Gas Mileage Be Damned


TLDR: If you want to increase the safety and security of yourself and those who travel with you, consider choosing to drive a vehicle with body-on-frame design, install a well-built steel bumper with full front-end coverage and slap some ten-plies on it.

Story Time

When I first started in the outdoor industry, I had the pleasure of working with an editor who daily drove a full-size truck with no modifications other than the world’s largest steel bumper bolted to the front. When I found out she had an hour and a half commute each way to her Illinois office, I was a bit gob smacked. 

“Why don’t you get a commuter car? Something that gets a bit better mileage?”

“Not a chance – they’re a death trap. Even a full-size car can’t compare to my Titan in an accident,” she said. “My oldest thought I was crazy too, until one time we were running down the road and two cars in front of us decided they wanted to exchange a bit of gunfire. No shit. I dropped it down a few gears and took the ditch and we got the heck out of there.”

Not the friendly part of Illinois, apparently. 

“My son was freaking out that my first reaction was to punch it – I’m not sure why he was so surprised,” she chuckled. “I don’t know how he thought I could work at Blackwater all those years and not be able to handle a situation like that.”

And she was right – the one time I visited her former employer’s Moyock facility (the company operating under the name Academi at the time), they had a rather impressive, paved track and a massive stable of vehicles just for the training of defensive and offensive driving. 

Among the assortment of vehicles on hand were a tremendous number of Ford Crown Victorias – no surprise – but also in the mix were a good stable of Nissan Frontiers and XTerras, most with obvious signs of having been bashed around and nearly none with working lights. That was a tad jarring, given the rather civilized feel of the facility’s campus – its streets and buildings seeming more like a proper city than a training ground, yet these well-abused trucks intermingled with a myriad of rental vehicles on its roads and in its parking lots.

Asking about the prevalence of the Nissans, I got a rather simple reply, “They’re cheaper than Toyotas, they have a real frame underneath them which means they’ll still go down the road after being crashed pretty hard and they’re reliable enough with cheap parts. Eventually we’ll have to figure out something else to use – as we destroy them we’re having to go further and further to find replacements.”

Makes sense. 

The Motivation to Improve One’s Commuter Vehicle

At the time, my wife and I were commuting 90 miles a day and it was all we could do to scrounge up the money to buy a dedicated commuter car – gas mileage was a must. But in the back of my mind the wheels were turning, and a body-on-frame 4×4 needed to become our family vehicle. 

Time passed and we pinch pennies to allow us to buy our first 4Runner. Being the cautious type, we started saving for a proper bumper and within months, an out-of-towner in a Jeep decided to turn across multiple lanes of traffic without notice and we t-boned him, totaling our new-to-us Toyota.

A bit of prying with a jack handle meant we could make it home, but I was kicking myself for not having put a bumper on it already. 

Get a Good Bumper!

The replacement was a decade newer, still a 4Runner, and the first thing we added was a beefy steel bumper from Demello Offroad. Three hoops protected the grille and headlights, and it wasn’t two weeks later it got tested when a western Kansas whitetail tried to high-tail it across the highway in front of me. It got t-boned much like that Jeep, but instead of damaging the truck, it helicoptered off into the ditch with little to no effect on the bumper or 4Runner. 

That bumper would again be tested in a rainstorm on the highway, when a road-raging young gentleman decided to brake check me. Damage to his bumper and tailgate, and some minor damage to my 4Runner if you looked in the right places, but I was able to continue my 2k-mile trip to Texas and back with a minor stop for the Highway Patrol to ticket the fellow (dash camera for the win…). I bought a dash camera after driving with Alex Costa of ANR Design, on a NH grouse hunt. It has come in handy numerous times!

Good Tires are Important, You Get What You Pay For!

Lastly in the trifecta of the tough truck is a hardy set of tires. Class E tires of the 10-ply flavor may make a lightweight truck ride like a lumber wagon and suck power, but they are far more robust than the set of light truck tires they take the place of. 

Due to my rather long commute for so many years, I got to put that theory to the test as well, when an antique project truck lost control in front of me on a four-lane highway, the result of which destroyed his work-in-progress and put a significant dent in my Ranch Hand bumper. In that instance, the bumper did its job and if not for a bent tie rod, that truck could have driven away. 

The nearly new set of tires on my truck were 10-ply Grabbers, and during the impact the front passenger tire suffered a massive gash down the center of the tread that went to the cords and ran for half the circumference of the tire. It might not have been a smooth ride, but the tire held air and would have done fine to get me out of dodge had the tie rod decided to not be a team player. 

Tough Truck Trifecta “Equation” and Suggestions

So, the equation for increased safety can be boiled down to three basic points:

  • Body-on-Frame Construction- This means there’s an actual frame underneath the vehicle much like a standard truck.
    • When it comes to this type of vehicle, the options are wide open and you can take your pick based on your brand preferences – basically any vehicle that is based off a truck chassis. That might be any number of pickups or it could be a Tahoe, Wrangler or Expedition. Personally, I’m a Toyota fanboy, so a Tacoma, 4Runner and Tundra are high on the list, as are the Lexus LX and GX. 
  • Steel Bumper- Three hoop preferred, but a full-on steel bumper that bolts and possibly welds to the frame, keeping your front end protected in the instance of a collision. Careful shopping is a must – there are a number of factors to consider.
    • Weight- A big heavy bumper is awesome, but some get so heavy that you’ll be in dire need of beefier front springs to accommodate them. Shoot for a balance of weight and construction. The Demello Offroad ( bumper I put on my 4Runner added minimal weight (before the addition of a winch), so spring rate of the factory springs was little to no issue. 
    • Quality- There are an incredible number of Chinese knock-off bumpers on the market, just keep in mind that you get what you pay for. It will cost more money, but I’d recommend to stay with smaller US manufacturers who take pride in their work and don’t just try to crank as many out the door as possible. Fit and finish on the Expedition One ( bumper mounted to my Tundra was top-notch, as is the work I’ve seen from C4 Fabrication ( in South Dakota. 
  • Ten Plies- Popping a tire will put you on the side of the road, no matter how precarious a situation you find yourself in. Hardy tires with stout sidewalls can make a huge difference. Some stand-out tires I’ve used over the years are (in order of least aggressive to most aggressive):

In Closing

Like with every aspect of life, professional training is out there and can take a basic skill set up several notches – driving is no different. Outfits like Team O’Neil conduct defensive and tactical mobility training, and it adds another tool to the belt.

Zachary Hein is a writer and photographer working in the shooting and hunting industry for over a decade. Based out of Sheridan, Wyo., he has a particular affinity for fine shotguns, bird dogs and all things with motors and tires. Find his work at or on Instagram at @z_hein.


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