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10 Best Buys In Four-Wheel Drive

Posted in Project Vehicles on September 1, 2011
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Each year the staff of Four Wheeler picks our 10 Best Buys in Four-Wheel Drive, typically the ten best new 4x4s you can buy for your money. This year we decided to change things a bit and split our ten best into two categories: New 4x4s and Aftermarket Parts. The staff was asked to provide a list of their top three favorite parts in each of five categories (Winch, Tires, Shocks, Lockers, and Lights) with an emphasis on value. With each staffer’s list turned in, we added up the points to arrive at the products we have below. We also included one favorite item that each of us wouldn’t want to go without on the trail.

Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
Base Price: $29,820
Consecutive Years on List: 7
First on our list is the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, making its seventh consecutive appearance. With solid axles and a base price of under $30,000, it just screams “deal.” Especially when you consider any wheeler’s Christmas list of upgrades, such as BFG Mud-Terrain tires, front and rear lockers, flexy coil-sprung suspension, monotube shocks, electronically disconnecting sway bar, and a 4.0:1 transfer case. Add to that the availability of two body styles, two transmission choices and the option of hard or soft top, and you can personalize your Wrangler before you ever leave the showroom. At a price that can’t be beat and capability that is unrivaled, the Wrangler is clearly the best factory 4x4 on the market.

Ram Power Wagon
Base Price: $45,110
Consecutive Years on List: 7
We want to meet the guy who wants to argue with us about this selection, because it can’t be done. The Power Wagon is a legitimate ¾-ton workhorse that can tow 10,100 pounds or haul 1,780 pounds, but likes to play with Jeeps on weekends. From the factory, it offers many of the same features as the Wrangler, such as front and rear lockers, a full compliment of steel skidplates, and an electronically disconnecting sway bar. But the goodness doesn’t stop there, as the Power Wagon is the only vehicle that comes from the factory with a winch. That’s right—nestled behind the front bumper is a Warn 12,000-pound winch that is as integrated into the vehicle as the steering wheel. The Power Wagon’s ride is exceptional with Bilstein shocks, and you can’t get much tougher than factory-supplied 33-inch BFGoodrich All-Terrains for all-around performance, which of course are mounted on forged wheels. We are telling you this truck is tough, and there simply isn’t a better ¾-ton pickup out there for what we like to do.

Ford F-150 SVT Raptor
Base Price: $41,935
Consecutive Years on List: 2
As a relative newcomer, the Raptor has taken the 4x4 market by storm. With sales that have bested even the spiritual predecessor Lightning’s best year, some months it has even outsold more “mainstream” trucks, such as the Honda Ridgeline. For 2011, the Raptor now comes standard with the 411hp 6.2L SOHC V-8 and can be had in one of two body styles. Now you can fit your entire family comfortably when you feel like bombing across the desert. The Raptor rolls right off the assembly line with long-travel suspension that uses Fox Racing Shox, a beefed-up rearend with an any-speed rear locker, 35-inch BFGoodrich All-Terrain tires, wide bodywork and an Off-Road Mode that can sequester all of the electronic babysitters at the touch of a button. This is a driver’s truck that likes to be driven hard in dirt, and will reward the driver willing to push it to the edge of its capability with an unequaled adrenaline rush. Don’t have a desert near you? No worries, because the 12 inches of suspension travel make this truck a much better everyday truck too, and we are pretty sure you don’t need the Mojave in your backyard to appreciate that.

Nissan Frontier Off-Road
Base Price: $26,620
Consecutive Years on List: 7
Sure, it may be getting a bit long in the tooth, but the truth is that the Frontier has aged well. It would have had to in order to make it on our list for the seventh consecutive year. Back when the Frontier was introduced, we were impressed that the underbody components were tucked up above the bottom of the frame rails and protected by real skidplates. We loved the sporty and well-controlled ride from the Bilstein shocks, and a rear locker and 32-inch BFGoodrich tires made sure that this pickup was competent on the trail. All of this holds true today. With a rev-happy 4.0L V-6 and the availability of a manual transmission, the Frontier is just as capable and fun to drive as it has ever been. Even after seven years, we still think this robust little pickup is the best midsize truck on the market today.

Toyota 4Runner Trail
Base Price: $36,555
Consecutive Years on List: 2
The fifth-generation 4Runner may be the last of the breed. If rumors that Toyota will be leaving body-on-frame SUVs behind after this model’s life cycle are to be believed, this may in fact be the culmination of Toyota’s years of off-highway experience. If it is indeed the beginning of the end, rest assured that nothing has gone to waste, and it is a fine final thesis. Not only has Toyota incorporated its reputation for toughness on the trail with hearty skidplates, Bilstein shocks, Torsen limited-slip center differential and a rear locker, it has also kept up with the times by adding technology, such as Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System, Multi-Terrain Select, and Crawl Control. Some, like us for instance, might say that Toyota has become too reliant on electronics—and they have—but the Trail is one model that seems to have found an agreeable balancing point between driver and computer. It is capable enough for some serious backcountry trail work in stock form, and still has enough aftermarket support to keep it relevant to enthusiasts. If you are a diehard fan of Toyota, this is the SUV they built for you.

Best Buys in Aftermarket Parts
Winch Best Buy: Warn VR Series
Price: $479.99 (retail, VR8000)
How can you go wrong with a genuine Warn winch for under $500? Don’t let the price point or the entry-level marketing materials fool you. The all-new WARN VR Series is the real deal. These are dependable Warn winches through-and-through and offer 8,000-, 10,000-, and 12,000-pound capacities. All of these units feature series-wound motors (4.6 hp in the VR8000 and VR9000, 5.0 hp in the VR12000) for plenty of power; brakes that hold the full-rated load for great control while winching; three-stage planetary geartrains for speed, durability, and reliability; corded remote controls; and 94 feet of durable wire rope. They offer the same quality that we expect of Warn products, and while some of the parts are sourced internationally, they are designed, engineered, tested, and assembled in the U.S. These winches are also backed by the Warn’s limited lifetime warranty, which should alleviate any of the concern about quality and price. This makes the Warn VR Series a best buy in our eyes.

Tire Best Buy: Falken WildPeak A/T
Price: $315.00 each (street price, 37x12.50R17)
New to the enthusiast off-road market, Falken has been making waves with its entry in the all-terrain category, the WildPeak A/T. The WildPeak A/T, with its triple-ply sidewall and heavy-duty construction, is overbuilt for durability in extreme terrain, but has the on-road manners of a street tire. We have had great experience with them on our project vehicles and can recommend them without hesitation for serious trail work. Falken has made a commitment to provide a line of quality products for wheeling enthusiasts and has also positioned this tire to be priced approximately 10 percent lower than the price point of a comparable competitor. We are now starting to see WildPeak A/Ts on the trail, so the word must be getting out that this is a premium tire at and affordable price. And now it is a Four Wheeler Best Buy.

Locker Best Buy: Eaton ELocker
Price: $754.99 (street price, Dana 44)
Eaton’s ELocker is a great solution to the traction needs of any 4x4. Designed for four-wheel drive systems, the ELocker can give you an open or locked differential at the touch of a button. When locked, the ELocker performs as a full locker, capturing 100 percent of the available torque and sending it equally to both ends of the axle. The ELocker is built with precision-forged gears that are designed to mesh perfectly, providing improved strength and durability over a standard-cut gear and is activated via a next-generation electromagnetic locking mechanism. Its ease of installation, reliability, and pushbutton activation make the ELocker a Four Wheeler Best Buy.

Light Best Buy: KC HiLiTES SlimLite
Price: $162.99 (street price)
KC’s line of 6-inch SlimLites are a popular mainstay of the aftermarket, mainly because of the made-in-the-U.S. quality, great price point, and long list of options. The SlimLite, which has a flat profile to fit where other lights won’t, can be ordered in 100-watt driving or fog patterns, as well as a 130-watt long range pattern. Two finishes, chrome and black, are offered, and each kit includes a pair of lights, two protective stone guards, and a pre-terminated relay wiring harness. Each light features optical quality glass lenses, halogen bulbs and precision polished reflectors for a super bright focused beam of light and the two-axis mounting system makes for easy and accurate aiming. All of this comes at a street price of under $170, which is a great deal and our Best Buy in lighting.

Shock Best Buy: Bilstein 5160
$199 each (retail)
It is hard to ignore a bolt-on, direct replacement reservoir shock that offers more wheel travel and a better ride than stock, but that is exactly what you get with the Bilstein 5160. Based on the popular non-reservoir monotube 5100, the 5160 adds a reservoir and increases shock stroke over stock. Adding the reservoir, with its floating dividing piston, greatly increases the shock oil capacity for greater heat dissipation and damping sensitivity. These Bilstein shocks are specifically valved for the application intended and have fitments for many popular late-model stock or lifted Jeeps and light trucks. There is also a universal-fit 5165 Series to fit an endless number of possible applications. One of the greatest challenges when upgrading to a reservoir shock, is how to mount the reservoir. With the 5160, Bilstein shocks has already figured it out for you and offers a mounting kit and instructions for each application. The 5160 is made in the U.S. and offers Bilstein’s Triple-C technology coating for superior corrosion resistance. At under $200 apiece, it is certainly one of the best buys out there.

Staff Favorites: Gear Each of Us Wouldn’t Want To Live Without
Douglas McColloch, Editor
Power Tank
Price: $409.95 (Model PT-15)
Ever-changing government regs may make it difficult for us to precisely control our vehicles’ carbon footprint, but one thing we can control is our 4x4’s rubber footprint—specifically, the amount of tread that’s in contact with terra firma. On most trails, more is generally better, and to aid with airing down our tires, there are a number of quite good deflators on the market. But what happens at the end of the day, when you need to air up before hitting the pavement home? Enter the Power Tank, an onboard, super-high-pressure (200 psi), fast-flowing (40 cfm) CO2 air supply that should be considered a must-have on any trail rig. Available in a variety of capacities and flow ratings, the PT-15 model (PT-10 model shown) is likely the optimal tank for most wheelers: It’s only 36 pounds in weight and 30 inches high, so it doesn’t take up a lot of space; it can be mounted just about anywhere, including your ’cage (using Power Tank’s optional rollbar clamps); and it can pump 30 pounds of air into twenty (!) 35x12.50 tires, all on a single tankload, in under 45 seconds per tire, so you can air up your buddies as well as yourself, quickly.

Sean P. Holman, Tech Editor
ARB Fridge Freezer
Price: $799.99 (street price)
Info: Once you have had the pleasure of camping with the ARB Fridge Freezer, you won’t want to go back to a cooler. The Fridge Freezer, now comes in four sizes (37-quart, 50-quart, 63-quart, and 82-quart), but I am still partial to the original 50-quart size. It is big enough for a weekend’s worth of perishables, takes up no more space than a large cooler and eliminates the problem with sloshing ice and soggy sandwiches. And for those really dusty days on the trail, I can fit 72 12-ounce Dr. Pepper cans inside. The Fridge Freezer temperature can be set through the electronic control panel also has an incredibly low amp draw, ensuring that you can camp for a couple of days without having to start the rig up to top off the battery. Yep, nothing like surprising your group with a box of ice cream bars after a long, hot day in the backcountry.

Ken Brubaker, Senior Editor
Agri-Cover SnowSport HD Utility Plow
Price: Prices start at $1,450
Living in an area that gets snow means you have to push it out of the way. A few years ago, I began using the SnowSport HD Utility Plow, and it has become one the most useful tools on my truck. The SnowSport is about half the cost of other plows and it comes with everything needed including the vehicle-specific mount. There’s no hydraulics or anything like that, so installation is easy. It’s amazing how much of the white stuff the SnowSport will move. It just makes sense to put my 4x4 to work and it sure is nice not to have to sit out in the cold on a tractor or pay someone to plow the snow.

Robin Stover, Feature Editor
Mac’s Custom Tie Downs Trail D-Vice
Price: $159.95
I think the Trail D-Vice from Mac’s Custom Tie Downs is the ultimate trail companion for anyone with a receiver hitch. It simply makes sense to have a vise to hold items while attempting trail repairs in the outback. The product features an assortment of ultra-smart attributes that you don’t even know you need until the time comes to use them. For instance, got a stubborn bar pin to press in or out of a shock bushing? The D-Vice saves the day by allowing you to clamp said parts together much like the way you would with a hydraulic press. Need a hard flat surface to hammer some flexibility into the end of a stiff heater hose? The D-Vice includes a handy flat surface that is eager to take a beating. Need a way to tighten up that 25⁄16-inch hitch ball on that new drop hitch? Simply clamp the ball into the aggressive pipe jaws of the D-Vice and tighten away—with both hands on one wrench. I could go on and on about the many uses of the Mac’s D-Vice, but until you own one, you simply won’t understand the versatility this particular tool adds to your arsenal.

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