This is part two in an on-going series of blog posts detailing the build-up of my 2007 FJ Cruiser from an essentially bone stock vehicle to a fully capable off-road rig. For more details on the background of the build please visit the original post, “Building the Ultimate Off-Road Vehicle for Outdoor Photographers“.
I apologize for not posting an update sooner on the status of the “Ultimate Off-Road Vehicle for Photographers” project build. As you can see by the photo above the FJ is looking a little more brutish these days, what with the black steel off-road bumpers installed fore and aft. We’ll get to the bumpers in the next post, though. Today we’ll cover the two vehicle modifications that offer the biggest “bang for the buck” in terms of increased off-road capability : a quality suspension lift and larger, more aggressive tires.
These two modifications offer several benefits: better off-road performance, steeper approach, departure and breakover angles, higher ground clearance, increased traction and a reduced possibility of flat tires. Nothing else you do to your rig will have such a dramatic impact on performance and capability in the rough stuff. If the goal of your build is to get you farther down an unknown dirt road, this is where you need to start.
Let’s start by discussing suspension. You can easily spend upwards of $8,000 on suspension upgrades. Remote reservoir shocks, long travel kits, aftermarket upper and lower control arms – the list goes on forever. Do you need to spend big money to be rewarded with a significant increase in performance? Absolutely not. I ran Old Man Emu suspension on my 2001 Toyota Tacoma for five years and on my 2007 FJ Cruiser for another five years. In fact, I’ve still got Old Man Emu springs and shocks in the rear of the FJ. I recently upgraded to an adjustable 2.5″ Radflo coilover on the front end for reasons I’ll cover in a moment. Old Man Emu manufactures suspension lift kits for just about every modern 4×4 and SUV on the road today. Their product is as simple as they come, which means it’s also quite reliable. In most cases, an Old Man Emu suspension lift will cost around $1,000 installed, give or take a couple hundred dollars. While that isn’t exactly chump change, it’s a small price to pay for the extra capability and reliability when you’re in the middle of the middle of nowhere.
As mentioned, I recently switched to a Radflo 2.5″ adjustable coilover suspension for the front of the FJ. The Old Man Emu suspension worked great – until I put a steel off-road bumper with a winch on the front of the truck. The additional weight of the bumper and winch caused the front end to “squat”. Essentially what happened is the front coils, which were Old Man Emu’s “medium” rating, couldn’t support the additional weight and they compressed to the point that the front end lost almost all of the lift it had prior to the bumper install. This wasn’t a surprise. I knew it would happen and I knew that I would need to deal with it by installing new front suspension. Old Man Emu does make a “heavy” coil that would have restored the front end lift but a better option, albeit more expensive, was a set of adjustable coilovers. Over time any suspension will begin to sag. The coils soften up and become more compressed, which in turn causes you to lose some suspension height. Adjustable coilovers allow you to counter that by adjusting the amount of lift back to “normal”. The Radflo coilovers I’m running allow for 1″ to 3.5″ of adjustability. Coilovers generally allow for a simpler installation because they arrive as one integrated unit (per wheel) rather than a shock and a separate spring. Radflo coilovers provide better performance on AND off-road, thanks to Eibach springs that are available in multiple specifications as well as custom rebound and compression valving to complement your spring selection and vehicle specifications. While there are many options in coilover suspension I chose Radflo because of their superb quality and superior customer service. They took the time to ask how the suspension would be used, on which vehicle, with what accessories and several other questions before recommending a suspension set-up. Truly world class service. Finally, a significant additional benefit of any suspension lift are steeper approach, departure and breakover angles. Without getting into a complicated explanation of these terms, here’s what you need to know: you can drive over bigger stuff without damaging your vehicle or getting stuck.
Now that your rig is riding higher thanks to your new suspension lift, you can increase performance even more by swapping out the generally worthless stock tires for something designed to be used in harsh off-road conditions. Even if you stay with the same size tire, you will see performance and reliability gains by switching to an all-terrain or mud-terrain tire. These tires have multiple ply sidewalls for increased resistance to sharp rocks and more aggressive lug patterns that provide greater traction in the dirt. They also allow to you “air down” when the going gets rough, which provides a larger contact patch with the ground for improved traction and a ride quality that isn’t quite so harsh. In most cases, you will be able to install a tire that is at least one, if not two sizes larger than the stock tire. A larger tire also increases ground clearance, which means you will hear less of that nerve wracking metal on rock sound when unknown parts under your vehicle come in unwanted contact with the terrain.
Since nothing in life is free, it’s important to note that suspension lifts and bigger off-road tires have a very real downside – your fuel mileage will go down. Your vehicle isn’t as aerodynamic now that it sits 2″ to 4″ higher off the ground and the extra weight and rolling resistance of your beefy new tires requires more gas to make them go round and round. How much of mileage hit you’ll take depends on a few factors, not the least of which is your driving style. After lifting my FJ and wrapping 33″ BF Goodrich Mud-Terrain KM2 tires around the rims I saw about a 2 MPG decrease in fuel economy.
So, there you have it – the first step in the build process. In a few weeks I’ll write a post about the next important element of my build: trail armor. As always, please leave any questions that arise in the comments section below.