Worksite to Campsite: Transform your 4×4 ute into a tourer
Four-wheel drive utilities are extremely versatile vehicles but if you want to set them up as touring rigs there are several modifications to be made. Here’s the gear you need to transform your 4×4 ute into a tourer.
NOT SO LONG ago four-wheel drive utes were aimed squarely at the government fleet, mining and agricultural markets, and to ensure they met the load-hauling needs of these customers there were few concessions to comfort, performance and even safety. Today the 4×4 ute has evolved to the point that it’s become Australia’s favourite recreational vehicle.
Despite the addition of creature comforts, more powerful engines, automatic transmissions and plenty of passive and active safety features, most 4×4 utes don’t quite mask their commercial vehicle underpinnings. Some of the problems that arise when 4×4 utes are tasked with recreational four-wheel drive touring include harsh ride quality, a lack of security when gear is loaded into the tub, excessive tailgate effort and insufficient dust and weatherproofing.
Put simply, even the most luxurious and well-appointed 4×4 utes can’t match 4×4 wagons when it comes to refinement, but there are plenty of aftermarket accessories that allow owners to improve and tailor their utes to better suit their needs.
If you’ve just stepped out of a 4×4 wagon, chances are you’re not going to be too impressed with the standard suspension in a 4×4 ute, especially when unladen. But you’ll probably also notice it’s inadequate when at or near full load capacity.
As with any new vehicle, the OEM suspension will be set up to suit most of the people most of the time, which means a vehicle with a moderate load on board that’s being driven over a reasonable road surface. Drive around with nothing in the tray, however, and you’ll soon become fed up with the harsh ride quality. Likewise, the rear suspension will sag under a very heavy load and your ute will exhibit excessive body roll when cornering and will wallow over road undulations and bumps.
The first thing to do when looking at aftermarket suspension kits is to ascertain how much load you’ll carry in your ute most of the time. Most aftermarket suspension manufacturers will offer model-specific, matched spring and shock absorber kits to suit different load scenarios, such as a vehicle with no bull bar, a vehicle with a bull bar only, or a vehicle with a bull bar and winch, and at the rear one that usually carries 0-300kg in the tub, a constant 300kg-600kg, or 600kg up to GVM (Gross Vehicle Mass).
If you choose the right aftermarket suspension set-up to suit your vehicle you’ll be amazed with the improvement in ride quality and handling.
As with any vehicle, 4×4 utes need protection if they’re going to be enlisted to perform touring duties. Country and outback roads are teeming with wildlife and a high quality bull bar is the best way to ensure you’ll be able to keep driving in the event of an animal strike.
Due to their relatively long wheelbases, 4×4 utes can also benefit greatly from the addition of a set of side rails and other under-body protection plates, particularly on vulnerable components that might hang down low such as the engine sump, gearbox and transfer case.
Long overhangs and relatively poor departure angles also make the rear-ends of 4×4 utes susceptible to damage when driving off-road, so the fitment of an aftermarket steel rear-step bar is almost a prerequisite.
The standard tub fitted to new utes will have a painted finish that’s easily damaged as soon as you throw in some cargo. Options for protecting the tub range from a bit of old carpet to rubber mats and model-specific tub liners. Of course, a moulded tub liner will offer the best protection and there are various types on the market, including one- and three-piece designs, and some that sit below the tub’s upper lip and others that sit over it for complete protection. Whether you opt for an under- or over-lip design will depend on compatibility with other accessories, such as ute lids and canopies.
Tonneaus and ute lids
Whether you fit a soft tonneau cover, a hard ute lid or a canopy will depend on what your going to use your ute for, but chances are you’ll need some form of cargo protection, especially if you’ll be touring.
The obvious advantage of a soft tonneau cover is it can be easily removed for those occasions when you need to carry something big in the back of your ute. There are several soft tonneau types with various securing systems, but it must be said that none of them are completely waterproof and if you’re driving on dry dirt roads your tub will eventually fill with dust, covering your cargo.
While hard lids are more difficult to remove (and store when not in use), they certainly offer better weather protection than soft tonneaus. There are several types on the market including three-piece lids that are compatible with OEM sport bars and one-piece lids to suit vehicles without sports bars. ARB even makes a one-piece sport lid with a clever hinge action that allows the OEM sport bar to be retained.
Some hard lids can be fitted with accessories such as cross bars and other load-carrying solutions, allowing you to stow some items out of the weather (under the lid) and additional stuff up top, such as bicycles and other gear that can get wet and dirty.
If you’re willing to compromise on some of your ute’s load carrying versatility, fitting a canopy will provide one of the best touring set-ups. These days most ute canopies are manufactured from plastic but some are made from fibreglass and others from sheet metal.
When looking for the right canopy to suit your ute, style will obviously be high on your priority list, but you’ll also have plenty of options to consider, as well as taking into account the ability to upgrade the canopy with accessories at a later date.
Many canopy manufacturers will offer options such as such as lift-up or sliding windows, security screens, air vents, lined interiors, lighting, key-fob compatible central locking and more. If you want to fit roof bars or a roof rack to your canopy down the track, you might have to fit a model with additional bracing, so make sure your canopy is future-proofed. Once you have a canopy fitted to your ute, you’ll be able to tailor the tub area to perfectly suit your needs with a drawer system, fridge slide and more.
For those who are willing to flick their ute’s tub altogether, the ultimate in rear canopy set-ups is a custom service body, made from either steel or aluminium. And while aluminium will cost significantly more than steel, the weight saving will be well worth the investment.
Drawers and Slides
Drawer systems are probably more suited to use in utes than any other vehicle due to the length of the tub. This means you can fit and easily access an amazing amount of gear in a well-designed drawer system for a ute, as well as house additional items such as dual battery systems, air compressors and more.
Things to look for in a good drawer system include overall weight of the set-up, the quality and weight rating of the drawers and sliders, ease of use of the locking and latching mechanisms, the strength of the handles, and the availability of accessories such as drawer dividers, side panels and end panels.
Many drawer systems are modular, which allows you to pick and choose components to tailor your cargo area to best suit your needs. If possible, head to a four-wheel drive show and check out what’s on offer before settling on a set-up of your own.
If you fit a fridge slide in the back of your ute, a cage or divider is another handy accessory, as it will allow you to slide out the fridge without other bits of cargo falling in behind it. A drop-down fridge slide, while more expensive than a standard slide, will provide easier access to your fridge, which is especially important on utes with a suspension lift.
The sky (and your budget) is the limit when it comes to accessorising a 4×4 ute and as these types of vehicles grow in popularity so too does the amount of gear available for them.
Some other accessories you might consider fitting to a ute include a reversing camera, a helper strut to lessen the effort required to lift and lower the tailgate, a tailgate sealing kit to keep dust out of the tub, additional cargo tie-down points (or adjustable track system) to secure loads, air helper springs in the rear (such as Polyairs) for those occasions when there’s a full load on board, and all of the other gear you’d consider fitting to any other 4×4 vehicle.
It might be time to call the bank manager…