Q I am looking to buy a 4x4. I am excited to build something cool, and even though I have a wife and two small boys I’ve saved up some money to build the perfect desert truck for me. I’m into four-wheeling, but I’m not dedicated to any one brand. So I thought I’d ask you for advice.
I need the following. A truck bed, not huge, but big enough to haul wife, kid, and home project stuff. I need four doors. The boys are small but growing like weeds, so a regular cab or extended cab isn’t going to work. I want a gas V-8 engine. I know diesels are better fuel economy, but I’ve never had a healthy V-8 and always wanted one. Plus, there aren’t really that many diesel fuel stations near my house in the suburbs (I know, I looked). I need something kind of new. I have a good job and I have to haul clients around with me now and then, so I can’t show up in some cool old farm truck. I wish I could, but I can’t. Plus, my wife told me she’s all on board for this project, if the truck is still nice to drive, haul the family in, and comfortable. I can’t argue with her, happy wife equals happy life, they say. I agree.
So those are the requirements, and here are my goals. I want a go-fast desert truck. I want something we can bomb down dirt roads in. I don’t care about rockcrawling; I don’t care about mud whompin’, boggin’, or sloggin’; and I have no interest in overlanding stuff. Though I will admit we might camp from this truck, all we need is our tent, cooler, and four duffle and sleeping bags. No rooftop tents or special camping espresso machines for us. In fact, all I really want is a good daily driver that is also a good prerunner type truck.
I want to build a really cool 9-inch rear axle, I want King shocks, I want the BFGoodrich Baja–type tires, and some black Walker Evans beadlock wheels. Yes, I know these are all the poser upgrades, but I’ve always wanted them and I really think they are probably good parts in addition to being trendy. I have a good budget to buy and build this perfect truck, but I’m kind of stumped on which one to choose. Which would you build if you were in my shoes?
A I admit I’m more of a trail wheeler than a desert rat, per se. I love the desert—don’t get me wrong—but I really like rockcrawling, mud bogging, and trucks that get all twisted up off-road. However, I have been considering a go-fast buildup recently, and you may be the perfect guy to build this wacky creation I’ve dreamt up. You need a…Cadillac.
OK, I’m sure you think I’m nuts on this one, but hear me out. The Cadillac I think you should look at is the Escallade EXT, the one that looks like a Chevy Avalanche. Except that unlike the half-ton Avalanche the EXT comes with a 6.0L or 6.2L V-8 engine, either of which should fulfill your goal of a healthy V-8 ranging from high-300 to low-400 hp, even better with a good cold air intake and exhaust. There was a big-block version of the Avalanche 2500, but I actually think you’d like the linked rear suspension of the EXT better than the leaf springs in the back of the 3⁄4-ton. Plus, the big-block is heavy; the latest 6.2L V-8 is all aluminum. The combination of IFS front and five-linked rear solid axle under coil springs makes for a very smooth-riding and capable 4x4. In fact, Dodge half-tons have a similar rear suspension now. Plus, unlike a pickup truck that has a separation between the cab and bed, the EXT and Avalanche have no gap there, in effect strengthening the entire body and frame and making it a more rigid chassis. This is a bonus for a go-fast desert truck because then the suspension will do the work and you won’t get the bending of chassis and banging of cab to bed that can happen with severe abuse to a pickup.
The EXT does have a few downfalls, the first being no low-range transfer case. It does have all-wheel drive, and you can lock the center diff in the transfer case, but no low range. This wouldn’t be a hard transfer case upgrade to make, but you might not ever need low range as a go-fast desert guy. In fact, the all-wheel drive may actually add to the fun off-road. The rear axle on these trucks is the AAM 9.5 semifloater. This is a pretty strong axle and could remain under there with a 35- to 37-inch tire.
Then there is all the body cladding, which is bad-looking but is mostly on the front and rear bumpers, not the sides like the early Avalanche.
And of course there’s the cost. These trucks seem to range in price from $9,000 to $50,000. Of course I’d recommend an ’07 or newer version with the 6.2L V-8 and the six-speed 6L80E transmission just for power and strength, instead of the earlier 6.0L and 4L60 four-speed automatic, but the later models will likely cost more.
To this truck I would add a long-travel IFS front suspension, maybe like the one from Blitzkrieg Motorsports (www.blitzkriegoffroad.com) or Brenthal (brenthel industries.com). I think I would find a quality desert shop to build an in-cab cage for the safety of the wife and kiddos. Some of them can put the cage up above the headliner—better safe than sorry. Adding King shocks to the front and back wouldn’t be too hard. In fact, you could even replace the rear coils and run the shocks up into the bed if you wanted coilover shocks in the rear, but that may ruin your hauling ability. The midship fuel tank hinders building a normal upper triangulated four-link suspension without moving it, but you could put a fuel cell or other tank behind the rear axle and remove the stock tank. This will add complexity, but I feel that four-link suspensions cycle a little better than the stock-style five-link with track bar.
For such a truck I would think 35s to 37s would be just fine, but the 35s will reduce weight and improve speed while making it easier for daily driving and loading. I have not driven on the BFGoodrich Baja T/A tires you covet, but I have heard they are very stout off-road, though not the best for a daily drive. However, I have had great results with my BFG KM2 Mud-Terrains and Krawlers. Of course, a prerunner bumper and some big lights or an LED light bar would look good up front, and violà! You have a go-fast off-road Escalade. In fact, SMP Fabworks (www.smp-fabworks.com) is building one right now for a customer!
I hope my crazy idea doesn’t sound too far out of the box, and fulfills all your goals.
Q I have a ’93 Toyota pickup 4x4 regular cab 22RE automatic with 189,000 miles, and the transmission recently went out. I want to replace it with a manual. I was wondering if it’s possible and what all would need to be done to make it happen, or if someone makes a kit to make it easier.
A It is possible, but you’ll want to delete everything from behind the engine. The automatic and transfer case all need to go, and it would be best to start with the same era truck for all the needed parts such as pedals, transmission, transfer case, and bellhousing. You’ll also need new driveshafts, a clutch, a clutch master cylinder, and a clutch slave cylinder. I do not know of a complete kit, but Marlin Crawler (www.marlincrawler.com) specializes in transmissions and transfer cases if you want a professionally rebuilt unit, or you could find all these parts from a local junkyard. You’ll spend less in the long run just rebuilding your transmission, but the manual will make the four-cylinder more responsive and fun to drive.
If it was us, we would take this opportunity to add dual transfer cases for even more low-range crawl ratio.