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The 2012 Cheap Truck Challenge

Posted in Events on September 1, 2012
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Photographers: 4-Wheel & Off-Road Staff

How do you decide what is the best vehicle to buy and build on a budget? Simple: You take them four-wheeling and beat the dog snot out of them. That was the plan for our Cheap Truck Challenge.

Editor Péwé, our resident Jeep guru, stepped out of his comfort zone and built an ’80 Toyota SR5 mini-truck (“Cheap Truck Challenge Build, Part 1,” Aug. ’12). Editor Freiburger and his co-dog Finnegan from Hot Rod magazine showed up with a ’79 Bronco (page 28 in this issue) and a camera crew to video-tape the event. Williams had more doors than anyone else with his barn-door manual-trans ’87 GMC Suburban, the buildup of which is covered in “CheapBurban” in this issue, but do more doors make a 4x4 better? Which would be the vehicle of choice if you were a 17-year-old kid earning a paycheck chopping wood or branding steers all summer so you could afford to buy and build a 4x4?

We had four parts to our test: subjective judging by a 17-year-old kid and his mom, on-road testing to see which could actually work as a low-buck commuter, off-road testing at a secret facility equipped with various obstacles and few hundred cows, and finally a trip to the Pismo Beach OHV sand dunes for some good old-fashioned dune jumping. The goal was simple: See what truck would survive for the least amount of money spent.

Judged by Mom
We had a few local judges stop by and check out our 4x4s, and we asked them to decide which would best fit their needs. We were most interested in what this 17-year-old guy and his mom had to say. We asked him questions like which one is the coolest-looking? (“Suburban.”) Which would you buy? (“Bronco.”) Which would you want in case of a zombie apocalypse? (“Suburban.”)

Then we ran some different questions past mom. Which would you buy your son? (“Toyota.”) Which do you think is the safest? (“Suburban.”) Which would you want your son driving? (“Toyota, for fuel economy.”)

We also ran some questions by the father of a 17-year-old girl to find out if there was a vehicle he would feel comfortable with his daughter going out in by herself or with a boyfriend. Oddly enough, the Toyota earned the nod simply because it couldn’t as easily fit a mattress in the back like the Suburban could.

In the end, the Toyota earned Mom and Dad’s approval the most, and the Suburban and Bronco were tied for the son’s pick.

Each team had two budgets, $2,012 to buy a vehicle and $2,012 to fix it up, and those budgets could not be combined. We went that route because we figured $2,012 was a likely amount of money a kid could earn in a summer working 40 hours for minimum wage, minus taxes. Then he or she could work again the following summer to fix up the truck.

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Highway Cruiser
As much as we hate that our nation keeps spending money to pave roads, it does, so testing on this blatant waste of the taxpayers’ dollars is only right. Plus, most of us need to run down the streets, roads, and highways to get to work. How well your frugal 4x4 can do on the street is important. Is it comfortable enough? Does it get good mileage? Does it stop, go, and turn as needed? Working off-road is important too, but for safety’s sake, how well your low-buck truck can stop and turn is primary, as you don’t want to be the kid in a $2,000 beater who gets in a fender-bender with some lawyer in a Lexus.

Each driver got to drive the other two vehicles and judge them accordingly.

The Bronco wasn’t bad, but Freiburger and Finnegan removed the top and doors for the event and, as such, they lost some points on the ride-and-drive due to ever-so-slight wind noise. The fuel economy was mid-pack, as you’d assume, but the crappy running carb made it less than perfect and caused it to stumble at most stop lights.

The big ’Burban is a boat for sure. The steering column is loose, which made for imprecise canyon carving steering, and the weak clutch meant no top gear on the highway without filling the cabin with the aroma of fried friction material. Fuel economy was lousy, but the boom box and long-wheelbase ride made it a fun cruiser.

If cheap is your goal then daily driving the Toyota has to take the prize. While the Suburban used 13.5 gallons and the Bronco 11.1 during a day of on- and off-road testing, the dainty Toyota sipped just 8.3. Of course the Suburban can haul more stuff, and the Bronco is faster, and the Toyota overheated with an old clogged coolant system, but the Toy still wins the asphalt section.

Off-Road Abuse Testing
The best part of the event is when we rolled onto a few-thousand-acre ranch, also known as our top-secret 4WOR test facility, for some highly scientific testing. We had invited very experienced off-road instructors as judges, and we had every intention of impressing them with our fine vehicles. There were five tests of off-road prowess to evaluate these nickel-and-dime machines and their ability to surmount extreme terrain without extreme expense.

Our off-road judges were four driving instructors from Land Rover. Arriving in a beautiful Range Rover and Defender 90, these guys have vast knowledge from multiple Camel Trophy experiences as well as teaching driving skills to both new Rover owners and the military’s Special Forces. Though we’re pretty sure the combined value of all our vehicles is less than half of one of their 4x4s they didn’t seem to mind and even threatened to attend a future event with a low-buck Rover for the heck of it.

Drag Race
First up was the drag race. This involved backing each truck up a steep hill since cheap trucks need all the help they can get. At the drop of the flag we went ripping across a rutted cow pie–infested pasture as fast as possible before stopping quickly after the finish line so as not to crash into a huge ditch.

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Obstacle Course
Imagine a hypothetical situation where you’re hanging out in, say, the woods with your friends. Maybe you need to break up the party in a hurry and jump in your truck and drive away quickly. Our obstacle course was designed to test the suspension of the vehicles as well as how quickly the driver could get in and drive.

The course started with a high-speed run down a rocky riverbed and went up and over various small hills and berms, down through a brush-filled gully, back into the riverbed for a big sweeping donut, and then across the finish line. To fully test the high-performance economy suspensions, an open gallon of milk was duct-taped to each vehicle’s hood. (Plus, a milk-splattered windshield impairs visibility, not uncommon when trying to escape the woods in the dark.) The quickest off the line, the fastest through the course, and the least milk lost were all judged.

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After an incredible lunch by the caretakers of our super-secret off-road testing ranch (thanks, Chris and Dusty!) we went to the hillclimb. This twisty V-notch was a mixture of speed and grace as each truck had to weave its way up the hill, turn around, and come back down. The suspension on the Bronco twisted up nicely and gave it both the fastest time and the smoothest run. However, on a second go-around the Bronco was slowest trying to be the most graceful. The Toyota may have had the best traction, but the Suburban was by far the most fun to watch as Williams and his passengers battered, bounced, and laughed their way up the hill.

Mud Hole
The day was quickly fading and we realized no test would be complete without a run through the mud hole. The hole was untested when Williams was picked to go first, and like most kids in their teens with a new truck he drove (or should we say dove) in without checking the depth. The big Suburban looked more like a submarine as it nosed down and sent a giant Sea World orca splash toward onlookers. Somewhere below that cattle-dropping-filled waterhole must have been solid ground, as the Swampers dug in and pulled the big truck through.

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Sand Birds
Sunday morning we headed to the dunes under cloudy skies. This is where the Bronco would shine. V-8 power, coil-sprung front suspension, and Finnegan’s total lack of respect for mechanical wellbeing resulted in the epic jump seen on our cover this month. Plus, an open-topped 4x4 at the dunes is just more fun—it results in sand in your hair, eyes, and everywhere else.

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Each truck had its strong points. The Bronco could fly better—when it would run. The Suburban is the premier party wagon best suited for the kid with lots of friends to haul. The Toyota is economical for sure. However, each truck also had its share of carnage.

With the day finished, judges and competitors retired to a campfire, where lies about the greatness of each other’s trucks were told over fried chicken and frosty brews. Luckily no one had to run for his truck and try to escape the authorities as the moon rose that night.

Finnegan and Freiburger claimed victory in the dunes with their epic jump, but upon landing it was discovered that their front diff had done serious damage to the engine oil pan. The Bronco still ran and drove home, but alas, it lost a tire on its return from the beach and, with no spare, ended the weekend on a tow truck.

Williams seemed to lose his mind whenever he crossed the start line and drove the Suburban like a 17-year-old kid with a 30-pound foot. The mud bog is a perfect example of his ridiculous driving, but even worse, the front tires were off the ground every chance he got to jump something. This resulted in a bent 10-bolt front axle. It made for great video and fun four-wheeling, but driving without a brain isn’t cheap. The Burb made it home without a tow truck but now requires additional attention and with that, cost.

Péwé has seniority in the group, and some said he drove like an old man, his tires barely off the ground in the dunes. Although he made good time in the off-road sections he didn’t end up hydrolocked or broken off-road. Yes, he had some cooling issues, but otherwise his little Toy was mechanically sound. While Williams and Freiburger/Finnegan may have driven like 17-year-olds, Péwé was ever-vigilant to show you how a proper driver should wheel: calm, collected, and methodical (and boring to watch).

Picking a winner would be ridiculous (though you can watch a great video on Motor Trend’s YouTube channel,, in which Freiburger and Finnegan falsely claim the title) because each truck is a great example of what you can get for not much money. No matter what you drive, it is possible to get out there and have fun in the dirt for little to no cost, especially if you refrain from abusing the truck. But if you do happen to drive like we sometimes do (tires off the ground, or buried in a mud bog somewhere in a cow pasture), be sure to send the pics to our Whoops section at

Special thanks to everyone who helped make CTC a success!

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