When most avid 4WDers begin thinking about modifying their pride and joy, a bull bar is often the first major accessory to be installed. In this guide, we will discuss the ins and outs to finding the perfect front-end protection for your 4WD.
Whether you plan on touring Australia with your caravan or prefer venturing off-road, a bull bar is arguably one of the most crucial pieces of vehicle protection gear your 4WD can have. But with such a huge range of manufacturers available to you, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly which bull bar is best for you and your vehicle.
To help us with our buyer’s guide to bull bars, we enlisted David Fitzpatrick, Operations Manager at Uneek 4×4.
What is a Bull Bar?
To put it in basic terms, a bull bar is a large piece of manufactured metal which has been designed to protect the front of your vehicle from collisions which may damage the engine and its components. They are typically used by those who are long-distance touring to protect against animal strikes, or those who frequently off-road and need to protect their 4WD from debris.
What is a Winch Bar? How Does it Differ to a Bull Bar?
“Traditionally, a bull bar is a frontal protection unit to protect against trees, embankments, animals and the like, while a winch bar is a bull bar that can take a winch. These days, most bull bars are technically winch bars. But you’ll still get a fair few aluminium bars that come without a winch cradle and they are by definition ‘bull bars’. Factory bars (OEM bull bars) are generally just a bull bar too,” says Fitzpatrick.
Nowadays, it’s fairly safe to assume all bull bars are actually ‘winch bars’. However, it’s still best to check with the manufacturer before selecting your next bull bar.
Bull Bar Materials
The first thing you should decide on, to narrow down your search, is your preferred material. Bull bars are typically made from either plastic, aluminium or steel. Each material has its benefits and is suited to different purposes.
Steel has been the king of bull bar materials ever since 4WDers have been putting them on their vehicles, and with good reason.
“Most people run with steel due to the perception of its strength.”
They are able to withstand most animal strikes without damage, making them ideal for those who will be driving along rural highways in peak ‘kangaroo time’. Steel bull bars require little maintenance, other than the occasional wash, are easier to repair and are typically cheaper than aluminium bull bars. However, steel is by far the heaviest of the three bull bar materials, weighing up to 30% more than its aluminium counterparts.
“Depending on vehicle and type of bar, anywhere between 40kg up to 100kg for a steel bull bar is not uncommon,” says Fitzpatrick.
Plastic is only a recent contender in the bull bar market. It is the lightest of all the materials while also being the weakest. However, it is fairly easy to push out a plastic bull bar if it does get bent or pushed in through a collision.
However, if you need a bull bar to use primarily in the urban environment, look no further. Unlike a steel or aluminium bull bar, plastic bull bars have been designed to lessen the impact on pedestrians. This means in a scenario where you accidentally hit a person, a plastic bull bar is far less likely to kill them compared to a metal one.
Aluminium is fast becoming comparable to steel in terms of strength while still weighing drastically less.
“We have one particular model of steel bull bar weighing 90kg and a aluminium one in a similar design weighing 55kg. As you can see, there is a massive difference in weight.”
That being said, many enthusiasts warn against choosing an aluminium bull bar due to it’s lower tensile strength and higher cost off-the-shelf.
“You’re looking for anything between $500 to $1000 difference between steel and aluminium. It also depends on whether the aluminium bar has been polished, which looks nice and shiny for a couple months, but then starts to get a bit dull when exposed to the elements.”
Which bull bar material to choose?
Ultimately it will come down to where you will be travelling and what you will be using it for. Steel is the most popular option, and will likely be the material of choice for many 4WDers due to the advantage of its incredible strength outweighing its increased weight and fuel consumption disadvantages.
However, if you will only be venturing off road or into popular animal strike areas infrequently, an aluminium bull bar may be more efficient for your vehicle.
“For me personally, I’d still go steel due to its overall strength,” says Fitzpatrick.
Styles of Bull Bar
Once you have chosen your material, you now need to make the difficult decision on what style of bull bar you want. Keep in mind that bull bar styles vary from brand to brand, and on the model of your vehicle. For example, a triple hoop bull bar for a Ford Ranger by TJMwill differ from one by Uneek. Furthermore, some styles of bull bar may not be available for particular vehicle models or from certain brands. As a general guide, here are the styles of bull bars available:
- Bumper Bar: Although it provides increased protection over the stock fender, a bumper bar is the most basic form of front-end protection.
- Single Hoop: These feature a single hoop over the radiator of your vehicle which is attached to the bumper section. Single hoop bull bars offer a good compromise between weight and front-end protection.
- Triple Hoop: This type of bull bar offers the maximum amount of protection, at the cost of weighing the most. If you will be travelling in animal strike prone areas, a triple hoop bull bar is a must.
- Nudge Bar: As the name suggests, a nudge bar is designed for light impacts and are typically used for aesthetic purposes. They are not mounted to the chassis as a ‘real’ bull bar is and are not suitable for withstanding any substantial animal strike.
- Baja Bar: Are similar to a bumper bar. They feature additional reinforcement into the chassis so they can be used with high-power winches easily. These are designed for off-road competition and not road use.
- Competition Bar: These have been designed to offer decent protection with maximum ground clearance. These types of bull bar can be easily removed when damaged and are used primarily in off road competitions.
Single hoop vs Triple hoop bull bar
Single hoop and triple hoop bull bars are the two most popular options for most 4WD models. That being said, it’s best to see what is available for your vehicle before committing to one style over another.
“A single hoop bull bar just has a single hoop that goes over the grill which protects the radiator, while the triple hoop includes two hoops that go over to protect your headlights.
Generally, single hoops tend to look better as they don’t hide the front of the vehicle as much. New cars these days tend to look a lot better than the old ones did. So traditional, triple hoop bull bars tend to hide their looks more. A single hoop will showcase a lot of the vehicles look. Triple loops, however, are far better suited to protecting against animals or if you want to hide the front-end of your 4WD more.
I suggest going for a triple hoop for long-distance touring and single hoop for a more off-road focused vehicle,” says Fitzpatrick.
Bull Bar Buying Considerations
A bull bar and its design will greatly affect what your vehicle can or can’t do. Therefore, you will need to make a few considerations when you are searching for the ideal one.
Overall aesthetics and build quality
Ultimately, much of your choice in bull bar will come down to the looks of it. It is important to select a bull bar that accentuates and enhances the look of your vehicle. However, it is also necessary to ensure the bull bar you are selecting is made from high-quality materials and features perfect welds and bends. Whenever possible, always inspect the bull bar or one similar to it before you purchase it. If the bull bar feels thin or you are not confident in the welds, walk away and look elsewhere.
How does a bull bar affect my approach angles when off-roading?
“We always try to improve the approach angle with a bull bar. Our designs try to keep them as close to the vehicle and as high as possible. You might find a few straight bull bars that are designed for protection against kangaroos. These types hang low and if you take them off road they will scrape and get damaged. Those are designed to just bounce things off. We like to increase approach angle, increase off-roadability, and give more clearance to the tyres so you can better climb over obstacles,” says Fitzpatrick.
That being said, if you don’t plan on going off-road and will be just touring on rural highways, a bull bar that is designed to hang lower down may be more beneficial.
Are high-lift jack points included?
“I’d say the majority of bull bars do come with high-lift jack points. But best to talk to the manufacturer to see if they include them in their list of features. Not everyone does include them, and sometimes they are hard to notice. Different manufacturers use different ‘pads’ to help differentiate between companies. Usually, they are down the bottom near the front face of the bar.”
Are rated tow points included?
“A rated tow point (unofficially known as recovery points) is the best add-on you can have on a bull bar. Having these means a manufacturer has paid an engineering firm to come down and test the tow point to a chosen limit to give it a rating. If they are on the bull bar, it’s definitely a bonus. If you are picking between two bull bars and one has them and the other doesn’t, I would always go with the one with the tow points,” says Fitzpatrick.
How will the bull bar’s weight affect handling?
“You’ll probably notice an extra 15-20mm drop in the front suspension depending on the vehicle. The front end will feel softer, handling will be worse and braking will be worse. All driving characteristics will be worse in general.
I would definitely recommend a suspension upgrade – stiffer springs as a bare minimum. If you are putting on a bull bar and a winch, you definitely need to do something about your suspension. The added weight of those two together, 60kg for a bull bar, 30kg for a winch, is more than your suspension is designed to handle at the front of your vehicle.”
Buying an ADR compliant bull bar
For a bull bar to be ‘legally’ used on your 4WD, it needs to comply with a range of Australian Design Standards.
“The standards relate to the shape and form of the bull bar and its ability to absorb impact. It can’t block headlights, have forward facing bars, protrusions or sharp edges. The airbags must be able to deploy at the right impacts – all that sort of stuff. Mostly it is around pedestrian safety. If you are gonna hit someone with a bull bar, you want the maximum chance that you are going to push them onto the bonnet and not under the 4WD and run them over,” says Fitzpatrick.
Australian manufacturers are extremely unlikely to produce a bar that is not ADR compliant, whereas imported bars from Asia and America are not designed to the same specifications as ours. Buying a non-ADR compliant bar not only endangers pedestrians but puts your life at risk if an airbag was to prematurely deploy or not deploy at all in an accident. The best way to find out if a bull bar is compliant is checking with the manufacturer and finding the compliance plate on the bull bar itself.
“The compliance plate can be located anywhere. A lot of manufacturers put it on the inside of the bar. I know TJM puts theirs on top of the bar. Most companies put it somewhere it can be viewed, but requires effort to find.”
How does the bull bar work with the vehicle’s electronics and engine bay?
It varies from model to model whether extra time will need to be taken to relocate particular engine components. Nothing major is ever moved, just smaller components such as the windscreen washer bottle for instance.
As vehicle electronics evolve, manufacturers need to continually find ways to make their products work alongside them. It is extremely rare that a modern bull bar will not work with a vehicle’s electronics.
“We try not to modify anything too much. We don’t extend any wiring looms for example,” says Fitzpatrick.
Types of finish
“We offer all kinds of finish, with the traditional being a matte colour called ‘manis black’ that has a bit of a texture to it. For a standard finish, the bull bars get sandblasted first, then a coat of zinc primer and finished with a top powder coat.
For colour matching, we take a bar that has been blasted, primed and powder coated taken to a panel beater. They then sand back the powder coat then paint over it using the same paint from your car with a clear coat on top. The colour can be matched from a VIN for a near-match, or from a panel for an exact-match.
We charge $350 for a colour match. Other manufacturers will range from $250 up to $600 so budget that in if that’s something you want. However, 95% of our buyers will go for the stock black. It’s easier to touch up, hide scratches better and can be blended much easier. On a colour coded bar, it’s a lot harder, since it’s unlikely your specific colour is easily available off-the-shelf. You may need to even take the bull bar off the vehicle and send it back to get resprayed.”
How does a bull bar affect fuel consumption?
“Depending on the vehicle, you might see a minor decrease in economy. I have never seen anything more than 1L per 100km. Most vehicles lose 0.5L per 100km or no change at all,” says Fitzpatrick.
What maintenance is required?
Steel bull bars require little maintenance. If the powder coat has begun to rub off from little bumps and scrapes with trees and rocks, it’s best to touch it up as soon as possible to prevent further damage. Polished aluminium bull bars may stain over time. They can be repolished using a hand kit, while getting professionally cleaned every couple of months is recommended to keep the finish in ideal condition.
What happens if my bull bar gets damaged?
“It’s definitely a case-by-case situation on how it gets repaired. It might require a complete replacement or it might be that the mounts did their job and they just need to be replaced. Always take it back to the place of purchase, or take photos and send them to the manufacturer.”
Other aspects to consider
Other factors including; the product’s warranty, after-purchase support, dealership network, manufacturer and product reviews should all be considered when buying a bull bar.
Bull Bar Fitment
When it comes to fitting your bull bar, you have two options: fit it yourself or pay a professional to do it.
“I’d say 30-40% of people install it themselves, the rest either get someone else to do it or pay a professional – most of which offer an hourly rate. Some others offer a fixed install cost regardless of the time,” says Fitzpatrick.
If you choose to fit it yourself, instructions are typically included in the package. However, you will likely need to supply your own tools to raise and install the bull bar on the vehicle. The difficulty of installation will differ between vehicle models and is best discussed with the manufacturer before you purchase the bull bar.
If you don’t have the tools, time or are not confident in your skills, hiring a professional to install it is your other option. Best to check with a manufacturer for the most up-to-date installation costs.
Accessorising Your Bull Bar
Half the fun of owning a bull bar is modifying it to your liking. Driving lights, antennas and an electric winch are the most popular accessories. Most of these come ‘universal’, meaning that they can be installed on any bull bar. In particular for winches and driving lights, it is important to measure the size of the products before you purchase them.
For example, if you have a single hoop bull bar on your Ford Ranger, it is important to ensure the driving lights will fit within the inside area of hoop. The winch must also be able to fit within the mounting brackets already on the bull bar and have enough power to haul the GVM of the vehicle too.
Installing accessories yourself or through a professional?
“The best thing is to get someone experienced in bull bars to fit them. If you are mechanically minded and have the tools at home then, by all means, give it a go. Lights and antennas are not difficult to put on and normally come with fitting instructions. If you have never worked on a car before, probably best to give it to a professional. We find a lot of people are time-poor. What may take someone six hours to do themselves, we would do in three and would make sure it’s in full working condition,” says Fitzpatrick.
If you are looking for a professional to install your products, it’s best to do it while your bull bar is being mounted. Not only will this save a second trip to the workshop but will likely save you on labour costs for the installation. If you are doing it yourself, you can take your time and upgrade your accessories as you go.
How Do I Buy A Buy a Bull Bar?
The easiest way to find your perfect bull bar is by shopping online to compare the different types available for your vehicle. Once you have found ‘the one’, visit your manufacturer’s closest dealership or give them a call to get all the info you need.
Once you have narrowed down the style and material you want your bull bar to be, choosing one perfect for your 4WD becomes much simpler. And although many bull bars may appear the same, it’s the subtle differences in styling, jack points, rated tow points and overall weight that will likely be the determining factors in your final decision.
One final tip. When you are selecting your future bull bar, you should be able to feel with 100% confidence that this bar is able to protect you. If you are not confident in the bull bar, whether it be the material, welds or manufacturer themselves, keep searching for one you can trust.
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