Modifying your 4WD for better off-road performance is very fulfilling, whether it be for the lifestyle, the look, or the utility of it. But like modifying a street car, compromises have to be made on your on-road performance—from the type of tires you choose to the electronic sensors that make your factory-stock vehicle perform so well for all-around use. Below are a few of the things to watch out for:
In the case of suspension lifts, particularly independent front suspensions systems, you will be altering the vehicle’s factory-set geometry for road use. A two-inch lift will cause the least change in geometry and will only require a wheel alignment to correct. Remember that most wheel alignment shops now use computers with factory settings. An old-school, non-computer aided alignment shop is your best bet for getting the right wheel geometry back.
Lifts over two inches on front independent suspension systems are usually done for larger tires (over 33 inches in diameter). A drop kit is necessary for the tires to clear the vehicle’s fender arches. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of these drop kit systems for hard off-road use. The reason is that these drop kits require replacing the factory wheel spindle, which has a taller upper ball joint mount. This is where the weak point is. I have seen drop kit spindles break on the first obstacle. Cue the car carrier to get the vehicle home.
Remember that a lift, with its tall tires, will alter the vehicle’s center of gravity. The lifts may also alter the effectiveness of electronic stability assists, and your vehicle’s acceleration.
2) Wheels and tires
Sure, those humungous 35-inch and up tires are cool and will get you through most flood-prone areas. Do remember, though, that big tires mean that more weight will be carried by the drivetrain, particularly the front CV joints. In that case, don’t expect your front CV joints to last as long as the manufacturer intended (in short, forget the warranty).
A good compromise are tires sized 32 to 33 inches. Again, this applies to independent front suspension systems. Nowadays, there are very few vehicles that still have solid front axle housings. These are the most durable and can take larger tires, but they do have their limits depending on how the manufacturer built them. Aluminum alloy wheels will help lighten the combined weight of tires and wheels on the CV joints.
3) Traction aids
Almost all vehicles currently on the market have electronic traction control, and even rear differential locks are now standard from the factory. But for true off-road vehicles, it’s essential to have locking differentials for the front axles as well for maximum traction. It’s essential to know how to use them properly and at the right time. Otherwise, serious drivetrain damage can happen, and you also run the risk of the vehicle rolling over. In some cases, your forward progress through rough terrain can also be impeded.
4) Recovery winch and accessories
It’s not as simple as buying a macho off-road bumper with bars then mounting the winch to it. Adding the winch mount and the winch will add nearly 200lbs on the very front end of the vehicle, which will change its driving dynamics. Also expect that your front suspension will sag if you don’t upgrade the front suspension to carry the added weight.
5) Raised air intakes aka ‘snorkels’
If you like traversing water that’s taller than your tires, then go ahead and install a raised air intake, aka a ‘snorkel.’ Just remember that you’ll be punching a hole in your vehicle’s bodywork. In the long run, this will lead to corrosion around the area of the hole. Snorkels can, in some cases, restrict airflow to your engine and impede its performance. Still, they make a 4x4 vehicle look the part 24/7.
Do remember that it doesn’t end with the snorkel for water crossing. Your engine and drivetrain have other breather holes where they expel gasses. In the case of some computer-controlled 4x4s, their control modules are located on the floor of the vehicle, greatly minimizing your deep water crossing effectiveness even with a snorkel.
6) Body protection bars
Body protection is good, but the added weight will affect the engine performance and off-road agility of the vehicle.
There’s not enough space here to go through every item you can modify on your 4x4, so I would recommend going to a shop that has many years of off-road experience to do the work, and not just a shop that wants to sell you accessories. Some shops out there do consult with very seasoned off-road veterans, so choose your shop and modifications wisely.