WHY install an aftermarket bullbar? Two main reasons: protection and convenience.
A quality bullbar will afford the front of your vehicle (and all of the important mechanical bits) superior protection from kamikaze animals and wayward drivers, but it will also protect in dense scrub when truly off-road on the hunt for an elusive, out-of-the-way campsite.
Depending on the type fitted and what it’s made of, a good-quality bullbar will absorb the majority of impacts and protect the bits of the car that matter – namely the radiator and cooling system. A good bullbar will also provide a great base from which to attach other essential off-road kit – winches, light bars, LEDs and antennas.
A by-product of a bullbar, but an aspect important to many off-roaders, is the aesthetic enhancements a top-quality unit affords. Get the right one and you’ll have a bullbar that not only does the job, but looks the goods as well.
WHY YOU NEED A GOOD QUALITY BAR
YOU may think picking up an eBay special will save you a few pennies, but you’d be wrong. It may save you a few bucks in the short-term, but it’ll come back to bite you on the arse in the long run.
While an el-cheapo bullbar may look like the real thing on the outside, appearances can be deceiving. Steve Sampson, ARB’s product manager, explained: “A lot of the differences won’t so much be on the parts you see of the bar, as the outer appearance of the bar will look similar [to a high quality one].
One of the most important things is how the bar is attached to the chassis, and whether airbags will still deploy at the same rate.
“We do a lot of testing to ensure that the crash-rate characteristics of the vehicle haven’t been affected by having a bullbar on the front, so there’s a lot of work and a lot of bracing in behind the bar which you don’t necessarily see,” he explained.
If you happen to bang your 4x4 into a tree on a steep descent down Billy Goat Bluff, then you’ll be wishing you spent a few extra quid on a better bar.
“If you were to have an accident, the bar’s not going to perform the way it should,” Sampson continued. “If the vehicle chassis mounts are made to a price point, as opposed to a function point, then that’s where the problems start.”
Opposite Lock’s general manager, Adam O’Sullivan, concurred: “Before an Opposite Lock (OL) bullbar can be released to the public, it must first pass through a series of complex design, build, test, safety and production phases.
There are many, many negatives to a poorly designed, developed and manufactured bullbar, including the fact of non-ADR-compliant hardware and accessories.”
That’s the key thing to remember when umming-and-ahhing over whether to cheap out on a crappy bullbar: will it do the job it’s designed to do?
Ironman 4x4’s product director, Adam Craze, reiterated that point: “We have them tested in Australia for the safety components and also out on the tracks to ensure they work the way we know they need to when in use. We use the best material and equipment to make our bullbars. There are no shortcuts along the way.”
TJM is another company that designs and manufactures a wide range of steel and alloy frontal protection systems to suit most popular 4WDs.
“If [a bullbar is] unable to comply with relevant ADR and airbag compatibility, you are literally gambling with the safety and lives of your family and other occupants of your vehicle,” Albert Swanepoel, TJM’s Vehicle Protection Category Manager, told us. “Properly designed and meticulously tested airbag compatibility ensures airbag deployment when necessary as well as preventing unnecessary activation.”
Albert added: “Poorly designed mounting system may not handle winching loads well and cause damage to bar/vehicle and its components. This may cause damage to vehicle due to insufficient clearance between bar and vehicle as a result of poor testing/design.
“TJM bullbars are tested and proven to be able to withstand more than reasonable loads during winching operation.”
A well-designed bullbar will also absorb the impact of a collision with a 100kg+ animal and, in doing so, protect the vehicle’s occupants.
ECB’s executive sales and marketing manager, Gaven Paterson, said: “Most animal strikes happen suddenly and unexpectedly, and the exclusive triangulation design and our reinforced 6mm channel will protect the front of the vehicle every time, even against the biggest animal.”
“Every Bullbar should be designed to protect the entire front of the vehicle, including the grill, bonnet and, most definitely, the front wheels.”
SERVING A PURPOSE?
YOU'VE confirmed you need a bullbar and you’ve settled on a good quality product, so what next? Now it’s time to decide what sort of bullbar you want. Do you need a full bumper replacement or a cut/over OE bumper?
Do you want full, single, or no hoops? Are you after a tube or a competition-style bar? Does it have recovery points and mounts for lights and aerials? And, crucially, is it ADR and airbag compliant?
The most important thing to remember is the intended use of your 4x4. Alex Surwillo, from ARB’s marketing team, said: “It depends on what level of protection, functionality and aesthetic appeal the customer is looking for.
Our Summit and Deluxe bullbars are a popular choice for those who want premium protection and functionality, featuring integrated jacking points and the ability to mount lights, antennas and a winch. We also manufacture a range of other bullbars to suit different aesthetic preferences and budgets.”
There’s no point opting for a full-hooped bar if you don’t plan on partaking in any off-roading, but a single-hoop bar could be more up your alley if your route involves dark country roads and ’roos with death wishes.
If greater approach and departure angles take precedence over all-out protection, then a lightweight and simple tube bar (such as the XROX) should be atop the wishlist.
Mounting points for aerials and lighting are also important for some buyers, so it pays to research.
“TJM bullbars incorporate and are designed to function properly with vehicle features (parking sensors, radar),” Albert Swanepoel from TJM said. “They have quality platforms to mount accessories (lights, aerials) that were designed with the functionality of those accessories in mind.”
All TJM bullbars are designed and tested in Australia and feature a quality designed and engineered patented mounting system to ensure the bullbar is securely fastened to the safest and strongest parts of the chassis.
“[With our bars] all the loads from winching and kinetic recoveries are directed equally into the chassis rails without compromising the airbag compatibility,” Albert said. “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.”
STEEL, ALLOY OR PLASTIC?
THAT same principle – the intended purpose of the vehicle – also applies when deciding on a steel, alloy or plastic bullbar. Each material has its individual pros and cons, and each is tailored to suit very different purposes.
“Alloy bars are generally lighter, which means you can pack more gear in and are less likely to need a suspension upgrade. Alloy bars can be higher maintenance due to their finish, as they do require more care to keep them looking shiny,” explained Adam O’Sullivan.
“Steel bars are heavier and you need to take the bullbar weight into account when calculating your GVM. Due to the increased weight, you may also need to upgrade your suspension when installing a steel bullbar. Steel bullbars are heavier, yet have less give and flex due to their construction.”
Adam Craze added: “Aluminum bars don’t rust so are perfect for beach drivers, but do require regular maintenance to maintain their shine. On the other hand, steel bars offer better protection, a stronger platform for accessories and are easier to manufacture. Steel is also easier to repair.”
However, just because alloy bullbars are lighter doesn’t mean they’re necessarily weaker. “Don’t be fooled thinking just because alloy bullbars are lighter that they’re weaker, as most modern, quality-made alloy bullbars are extremely tough and durable,” Craze said.
“Steel bullbars are built around the concept of strength and function, with an old perception that aluminum is made for shiny looks and lightweight protections. But now with better grades of aluminum, we can design an aluminum bar with the strength properties close to that of a steel bar but with a weight saving of around 30 per cent.”
ARB has been designing steel bullbars in-house for more than 40 years, but with market demand shifting – and modern vehicles becoming more dual-purpose – there has been an obvious requirement for a lighter product.
Not that alloy is new to ARB. “We have a long history manufacturing alloy bullbars dating back to the 80s, and we have also been making alloy roof racks for about nine years,” Steve Sampson told us. “So we have significant experience in dealing with alloy.”
Sampson went on to explain the assembly of an ARB alloy bar: “Compared to a steel bar, the alloy bar assembly is lighter, however the mounting system and winch cradle is still manufactured from steel so that the weight and stress of winch forces is transmitted to the chassis, not the alloy. An alloy bar with a winch fitted can be a comparable weight to a steel bar without a winch.
“As the lower pan of both bars is essentially the same style – both steel and alloy bars have the same approach angle. There’s no difference with how the vehicle gets used, it comes down more to appearance on the vehicle and maintenance – a polished alloy surface will need to be cleaned more regularly,” he said.
East Coast Bullbars (ECB), based in Queensland, specialise in alloy frontal protection for vehicles built from 1980-2017. It has manufactured alloy bars since 1971, making it the oldest bullbar manufacturer in Australia.
“East Coast Bullbars are 100 per cent Australian made,” Gaven Paterson told us. “Our DNA is in manufacturing high quality products that offer superior strength whilst still being half the weight of a steel bullbar.”
“With our products being half the weight of a steel bullbar, fuel usage, tyre wear or the general handling of the vehicle won’t be affected like it would by fitting a steel bullbar.”
The average weight of an East Coast Bullbar is approximately 35kg (a steel bar is approximately 80kg).
The majority of ARB’s bullbars, however, are steel. “We have about 10 vehicles which are covered by an alloy bar, but our steel bars cover a couple of hundred vehicles,” Steve Sampson told us as we toured ARB’s Kilsyth facility (see Manufacturing Process below).
He admits, however, that the trend towards alloy bars is growing, but an obvious obstacle to fitting an alloy bar is price. “Because the materials cost more for an alloy bar, it is more expensive than a steel bar.”
EFS also research, develop, design and test (manufacturing is conducted overseas) a range of Adventure Series premium steel bullbars.
Why steel? According to James Don, EFS’s branch manager, “It’s tougher and up to the task for heavy-duty work.”
EFS bullbars are made from 63mm steel tube, are winch compatible and come with a winch cradle mounting bracket, have lower bullbar bash plates, twin aerial mounts and CNC headlight infill trims.
“The most popular vehicles we fit bullbars to are Rangers, Colorados, Hiluxes, Land Cruisers, D40s and Tritons,” Don said. “Our bullbars comply with ADR 69 standards and meet airbag safety regulations.”
An alternative bullbar is the ARB-owned SmartBar, a lightweight bar made from roto-moulded polyethylene.
“The lightweight properties of the polymer and the hollow construction consequent to the rotational moulding manufacturing process minimises the weight added to the vehicle when fitted, mitigating the effect the Vehicle Frontal Protection System (VFPS) has on GVM, which in turn has long-term positive effects on fuel consumption along with reduced wear and tear on tyres and suspension components.
Not only benefiting the customer’s pocket, but the environment, too,” SmartBar’s General Manager, Kevin Baker, told us. “The SmartBar also has what could be described as ‘muscle memory’ and generally returns to its original shape after impact.”
Upon impact, a SmartBar can compress up to 85 per cent of its depth, and then return to 95 per cent of its original shape within minutes. The SmartBar offers unrivalled occupant and pedestrian protection, and has been independently tested to ADR standards.
|PROS||Offer better protection, a stronger platform for kit, are easier to repair and cheaper to make.||
Lighter than steel and don’t rust. Modern alloy grades can almost rival steel in strength.
|Lightweight, flexible and easy to repair.|
Steel bars are heavier, have less give and flex, and aren’t ideal for a beach environment.
|Requires regular maintenance to keep its look. Longer to manufacture and dearer than steel.||
Limited in what accessories can be fitted.
READY TO BUY? KEY THINGS TO REMEMBER
Get a top-quality bullbar from a trusted manufacturer and ensure it fulfils your personal off-roading requirements and has the capacity to house the accessories you want to fit to it (and they work as they should). Hardcore outback expedition rig? Then get a serious bullbar!
Ensure the bullbar meets ADR requirements and is compatible with airbags. No point getting the duck’s guts of bullbars if it makes your rig illegal or unsafe to run.
As Adam Craze explained: “All of our bullbars are designed and tested by Ironman 4x4. We have them tested in Australia for the safety components and also out on the tracks to ensure they work the way we know they need to when in use."
Double-check it has recovery points and that it doesn’t hinder ground clearance or other functions (sensors, etc.).
“With the release of modern vehicles, new systems, radar systems and headlight washers, we have had to incorporate these systems into our bars,” said Craze. “This extends the testing period, as we need to fully complete testing on each of these components as well as the standard tests. We make a sample bar from the design and test-fit each bar prior to starting the manufacturing process.”
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ECB’s Gaven Paterson added: “Our internal R&D team work tirelessly with the various vehicle manufacturers and dealerships around Australia to ensure our products are designed to work with the very latest technology in new vehicles.”
Finally, does the bullbar come with a factory warranty? Ironman 4x4 offers a 12-month warranty for its bullbars; ARB and Opposite Lock provide two-year warranties; and ECB offers an unmatched lifetime warranty.
We popped in to ARB’s Kilsyth facility to see the build process of a bullbar from go-to-whoa. The manufacturing process for the steel bars begins with a flat sheet of steel that’s cut to shape using computer-aided laser cutters.
The steel then works its way down the production line, is bent, cut and welded to shape, before being powdercoated and packaged for delivery.
Steve Sampson said: “We design, develop and manufacture. We do every stage of the process.”
Additional bullbars are also produced at ARB’s Thailand plant, which predominately services ARB’s international market. “The Thai plant is fully owned by ARB, and the quality of the product is no different. We use the same machines, same process. There’s no less quality coming out of overseas than what is produced in Kilsyth,” Sampson added.
Phone: 1300 272 494
Phone: 1300 731 137
EAST COAST BULLBARS
Phone: (07) 3897 5700
Phone: 1800 624 444
EFS 4WD ACCESSORIES
Phone: 1300 337 493
Phone: 1300 301 320
Phone: (07) 3865 9999