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We Build A Lightweight Fuel-Efficient Daily Driver/Rockcrawler Chevy Tracker

Posted in Project Vehicles on April 28, 2015
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A Chevy Tracker is the sort of vehicle you wheel because your parents gave it to you or because you can’t afford a Jeep. It isn’t the sort of thing most people would seek out as the foundation for a project, but we drove five hours one way to buy this cream puff, and it started as a two-wheel-drive. Are we nuts? Maybe, but the Tracker has a lot going for it. In addition to being incredibly light with small dimensions and good visibility, the Tracker framerails curve up in both the front and the back, allowing for a low ride height that is easy to get in and out of and stable on the street, while still accommodating plenty of uptravel in the suspension.

Loyal readers will remember our “Two-Day Tracker” from the Sept. ’13 issue of 4WOR. We added a spacer lift from Low Range Off-Road and a mini spool and transfer case gears from Trail Tough and took the Tracker to Moab. The long-term plan was always to take the Tracker further, but it was so much fun that we just kept wheeling it in that configuration for the next year. When we finally talked to ace fabricator Jesse Haines about our plans to build a lightweight rockcrawler that was still streetable he said, “You bought the wrong Tracker.”

The problem was gearing, or lack thereof. Our plan was to run 37-inch Maxxis Trepadors on Toyota axles filled with 5.29 Nitro gears. From the factory, Trackers equipped with manual transmissions come with 5.13 gears and only 27-inch-tall tires. Even with the 4.24:1 Trail Tough transfer case gears we swapped in, the crawl ratio would only be 70:1, and increasing the tire size by 37 percent but only lowering the gearing by 3 percent in the differentials was a recipe for disaster on the street. We sold the little red Tracker to a friend who planned to use it on his ranch and started the search for a 2WD two-door Tracker.

Our red Tracker had a 1.6L, the standard engine in the two-door convertibles, that made a whopping 96 hp. A 2.0L was optional in the two-door Trackers and standard in the four-doors and made 130 hp, so that became part of our criteria as well. Finding a 12-year-old vehicle that was a base model but had the optional larger engine was harder than finding an honest politician. Eventually we did find our dream Tracker though, in 2WD, two-door, with a 2.0L.

Think of it as a tribute to Tim Hardy

Starting with a 2WD Tracker allowed us to use a divorced Samurai transfer case. During conversations with Brent Bradshaw of Trail Tough, he explained that a Samurai transfer case would be a better option than the Tracker case because it is stronger than the factory Tracker transfer case, with gear-driven construction and flanged yokes, and gearing all the way down to 6.4:1 is available from Trail Tough. Additionally, the offset Samurai transfer case provides gear reduction in high range as well, to the tune of 17 percent. That turns our 5.29 Nitro gears effectively into 6.19s and should help turn our 37-inch Maxxis Trepadors on the highway.

Sure, we could have run an Atlas transfer case or swapped in a bigger engine, but our goal is to make this vehicle as light and capable as possible while remaining street legal. Think of it as a tribute to Tim Hardy.

A veteran rockcrawling competitor with multiple championships under his belt, Jesse Haines knows just how important weight is in the rocks. He has taken our lightweight theme and run with it, with clever and unique ideas that we would never have considered. In future installments we will cover the details of the suspension, drivetrain, and other places we were able to shed pounds while still retaining comfort and street legality.

We bought this Tracker with the intention of turning it into a hardcore rockcrawler. While some choose to start rougher vehicle or something with a salvage title to save money, having a straight frame and body makes for a much easier starting point for fabrication.

The 2.0L engine was standard in the four-door Trackers but optional in two-door convertibles like ours. This dual overhead cam engine makes 130 hp and 134 lb-ft of torque and only weighs 225 pounds. Less weight and power translate to improved fuel economy and allow us to keep the rest of the drivetrain reasonably sized (and priced) without concerns of breakage. Don’t have a 2.0L but want one? Trail Tough offers engine conversion packages for Samurais, Sidekicks, and Trackers.

Our 2WD Tracker started out at just under 2,600 pounds. We will be adding a Trail Tough transfer case, Toyota axles, and 37-inch Maxxis Trepadors that will increase the curb weight, but we’ll also be discarding the rear hatch, gutting the doors, and removing much of the interior in an effort to offset the bigger tires and drivetrain components. Any guesses on what the final weight will be?

The Tracker frame slopes up in the front and rear, which should allow us to package the steering and suspension components and still have plenty of uptravel with a low ride height. The bad news is that the frame has crumple zones and a bunch of bracketry that we will not be using.

Jesse Haines suggested that we build new framerails out of 0.093-wall, 2x4-inch box tubing. The new framerails provide a clean slate to add a steering box from Trail-Gear, ADS air shocks, and links from Rod End Supply.

The new framerails are narrower, which required Haines to fabricate new motor mounts. (The original frame was wider than a YJ Wrangler frame, for reference.) By narrowing the frame, there is more room for the tires to turn before rubbing the framerails without having to run excessively wide axles that would stick out past the sheetmetal and may not be street legal.

The interior of the Tracker was gutted, including the dash. The factory dash was bulky and surprisingly heavy between the heater core, airbags, and dash bar. A new dash will be integrated into the rollcage and skinned with aluminum.

All of the sound-deadening material was chipped out of the floor in order to reduce weight. Ounces add up to pounds in this case, and our goal is to make this project as light as possible. It may be loud to daily drive, but cutting weight can also help with fuel economy.

This is what our goal is. Fitting the 37-inch-tall Maxxis Trepadors will require a lot of fender trimming, but that does not concern us. The front axle will be moved forward 7 inches to clear the oil pan and help stretch the wheelbase.

The factory struts weighed 10 pounds each, and the new ADS air shocks weigh 14 pounds each. We chose 21⁄2-inch-diameter, 12-inch-travel air shocks for their added piston area and stability, but we could have used 2-inch-diameter ones instead, which weigh 4 pounds less than comparable 2 1⁄2-inch-diameter air shocks.

This complete Samurai transfer case from Trail Tough only weighs 52 pounds, including the Mighty Kong mount. Trail Tough offers both complete rebuilt cases like we got as well as gearsets and transfer case mounts for Samurais and Trackers.

Our front axle is out of an 80 Series Toyota Land Cruiser. It is 64 inches wide and uses a high-pinion third member that came from the factory with an electronically activated locker. We added Hellfire Fabworks knuckles and Nitro gears to this axle in the July ’14 issue and have since added RCV 300M Birfields and axleshafts.

“Those factory brakes look pretty heavy,” Haines noted. We had never thought about changing the brakes to save weight, but Haines considers a lot of things that the average wheeler would miss. We will be replacing the vented rotors and cast calipers with Spidertrax cross-drilled rotors, aluminum hats, and lightweight aluminum calipers that are both lighter and provide decreased stopping distances.

The Two-Day Tracker was so much fun with the addition of the Trail Tough mini spool and transfer case gears and Low Range Off-Road spacer lift. We wheeled this little rig through the Rubicon, and it always raised eyebrows wherever it would go, even with the IFS and open front differential. Light is might!

Sources

Trail-Gear
Fresno, CA 93727
559-252-4950
www.trail-gear.com
RCV Performance
Loves Park, IL
815-877-7473
RCVperformance.com
Maxxis
Suwanee, GA 30024
800-462-9947
http://www.maxxis.com
Spidertrax Off-Road
Longmont, CO 80503
800-286-0898
www.spidertrax.com
Nitro Gear & Axle
Sacramento, CA
509-888-2953
www.nitro-gear.com
Trail Tough Products
877-789-8547
http://www.trailtough.com
Jesse Haines Fabrication
http://www.facebook.com/jesse.haines.12
Hellfire Fabworks
619-395-0665
http://www.hellfire-fabworks.com
ADS Shocks
520-748-0005
http://www.adsshocks.com

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