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The 2012 Cheap Truck Challenge

Ford Bronco Gmc Suburban And Toyota Pickup On Beach
Fred Williams
| Brand Manager, Petersen’s 4Wheel & Off Road
Posted September 1, 2012
Photographers: 4-Wheel & Off-Road Staff

Low-Buck Death Match

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.

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