Gear: Bull Bar Buyer’s Guide

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A vital addition for anyone doing serious off-road work, the bullbar is a staple in the 4×4 accessory industry. This need-to-know guide will help you select the best bar for your application

Not too long ago, buying a bullbar was simple: choose the one that fits your rig, looks half decent and has space for a winch. Things have changed considerably over the past 20-or-so years, and nowadays you’re offered a whole spectrum of different styles, in various materials – including highstrength alloy and even plastic. The fact that vehicle manufacturers like to facelift their models every five years or so has also made it increasingly difficult for bull bar manufacturers to keep up with trends and increasing design cost. When deciding on your next bumper, there are several factors to consider, so let’s dive right in.

Construction material

Weight: that’s the biggest factor when choosing between alloy and steel. Aluminium has a material density three times less than steel, meaning that a bumper of the same size and thickness will be three times lighter. Of course, because of aluminium’s lower strength, it isn’t as rigid, and needs to be much thicker to match steel for strength, making the weight gap narrower.

Apart from the base construction materials used, take into consideration the number of synthetic materials used too. Many bumpers have plastic tabs covering sharp edges, as well as rubber or plastic surrounds for lights. Bear in mind that plastic may fade and perish in the sun in the years to come but, if looked after, metal will last a lifetime. Rust may be a problem, but then again, steel is easy to buff down and touch up with the appropriate paint.

Crash safety

Modern vehicles are designed, first and foremost, with safety in mind. This is why rugged 4x4s like the Jeep Wrangler and Land Cruiser 70 Series have plastic bumpers, and one of the reasons why the Defender is no more. Safety is a huge concern, and adding a massive chunk of iron to the nose of your truck wreaks havoc with pedestrian-safety standards and can have an effect on airbag deployment. Because bullbars are rigid, and mounted directly to a vehicle’s chassis, its standard crumple zones are circumvented. To get around this problem, the better bullbar manufacturers include crumple zones in their mounting point design, reaching a compromise between crash safety and outright rigidity.

Crash Safety

Types of bull bar

There are two main types of bull bar, namely single/bikini type designs and the traditional multi-post type. Multi-post designs use tubular steel bars above the primary bumper plate to protect the lights and grille, while thick metal (either alloy or steel) protects the lower half of the front of the vehicle, including lower parts of the radiator. The single/bikini design bull bars have traditionally been almost the same as the multi-post designs, minus the tubular steel bars protecting the lights and top half of the radiator. Nowadays, however, single/ bikini bumpers have become increasingly popular due to their sleek designs and lighter weight, while still offering high levels of lower-body protection.

Modular bumpers are the latest thing to hit the 4×4 bullbar market and offer the benefit of having individually replaceable components, so that if you damage only a section of the bar, just that section can be replaced.

Legal issues

In South Africa, we’re pretty easygoing when it comes to laws regarding bullbars. As long as you have an unobstructed and secure mounting point for your number plate, you’re safe. If you have a winch fitted, it may be a good idea to secure your number plate in front of the fairlead with cable ties, so that it is easily removable. An obstructed number plate may land you with a R500 fine.

Australian Design Rules

According to the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development in Australia, ‘Australian Design Rules (ADRs) are national standards for vehicle safety, anti-theft and emissions.’

What this means is that, for a bullbar to be legal in Australia, it must meet Australian Design rules. These rules dictate aspects of the design to best protect occupant and pedestrian safety; and that if the bullbar is to be fitted to a vehicle with airbags, it must be crash-tested.

While many manufacturers build bumpers that are airbag-compatible (meaning that airbags deploy as they should in a collision) an ADR certificate is proof of this. However, the cost of having bumpers crash-tested is staggering, as many new vehicles are written off along the way. The expense is prohibitive for smaller manufacturers and is ultimately absorbed by customers of premium brands.

ADR: THE BASICS

A short summary of Australian Design Rules relevant to bulbar construction:

• A bullbar must not tilt forward more that 100mm from its base.
• The bullbar must have rounded corners and edges with chamfered or rounded flanges.
• Bullbars must flow with the shape of the front of the vehicle, bending around its curvature.
• Brackets must not be exposed as to cause injury in an impact with a pedestrian.
• A ‘step’ in the bumper’s height must not exceed 100mm.
• The bar must not exceed the width of the vehicle, including its mirrors.
• Driving lights must not be obscured, and if indicators are obscured, an auxiliary set must be fitted into the bumper.
• The number plate must not be obscured.
• A person of average height sitting in the driver’s seat with the seat pushed all the way back must be able to see the road at least 11m in front of the vehicle.
• A bullbar must have more than 100mm of ground clearance.

Recovery and winch mountings

Approach angle and strength

If your plaas bakkie does daily duty where kudu and livestock are a regular feature of the roads, you need strength and frontal protection above all else. For you and other buyers more concerned with frontal protection, a multi-post design would be the best option, as it protects the lights and upper radiator. For the farmer or tradesman, strength may be more important than approach angles. However, if you’re a keen 4×4 driver, make sure that your bar does not hang too low and impact your approach angle.

When it comes to strength, welded bumpers are generally less likely to rattle loose than modular ones, simply because they have fewer components. So, if you’re doing thousands of kilometres of nasty Botswana corrugations, this may be something to consider. On the other hand, in the event of damage, the clever modular designs enable one to replace a single part easily, rather than the whole thing.

Weight and suspension

Any 4×4 is designed to cope with a little extra weight, but its standard suspension is designed to cover a huge spectrum of scenarios. Unfortunately, none of those scenarios include hanging an 80kg bar almost a metre ahead of the front wheels, then adding a winch on top of that. The further forward of the wheels that the bar rests, the more stress the front suspension undergoes, often causing it to sag. Some manufacturers get around this problem by building an extremely lightweight product, but, when adding a bumper, you’ll almost always have to consider the price of a suspension upgrade – or heavier-duty springs on the front, at the very least.

Airflow

High-end bars are designed to fit specific 4x4s without compromising airflow. When purchasing your next bullbar, check that the hard bits protect, but do not obstruct, air flow to the radiator, air-conditioning condenser, oil cooler or intercooler. If the bar does not include venting in the right places, you may suffer overheating, or, at the very least, put extra strain on your cooling system.

Headlight and radiator protection

Bullbars were first and foremost designed for protection from animal strikes – particularly from kangaroos in the Aussie Outback. If you drive at night on rural roads, or travel overland regularly, you may be faced with similar risks, though less likely of the marsupial variety. Make sure your bullbar is substantial enough to protect your radiator/s as well as your headlights. Here, the post-type bars score higher marks on the headlight front than a bikini-type bar would.

Bash plates and off-road protection

If you’re going to the effort of adding a bullbar, it would be silly to omit the addition of a decent bash plate. The standard thin plate steel and plastic protection under many 4x4s is often designed more with underbody aerodynamics in mind than with outright protection. Your bullbar should fit seamlessly to your underbody protection, so it’s often a good idea to brand-match the components. If you use your rig as an off-road toy, you may need to focus only on underbody protection, and a single/bikini bumper could be adequate.

Accessory mounting

Accessory mounting points alone are reason enough to get a bullbar. You may need space for a winch, spotlights, mountings for your fishing rods, or space to install a front towbar. Buy the bullbar that fits your lifestyle.

Recovery and winch mountings

Modern vehicles often come with very poor recovery points that are completely unsuitable for snatch recoveries. For this reason, some bullbars come with recovery points, and as the bars are chassis-mounted, these are usually incredibly strong. That being said, it’s always better to mount your snatch strap or tow rope directly to the chassis of your vehicle if you can, using two recovery hooks simultaneously to spread the load evenly. For this reason, some bull bars may not incorporate recovery points at all. The ability to mount a winch is reason for many owners to invest in a bull bar. These are carried in a separate heavily reinforced cradle mounted directly to the chassis, on to which the bull bar is bolted – typically using waveform section plates that deflect under severe impact or side forces. It’s one reason why the bull bar should not be used as the mounting point in recoveries of any sort.

Lighting

Today, almost every high-end 4×4 comes with spot lights in the bumper as standard. Some bullbar manufacturers make provision for this, allowing openings for the standard spots to mount to. Others have their own spot lights already built into the bulbar, and others may not include spot lights at all. Indicators and reflectors may also be a necessary addition. LEDs are generally brighter and more reliable, so it’s only a bonus if the manufacturer includes LED indicators instead of traditional halogen units.

Fitment of aftermarket spot lights or light bars is also common practice, so make sure that the bullbar you’re interested in has enough mounting points. This also means finding the correct fitment centre: it’s invariably not just a bolton exercise, and will require some electrical-wiring proficiency.

 

Lighting

Warranty claims

Warranty claims are difficult for manufacturers of 4x4s, because of the obvious need for most to be modified for the buyer’s intended use. Aftermarket gear like suspension and bullbars can, in some instances, void warranties. In recent discussions with one of SA’s more prominent bumper manufacturers, we heard that a large bolt that was just a couple of millimetres too long had rubbed against an almost-new Pajero’s radiator, causing the motor to overheat to the extent that a replacement was required. Because one aspect of the bumper was the cause of the incident, Mitsubishi wouldn’t honour their warranty and the owner was lucky that the bumper manufacturer paid for all the transport, accommodation and vehiclerepair expenses in this unfortunate case.

Manufacturers will always cover their backs, but certain dealers understand the 4×4 community better than others and may help you out. Truth is, dealers are keen to have the add-on business as part of the initial purchase, and this applies to many of the prominent vehicle and accessory brands. See what is available, and check that your dealer will endorse your accessory fitments without putting the warranty into dispute.

For the full listing, see the June print edition of SA4x4 Magazine.

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