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Trick Your Truck

October 1, 2010
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Part of the reason we love our trucks and SUVs so much is the versatility they provide. Whether helping to move a friend or taking a vacation with the family, these vehicles provide the freedom to live the life we choose. But if you’re like most of us, you simply can’t leave your rig in “stock” condition for long. The good news is, there are thousands of aftermarket products out there that can make your truck more useful and versatile — not to mention better looking.

We’ve provided an overview of the most popular categories and some suggestions for your particular needs. To give you a good starting point, we’ve also suggested a few brands we’re familiar with in each category. Now, let’s start at the rear of the vehicle and work our way forward!

Play That Note
The reasons to purchase a cat-back exhaust system are many; improved performance, fuel economy and appearance make the list, but there’s also that mellow rumbling sound.

Exhaust systems are available in the stock single-outlet style, or the split-dual systems that exit the catalytic converter as a single tube, then diverge into two separate pipes for that old-school dual look. In most cases, the stock diameter is the best choice from a performance standpoint (especially if the engine is mostly stock), and yes, that even goes for diesels.

Unless you’re willing to replace the entire system from the turbo back (which is illegal in many states and may actually reduce low-end performance in most applications) the extra diameter will do little, if anything, to improve diesel performance. But if you’ve done serious mods already, or just want the big ’n beefy look, then go for it.

Most of today’s reputable manufacturers offer their systems in either stainless steel or the less expensive aluminized steel. Which one you choose depends on your budget, sure, but also where you live. If you’re in the rust belt, it makes good sense to spend the extra money on a stainless system and protect your pipes from corrosion. If, on the other hand, you live in the dry Southwest, you can save yourself some cash on an aluminized steel system.

Brands to check out are: Banks (800/601-8072; bankspower.com), Borla (877/462-6752; borla.com), Flowmaster (800/544-4761; flowmastermufflers.com), Gibson (800/528-3044; gibsonexhaust.com), Magnaflow (800/824-8664; magnaflow.com) and MBRP (888/636-7223; mbrp.com).

Wind Bags
We’re talkin’ air suspension here — air-bag suspension devices that is. These bag/springs mount between the rear axle and the frame, and an onboard air compressor keeps them inflated, while you manage the air pressure in them from a controller in the cab. The suspension air bags not only keep the rear end from sagging, they firm up the ride and provide better control during cornering. At about $500 for most systems, they’re a great investment for anyone towing a big trailer or hauling a truck camper. A few brands to shop: AirLift (800/248-0892; airliftco.com), Firestone Ride-Rite (800/888-0650; firestoneindustrial.com/riderite) and Pacbrake (800/663-0096; pacbrake.com).

What’s the Diff?
A rear differential cover is another old-school truck mod, and whether painted, chromed or aluminum, it actually has a function. For instance, the finned aluminum covers from Mag-Hytec help dissipate heat, and the drain plug makes servicing the differential gears inside a much easier, neater affair. Plus, the plug is magnetized to trap worn-off gear metal shavings. The company offers cast aluminum transmission pans, too. Check out: Mag-Hytec (818/786-8325; mag-hytec.com).

Get Hitched

Hitches are not a terribly exciting subject, we’ll admit, but the humble hitch is likely an integral part of your camping life. So why not choose a hitch with maximum benefits, maybe even one with a little cool factor?

Yes, there are cool hitches out there. B&W offers its interesting Tow & Stow receiver hitch, which is perfect for those of you who may tow different things with your truck, such as a boat trailer, travel trailer and work trailer, each with a different size ball. It offers a triple ball mount with 17?8-inch, 2-inch and 25?16-inch balls to suit almost any trailer (dual-ball also available). It is height adjustable in 1-inch increments, and when the hitch is not in use, it can be folded underneath the receiver by pulling two pins so you won’t ever have to worry about banging your shins against a hitch again.

Now, if you want a hitch with a less utilitarian look, but don’t want to sacrifice functionality, check out the polished aluminum adjustable ball mounts from Diversi-Tech. These beauties feature an integrated cam-locking system, in which a key is used to lock the hitch in place. The same key can be used to adjust the ball height and lock it in place. Check out: B&W Trailer Hitches (800/248-6564; turnoverball.com) and Diversi-Tech (435/986-0141; diversi-tech.net).

On the Tonneau

The concept of the tonneau cover would seem a very simple one: It’s to keep stuff in your truck bed protected from the elements and prying eyes. But the fact of the matter is the number of tonneau choices is dizzying. There is the original soft variety; hard tonneaus made from fiberglass or metal; retracting tonneaus; and then probably a few others. And within each category, there are several different designs, which basically amounts to each company’s interpretation of what constitutes the ultimate tonneau.

How do you choose? In a word — lifestyle. A huge part of your tonneau choice has to do with the look you want. Some like the old-school black vinyl tonneau, while others prefer a smooth tonneau that matches the contour and color of the truck. Of course, the other part of the equation is functionality. Fiberglass tonneaus tend to open like a big trunk lid, which is slick, but doesn’t give you much freedom to carry big or tall items. Retractable tonneaus allow you to carry anything you want, but installation takes time and they can be difficult to remove (if you want to load a camper for example). Soft tonneaus are inexpensive and easy to install, but don’t last as long or offer any real security.

The solution? Do some serious research, and find the product that best suits your needs and lifestyle. The following are some suggestions: Access (866/414-5422; accesscover.com), DiamondBack (800/935-4002; diamondbackcovers.com), LEER (800/967-5337; leer.com), Pace Edwards (888/231-2686; pace-edwards.com) and Roll-N-Lock (800/952-7655; rollnlock.com).

The Boards
Need a step up? Running boards or step tubes are the way to do it, but how do you choose the right ones for your truck? Like many aftermarket products, the answer to that question has as much to do with your intended use as it does with the way the product looks.

If you frequently go off road, low-hanging boards/tubes are probably not a good choice, as they can catch on rocks, stumps, etc. Chrome tubes may look cool, but they can be slippery when wet or muddy, even with grip tape in place. As a truck owner, you obviously appreciate versatility, so why not consider some boards that do more than just sit there? For example, Storboards offers its patented running boards that feature a lockable storage compartment that extends underneath the vehicle — very useful for tradesmen, fishermen or anyone who would like to organize small parts.

Another innovative product is AMP Research’s PowerSteps, which extend down into a natural stepping position when the door is open, then disappear underneath the vehicle when the door is closed. They’re not only a conversation starter, they retain the stock appearance of the truck and can’t get hung up when traveling off road. AMP Research (800/309-6823; amp-research.com) and Storboards Inc. (714/258-1889; storboards.com).

Mirror, Mirror

Remember the horrible towing mirrors of yesteryear? You know, the metal monstrosities that required drilling holes in the doors, hideous straps or some other unnatural act of vehicular violation? Fortunately, those days are over, and you no longer have to sacrifice good taste in the name of towing safety.

SMR, formerly Visiocorp, offers its Telescopic Trailer Tow mirror, which has the clean appearance of an OEM product, but adds several cool features. As the name would imply, the mirror can telescope out as much as 41?2 inches when towing, and features a wide-angle “spotter glass” to help you keep an eye on your trailer and reduce blind spots. It’s available with manually adjustable mirrors; electronically adjustable (for use with vehicles that already have power mirrors); electronically adjust­able with heated glass; and electronically adjustable with heated glass, integrated turn signals and clearance lights. An interchangeable cover feature allows you to customize your mirrors with various colors and designs.

Not looking for anything that fancy? Then you might consider the CIPA custom towing mirrors, which simply slip over your existing mirror to provide added vision only when you’re towing. They’re easy to install, and the black plastic finish likely matches your factory mirrors. CIPA (800/872-2472; cipausa.com) and SMR (smr-automotive.com).

Rims and Rubber
There’s no single addition that can make a bigger difference to the way your truck looks, rides and performs than a new set of wheels and tires. All too often, however, truck owners pick these components based on appearance, without giving much thought to the way they’ll actually affect the vehicle.

If you’re going for the sport truck look, a larger diameter set of wheels and low-profile tires look cool and can even improve handling. But the same short sidewall that contributes to better handling can also cause a rougher ride. If you want the tough off-road look, mud terrain tires are the ticket, but some can create more road noise than you’d like.

Toyo’s Open Country M/T was one of the first mud terrain tires with minimal road noise, but since then, we’ve heard of a few other brands that are tolerable on the road as well. Perhaps the best way to decide which tire is best for you is to log on to one of the many online truck forums and ask the opinions of real users. Not everyone will agree on which is the best, but you’ll likely get enough reviews to make up your own mind.

When it comes to wheels, there is also much to consider, and this applies whether you rock a street truck or an off-roader. Many of the wheels on the market today are cast aluminum and made overseas, which may make them weaker than the steel or forged aluminum wheels already on your truck from the factory. If you’ve got your heart set on aluminum wheels, look for the forged variety if you can afford them, or at least a quality cast wheel made in the USA.

Next, make sure the wheel has the correct offset so that the tire won’t stick out too far or cause clearance problems on the frame and suspension components. If the tire is close to stock width, a rim with stock offset is probably your safest bet.

Finally, and this is a safety concern, make sure the rims you’re considering have the same or higher pressure rating than your stock rims. Yes, rims are indeed designed to withstand a certain amount of tire pressure, and the limit is usually stamped on the inside. If your tire’s rated maximum pressure is higher than that which the rim can withstand, you could put yourself at risk.

Programmed for Power

The days of re-jetting your carburetor or tweaking ignition timing are long gone, but those examples aren’t necessarily bad things. Today’s power programmers (still called “chips” by many people) do all of the tuning for you, and often, you don’t even have to pick up a tool.

Programmers for gasoline engines typically modify the fuel and ignition curves for improved output, while diesel programmers change fuel delivery and increase boost levels. Aside from these benefits, programmers can improve fuel economy, and have other useful features like the ability to check/erase trouble codes, make adjustments for larger diameter tires, etc. A few brands we suggest are: Bullydog Technologies (208/397-3200;bullydog.com), DiabloSport (877/396-6614; diablosport.com), Edge Products (888/360-3343; edgeproducts.com), Hypertech (901/382-8888; hypertech.com) and Superchips (888/227-2447; superchips.com).

It’s Cold Out There
It’s a simple concept. Get more cool, dense air into the engine, and it will make more power. But there are other advantages to a cold air package for your engine, as well.

This includes improved sound (the throaty roar of the engine under full throttle will become addicting), enhanced under-hood appearance and even improved fuel economy. Plus, a cold air package can only benefit any other mods you have performed or have planned, such as a programmer and/or exhaust system. Finally, the air filter element used on these systems is typically better at filtration and can be washed/reused several times. In short, it’s one of the best, least expensive and easy mods you can perform on your vehicle. A few suggestions we can make are: AFE (951/493-7100; afepower.com), Airaid (888/876-8984; airaid.com) and K&N (800/858-3333; knfilters.com).

Guards and Bumpers
They’re some of the most popular add-ons you’ll find on trucks and SUVs, and whether you’re trying to make a visual statement or actually need one of these products, there is a multitude to choose from. A brush guard can protect your grille and headlights from damage when off road, and often incorporate “nerf bars” or bumpers that enable you to push a disabled vehicle.

Chrome and black powdercoat are the most common finishes — just be aware that some states frown on any product that obstructs the headlights. Aftermarket bumpers can go a long way to changing the appearance of your truck, especially when matched with a lift kit and larger wheels/tires. Some bumpers also incorporate a grille guard, and can accommodate a winch as well. A few brands to look for are: Buckstop (503/554-0001; buckstop.biz), Warn (800/543-9276; warn.com) and Westin (800/345-8476; westinautomotive.com).

Brilliant Lighting
Improved visibility is not only safer, it can actually reduce eye fatigue whether on or off the road.

Starting with the basics, you can simply opt to replace your factory bulbs (both headlight and fog, if equipped) with aftermarket models from companies like Sylvania and Phillips, which produce brighter, whiter light and shine farther as well as wider.

Fog lights are now available in HID (High Intensity Discharge) and even high-output LED (Light Emitting Diode) to provide better illumination than ever before. In addition, there are now several companies that offer LED taillights for trucks and SUVs to provide a high-tech look. Brands to check out are: Hella (877/224-3552; hellausa.com), PIAA (800/525-7422; piaa.com), Phillips (800/257-6054; lighting.philips.com/us_en/automotive) and Sylvania (800/347-3420, sylvaniaautocatalog.com).

Not Your Cooking Grilles
Whether you’re going for billet aluminum or chromed steel, a custom grille is one of the easiest ways to update your truck/SUV to fit your personal style. There are literally hundreds to choose from, and there are even inexpensive “grille inserts” that don’t require the removal of the stock grille. These are a good alternative if you don’t like the idea of permanently altering your truck’s appearance. Brands to survey are: T-Rex (800/287-5900, trexbillet.com), Smittybilt (888/717-5797; smittybilt.com) and Street Scene (888/477-0707; streetsceneeq.com).

Wind Blown
Bug deflectors are designed to lift the stream of air from the leading edge of the hood to direct bugs over the windshield, instead of directly into it. Do they work? Most of the people we’ve met swear by them. Mounted around the windows, deflectors direct the flow of air around the windows instead of into them, so you can keep the windows open without excessive noise and wind buffeting.

They’re relatively inexpensive and easy to install, too. A few brands we’re familiar with are: Lund (888/588-6049; lundinternational.com), Wade (801/355-0972; wadeauto.com) and WeatherTech (800/441-6287; weathertech.com).

So there you have it. A bumper-to-bumper, top-to-bottom, side-to-side walk-around of the kinds of easy and inexpensive upgrades you can perform to your pickup truck or SUV to customize it and make it better suit your individual travel and camping needs. With just a little work and a little coin, you can turn your ride into a better rig for hauling a camper, a trailer, or just getting you and a tent to that next trailhead.

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