The Affordable Winch Review - Winch Buyers Guide
Big Pull, Little Dollars
Why should you buy a winch in this downtrodden economy? A winch can pull you if you're stuck, reshape bent suspension or steering links, right you if you roll, move stuff out of your way, and so much more. Often, a good winch will offset the lack of an expensive locker, spendy tires, or low gears, allowing you to get up and over obstacles that would otherwise hang you up and make your Jeep a permanent trail decoration.
There's affordable and then there's cheap. Sometimes they're one in the same and sometimes they're very different. So we thought we'd lay hands on a number of inexpensive winches to see what's up in the world of affordable pulling power. We instructed our ad vermin to invite any company they could find offering a winch for $700 or less to send us a unit for testing. The prices we list were found in catalogs or on the web and are current as of press time. Are they all cheap? Can you really get a decent winch for less than the cost of most lockers? Read on.
In the Box: The Bulldog arrives nicely packaged. Neatly secured within its box are a powdercoated roller fairlead, cable, battery leads, external solenoid pack, forged hook with safety pull strap, winch and fairlead mounting hardware, remote, and clear and easy-to-read instructions.
Quality and Installation: Despite the fact the remote shares characteristics of some of our less-expensive test winches, the Bulldog had nicely-routed power leads that exited the rear of the solenoid pack through twist-on hard fittings, making a very clean setup. The motor cable lugs were color-coded for a dummy-proof hook up.
Function and Performance: The line speed was OK, but not blisteringly fast, which is not surprising considering the big winch's 265:1 gearing. The powerful 5.5hp Series Wound motor did get pretty hot during our testing, but it never started smoking. The clutch lever hits the remote plug when engaged, so we'd advise offsetting the solenoid pack towards the passenger-side of the winch body for clearance, rather than centering it as we did.
One major gripe we had was the fact that when the clutch was disengaged there was no brake load keeping the drum from freespooling backwards. Even without pulling on the cable, the drum will reverse and allow the cable to backlash like an open-face fishing reel. The brake works fine and doesn't allow any reversing of the cable when the clutch is engaged, but we'd like to see some tension on the drum when the clutch is disengaged to prevent the cable from chasing you as you pay it out and to keep the cable nicely wrapped if you need to reposition in the middle of a recovery pull.
*Engagement lever Allen head retaining screw only finger tight, but lever not wobbly
*Motor not wobbly or sloppy on drum
*Winch body not sloppy and solenoid mounting brackets pre-installed.
*Drum unwinding blows otherwise great setup
*Instructions very clear and include winching tips and exploded schematic with parts list.
*Steady motor sound
Bottom Line: Good pulling power at a fair price, but the freespooling action when the clutch is disengaged is an undesirable attribute.
Black Mountain BM 8000S --$329.95
In the Box: Built for and sold by Collins Bros Jeep, Black Mountain includes a forged and anodized winch hook, cable, remote, instructions, and winch and fairlead mounting bolts. The company also offers an affordable combo kit that includes a roller fairlead and CJ, YJ, or TJ winch mounting plate for $449.95.
Quality and Installation: This is not a cheap winch. This is an affordable winch. Although it's got a blocky look like Herman Munster's head, the Black Mountain winch is dirt-simple, tight, and feels of high quality. It was also the easiest to install, with its integrated solenoid pack and the power and ground leads already attached to the winch.
Function and Performance: Although the line speed is a bit on the slow side, the BM 8000S exhibited a nice, even motor sound and ran very cool during our testing. The clutch engagement lever operates crisply and surely and the whole winch layout and function reminds us of a higher-end Ramsey winch. In fact, the three-prong BM 8000S remote operated our Ramsey 9500 and vice verse.
*Power cables slightly shorter than some others, but still reached battery on our test YJ with no problem
*Controller is a bit uncomfortable for longer pulls and rubberized buttons should have different in/out colored buttons for safety.
*Controller is plastic and feels solid, although you wouldn't want to carelessly toss it in a tool box in the back of Jeep.
*Ability to use standard Ramsey remote advantageous if you lose or damage your Black Mountain remote (beg, borrow, or buy a new one almost anywhere)
*Lightest of group at 69lb shipping weight.
*Instructions clear, easy to read
Bottom Line: Exceptional performance and value for the money.
Chicago Electric Tools 3,000lb--$60
In the Box: Ya know, for $60 we bet somebody is gonna try it, so why not include it in this story? The teeeeny Chicago 3K winch, available through Harbor Freight, is just small. So much so that we included a regular cordless household phone in our photo for scale. That said, the winch comes ready to bolt right to your ATV, er, Jeep. The 6-foot battery cables are already attached to the winch, which is already attached to the mounting plate, which is already attached to the super-cute teensy roller fairlead, which already has the hook and cable set up through it. Also included are directions and a wireless keychain remote.
Quality and Installation: For $60, who can complain too much? The little Chicago winch feels pretty darn sturdy and the roller fairlead is fairly substantial-feeling. We drilled our Smittybilt CJ/YJ mounting plate to match the one on the Chicago winch and bolted it down.
Function and Performance: There's no clutch disengagement on this winch, so to pay out the cable you've got to patiently sit there and hit the "B" button on the wireless remote. We really weren't too gung-ho to max out this little winch and send it flying off its mount or bust the 3?16-inch cable, so all we did was spool the cable in the driveway. We did this operation for all of the winches, but unlike the others, we found that adding a few clicks on the E-brake caused the little 3K winch to stall and quit pulling. True, we could've double-lined the winch to up the pulling power, but probably at the cost of something breaking.
*Mounting bolts are teeny. What's the metric equivalent of 5/16-inch?
*Super-light weight, but also lightweight cable and battery leads.
*Had to drill puny battery cable ends out to 5?16-inch to fit over Optima Blue Top terminal lugs.
*About a 2-second delay between letting go of remote button and when winch responds.
*Remote is a pain and you're always nervous you're gonna accidentally sit on the "A" button and cause it to spool in.
*Remote reception spotty and intermittent when you get more than a couple feet away from winch.
Bottom Line: Way-inexpensive and decent for its intended use. Good winch for ATV and maybe your trailer, but not your Jeep.
Gorilla Midnight Series 8,000lb--$339.99
In the Box: Although the packaging is plain, inside the box was everything needed to get winching. The Midnight Series from Gorilla features external solenoid packs and as such we received the winch, cable, forged hook with safety pull strap, roller fairlead, winch and fairlead mounting bolts, battery leads, remote, and external solenoid pack. The winch halves were loose out of the box, so we tightened the Allen bolts to pull the winch back together on the drum.
Quality and Installation: You feel like you're handling a bargain winch when handling the Midnight Series. The winch halves were loose out of the box, but tightened up with a few turns of the wrench. The solenoid pack didn't quite sit level on the winch body despite a few attempts to relocate or bend the mounting brackets.
Function and Performance: The Gorilla 8,000 exhibited the same lack of freespool tension and propensity to backlash the cable when the clutch was disengaged as the Bulldog winch. The cable backlash and lack of drum resistance was the biggest bummer on the 8,000lb Midnight Series. Otherwise, the motor sounds even and strong and, although it heated up a bit with long, continuous use, it pulled without a whimper during our testing.
*Nice powdercoated fairlead
*Solenoid wiring color-coded and solenoid pack mounting brackets pre-installed
*Plastic solenoid pack cover had small crack as shipped
*Even after mounted, the motor has a very slight wobble if grabbed and wiggled.
*Winch remote similar type as Smittybilt but with better receptacle plug
*Remote plug cover fits nicely
*Clutch engages and disengages solidly and handle exhibits no wobble
*Good controller ergonomics
Bottom Line: Very good price for stable pulling power, but the freespooling action with the clutch disengaged is an undesirable attribute.
Gorilla Silverback Series 10,000lb--$474.99
In the Box: With 10,000lbs of pulling power for under $500, the Gorilla Silverback promised big grunt for short money. It's one heavy sucker with an integrated solenoid pack shielded by a sheetmetal casing and thick 9?25-inch cable. The unit includes the winch cable, forged hook with safety pull strap, roller fairlead, winch and fairlead mounting hardware, instructions, battery leads, and remote.
Quality and Installation: After attaching the negative battery cable it was short work to mount the winch. The same cannot be said for routing the cable through the supplied roller fairlead. The cable swedge on the big 9?25-inch cable was too fat to fit through. We tried hammering it flatter on a steel anvil with a 3lb sledge (never grind a cable swedge) but we weren't able to reduce the thickness enough to fit through any roller fairleads from our test. Instead, we were able to work the cable through a Hawse fairlead, which worked out fine.
Function and Performance: Before heading to our off-road test area we performed a cable spooling for each winch. It's a necessary operation for any new winch cable or rope to ensure the cable is wrapped tightly and doesn't bite into itself under load. We used a diesel pickup at the end of Hazel's driveway as a winch anchor, then spooled in the length of the cable winching our Wrangler up the steep driveway with the E-brake lever engaged a few clicks to provide some extra resistance. With about 40-feet of cable left, the Silverback 10,000 made a couple loud clicking sounds, so we stopped winching and reversed the motor a foot or two. Then we winched in a foot or two and stopped to reposition the winch line. Then the unit wouldn't engage anymore. The motor would engage in Reverse, but not Forward, so our guess is it suffered a solenoid failure.
*Gorilla Winches included some of its optional extras such as wireless pendant remote, neoprene winch cover, and a rubber winch stopper.
*Beefy and heavy feeling
*Good clutch level position.
*The Silverback exhibited the same lack of freespool tension and propensity to backlash the cable when the clutch was disengaged as the Gorilla Midnight Series and Bulldog winches.
*Gorilla offered to send us another solenoid pack and its winches come with a limited lifetime warranty for just such an unusual circumstance.
*The company also offered to send a call tag to pick up the unit free of shipping charges, but we didn't have enough time in our test schedule to fix our unit or get another winch for testing before our story deadline.
Bottom Line: The freespooling action with the clutch disengaged is an undesirable attribute. Otherwise, the solenoid failure didn't allow us time to develop any performance impressions.
Mile Marker PEC8--$409.99
In the Box: Mile Marker's 8,000lb PEC8 winch is packed with some really cool features. The winch includes cable, forged and anodized hook with safety pull strap, a powdercoated roller fairlead, anodized winch and fairlead mounting hardware, remote, very detailed instructions, and a solenoid pack with the mounting brackets pre-attached.
Quality and Installation: While the PEC8 may be an inexpensive winch, it's worlds away from anything resembling cheap. We said "wow" more than a few times when discovering some of its features. A few that topped our list were the color-coded battery and solenoid leads that come pre-sleeved with Mile Marker's FRP (fiberglass reinforced polymer) sheathing, the solenoid pack's integrated On/Off knob that cuts power from the battery to the solenoids, and the illuminated color LED lights on the solenoid pack and remote. Blue is power on, Green is winching In, and Red is winching Out. The remote features the same LED lights.
Function and Performance: OK, the line speed is pretty slow. That's the only negative. Otherwise, the motor chugged away with the steadiness of industrial machinery no matter what we threw at it. The winch has a very solid and sure feeling from the clutch engagement to the screw-in remote plug, to the solenoid On/Off knob. The remote is plastic, but sturdy. The company also offers wireless remotes for an additional price, but we prefer the cable-type.
*Instructions cover how to clock the winch in 30-degree increments and covers basic winching techniques.
*Fairlead drilled with two sets of holes for greater mounting versatility
*Solenoid pack easily mounted to side of winch body above motor.
*All hardware, hook, and battery terminals anodized for corrosion resistance
*Winch remote plug includes screw-on cap to keep terminal plugs on remote clean when not plugged in
Bottom Line: If you've got the time, it's an incredibly nice winch for the money!
Smittybilt XRC 8--$299.99
In the Box: It's the least expensive automotive winch we tested, but that didn't limit the goodies. For the price listed, Smittybilt includes the winch cable, roller fairlead, winch and fairlead mounting hardware, a forged hook, battery leads, solenoid pack and mounting brackets, instructions, and a remote with red and green LEDs.
Quality and Installation: You've got to install the solenoid mounting brackets yourself, but otherwise the installation is the same as every other winch without an integrated solenoid pack we tested. Our unit had a crack in the body right next to the clutch engagement lever, but it didn't affect the performance of our winch. As it would for any customer receiving damaged goods, Smittybilt offered to replace the unit, but we determined it unnecessary for our testing.
Function and Performance: As the least expensive Jeep winch, we had to make sure it wasn't the cheapest. As a result, we were harder on the Smittybilt than any of our other test winches. Frankly, we got medieval on it with repeated and brutally hard back-to-back pulls. The XRC 8 never stumbled. While the motor doesn't share the same solid, sure sound of some of the other winches (bystanders asked us if there was something wrong with it `cause it just plain sounds funny) it has it where it counts; pulling ability.
*Two ways to mount solenoid pack included (above drum or above winch motor)
*Instruction illustrations grainy and hard to read
*Styrofoam packing material had melted and glued itself to some rubber parts of the winch
*Clutch engagement lever very easy to engage, but wobbly
*Motor sounds labored and funny like a Buick 225 odd-fire motor
Bottom Line: Tough little inexpensive workhorse.
In the Box: Surprise-Tabor is really a Warn product. It's no big secret and if you're the leader in the world of winches, why you gonna hide? The Tabor 9K comes with a genuine Warn remote, Warn roller fairlead, cable, forged hook with safety pull strap, instructions, battery leads, solenoid pack, and standard SAE (not metric) mounting hardware.
Quality and Installation: Sure it's the most expensive, but damn, what a quality winch. Although the winch mounting feet are a bit deep and allow the captured bolts to fall out (you've gotta be able to keep a finger on the nuts until the bolts are started) the installation is straightforward and easy. The components look and feel of quality and the construction is nice and solid.
Function and Performance: It's the fastest of the bunch and the motor just makes sweet winch music. The response from the remote is crisp and controlled. The clutch engagement is via a small lever that you rotate 180-degrees. Engagement and operation is smooth and precise.
*No solenoid mounting bracket included-must be purchased separately.
*Stole bracket from Gorilla Midnight winch for our testing
*It's absurd that a winch of this caliber doesn't come with some sort of solenoid mount.
*Supplied with heavier #2 battery cables (most other winches tested supplied with thinner #4 cables)
*Consistent, beautiful performance
*Ability to use standard Warn remote advantageous if you lose or damage your remote (beg, borrow, or buy a new one almost anywhere)
Bottom Line: It's not the cheapest, but it's worth every penny.