Words Dean Mellor
As their name suggests, bumper bars are designed to cop little more than bumps when parking or when being whacked by shopping trollies; they are not designed to cope with the big hits that can be a regular occurrence when off-road driving, especially when exiting steep gullies or dropping off rock shelves.
While they might look substantial, the standard bumper bars fitted to most modern 4x4s are either plastic over a steel frame or mild-steel face-bars, which are chromed or painted. While plastic finishes are common on 4x4 wagons, most 4x4 utes will have a mild-steel face-bar.
The departure angle on most 4x4s is not as great as the approach angle, especially on dual-cab utes that have a long rear overhang, and vehicles such as these need the added protection of a more substantial aftermarket rear bar for off-road driving.
While the primary function of most aftermarket rear bars is to provide protection for the rear of the vehicle, some incorporate several other features aimed at increasing their versatility, including inbuilt hitch receivers, recovery points and high-lift jacking points. The bar you choose for you vehicle will depend on what’s available to suit it, what your requirements are and the style of bar that appeals to you.
Steel tube rear bars
If you simply want a bar to protect the rear of your vehicle, and/or you already have a towbar fitted, then a basic steel-tube-style rear bar might be all you need. If you opt for this style, ensure the bar is manufactured from an adequate steel strength and thickness, that it is well mounted to the vehicle’s chassis and that it improves (not detracts from) the vehicle’s departure angle. You’ll also want to ensure it offers protection not only for the rear of the vehicle, but also the lower edges of the rear quarter panels behind the wheel arches.
Many steel-tube rear bars will incorporate a tow hitch, so if you already have a towbar fitted this may have to be removed, while some other designs allow for the retention of the vehicle’s towbar. If the bar does have a tow hitch, ensure the hitch receiver matches your requirements and that it is rated to handle the vehicle’s maximum braked towing capacity. Also have a good look at the bar design to ensure the tow hitch doesn’t hang too low, and that there’s the facility to securely mount the trailer wiring plug where it won’t be damaged when driving off-road.
Other features to look for in a steel tube bar include the inclusion of rated recovery points and step with a grippy surface, such as chequer plate. The bar should also
allow for the retention of the standard licence plate position and lighting, or incorporate an alternative mounting point for these items. And if your vehicle is equipped with driver aids such as a reversing camera and/or reversing sensors, you’ll need to make sure the rear bar is compatible them.
As with any steel products fitted to your vehicle, unless the bar has a high-quality finish it will be prone to corrosion. Look for a bar with a durable finish such as zinc plating prior to being powder-coated or finished in a colour-matching paint.
Finally, check with the manufacturer to ensure the bar is ADR compliant.
Formed rear bars
There’s a wide range of rear-step tow bars on the market that offer a more cohesive appearance to match the design of the vehicle to which they’re fitted. Some of these bars use a combination of a pressed-steel rear section and steel tubes to protect beneath the rear quarter panels, while others will be completely manufactured from pressed steel to better complement the overall design of the vehicle.
As with steel tube bars, you’ll need to ensure the formed rear bar you opt for has an adequate chassis mounting system, and that there’s enough gap between the bar and the panels of the vehicle to account for chassis flex.
Features to look for in a formed rear bar include the use of high-grade steel with a corrosion-resistant finish, a design that complements the vehicle, improved departure angle and complete protection for the rear of the vehicle. It should also be equipped with ADR-approved lighting (where applicable), include a hitch receiver and be rated to match the maximum braked towing capacity of the vehicle. If it’s a step-style bar it should also have a tread plate on the top surface.
Some formed rear bars will also incorporate high-lift jack points and rated recovery points, while others will rely on the fitment of a tow-hitch recovery point. Of course, this style of bar will also need to be compatible with driver-assistance systems such as reversing cameras and parking sensors, and some rear bar manufactures will offer several variants to suit vehicle models that are either equipped or not equipped with such features.
Whether you opt for a basic black powder-coat finish or colour matching to suit your vehicle, ensure the bar you choose has been treated for corrosion resistance with either zinc plating or a zinc-rich primer prior to its outer coat.
Also have a good look over the bar to inspect the quality of welds and any fittings, and to ensure the design and features of the bar will suit your vehicle and your requirements.
Finally, check with the manufacturer of the bar to ensure it’s compatible with other accessories fitted to your vehicle, especially if you have a long-range fuel tank fitted or larger-than-standard underslung spare wheel.
Some rear bars are available with a number of specialty accessories designed for carrying extra gear such as spare wheel holders and jerry can holders. Other accessories may include facility for the fitment of antennas, work lights, high-lift jacks and shovels.
Wheel carriers are popular on vehicles such as 80, 100 and 200 Series LandCrusiers, as it allows relocation of the underslung spare wheel to the rear bar. This in turn allows for fitment of a long-range fuel tank. This style of bar is also well suited to people who need to carry more than one spare wheel, which will be the case when travelling into remote areas.
If the spare(s) are mounted to a carrier on the rear bar, it will incorporate a swing-away feature to allow access for opening the vehicle’s tailgate. There are several designs on the market and you should have a look at a few before you decide which one will best suit your needs, as some are much better than others. Check the swing-away operation to ensure it’s easy to open and to close, and that it can be locked in the open position when the vehicle is parked on uneven ground.
Other accessories that can be fitted to some rear bars include HF antenna brackets, air outlets from the vehicle’s onboard compressor and additional power outlets for trailers or other accessories. Always make sure that these are mounted where they won’t cop damage when driving off-road.