10 Most Cost Effective 4×4 Upgrades
Photos: John Cappa and courtesy of the manufacturers
We all want to get the best bang for the buck when lifting, modifying and upgrading our 4x4s for off-road use. Fortunately, there are many affordable aftermarket upgrades that can take your 4×4 even further up the trail. Of course which modifications make the most difference will depend on how you use your 4×4 and your driving style. We’ll walk you through the ten most cost effective 4×4 upgrades and where they are best applied. Read on and we’ll help you make the most of your 4×4’s capability without breaking the bank.
4×4 Suspension Leveling Kit
Suspension leveling kits are by far the most popular lift kits installed on a 4×4. They are the least expensive lift kit, but dollar for dollar they offer the biggest advantage. A leveling kit not only levels out the less aggressive nose-down stance of a 4×4, but it also allows for larger diameter tires. The lift and larger tires increase off-road ground clearance. In most cases you can step up 2-3 tire sizes with a suspension leveling kit.
Off-Road Worthy 4×4 Tires
Many OE 4x4s come from the factory with less aggressive and lightweight all-terrain tires or even all-season passenger car tires. Upgrading to a true all-terrain or mud-terrain tire will greatly increase your 4×4’s off-road capability and reliability. A flat tire in the form of a sidewall puncture is arguably the most common trail failure. Traditional OE tires generally have weaker side walls made up of only two sidewall plies. More aggressive aftermarket tire offerings feature three sidewall plies and sidewall tread that help protect the tire. The luggy tread that’s found on aftermarket tires will also grip the off-road terrain better than a smooth street-friendly OE tire.
Aftermarket 4×4 Shock Upgrades
OE shocks are fine for street use and slow off-road driving. However, when you add larger tires and drive more aggressively off-road you’ll need more shock damping to control the suspension movement of your 4×4. Driving over 30 mph off-road for any sort of distance will cause the OE shocks to overheat and fade, dictating the need for aftermarket monotube and reservoir shocks. Overlanders and off-roaders that carry loads and hit varying driving conditions will benefit from shocks with external adjustability. This allows the shocks to be tuned for your specific needs.
Rear Locking Differential
Factory open and limited-slip differentials can only get you so far up the trail when there are large rocks and staggered holes in the way. The installation of an aftermarket traction adding device in the rear axle will greatly improve the off-road capability of your 4×4. Older 4x4s without ABS and electronic traction control systems can get by with a less expensive automatic locking differential. The electronics in modern 4x4s will require a selectable rear locker so that the computers don’t freak out when you hit the street.
Airing Down 4×4 Tires
Airing down your tires is the most cost effective upgrade you can make for off-road travel. It significantly helps your tires envelop and grip uneven terrain, while also improving the overall ride off-road. Perhaps best of all, it’s absolutely free. In most cases you can air down your tires to 15-25 psi, although you can go lower in some applications. How low you go depends on vehicle weight, tire construction, tire size, vehicle speed and planned terrain. You can make your life easier by purchasing a tire deflator to more accurately manage tire air pressure. You’ll also want an air source such as an electric air compressor or CO2 tank to refill the tires at the end of the trail before you hit the highway.
Electric 4×4 Recovery Winch
If you off-road alone or travel in groups where getting stuck is a regular occurrence, an electric recovery winch can prove invaluable. Electric winches are typically most useful mounted to the front of a 4×4, although there are rear winch mounts and multi-mounts available so that the winch can be quickly installed at either end of a 4×4. For best results look for a recovery winch capable of pulling at least 1.5 times the weight of your 4×4. A winch accessory kit will help make your winch more useful during complex recoveries.
4×4 Off-Road Rocker Protection
The most damage prone part of a 4×4 body off-road is also often the most expensive to repair. Fortunately, there are many different types of durable side steps, rocker guards and rock sliders available for all of the popular 4×4 models. Durable side steps are fine for simple trails where a branch or rock can fling up, but if you expect the rocker area to make contact on more difficult trails you’ll want to look into rigidly mounted rocker protection. Body mounted rocker protection usually provides the most ground clearance, but frame mounted rock sliders are more durable.
4×4 Vehicle Programmer
Regardless of if you simply need to correct your speedometer for larger than stock tires or if you want to increase the power output on your diesel tow rig, there are vehicle programmers available to do it. Many programmers offer special off-road features such as providing access to factory locking differentials in 2WD and high-range. As you continue to modify your vehicle over time, your programmer can be used to reprogram your 4×4 for aftermarket axle gear ratios too. A corrected speedometer will maximize engine performance and optimize transmission shift points for durability and longevity. Most programmers simply plug into the factory OBD II port under the dash for ease of use.
High Performance 4×4 Brake Rotors And Pads
Larger diameter tires and wheels are heavier than stock and they increase the leverage on your OE 4×4 brake system. The end result is longer stopping distances and hotter brakes that can fade. Aftermarket high-performance brake pads along with slotted or dimpled brake rotors can significantly increase braking performance without breaking the bank. In most cases it’s a simple bolt-on procedure that does not require bleeding the brakes.
Aftermarket 4×4 Skid Plates
The OE skid plates under most 4x4s provide the bare minimum of protection off-road. Many are made from thin sheet steel or aluminum, but some are plastic and offer little defense against a rock garden. Not every 4×4 needs beefier aftermarket skid plates, but if you frequent the rock patch you’ll want the extra insurance that will keep your 4x4s vitals from getting bashed up on the trail. Reinforced 3/16-inch-thick aftermarket steel skid plates provide the most protection, but 3/16-inch-thick aluminum skid plates are available for some applications to save weight.