A Smartbar bullbar proving its worth
Bullbars are contentious, except in rural areas where most people regard them as a necessity. But can a plastic bullbar protect a car?
A BULLBAR IS MISNAMED. The chances of meeting a stray bull on the road are quite small, unlike the chances of meeting a kangaroo. That’s why another term for a bullbar is a VFPS, or Vehicle Front Protection System. Still, whatever you hit, the resulting impact can not only damage the vehicle, but leave it stranded and that is not only cost, but a safety risk in remote areas.
Bullbars are also handy mounts for winches, auxiliary driving lights, sand flags and radio antennas, as well as improving approach angle for offroad vehicles. Depending on the design, bullbars can also offer jacking points and recovery points, useful features for offroading or remote work. And bullbars are tough – if a stick is flicked up it won’t go straight through a bulbar as it will a plastic bumper. I can personally attest to this particular quality, and out of many incidents one in particular is memorable – having been a co-driver in car that literally impaled itself on a log pointing our way. The owner repaired the car and promptly fitted a bullbar.
Today, bullbars come in various shapes and sizes. There are nudge bars which don’t offer any protection from animal strikes and often worsen approach angles. They do however provide a handy location for accessories like sand flags and antennas, and some of the better ones can be used for driving light mounts.
Then there’s the construction. Most bullbars are steel, which is very strong, and may be bent back into shape if damaged, but it is heavy. Alloy bars are lighter, not as malleable and not quite as strong. And then there are Smartbars, which are made of polyethylene, better known as plastic. These bars are even lighter than alloy bars, can flex to absorb an impact, then rebound to their original shape. Are they effective? Watch the video below and make up your own mind.
The video below does show a vehicle hitting an animal, captured from a dash cam. This was not an intentional animal strike.
WARNING: Some viewers may find the following video distressing:
This calf looks like it weighs as much or more than a decent size kangaroo, and the result is impressively little damage to the car, calf and bar.
Bullbar buying tips
- Airbags. Only buy airbag-compatible bars if your vehicle has airbags.
- Winch? Do you need a winch? If so ensure your bar is winch-compatible. It’s often better to pay the little extra anyway as it gives you the option for later, and helps with resale.
- Vehicle-specific. Bullbars are very specific to the vehicle, and sometimes higher-level trim versions of a car cannot accept the bullbar, or versions with different engines. Be sure your car can take the bar you buy.
- Quality only. Avoid the cheaper bars. Modern vehicles require sophisticated bars that handle airflow to the engine, airbag deployment, ADR compliance, winch compatibility and much more, even these days forward looking radar, front parking sensors and corner-following headlights. With today’s compressed engine bays, many bars require relocation of components such as washer bottles, and fitting is tricky as guards and flares often need to be carefully cut or modified. Cheap bars simply don’t cater for these features, and the days when bars were a simple bit of backyard fabrication are long gone.
- Suspension upgrades. Bullbars, especially when combined with winches and spotlights, will add significant weight over the front axle. You must upgrade the suspension to cope, or risk a poor handling vehicle, especially on dirt roads. You tend not to find out just how bad it can be until it’s too late, and my example here is a standard LC200 with bar and winch. This vehicle had too much power for its suspension, in contrast to the other car we had in the team, an LC100 with little power but excellent suspension.
- Colour-coding can look great, but contrast colours can look just as good.