffer any performance or economy losses.
If water crossings are on the agenda make sure your vehicle’s diffs and transmission are fitted with breather extensions that are secured high in the engine bay. This is a relatively cheap modification but will prolong the mechanical life of your vehicle if you regularly tackle water crossings. If you have any cash leftover you should invest in a basic recovery kit before you head off the road, with a couple of rated shackles, a snatch strap and a shovel at the bare minimum. And make sure your vehicle is equipped with proper recovery points, front and rear. If you’ve still got change, buy a portable air compressor and a tyre repair kit – or at least drop broad hints in the run-up to Christmas and birthdays.
Matching suspension front to rear is a critical safety issue.