The Old Standard’s New Tricks

Growth in winch sales have been rising steadily in recent years, as overlanding/off-roading has expanded. However, the increases in sales haven’t changed the dramatic market sector held by WARN Winches. Since 2013, 60% or more of off-road enthusiasts report WARN as the winch they own. The Oregon-based company has remained the persistent #1 choice thanks to quality designs, innovation and name recognition – it is the 2nd oldest 4×4 winch manufacturer in North America behind Ramsey.

But competition has become increasingly fierce. The U.S. winch market alone has seen numerous brands hit our shores as overseas markets vie for consumers. ComeUp, Red and Sherpa are prime examples of this influx. For WARN, which has undergone a series of acquisitions since 2000, the market shift has provided consumers a clearer idea of how the most iconic winch brand will compete.

In 2014, the WARN lineup added its most advanced winch to date, the Zeon Series. Since its award-winning SEMA release, the Zeon has become a cornerstone of the “premium” and “ultimate” portions of the company’s off-road models. Zeon models feature the 72-year old company’s most advanced designs and materials. Having owned various Ramsey, Mile Marker and WARN winches over the years, I was interested in how far designs had evolved in the most distinct product on a well-prepared 4×4. Moreover, is a winch even necessary in this era of factory-installed traction devices and simple, highly effect traction ramps?

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(Lead photo by Andrew McAllister Imaging)

Setting a New Bar

A time-tested and highly-regarded WARN 9.5xp had served our portly 80 Series Land Cruiser for a decade, but it was time to “right size” the rig’s winch. Routinely towing our Dinoot off-road trailer means the old adage of determining a winch’s capacity using 1.5x the GVW of our vehicle is no longer sufficient. The 6,000-pound Toyota routinely has another ton of trailer hitched to it. The combined weight meant a 12,000-pound capacity was the minimum rating we should use. Describing our needs to long-time WARN representative Andy Lilienthal at Overland Expo in Flagstaff he immediately pointed me to the latest iteration of the Zeon, the 12-S Platinum for its next-generation technologies.

Dunes Duo
(Photo by Andrew McAllister Imaging)
Little Sahara Utah
With today’s overloaded overland rigs, when a winch line gets unspooled it can be in some very interesting and challenging terrain. (Photo by Andrew McAllister Imaging)

Zeon models are distinct from other WARN models due to their construction, features and configurations (14 total). Offered from 8,000 to 12,000-pound models, with either synthetic (“S” models) or wire rope, and with either corded or wireless remote, buyers can select a version that fits their needs. The Platinum series removes the usual tangle of corded remote controls, exchanging it for a handheld mini data center.

That “Advanced Wireless Remote” not only operates the winch, it controls up to two accessories. And, with additional screens illustrating status information on battery health and winch motor temperature, it’s more like a smart watch than a bland traditional controller. Until winches start talking to your iPhone, this WARN remote is the next best thing. What’s more, it also breaks new ground by controlling the unit’s electronically operated clutch. That design allows greater waterproofing of the winch itself, thanks to no clutch lever.

WARN Zeon 12S Remote 1

WARN Zeon 12S Remote 2
Operating the Zeon Platinum is like no other winch. Its wireless remote control frees the operator to move about without being tethered by a cable, including dis/engaging the clutch.

Under the Darth Vader-like exterior of the Zeon lies a series of advancements. WARN baked into the Zeon line a number of features that distinguish it from the brand’s other major model, the VR Evo. Common across those lines (including the base Zeon and the Zeon Platinum) is the IP68 rating, seven-year electrical warranty, and lifetime mechanical warranty. From there, the differences begin stacking up. From salt corrosion resistance to drum diameter and structural rigidity, the Zeon line adds numerous benefits, including assembly in the company’s Oregon facilities.

Line speeds also incrementally rise from the VR to the top-end Platinum. No load ratings are 44ft/min for the Zeon’s 10,000-pound models, and 33ft/min for the highest rated units with a 12,000-pound capacity. The line being spooled on the Zeon models is WARN’s premium Spydura, produced from Honeywell’s heat-treated Spectra 1000. The resulting Spydura Pro line, which comes on the Platinum 12-S, is rated to 16,500 pounds. The standard Spydura rope comes on the 10-S.

Known for its ultra-low stretch, durability and capacity to float, Spectra 1000 is a form of ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) fiber developed in the 1980s. Its chief competitor is Dyneema SK75/78, produced by DSM (Dutch State Mines). Rooted in the demanding offshore maritime industries, both materials provide extraordinary solutions for the rigging and winch markets. Their cost, however, limits their usage to winch models intended for the most performance-focused buyers.

In 2019, WARN opened yet another new doorway in the synthetic winch line market when it literally wove in a safety factor using strands of 3M reflective fibers. These light-activated cords distinguish the company’s Nightline from standard Spydura ropes. Only available as an accessory, the Nightline winch and winch extension ropes offer a glimpse into the creative product development occurring in the company’s headquarters. To date, no competitors have offered a similar product, though some have added a work-around by including abrasion sleeves that incorporate reflective lettering or materials.

WARN, along with a handful of other brands, has also taken form factor seriously with its new line of winches. Their unique appearance blends well with modern vehicle designs and increasingly angular winch bumpers. The inclusion of top-mounted control pack that can be relocated for fit/access shows that looks hasn’t supplanted function in the Zeon or VR Evo lines.

WARN Zeon 12S Relocation Kti
(Photo courtesy of WARN)
WARN Zeon 12S Slee Offroad Short Bus Bumper
WARN’s use of a control pack that can be divorced from the winch and relocated will help fitment on a range of bumpers. With Slee Offroad’s Short Bus bumper, some relieving of the factory grill is otherwise necessary.

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Mounting + Design + Performance

Mounting any winch is a buyer-beware process. Bumpers vary widely in their opening sizes, and winches do likewise. The Zeon’s distinct, stylish look belies a set dimensions that are somewhat more limiting than traditional winch configurations. While mounting bolts keep a standard 10”x4.5” pattern, an overall width of 24.25” may challenge fitments in some winch-ready bumpers. That said, the Zeon is built upon WARN’s mid-frame platform, which means an overall more compact overall design.

The Zeon’s design also helps it tip the scales at an impressively lightweight 80 pounds. Compared to the large-frame construction of the 136-pound M12000, that’s downright svelte. And when you’re hoisting a winch into place (or calculating front suspension compression) it’s best to minimize weight. It also owes this perk to aluminum construction in all the components where steel isn’t necessary. For instance, its large aluminum drum both saves weight and better dissipates heat, an enemy that lurks within every electric winch. Another major benefit of that aluminum drum? WARN’s patented rope anchoring system links the very end of the Spydura Pro rope to the drum. Rather than worrying about the number of remaining wraps, that unique system is rated to hold almost 10,000 pounds by itself. That spells peace of mind and safety. Furthermore, a protective heat wrap guards the segment of Spydura constituting the first rope layer on the drum.

WARN Zeon Mount Rope

WARN Zeon 12S Rope
Throughout the Zeon Platinum are innovations that escape casual observation. Among those is the rated anchoring system used to secure the Spydura line to the drum. Spydura is an ultra-strong, ultra-smooth synthetic line constructed of Spectra 1000.

With its series wound motor, the Zeon is as quiet as any winch I’ve used. The clutch disengages fully upon activating it via the wireless controller. Furthermore, its action is very smooth, with the almost slippery Spydura unspooling without any of the resistance that traditionally hampers wire ropes. Likewise, when reeling WARN’s synthetic line it’s easier to lay a tight, compact series of rope layers. That said, the provided Hawse fairlead has a throat width of 7.25”, which hampers easy layering across the Zeon’s 8.75” drum. This limitation is tied to bumper designs typically featuring narrow openings. The effect is to further add appreciation for the more malleable Spydura line.

Most obvious among the features of the Zeon is WARN’s decision to eschew its tried-and-true cabled remote. Why change a good thing? If you’ve snaked the cable for a traditional remote through a door window, or tried to keep it out of the much (or from entanglement in a tire, etc), you can understand a wireless remote’s benefits. Portable, easy to tuck into a pocket, with a range longer than any winch rope, WARN’s wireless remote frees the operator/driver from hassles of traditional remotes.

Because the Zeon remote has several functions, both its capacity and its operations are more involved than any competitor’s remote, including the handful that have a wireless function. The ruggedized Zeon remote offers a crisp, color screen and rubber control buttons for toggling through the screens and associated options. Included in its tough exterior is a weather-resistant cover for the charging port. The port is where the included charge cable interfaces to assure the rechargeable battery is ready for use when needed (more on that later). The combination of five buttons (select, navigate left, navigate right, line in, line out) is surprisingly intuitive and easy to learn. That impression is probably due in large part to the clear symbols used to convey options to the user. Even with gloves on (e.g., Mechanix or the included WARN gloves in the Epic Recovery Kit), the buttons are easy to feel and operate.

Pairing of the remote requires that the winch’s control module has its remote switch activated. Easily accessible at the back of the module, the toggle switch step is no big deal, but does require remembering to turn it on. Turning the switch off in the first place is only really necessary when a trip is done. Doing so reduced battery consumption in the remote by ending the wireless communications between the devices. Even during off-road trips, it’s only necessary to activate the wireless signal when you anticipate wanting to operate the winch or accessories it controls.

Off-Road Lights
Wiring up lights has become a lot easier with the Zeon Platinum. Two pairs of lights can be directly powered and controlled from the winch, and operated with the wireless remote.

Which leads to the next innovation of the Zeon Platinum: wireless remote control of two accessories. Intended for auxiliary lights in particular, this feature means that power and ground wires need only go to the winch, rather than snaking through the grill to reach a vehicle’s battery. This is a brilliant addition, as it substantially simplifies installation, including the alleviation of routing wires through the firewall, as well as install of switches in a vehicle’s dash.

When it comes to actual operation of the Zeon Platinum, the remote is easy to use. Its signal to the winch results in instant responses. No lag time at all was experienced. This is critical in operations of a device as dangerous as a winch. The result is a growing confidence in the remote as one gets accustomed to it. Similarly, WARN engineers (enginerds?) also thought to include a failsafe function that requires a two-thumb operation in the pairing process that makes the remote and the winch’s control unit “talk” to each other to engage the winch’s gears (symbolized on the screen with clear, simple set of gears engaging/disconnecting). The 3-second engagement is, once again, brilliant. It virtually eliminates accidental activation that could result in surprise winch functions. Further, the three-second duration is brief enough that you don’t get frustrated with it.

The final safety feature is that the cable in/out buttons are separate, and must be independently pressed after clutch engagement to cause the winch motor to take in our feed out rope. With clutch engaged, however, that in/out response is every bit as immediate as a wired remote control. Although WARN cites a 50’ range, the wireless remote has easily operated the winch out to the length of the 12-S’s 80-foot rope. In fact, we have maintained a full signal as far as 200 feet away.

When it comes to clutch operations, no longer having to manually switch a handle, which can be hard to access, can become corroded, or can suffer from resistance due to load, is a revelation. The Platinum’s clutch flawlessly engages and disengages with a push of a button after you screen toggle to the clutch function from the winch function. A clearly audible “clunk” sound emanates from the winch, affirming the mechanical dis/connection has occurred. The benefit of this feature is obvious, as one no longer needs to leave the vehicle’s cab, or walk back to the winch, to manipulate a lever. Further, when under load, the remote will not release the clutch, instead displaying a warning symbol on screen. Again, kudos to WARN’s design team.

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Outfitting the WARN Zeon

WARN prides itself in practical, reliable solutions. For freeing a stuck vehicle, the most valuable part of anyone’s system (after their knowledge) is a basic recovery kit. Without one, odds are the pulling power of another rig or your favorite WARN winch won’t be enough.

While they aren’t sexy, and they add nothing to the look of your rig, a well-equipped recovery kit will be more useful, costs less, and can be shared across multiple vehicles. To take the hassle out of DIYing a kit, WARN bundles those core items into its line of recovery kits. Held in a tough multi-compartment pack/backpack, the two kits in the Epic line (Medium and Heavy) include all standard recovery gear. Their matching components include recovery strap, tree saver, pulley, a pair of shackles, and gloves, with all hardware using the distinct, angular Epic form factor and durable grey coatings.

WARN Epic Recovery Kit
The medium Epic Recovery Kit is fully kitted out to support the Zeon or any winch up to 12,000-pound rating. (Photo courtesy of WARN.)

For those who prefer to spend time shopping for individual components to create a recovery kit, you can match the functional ratings of the Epic kits, though it’ll be a challenge to build a better matched or more rugged (and, frankly, good looking) kit. If you think the ultimate recovery kit – from WARN or anyone else – is available then you likely are pairing it to a stock vehicle. The point being that stock 4x4s and pre-configured recovery kits are very, very capable. But once you begin to push into more complex trails the tools needed to free a rig also grow. If that’s you then a thorough, rating-matched recovery kit is already a staple in the back of your truck. And it may be supplemented with other tools, such as a winch line extension, dynamic snatch strap or second pulley. You’ll continue to add items as your wheeling changes, or your gear fetish grows.

The Epic kits, however, provide a one-stop solution for pairing foundational tools with equally foundational knowledge. Is anything missing?  With today’s advent of soft-shackles, heavy metal shackles are becoming less popular, and innovative aluminum pulley wheels designed for synthetic ropes may spell the end for traditional pulleys. WARN’s Epic kits include none of these innovations. Nonetheless the included tried-and-true steel forms of these devices are top quality. Will they be replaced in the coming years?  The company has released its own line of UHMWPE shackles, so it’s entirely possible that a lighter replacement of the 27lb Epic Recovery Kit is on the horizon.

Another innovation in winching addresses the lowly hook that marks the working end of any rope, whether wire or synthetic. WARN decided to unleash its designers to have some fun with this tool. The resulting forged steel Epic Winch Hook adds angular good looks that pair perfectly with the Zeon and other Epic Recovery hardware. Adding a touch of humor is the hook’s built-in bottle opener, which will help celebrate a winch-fest (once you’re safely in camp and toasting the day). Whatever the usage, the matte coating that WARN applies to the hook showed zero wear in over two years of use.

WARN Epic Recovery Kit Rigging
All items in the Epic kits are premium quality, including the ¾” shackles, snatch block and straps.

For some users, a traditional winch hook isn’t ideal. Boise’s Factor 55 has led the way in developing advanced recovery components that enable “closed system winching”. Their broad range of products can be integrated into any existing winch system. To compare their functionality, we swapped the Epic Hook with Factor 55’s popular FlatLink E. Machined from 6000 series billet aluminum, and coated with a military-spec hard anodized gray finish, this version of the standard FlatLink enables connections to several linkages within a winching system, including the bow end of ¾” shackles.

Shop for the WARN Winch Recovery Kit

What the FlatLink E lacks in bottle-opening features, it more than makes up for with it exceptional construction, fit to Hawse/roller fairleads, and enhanced safety margins. Undergoing both virtual CAD testing (via Finite Elemental Analysis software) and physical testing to point of ultimate failure (>40,000 pounds), this and other Factor 55 components provide Designed in/Made in USA options for those wishing to customize a recovery system. WARN themselves have recently responded to this growing demand in the market with its own hook replacements, the Epic HyperLink and Sidewinder. The latter offers an alternative take on the Flatlink’s design, and boosts the ultimate failure point as well (64,000 pounds).

Factor 55 has also addressed the need for better quality fairleads for today’s synthetic winch lines. Made from machined 6000 series aluminum, the company’s models decrease synthetic rope stress by building larger radius curves. To address wear from rope friction and road debris, each of their Hawse fairleads receives a TYPE III gun metal gray hard anodized finish (MIL-A-8625F), visually offset with the logo laser engraved. At 1.5” thick, the larger of the two sizes is nearly 2x as thick as many on the market. It even adds ¼” in thickness to the fairlead that comes with the Zeon.

Winch Replacment Hook 1

Winch Replacment Hook 2
Replacing the standard Zeon hook with WARN’s Epic model, or with Factor 55’s excellent FlatLink E, is a perfect way to upgrade the working end of the brand’s premier winch.

Out on the Trail

Two years of trips through snow, sand, volcanic dust and greasy mud have given the Zeon a chance to reveal its quirks and capabilities. Line speed ratings – loaded and unloaded – have been in keeping with WARN’s cited figures. For anyone accustomed to 8,000 and 9,000-pound winches, the speeds of a 12,000-pound winch under load can seem somewhat slow, and they are, at least when compared to the xp9.5 and today’s competition winches. However, for everyone else, winching is a relatively infrequent event that is much more about safe, effective extractions than shaving a few minutes. Understandably, the culprit behind the line speeds is the Zeon’s 162:1 planetary gears. Their ratio is also what produces enough grunt for rigs weighing up to 8,000 pounds.

Unlike some electric winches, rope travel on the Zeon is minimal following release of the in/out button, measuring ~6 inches. This, too, is an important safety function, and is tied to the Platinum’s advanced motor. It also is due to the use of a cone brake design, which, along with the replacement of solenoids with top quality Albright contactors, helps significantly enhance reliability.

In real world conditions, the Zeon Platinum has upheld WARN’s claims and design intent. The 12,000-pound capacity results in a rated 450A peak draw, and hence is best configured with a dual battery system. To meet those demands, we chose Genesis Offroad’s Universal Dual Battery smart control kit, wed to a pair of Full Throttle AGM batteries. Although a high output alternator should ideally be paired with any winch, this system provides safeguards for battery depletion, as well as capacity for several full-length winch pulls.

Deadman Anchor
(Photo by Andrew McAllister Imaging)
WARN Zeon 12S Action
Paired with recovery devices like the Deadman Offroad land anchor, the Zeon is the backbone of a versatile system that can be sized for rigs up to four tons. (Photo by Andrew McAllister Imaging)

In terms of operator safety, the redundant features of the Platinum series have, if anything, enhanced the likelihood of avoiding an accident when you’re under stress, tired, or struggling in sloppy weather or terrain. With the Zeon’s controller, a child, “helpful” friend, or bystander can’t inadvertently pick up the remote and activate your winch. And you are safer, too, by not having to move about on steep or slippery terrain to operate a clutch by hand. All of these factors add up, and underscored the growing gap between many older designs and this next generation of winches.

WARN’s integration of remotely controlled auxiliary light ports into the Platinum was one of the innovations that showed the company was approaching winch design with out-of-the-box thinking. If you’ve ever dealt with wrangling a spaghetti-like mess of wiring harnesses and then searched for how to route it through the firewall and out some hole cut in your dash then you can appreciate the revolutionary ease of installation that wireless control offers. The ROK40 flood/work lights we installed from Lightforce were mounted and fully functional thanks to the WARN system in less than 30 minutes thanks to the WARN Auxiliary Lighting harness.

Rated for 15A, the ports can easily handle most modern HID or LED lights. Wiring is kept to a minimum, and the operator has the freedom to turn on/off the lights from outside the vehicle as need dictates. With two ports, the Zeon will let most users operate all the lights they need solely from the winch. In our case, the phalanx of various lights on the 80 Series meant we needed to choose which would be hard-wired and which would function through the wireless operation.

What’s the catch? Unlike fixed switches, finding and toggling through the Zeon’s remote isn’t fast and simple like a dash-mounted switch. Rather than an ever ready, simple fixed switch, lights wired through the Zeon series will necessitate activation of the wireless system via easily reached switch on the right rear of the winch control module, coupled with a few button pushes on the remote control.

As a result, the lights you will want to run off of the winch are probably area lights for winching or another purpose that won’t require frequently turning them on/off, or doing so in a hurry. Also, in instances where the remote has lost battery charge, you’ll need to plug its charge cord into an onboard USB port or portable charger. Fully functionality if operated while powering from the provided charge cord, the remote offers numerous advantages. What does it lack?  A solar charger on its back could help prevent its battery from draining.

WARN Remote Epic Recovery Kit
With its feature-packed wireless remote control, WARN’s Zeon Platinum may have begun a new chapter in the history of winches.

Our Final Verdict

The pace of innovation in winches has been compared to continental drift. If that’s accurate, then the WARN Zeon Platinum series is more akin to an earthquake. Though not off the Richter scale, the Zeon has sent tremors through the off-road market with its advanced construction, direct-wired accessories, paired recovery kits, an array of models, and an all-new approach to system control and data management.

Backed by WARN’s comprehensive system of support, accessories and parts, the Zeon series is an exciting glimpse into the company’s commitment to innovation while also staying true to the core focus: reliable recovery. If you’re looking for a low-cost way to put a winch on your 4×4 then rest assured the options abound. Chinese-made winches have flooded the North American market, and will continue to do so. Innovation is a lot less common. Without a doubt, the Zeon Platinum 12-S has more than refined the off-road winch. And it may have taken a step towards revolutionizing them. So, WARN, what’s next?

About the Gear Doctor: Dr. Sean Michael has been designing, abusing and testing outdoor gear since the 1980’s, and began reviewing for Off-road.com in 2000. Today, he is Professor of Outdoor Product Design & Development at Utah State University, a product consultant, and a frequent Instructor at Overland Expo. Follow his trips and gear @thegeardoctor on Instagram.

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