Car Buying Tips

Tips on Shopping Smart for a Modified Off-Roader

Aftermarket parts and upgrades are the core of a multi-million dollar industry enjoyed by countless Canadian drivers, and especially, those of pickups and 4x4’s. Whether for added looks, capability, exclusivity or durability, thousands of Canucks run modified trucks, Jeeps and SUV’s to explore new terrain and trails, and to provide access to memorable weekend adventures, all year round.

Modifications can be tricky business for the used vehicle shopper. The majority of modified vehicles are enjoyed with little issue, daily, and for a long time, by their owners. Still, remember that in some cases, trendy modifications and upgrades to that used Wrangler, 4Runner or Silverado you’re considering can cause headaches and issues, and even more so if the non-factory parts, or installation thereof, are sub-par. Also, note that in some locales, certain popular 4x4 modifications may even be illegal – so doing your homework first is vitally important.

If you’re considering a used 4x4, SUV or off-roader of any sort that’s been modified by previous owners, it pays to be aware of how the modifications might negatively affect the durability, safety and reliability of a potential new-to-you ride.

Remember: countless drivers run modified vehicles without problems, but it always pays to be on the lookout. Here’s a look at a few common 4x4 modifications, and what you’ve got to know as a used vehicle shopper.

Oversized Wheels and Tires

Large wheels, much-larger-than-factory tires, and extremely aggressive off-road tires have their purpose, though they can cause problems, too. Before purchase, inspect aftermarket wheels for signs of damage in the form of cracking or dents on their inner and outer surfaces. Confirm that the wheels are from a reputable, high-quality brand, especially if you’ll be towing. Why? Horror stories exist around wheel failure caused by use of low-quality wheels on heavy rides in tough conditions.

Note that oversized wheels and tires will increase fuel consumption and noise levels, especially if they’re of an aggressive, off-road nature. Also, excessively large wheel and tire packages are heavier, put more strain on your vehicle driveline, and may cause accelerated wear to transmissions and differentials on some models, especially in challenging off-road settings. Finally, remember that wheels which stick out past the vehicle fenders are typically illegal, and may get you a ticket.

Modified Suspension

Does the ride you’re considering have a lift-kit, non-factory shock-absorbers, modified steering system components, or air suspension provisions? Be aware that modifying a vehicle’s suspension, in itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but that poor-quality parts, sub-par installation work, and failure to fully compensate for altered suspension geometry can result in headaches.

If the suspension on the ride you’re considering isn’t factory stock, be sure to check tires for signs of uneven wear across the treads, which can indicate alignment issues that waste fuel, accelerate tire wear, and negatively affect handling and safety. On a lifted vehicle, be sure to check for axle leaks and axle or CV joint wear too – numerous owners of various lifted models report axle-related issues caused by constant driving of factory axles at extended angles. Unwelcome roaring or clicking sounds are telltale trouble signs of CV joint issues. A mechanic should also confirm the overall integrity of the vehicle’s modified suspension, for maximum confidence.

PRO TIP: Devin Rochon operates Off Road Brigade, a Calgary-based off-road adventure tour company, and off-road club. He comments, “On a daily driver, I’d confirm that the suspension is true, by measuring centre-to-centre from the wheel-hubs on the same side of the vehicle: front to rear driver’s side, and front to rear passenger side, with the front wheels pointing straight ahead. If the measurement differs, the usual cause is improperly installed suspension parts, a frame that’s twisted, or axles that aren’t centered properly under the truck, which can cause problems. For the average shopper, this is a good reason to walk away and find another machine.”

Non-Factory Electrical Equipment

Winches, light-bars, stereo systems and CB radios are just some examples of popular electrical add-ons in the off-road scene. If the vehicle you’re considering has any of the above, double-check all wiring connections for integrity, ensuring that non-factory wiring is routed and fastened safely and away from any moving parts. Aftermarket wiring should be fused, properly insulated, and properly connected with quality connectors. Confirm that wiring is of the proper gauge and thickness for the current draw it’s handling, and remember that typically, non-factory wiring provisions should use a relay in conjunction with a switch to deliver power to the accessory in question. Wiring that’s improperly routed or installed, improperly gauged, improperly joined, or damaged in any way, can cause non-functionality, component damage, or even an electrical fire. If you’re not experienced in aftermarket wiring, ask an experienced friend, or a mechanic, for assistance.

In general, when inspecting beneath the dash or hood to confirm the quality of an electrical installation job, it’s best if you don’t notice anything at all.

PRO TIP: Rochon explains, “Electrical can be a tricky thing – and it can make the difference between a good purchase and the "electrical gremlin". My rule of thumb is that if the seller hasn’t taken the time to use wire loom and make his wiring job look good and clean, he probably did a sub-par installation, which can result in a wiring rat-nest and all sorts of headaches.”

Non-Factory Engine Management

engine bay

If the used off-road ride you’re set on has been chipped, tuned, re-flashed or re-programmed, you may want to think twice before proceeding. Modifying factory engine computer software with a chip or a tune for added performance and power is relatively common, and especially on models with turbodiesel engines – though engine software modification is best avoided by the average used vehicle shopper. Non-factory engine management software can, in some cases, adversely affect the durability and reliability of all engaged components, which could result in accelerated component wear, increased operating costs, or even engine failure, in extreme cases.

If the vehicle you’re considering has ever run non-factory engine software (or still does), and you’re not up on the world of engine tuning, the safest bet is typically to move to another model.

If you’re set on a newer used model that’s running, or has run, non-factory engine software, check with a dealer to determine whether any remaining warranty coverage is still valid, too. Reason? In many cases, modifying the engine computer voids the warranty of the vehicle in question, even if it’s reset back to stock. With the proliferation of performance computer software throughout the market, automakers are going to greater-than-ever lengths to detect non-factory software and void warranties.

PRO TIP: Rochon notes, “You see these more in the diesel models, and it’s important to ask the right questions. Why was the tuner installed? How long has the tuner been installed? What supporting parts were installed?”