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What to look for in a 4WD Bull bar

There was a time not too many years ago where your choices for a Bull Bar on your 4WD were limited to a handful of companies. Today though, there are a huge number of 4WD Bull Bar manufacturers around, and your choices are much greater. The thing is though, Bull Bars are not all the same, and there are a lot of things you really should consider before committing to one.

Why should you install a Bull Bar?

These days, Bull Bars are one of the most common accessories found on a 4WD. A lot of people fit them for protection from animal strikes, a place to mount winches, spotlights, light bars and antennas and to improve entry angle.

Others fit them purely for aesthetics. Either way, knowing what you want from a Bull bar is a good place to start in buying the right one for your needs. Bull bars are not the same, and one style will not suit everyone.

It is important to decide whether you actually need one, as they have a few downsides and a lot of people have no need for one!

What Bull Bar is best?

The AFN Bull Bar on our Isuzu Dmax

What should you look for in a 4WD Bull bar?

Weight

Bull bars range from light weight bits of aluminium pipe (nudge bars) through to seriously heavy duty chunks of steel designed for regular animal strikes without damaging the vehicle. Full size Bull Bars generally weigh anywhere from 25 – 80kg, depending on the material used, thickness and overall design.

Weight on your 4WD is bad. It puts more stress on everything, makes you use more fuel and eats into both your payload and axle capacity. Every single item you put in, or on your 4WD takes away from the capacity you have left, and in many cases puts you over the line.

Bar work is one of the heaviest things you”ll add to your 4WD, so think very carefully about the payload you have, and the ratings of your axle capacities. If you are unsure of weights, and all of the acronyms that you need to abide by, check this out; Towing Capacity; a simple guide to keep you legal.

Obviously a Bull Bar applies its weight primarily to the front axle, and this is a point well worth considering. A significant number of modern 4WD’s cannot take much extra weight over the front axle once you’ve added a driver and a passenger. If you fit a heavy Bull Bar (and/or a winch) you may find that your new 4WD is suddenly not legal, and as a result your 4WD insurance company can legally walk away from any claims that may have been caused, or contributed to by the modification.

Bull Bar Weight

Bull bar weight is an important consideration

Winch compatibility

The next thing to think long and hard about is whether you want the ability to install a winch or not. While a bull bar might look the same from the front, what is behind is often vastly different to safely attach a winch to, and to support the weight of a 4WD being pulled from it. Some Bull Bars are winch compatible, and many are not. There are some cases where you can install a bull bar to a non winch compatible one, but often its not possible without replacing the entire bar.

It’s worth mentioning is that you can get winch compatible bull bars in both aluminium and steel, and that some winch bars require additional gussets, or cradles to be installed as a separate item that may, or may not come with the bar at the time of purchase!

Winching a 4WD

Not all Bull Bars are winch compatible

Material

There are two main materials that Bull Bars are made from; steel and aluminium. You can sometimes get stainless steel thrown into the mix, but its rare. Both Steel and Aluminium have their pro’s and cons, and both can be painted nicely. Aluminium is often left bare, and can be raw, or polished to give a nice finish (but needs work to maintain this over the years!)

Steel is obviously significantly heavier, and material used is generally kept to 6mm thick and less. It is extremely strong, cheap and will rust if the paint comes off. Aluminium bull bars tend to be made thicker than their steel counterparts to make up for the lack of strength, and as a result can be equivalent.

Choosing the material really comes down to how much weight you want to hang off your 4WD, your budget and the overall design. When I had an accident in my Hilux, the price of a new polished aluminium bar was the same as a top of the range ARB winch compatible steel one. 

Aluminium Bull Bar

A painted aluminium Bull Bar

Strength

For those who are travelling in animal strike prone areas, strength is a big factor when considering a bull bar. There are people that unfortunately hit hundreds of kangaroos a year, travelling around their property, or in areas where there are high populations.

Strength does not just come from material choice, or thickness of material used, but its based around the engineering too. Ensuring that things are braced where they need to be, that the right shape of metal is used in each location and so forth all make a major difference to overall strength.

Bull Bar strength

A nudge bar I backed into in Broome, which was not strong at all

Level of protection

Typically Bull Bars have had three hoops. One over the radiator, and then one on either side protecting the headlights. Today though, a lot of people are opting for single hoops, or none at all. You can get a number of bull bars that are essentially metal bumper replacements.

These still offer some protection, but not nearly as much as a bar with hoops, especially when you hit something tall. The level of protection you require is based around where you travel, and what you are likely to hit, but I would never consider fitting a hoopless, or single hoop bar to a 4WD in an animal strike prone area.

You also need to make a choice about how much protection you want, when balancing it against the cost, weight and design. If you hit a big animal, there’s a good chance that you are going to need an insurance claim regardless of the bull bar you are running. However, it might be the difference between you being stranded and waiting for a tow truck, and being able to limp into town for repairs.

Hoopless bull Bar

Single hoop Bull Bars have much less protection

Changes to safety star rating

Believe it or not, but often Bull Bars reduce the safety star rating of your 4WD. Safety is a big thing these days, and vehicle manufacturers work very hard to design cars that are as safe as possible in an accident. This means that they have good quality air bags in the right location, crumple zones and so on, and so forth.

A good quality Bull Bar manufacturer will do extensive modelling and testing on the impact that their bar has on safety, but it is not uncommon to loose a star by fitting an aftermarket bull bar. These might protect your vehicle better in the event of an accident, but they often don’t make life any safer for you, or your passengers.

Nissan Navara

Often a Bull Bar reduces the safety rating of your 4WD

Entry angle

One of the major reasons for installing a bull bar is to get rid of the plastic bumpers that hang down low, and often get hit, or ripped off when you off road. Most Bull Bars will give you a better entry angle, and that’s a good thing if you head off road and need the clearance.

However, again, bull bars are not the same and you will find some that are designed for animal strikes over entry angle, and don’t do you any favours off road

4WD entry angle

A good Bull Bar will improve your entry angle

Bash plate and rated recovery point options

One of the more frustrating things about modifying a 4WD is that the parts you choose will often not bolt together unless they are made by the same people. Good luck trying to install ARB recovery points on a TJM bar, or anything remotely similar to this. 

What this means is that when you choose a bull bar, you need to know whether you are going to install bash plates and rated recovery points, and if you are, be aware that they will likely need to come from the same place. Check the prices out and make sure you are happy with it, or you may be in for a rude shock.

Going further than this, some aftermarket recovery points cannot be fitted to a vehicle with the factory bumper as they interfere, or the straps/winch rope would rub on the bumper. It pays to ask a few questions before you commit!

Dmax bash plates by Bushskinz

Finding bash plates and recovery points that suit your Bull Bar can be near on impossible

Spotlight and LED light bar compatibility

Again, with every bar being different, you will have issues fitting some lights to some bars. Whether this is the hole sizes, where they are drilled, how much height you have between the bar and the top hoop, the width between hoops or what ever it may be, not every bar will take every light. If you want to know more, check this out; Where can you mount LED light bars and spotlights?

Bear in mind that your lights should not stick forward of the bull bar, or they are illegal. This means that just because you can squeeze 9 inch spotlights onto your bar doesn’t mean having them protruding is acceptable in the eyes of the law.

LED Light bar on a 4WD

LED Light Bar squeezed into a Bull Bar

Antenna options

Again, not all antenna mounts are the same. I had to drill mine out on the AFN Bull bar as it simply wasn’t drilled large enough to take the RFI antenna I purchased. Have a look at where the mounts are too; do you have options on both sides, and the middle? Do you want to run more than one antenna? Is there provision to do this?

Dmax antennas

Double antenna mounts on our Bull Bar

What does it look like?

Much like everything in life, 4WD modifications require the eye of the beholder. Do you like how it looks on your model 4WD? There are some pretty amazing designs out there, and if you look around you might be surprised at how many manufacturers you find that make bull bars suitable for your vehicle.

Ease of fitment

The harder a bar is to fit, the more you will pay to have it done, or the more you will curse while installing it. In general these are able to be fitted fairly easily by someone with some reasonable technical skills, but they are not always easy, fun or simple. Fitting the AFN Bull Bar to our Isuzu Dmax was a nightmare, and I’d gladly pay someone else to do it next time.

80 series Bull Bar

The ARB Bull Bar was a piece of cake to install on our 80 series

How far does it stick out?

Some bull bars are designed to tuck in a lot, sit close to the panels and maintain a similar design to the original bumper. Others though, stick out up to 400mm from the front of your vehicle. This does a number of things. Firstly, it makes your 4WD longer, which can be a significant problem if you park it in a garage. 

When we built, I got our garage put up a few extra courses, knowing that the 4WD’s I owned would be taller than your average garage. However, I never thought about length. The AFN bar fitted barely sticks out, and if I drive into the brick wall I have about 30mm clearance on the back of the 4WD.

Asides from this, the further it sticks out, the more leverage you are putting on your 4WD. This means your applying more weight to the front axles (which is often a bad thing) and you are putting more stress on your chassis. Lots of weight leveraged far forward is a problem waiting to happen.

AFN Bull Bar

One of the reasons we went with AFN was that it doesn’t stick out far at all

Bumper cut or replacement

In general, there are two types of Bull Bars – ones that require the factory bumper to be cut to install the bar, and ones that require the bumper to be completely removed. If you are changing Bull Bars, this is a thought to remember; as if you don’t have a bumper and you are getting one that needs it, you may have to go shopping!

The bumper cuts are also easily done very poorly by trades (or not even trades). If they are not carefully marked out, and cut you can end up with a horrible looking front end. I’m not sure there are any particular benefits or disadvantages of going either way, but it is something to think about.

Dmax factory bull bar

The factory aluminium Bull Bar that the Dmax came with, which replaces the entire bumper

Does it have in built recovery points?

There are a couple of 4WD’s that are coming out with in built recovery points on the bull bar. Please don’t misunderstand this though. ARB bull bars come with small holes in the front, which are designed for using a high lift jack off, not for recovering from.

TJM, AFN and a few other brands will give you a rated capacity for their recovery points, and very clearly state what they are to be used for (winching/snatching/towing etc). This is something worth considering, when you are paying up to $250 per recovery point. If you have to buy two, thats almost half the price of some Bull Bars out there! This was one of the reasons I liked the AFN bar.

Dmax recovery Points

Twin, rated recovery points on the AFN Bar which is not very common

Is it ADR approved?

Making sure you are driving a vehicle around that is legal, safe and roadworthy is more important than ever today. There are a LOT of Bull Bars out there that are sold that are not ADR (Australian Design Regulation) approved. What this means is they don’t meet the standards to be attached to your 4WD in terms of accidents and so forth. 

I would highly recommend you don’t fit a bull bar that isn’t ADR approved. Its just not worth the risk.

Matching scrub bars and rock sliders or side steps

Going on from the ADR approval, if you want to install scrub bars, or rock sliders/side steps, they need to be the same brand as your bull bar in order to retain the approval. You can’t fit custom built rock sliders without ADR approval via ARB scrub bars and their Bull Bar.

Warranty, replacement parts and backup service

Even though realistically they are just a chunk of steel, things will go wrong with your Bull Bar. Steel bars that are inferior quality have a habit of rusting, or water pooling where it shouldn’t. Lights will break, globes will fail and you may decide down the track to fit some brackets to take a light bar, or additional accessories.

Really have a think about what you might want to fit, and how the manufacturer that you are looking at can help, and meet those needs. When you buy a product from a big, brand name bull bar manufacturer you know that there is good availability of spares, and most often good service and warranty (although not always)!

Bull Bar spares

If you need replacement lights, or warranty claims, can you get them easily?

Gap between the panels and the bar

I wouldn’t ever fit a bull bar without first seeing a few at least on a photo of the model I own. One of the big things to look at is the gap between the bull bar and your actual panels. Bull Bars get mounted to the chassis, and your panels are mounted to the body, which sits on body mounts.

On nasty corrugations and 4WD tracks, the two move independently, and if they are too close, they hit. This might only happen once in a blue moon, but if it does, expect some damage as a result. Although it might not look the best, a big gap, of around 25 – 30mm is generally the best arrangement to have in the preservation of your panels.

Fog lights, and globe types

A lot of bars these days come with LED globes, and fog lights. If they don’t, you might get normal running lights and halogen globes, but it pays to stop and think about it. LED’s are generally more reliable and that means less time laying under your 4WD trying to change them, or having to pay for someone to find them, and do it.

Are there any additional legal issues?

Installing a Bull Bar can make you privy to some other legal issues. For instance, there is a certain amount of front wheel that you are allowed to expose, and if you go over this it becomes illegal. The XROX bar in particular requires additional panels to be fitted if you have more than a two inch lift, as it exposes too much front wheel.

There’s a lot of controversy over the 5 poster bull bars, with a lot of people complaining about them not being safe. They are designed to protect a vehicle in the most demanding animal strike prone areas, and they do their job very well. Unfortunately though, they are not legal in some states and if you fit one, you may end up in a bit of pain.

What does it cost?

Bars range in price from a few hundred dollars through to over four thousand dollars, installed. Often this reflects the design and quality, but not always. There are a lot of cheap, lesser quality imported bars that get sold on the market, and if that is the path you choose to go down, do so knowing that the price should reflect this!

Air flow

One of the things that a lot of people don’t think too much about is what happens to air flow when you install a bull bar. Your 4WD requires air to cool the motor, your differentials and if you have an automatic, your transmission.

Some Bull Bars have terrible air flow, and that means your motor has to work harder to pull cool air in, and your transmission also has to work harder. This is usually a cumulative thing; add a Bull Bar, spotlights, bigger tyres, more weight and so forth, and you can end up with a vehicle that has overheating issues, or a damaged transmission very easily.

Air flow through a Bull Bar

How well does the air flow through your Bull Bar?

Cracked chassis mounts

Unfortunately, Bull Bars have been the cause of cracked chassis mounts in the past. Of course, the vehicle manufacturer walks away from any warranty claims (unless its a factory bar) and the bull bar manufacturers really don’t want anything to do with it either. Sometimes its a vehicle manufacturing issue, and others it relates to the bar design.

Either way, having a heavy bar that sticks out far, and doesn’t spread the weight well over the chassis is a recipe for disaster. The more corrugated roads you do the more likely its going to be a problem.

Real world feedback

When buying a Bull Bar, I always recommend you look for real world feedback. That means finding someone who has a similar model bar and 4WD, and comparing how its gone over several years. How does it fare in the event of an animal strike? What about after 50,000km of nasty corrugations?

Who makes 4WD Bull Bars?

There are heaps of companies that make, or sell Bull Bars. Here’s a few:

ARB, TJM, Ironman, MCC, AFN, Raslarr, Irwin, ECB, AFN, Ultimate 4WD, Uneek 4×4, Rhino, Rival, Xrox, Smart Bars, and of course most fabricators can knock them up (but they won’t be ADR approved without engineering, 

Get one that suits your requirements

From the above information, you should be well on the way to getting a Bull Bar that suits your requirements. There’s lots of options out there, and you just need to find something that suits how you use your 4WD.

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