Part 1: Setting The Stage For Real-World Testing
About a year ago we had an epiphany: The '88-'98 Chevrolet and GMC 4x4 pickups were rapidly dropping in price and quickly becoming a viable option for a fullsize wheeling machine, except for one huge drawback-independent front suspension.
Many 4x4 experts, ourselves included, will tell you that independent suspension parts are weak, expensive, complicated, lacking in travel, and have no real articulation-basically all-around junk. But what about letting real-world wheeling be the final judge? We needed to prove or debunk these claims once and for all and decided to find one of those chastised Chevys, do some common aftermarket upgrades, and run it through the scientific research of serious trail abuse.
Of course, we can break anything if we try hard enough, so the next few issues of the magazine will be covering a gradual ramping up of mistreatment to try and find the weak links, analyze actual costs, and eventually calculate definitive pros and cons of an IFS wheeling machine. Plus, it gives us a chance to spend some time out of the office or shop and in the dirt on "business."
This month we'll introduce the clinical test subject, go over what we did to get it prepped for our trail research study, and voice some of our early concerns or praise about the 4x4 attributes we foresee becoming issues. Then we'll check back in the following months and tell you exactly what happened when we hit the dirt. Will it still be running and driving, or will parts be strewn across the California desert? Are we going to be eating our words, or did the test prove once and for all that IFS ain't where it's at? And finally, if the IFS does fail, what would we do to make it more trail-capable? Stay tuned.
No one on staff had an IFS 4x4 in their stable that they were willing to thrash for the sake of research, so we headed to GM Truck Center in Burbank, California. This is the same outfit that helped build our Ultimate Adventure Chevy stepside in 2005, and they make a fine business of finding, fixing, and selling '70s and '80s GM trucks and Blazers. When we explained that we wanted an IFS truck for some off-road escapades, they turned us onto this '91 K-2500 Silverado. This land yacht came from the factory with a fuel-injected 454 big-block, 4L80E four-speed automatic, and a transfer case that is actually shifted with a lever-not a pushbutton. Unfortunately, we got it with nearly 200,000 miles on the ticker, thoroughly thrashed both inside and out, and the big-block in the bed half disassembled and full of rainwater. Other than the 13-foot-long wheelbase, it is a perfect platform for our testing and cost us less than we spend on coffee in a year.
The first step was to get our budget beater up and running. With a few phone calls, many trips to the local auto parts store, and a bleeding credit card we had a new long-block 454 (from Pace Performance center in Niles, Ohio), under the hood and running smooth. It was not as easy as it sounds, but we'll save the complete engine install debacle for next month.
With the truck running, we wanted to take it out wheeling in stock form, but ran into some other issues with a 15-year-old truck that had been sitting for nearly two years. The cracked stock-sized tires would barely hold air, most of the dash was torn up after multiple stereo and security systems passed through, the driver-side window was long ago smashed ($100), giving the cab months of rain and crud from being out in the weather, and after fewer than 30 miles, the transmission didn't want to shift out of second gear. While under the truck giving the tranny a well needed service and filter change ($60), we also found a driveshaft U-joint at the rear 14-bolt full-floating axle that was ready to grenade ($40). Our budget beater was getting expensive fast and we hadn't even modified it from stock yet.
Rather than a frustrating trip of stock wheeling, we decided some upgrades would be needed to give this land barge a fighting chance off road, but at the same time we wanted to test the IFS to really see what it could or couldn't do. Rather than dive into some high-dollar custom one-off long-travel IFS setup, we installed a basic aftermarket lift kit and some 35-inch tires and changed the axle gears to keep the drivetrain happy. We went back to GM Truck Center and started tearing the front end apart. One thing we found was how quickly the costs of lifting an IFS truck added up. The Tuff Country 6-inch kit we installed has a retail price of $1,459.95 and requires about 12 hours of labor depending on the shape of the truck. With hourly shop rates ranging from $60 to $85 per hour, that can add up to about $900, depending on where you live.