Click for Coverage
Due to the EU’s Global Data Protection Regulation, our website is currently unavailable to visitors from most European countries. We apologize for this inconvenience and encourage you to visit for the latest on new cars, car reviews and news, concept cars and auto show coverage, awards and much more.MOTORTREND.COM
  • JP Magazine
  • Dirt Sports + Off-Road
  • 4-Wheel & Off-Road
  • Four Wheeler

Economical 4x4 Upgrades - Saving Money

Posted in How To on March 1, 2011
Share this

Economical is a loose term to most. For some it might mean a $25 upgrade while to others it may mean closer to $1,000. After all if you score a $1,500 suspension kit for $1,000 you've saved some money and shopped economically. Some upgrades are economical because they save money right away while others save you money over time. Some upgrades may seem more economical to those with more money. Some upgrades are purely economical and are sure fire methods to saving you money. Some upgrades are simply cheap and will cost you very little but still offer benefits. Take a look at the following compilation of economical upgrades. You will likely find something to improve the performance or capability or look of your 4x4 without having to bust open your piggy bank.

New Shocks
Installing a fresh set of shocks is the easiest way to improve the ride of your 4x4. Depending on the size and brand of shock you select, you can sometimes fetch a good deal, too. Many shock manufacturers offer specials like buy-three-get-one-free promotions that make new shocks much more affordable. Look for deals around the holidays and at the end of the year especially. A Rancho RS9000XL Nitrogen-charged shock with nine-position tuning capability is shown. The nine tuning positions allow for soft damping during trail use to gain greater flex and range to firmer damping for highway performance and towing. The RS9000XL uses a 2.75-inch body and an 18mm chrome rod. Rancho also offers its economical RS5000 shock that is tuned to each application. We have used both shocks on various projects to very good results.

Sway Bar Disconnects
Use of sway bar disconnects will help get your 4x4 further up the trail by allowing full use of suspension flex. By design a sway bar limits suspension travel so it can do its job of controlling vehicle movement and ride quality. By disconnecting the sway bar for trail use the suspension can flex without the sway bar binding and limiting available spring and shock travel. Many companies offer sway bar "discos" but JKS Manufacturing is one that specializes in them. The company's latest Quicker Disconnects are robotically MIG welded and feature grease zerks for easy lubrication and proper flow of grease to adjustment threads and bushings. For ease of operation JKS Quicker Disconnects use tapered stainless-steel mounting posts and floating, spherical polyurethane bushings. Additionally, the Quicker Disconnects are adjustable in length to accommodate varying degrees of vehicle height changes so they can still be used after you install a lift.

Heavy-Duty Locking Hubs
If you're ever tempted to use pliers to turn your locking hubs then it may be time for an upgrade. Many hub kits are available to meet varying budgets. We've seen sets advertised for less than $100, as well as those offered for more than $500. Why the huge price span? Design, manufacturing process, strength, and materials used all play a role, and you typically get what you pay for. In the upper price range is a set of Dynatrac's DynaLoc hubs, which are said to be three times stronger than any other Dana 60 locking hub. DynaLoc hubs only require 1/8th of a turn to engage and won't disengage under high torque load. They use gears made in the USA from heat-treated, chromoly steel and offer a low profile knob assembly that decreases impact with rocks and obstacles. Dynatrac's Stub Hub conversion kit, which decreases the side profile of the hub by more than 1.5 inches, is also shown. Many companies - including Omix-Ada, Superwinch, Mile Marker, and Warn - offer hub kits to fit just about any 4x4 and budget.

Track Bar Support
Jeep Wrangler JKs and TJs tend to experience factory weld failures where the OE rear track bar bracket attaches to the axle tube. To correct this potential problem many companies, such as Superlift, offer track bar braces. The Superlift brace is a cost-effective weld-on brace that is included with Superlift JK suspension systems. A bolt-on track bar bracket with an integrated brace is offered for JK owners who don't want to weld. Either brace can be purchased separately. The brace can be used on stock-height JKs and should fit JKs equipped with other brands of 2- to 4-inch lift kits.

Heavy-Duty U-Joints
When it's time to replace your axle U-joints you have many options. The cheapest U-joints you can find may seem like a good idea at the parts counter, but not when you're replacing a blown cheapie U-joint on the trail. If you want to avoid situations such as this, you can upgrade to a heavy-duty U-joint that will hold up better to high torque trail use. Nitro Gear offers its Excalibur 300M Competition U-joints to battle trail breaks. The Excalibur U-joints are precision-machined from 300M billet material and are subjected to a unique heat-treating process. They use full-circle snap rings so there are no needle bearings to lose or crush, and they are fully serviceable and include a lifetime warranty against breakage. Nitro Gear Excalibur U-joints are available for Dana 30, 44, and 60 applications and also GM 8.5-inch axles.

Free-Flowing Exhaust System
We often hear people complain about a lack of power in their aging 4x4. In most cases the complainers are still using the stock exhaust system with trail-dimpled exhaust tubes and a bashed muffler. Such damage restricts exhaust flow and will certainly limit engine power. A new cat-back exhaust system won't break your budget and will give you that seat-of-your-pants power increase that you've been missing. A leader in the aftermarket exhaust world, Flowmaster offers countless cat-back system and muffler-kit applications, including its recently released 4.0L I-6 Force II system designed for '00-to-'06 Jeep Wrangler TJs. The Force II kit includes everything needed for an easy installation.

Heavy-Duty Battery Cables
If you run multiple electrical accessories and still have the stock battery cables in place, you may not be getting a full charge to those accessories. You also run the risk of a fire or failure if the stock cables are worn out or over-loaded. An easy and inexpensive fix to this dilemma is to install a set of heavy-duty battery cables. At the same time it's a good idea to upgrade your battery posts and terminals to create the best functioning charging system. The custom cables shown are from Jeepers and Creepers. All of Jeepers and Creepers custom cables are resistant to oil, water, acid, gas, ozone, cuts, tears, and abrasion, and use military-spec battery clamps and heat shrink.

Cold-Air Intake And Throttle Body
An easy way to power up your engine is with a cold-air intake system and new throttle body. Most intake systems use an open element filter that can be cleaned after trail runs to ensure continued airflow to the engine. Many intake kits are available from a wide variety of companies to fit many vehicle applications. Some vehicles, such as Jeeps equipped with the 4.0L I-6, can further increase engine air intake and flow through the use of a larger bore throttle body. The factory bore is 60 mm; most aftermarket units increase bore to 62 mm. Another option is use of a throttle body spacer, which also nets minor gains when paired with an intake system. Shown are the K&N Jeep Cherokee XJ intake system and a Rubicon Express 62mm throttle body.

Axle Tube Seals
An inexpensive upgrade for your front axle is a set of grease-able axle tube seals. Axle tube seals install at the axle tube ends to keep dirt, water, and debris from entering the tubes and causing damage. A handful of companies offer tube seals. The tube seals shown are from Alloy USA.

Improve MPG
If you're looking for better fuel mileage from your gas-guzzling 4x4, then a Fitch Fuel Catalyst kit might be your answer. We've been using a Fitch unit on our guzzler '97 Ford F-350 CrewCab 4x4 for the last few years and are still benefitting from it. The gains in fuel mileage aren't phenomenal, but every bit helps. We gain about 1 to 2 mpg, depending on the driving situation and load. On a rig getting 10 mpg or less, that's good news.

Tail Light Upgrade
If you've damaged the stock taillights on your Jeep JK, Warrior Products offers a heavy-duty replacement. The company's JK steel taillights replace the factory units and bolt in place with minor modifications to the sheet metal. The steel taillights accept standard grommet-mounted tail lights and/or reverse lights. The light kits and load resistors are sold separately and are available from Warrior Products.

Wheel Spacers
If new wheels aren't in your budget to go with your new lift, you can use wheel spacers to create the necessary backspacing to use your stock wheels. Wheel spacers can also be designed as adapters if you want to adapt wheels with different bolt patterns to your rig, which is often the case after completing an axle swap or getting your buddy's free set of wheels after he upgraded. A variety of companies - including Spidertrax and Trail Sport 4x4 - manufactures wheel spacers and adapters. The spacers shown are from Spidertrax. They are manufactured from 6061T6 aluminum and go through a double-anodizing process that gives them a dark blue color and leaves them highly corrosion-resistant. Spidertrax wheel spacers are wheel and hub centric for a perfect fit and are made in the USA. Applications are available for Jeep, Toyota (both lug and hub centric), and Suzuki vehicles.

Battery Tender
A lot of us use your 4x4s intermittently as the seasons or work and family schedules allow. If you don't have the time or never remember to fire up the engine now and again, you risk having the battery lose its charge, which can be a big drag if you were set on hitting the trail that instant, and an even bigger drag if you've wasted the battery altogether. The SmartCharge digital battery tender from Keep It Clean Wiring Accessories is designed to offer a steady trickle charge to your vehicle's battery and effectively extend battery life. The SmartCharge plugs in to a standard 110-volt outlet and maintains your vehicle's battery without relying on your schedule or memory. Cost of new battery: $100 to $200 plus. Cost of SmartCharge battery tender: Less than $20.

Plastic Fenders
It seems that all the craze these days is to hang more heavy metal on your rig to protect it from rocks. Some manufacturers are moving to aluminum body panels to save weight but they still in effect make for a heavier rig, which eats more fuel and is harder on suspension components and shocks. If you are looking to put your rig on a diet you can look to Modern Classic Enterprises (MCE), which recently introduced its flat fenders that are made from UV-protected ABS plastic. The plastic flat fenders are designed to elastically flex and distort instead of transferring impact loads to the rest of the vehicle. They are also made in the USA and priced at a level that doesn't break the bank.

Coil Spring Retainers
With coil-spring suspension systems some trail driving situations can lead to a coil spring falling out of the spring bucket. Currie Enterprises offers a fix for Jeep JK owners with its rear coil spring retaining kit. The kit includes everything needed to clamp the top of the coil spring to the frame and the bottom of the spring to the axle housing.

New Springs And Shocks
We already mentioned how the simple addition of a new set of shocks can greatly improve a vehicle's ride. Add a fresh set of springs to the equation and ride and handling gets even better. There are so many suspension companies these days it seems that the price of a basic entry-level lift kit with shocks to fit 31- and 33-inch tires (and in many cases 35-inch tires) has dropped considerably. In many cases you can replace an aging set of trail-worn lift springs (coil or leaf) with a same-size set for about $500, and that typically includes shocks. If you shop local, you can avoid shipping costs - if you have a street car that gets awesome mileage, weigh the shipping cost against a few hours of driving and dinner somewhere other than the same old spots.

Rough Country Suspension offers kits for many makes of 4x4s, and most of its entry-level spring and shock kits are in the $500-plus-or-minus range. Some sell for less than $400 even, including the Jeep JK 2.5-inch kit, which includes front and rear progressive coil springs and four High Performance 2.2 series shocks. That's it. With all in place you'll fit up to a 35-inch tire, but you'll need wheels with 4.5 inches of back spacing to make them fit. Or, of course, you can try a set of economical wheel spacers and use your stock wheels. As with shocks, suspension deals are best found around holidays and at the end of the year.

Body Lift
We used to laugh at too-tall body lifts back in the '80s (typically paired with chromed shocks and stacked lift blocks - yikes!) but we've come to accept that they serve a purpose and have a place in our world. But let's be reasonable; more than 2 inches or so seems so extreme and, frankly, our guts call it at less. If you really need bigger tires than that can offer, then you're just going to have to save your dollars for the whole suspension kit. The too-tall look is fine for the street, but rookie, high-torque trail situations can find those too-tall blocks sheared in half with the vehicle body limply hanging from the frame.

The best part about body lifts? The price. Tack about $100 or so on to the price of four tires and you're "lifted." We have successfully used under 2-inch body lifts to great results. In most cases we have combined them with suspension lifts when we needed just a bit more clearance that we didn't really want to cut from the sheet metal. The kit shown is another from Rough Country Suspension - the JK 1.25-inch body lift system. When purchasing a body lift, watch for what's included. The Rough Country JK kit includes pretty much everything you'll need, including bumper brackets, shifter adapter, and hardware. The Rough Country TJ body lift kit (also 1.25 inches) lacks engine mount lift blocks but the blocks are available at an affordable extra charge.

Underseat Storage
Extra storage spots are great in any 4x4 and semi-hidden locking storage spots are even better. For that reason we really like Bestop's under seat storage box for Jeep TJs and JKs. The box is made from heavy-duty 16-gauge carbon steel and features a welded construction to deter would-be thieves. It offers 205 cubic inches of storage space in a sliding drawer that is secured with a pick-resistant, stainless-steel lock. Bestop under seat storage boxes mount beneath the driver's seat to the factory seat risers and don't interfere with driver's seat adjustment.

Firewall Boots
Daystar's new Firewall Boot is a necessary addition to any wiring project and will greatly simplify the process. The Firewall Boot offers an easy, leak-free solution for running wires through bulkheads, firewalls, or any other application where you want to keep the elements out and the wires protected. The Firewall Boot can be used when adding gauges or fog lights or for completely re-wiring a vehicle. The boot can accommodate wire bundles from 3/8- to 1-inch in diameter. Just as important, however, the stepped design enables a zip tie to be used that tightly seals the boot around the wires.

New Radiator Hoses
The cooling system is vital to the performance of the engine. One easy way to improve this vital system is to replace your standard rubber radiator hoses with silicone hoses. Silicone hose can handle much greater temperatures than standard rubber hose and it is also resistant to ozone exposure, oil and other engine fluids, and electrochemical degradation, which means that silicone radiator hoses last about five times longer than a standard rubber radiator hose.

Trail-Gear offers silicone radiator hose kits that are a direct OEM fit for Toyota 22R or 22RE motors. Trail-Gear's silicone hoses offer a three-ply, polyester-reinforced construction that provides exceptional and efficient heat reduction and increased pressure tolerance, and an operating temperature range from -20 degrees F to 350 degrees F. The Trail-Gear hoses are gloss black in color and include stainless steel hose clamps. Silicone radiator hose kits for Jeeps are available through Quadratec and other retailers.

Tube Doors
Tube doors are popular in the summer months when full doors don't allow adequate air flow to the cab and also to increase line-of-sight on the trail. A number of manufacturers offer tube doors to fit many 4x4 applications and they can end up saving you some money in 'wheeling situations where your full factory doors might become damaged.

In addition to its many Jeep applications Warrior Products now offers its popular tube-style Adventure Doors for Toyota FJ-40 Land Cruisers. The doors mount into the existing door hinges and are available with either a deluxe paddle handle or a standard latch closure system. Warrior's Adventure Doors are powder-coated black and can be outfit with Warrior's mesh and padding kits to provide increased functionality.

Dual Battery Tray
Having two batteries onboard your 4x4 can be a great benefit, especially if you do a lot of winching or run multiple electrical accessories such as lights or CB/HAM/FM radios. There are a handful of dual battery tray kits available for various Jeep applications from manufacturers, such as Smittybilt, Rugged Ridge, and Tomken.

One of the latest to be released is the JK dual battery tray from Mountain Off-Road Enterprises (M.O.R.E.). Its JK dual battery tray will hold two Optima series 34 or 34/78, or two OE batteries side-by-side in the stock battery location. The M.O.R.E dual battery tray for Jeep JKs bolts to factory holes and does not require drilling. It also allows the OE air filter box to be retained. Wiring and extra battery will cost you extra. The tray kit can be had for a little more than $200.

Fire Extinguisher Mount
The Poly Performance fire extinguisher quick-disconnect is a great addition to any vehicle and it won't set you back in the wallet too much, either. The mount can be secured with either bolts or hose clamps and can be used for any size fire extinguisher. When you need a fire extinguisher there is no doubt that you will need it quickly at hand. The Poly Performance fire extinguisher quick-disconnect offers split-second removal to maximize emergency preparedness.

Transfer Case Shifter
For those tired of fighting the factory transfer case shifter in their Jeep Wrangler TJs, Advance Adapters now has a solution to these woes in its Jeep TJ transfer case cable shifter. The shifter is designed to correct binding, hard shifts, and gear slip-out, all which are common ailments of the factory TJ transfer case shifter assembly. The Advance Adapters transfer case shifter replaces the body-mounted mechanical system with a large cable-actuated design that creates a crisp and carefree transfer case shifting experience. Advance Adapters also offers a variety of shifter brackets for a number of transmission and transfer case applications.

Radiator And Fan
You already know that cooling is important to the life of your 4x4's engine. With many factory radiators using plastic side tanks these days leaking from cracks in these areas has become more common-Jeep TJ owners know of this problem well. This not only affects efficient cooling ability but will also cost you money in fluids as well as eventual replacement of the radiator and maybe even the engine if the problem is ignored.

Flex-A-Lite recently introduced the answer to Jeep TJ owners' radiator woes with its new radiator and electric fan system. The Flex-A-Lite radiator and fan combo replaces the factory one-row radiator that uses plastic side tanks with an aluminum two-row unit to improve cooling. The kit also replaces the factory belt-drive fan with an electric fan, which reduces engine drag to create additional horsepower.

Rear Tube Flares
Jeeps have been with stuck with standard rear plastic flares for years but GenRight now offers a better option. GenRight's new rear tube flares offer a lightweight aluminum alloy construction and 4 inches of tire coverage. They also look much better than factory plastic flares and hold up to rocks and other obstacles much better. Sun fade is also non-existent as the flares can painted and re-painted to cover scratches or other damage. The GenRight rear tube flares are built using 1 1/2-inch-diameter by 3/16-inch-wall aluminum tubing and 1/8-inch-thick aluminum plate. Six-inch flare and high fender options are also available. GenRight rear rube flares fit Jeep CJ, YJ, and TJ models and will fit stock as well as standard or stretched GenRight corners.

Spark Plug Wires And Plugs
A new set of spark plug wires and plugs will offer a cleaner, more efficient electrical charge to your engine's ignition system. While many ignition wire options exist we have been pleased with the results of the Live Wires spark plug wires from Performance Distributers. The company starts with an 8mm wire and then covers it with a heat-treated fiberglass sleeve that protects the wire up to temperatures of 1,400 degrees F. Also, the spiral wound core suppresses radio noise or computer interference. All Live Wire sets are custom fit and numbered at each end for the correct cylinder. Live Wires are available in red, black, blue, purple, and yellow and each includes black boots. Performance Distributers also offers its Screamin' Demon coil for some applications, including the Jeep JK, to further broaden the spark curve and create more horsepower and better fuel economy.

Bed/Body Liner Kit
Spray-in bed/body liners have become a popular upgrade for open top 4x4 owners but the high cost still inhibits many from pursuing it. DuraBak bed liner kits are the affordable alternative. Durabak is a do-it-yourself polyurethane truck bed/body liner in a can. There's nothing to mix, you just open the can and start applying it. The liner is waterproof, flexible, sound-dampening, and chemical and UV resistant. It also won't break down or peel and its texture offers great anti-slip protection. Since you roll, paint, or spray it on Durabak can be built up to any desired thickness. Durabak is available in a wide variety of colors in either textured or smooth appliqués.

Synthetic Transmission Fluid
You can increase the performance and life of your transmission by using premium synthetic fluids. While they typically cost a bit more than standard fluids you will benefit from longer fluid change intervals and increased transmission life by improving internal efficiency through reduced friction and lower operating temperatures. One of the latest transmission synthetics we've come across is TCI's Max Shift Full Synthetic. Max Shift reduces friction between metal parts and helps deliver faster, more consistent shifts to high performance, heavy-duty, and late model transmissions. Max Shift was developed using ultra-pure base oils that resist viscosity breakdown, which boosts durability and extends change intervals. It also includes exclusive friction eliminating, anti-foaming and extreme heat additives so that no other additives or treatments are necessary. Max Shift will blend with standard fluids so there is no need to flush the transmission before use. Simply drain your existing fluid and refill with Max Shift.

Submersible Air Compressor
Having an onboard compressor is great for many aspects of 'wheeling. Most use onboard air systems to air up tires after a run but they can also be used to run air tools during field repairs, inflate air mattresses for sleeping in comfort, actuating air lockers, or simply for blowing the dust out of your hair. Varying levels of compressors are available, with price closely connected to power output and parts included. While most appear alike some are vastly different, including the ExtremeAire Triton from Extreme Outback Products. The ExtremeAire Triton is a submersible, continuous-duty electric compressor. It is fully sealed, offers a 100-percent duty cycle, includes a 1.5hp fan-cooled motor, permanently lubed and sealed bearings, heat-dissipating cylinder coating, and stainless steel hardware. The ExtremeAire Triton can be mounted in any position and offers a working pressure of 150 psi with an 80-amp draw. Both 12- and 24-volt models are available as is an extensive line of installation kits and pneumatic accessories.


Flowmaster Inc.
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Rancho Suspension
Monroe, MI 48161
Fife, WA 98424
Trail Sport Unlimited, Inc.
Colton, CA 92324
Broomfield, CO 80038
Currie Enterprises
Corona, CA 92880
Performance Distributors
Memphis, TN 38132
Superlift Suspension Systems
West Monroe, LA 71292
Huntington Beach, CA 92647
Phoenix, AZ 85043
GenRight Off-Road
Simi Valley, CA 93063
JKS Manufacturing
Alliance, NE 69301
Poly Performance
San Luis Obispo, CA 93401
Rubicon Express
Rancho Cordova, CA 95742
Fresno, CA 93727
Advance Adapters
Paso Robles, CA 93446
West Chester, PA 19380
Rough Country Suspension
Dyersburg, TN 38024
Durabak Company
Aurora, CO 80014
Spidertrax Off-Road
Longmont, CO 80503
Nitro Gear & Axle
Sacramento, CA
Mountain Off-Road Enterprises (M.O.R.E.)
Delta, CO 81416
Alloy USA
Suwanee, GA 30024
Advanced Power Systems
Lakeville, CT 06039
Jeepers And Creepers
Extreme Outback Products
Vacaville, CA
Keep It Clean Wiring
Portland, OR 97214
MCE Modern Classic Enterprises, LLC
Bothell, WA 98011
Warrior Products
Tualatin, OR 97062

Connect With Us

Newsletter Sign Up

Subscribe to the Magazine

Browse Articles By Vehicle

See Results