It is often said, the best offense is a good defense, a fact the knights of medieval times had figured out when they began to wear protective clothing designed to deflect, or at least lessen, the impact of a deadly blow. Some 1500 years later, body armor has been credited with saving the lives of an untold number of soldiers and even their horses. And while the warhorse has long since been replaced by Humvees, tanks, and myriad troop carriers, armament is a constant.
On today's civilian trucks and SUVs, body armor is not about deflecting bullets, but protecting bumpers. Manufacturers have numerous names: grille guards, winch protectors, prerunners, light bars, brush bars, bull bars, bush guards, push bars, and bush bars. Whatever you call them, all were designed with a singular purpose -- protecting the vehicle's front end.
As a West Coast transplant now living in the Northeast, it took me just one visit to New York City to realize the beauty of body armor or front-end protection (FEP). Parallel parking in the Big Apple is a contact sport. If the parking space is tight (assuming you can find one, that is), you just back up until you make physical contact with the car behind you. For those without rear sonar, a hard tap means no more room in the back. So you move forward until contact with the front bumper is made. "Isn't that what bumpers are for?" one New York driver told me after I found myself shaking my head at such a bumper bashing.
I immediately decided I needed some extra protection and decided to install a bull bar on my pickup. The result was surprising. The truck took on an undeniably macho look, the molded plastic crumple zones on the front bumper now shielded by 3-inch-diameter stainless steel. My ride was transformed into an urban assault vehicle providing optimum protection against aggressive parkers. The grille guard also included a platform for auxiliary driving lights, which I installed. Smartly outfitted, to my surprise, there was no change in gasoline mileage. I also noted another benefit: Drivers were less likely to cut me off on the highway, as the bull bar bears a slight resemblance to a battering ram.
Unfortunately, there were some tradeoffs. My truck's recovery hooks had to be removed to mount the bull bar (and the manufacturer specifically warns the bar should not be used for vehicle recovery), and its integrated skidplate offered much less underbody protection than did the factory original. Approach angles decreased slightly, as the bar adds approximately 5 inches to the overall length of the vehicle -- depending on which application you choose.
The overhang and added weight on the front suspension caused an almost indistinguishable change in driving dynamics, i.e., shock dampening seemed sharper. I wondered if the extra weight (approximately 34 pounds) up front was too much for my stock suspension. The quick answer is there is no quick answer. Furthermore, according to Tony Pearson of Nissan, "There is no exact science as to what point you would have to tweak the suspension to accommodate the overhang and extra weight. There are just too many variables, such as where the weight is placed on the vehicle, payload, number of passengers, and tire pressure. Bottom line: Do not exceed the vehicle's gross axle weight rating."
But it's what you can't see or feel that could have the most adverse affect. The added protection in crumple zones could affect airbag deployment in the event of a collision. That being the case, if you don't need to mount a winch, install additional driving lights, or punch open a cattle gate, why would you mount front-end protection (FEP) onto a truck or SUV?
Gordy Pepin, the body shop manager at Edward's GM in Iron Mountain, Michigan, can give you 45 to 50 reasons. According to Pepin, that is the number of deer impacts he attends to every year between the months of September and December. The folks in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan call it "smoking a deer." Pepin says the vehicles with body armor up front fare far better than those without. "While there is some front end damage, the bull bars generally save the radiator and condenser, especially on trucks and SUVs because they are set high. That's a big replacement expense," Pepin said.
Dave Hudack, resident of Oreland, Pennsylvania, concurs. "I was returning from a hunting trip in Pipersville [Pennsylvania] when I realized I was about to find out how good that guard really was." Hudack said he had just installed an Aries bull bar on his 2011 Nissan Titan, so he could mount additional foglights. "I was on my cell phone with my wife," he explained, "I said to her, 'Damn, there is a four-point buck running alongside my truck!'" Hudack hit the brakes just as the deer cut in front of his truck. "He bounced off the guard a good 25 feet in the air and landed on his feet running as if nothing had happened. I put my flashers on, stopped and got out to examine my front-end damage. Considering the buck hit me broadside across the entire front-end of the truck, my damage was minimal, not even a bulb was damaged," he said.
Despite that testimonial and hundreds like it in the wilds of Michigan and elsewhere, the specialty equipment aftermarket is adjusting to a downturn in the demand for body armor for trucks and SUVs, a trend led by an overall decline in sales of light trucks and SUVs.
The Specialty Equipment Market Association says grille guards/brush guards and skidplates, once a staple of the industry, are no longer coveted by full-size and midsize truck owners. And although the number-one accessory purchased by full-size pickup owners last year was custom front grilles, front-end protection systems have fallen off the sales radar screen, replaced by air cold-air intakes, custom floormats, navigation systems, trailer hitches, and custom wheels.
As the contours of today's trucks and SUVs continue to evolve, there is no consensus on the future of front-end protection systems. While some companies like Go Rhino! boast an increase in the overall sales of front guards, others have experienced the opposite, and still others, like Nissan for example, have abandoned the business completely due to low sales.
In Europe, the applications have been outlawed and replaced by a new generation of energy-absorbing products (can you say rubber baby buggy bumpers?) for the safety of cyclists, pedestrians, and smaller vehicles.
Kathryn Reinhardt, Go Rhino!'s director of marketing, said its research and development teams are marching on, tasked with making body armor compatible with the safety systems on today's trucks and SUVs.
When considering whether FEP is right for your vehicle, be aware that there is a thin line between real-world protection and the psychological protection provided by rugged good looks. The majority of FEP manufacturers make no claim of full-on or even minimal protection in the event of a crash. "For that kind of protection, you need full steel replacement winch bumpers," said Matt McShane of Fab Fours. "If you're really looking for protection," McShane said, "look for applications with heavy-duty gauge steel construction."
That said, you never know what may cross your path, and, until that old adage is disproven -- on the road at least -- the best offense is still a good defense.