Solid Axle Revival?
I’d love to tell you that solid axle 4x4s are making a comeback, but the truth is I’m typically laughed out of the building whenever I ask a vehicle manufacturer to offer a 4x4 with a solid front axle. The auto manufacturers prefer independent front suspension (IFS) for several reasons including more precise handling, ride comfort, packaging, engine clearance, crash testing, ground clearance, and so on. But despite all of this logical reasoning and advancements in IFS technology, the seemingly archaic solid-axle Jeep Wrangler was the Ninth best-selling SUV of 2011. Interestingly enough the Wrangler and the Grand Cherokee (Seventh best-selling SUV of 2011) are the only SUVs in the top 10 that have a true transfer case with low range gearing. The rest of the SUVs in this top 10 list are crossover SUVs, better known as all-wheel-drive cars, which ironically enough is actually a good argument for the auto industry to offer more solid-axle 4x4 SUVs.
Let me explain. For some time now I’ve openly whined that the truck and SUV manufacturers have been building vehicles for the non-traditional truck and SUV buyer. These are the consumers that like the idea of sitting up high for better visibility and enjoy having extra cargo capacity, but the fact is they don’t need a real truck or SUV most of the time and they typically aren’t willing to sacrifice ride comfort, handling, and fuel economy for capability. So for over a decade the auto manufacturers have neutered most of the available 4x4s to fit the needs of these castrated consumers. With the crossover SUV market now taking off, these non-traditional truck and SUV buyers can move into their own watered-down all-wheel drive automotive segment, allowing the manufacturers to get back to building real 4x4s for traditional truck and SUV consumers.
To hit this point home, let me tell you about one manufacturer’s 1⁄2-ton truck planning meeting I sat in on the other day. One of the journalists at the meeting told a story about how his wife helped to select the truck they were going to purchase. Apparently, if she wasn’t able to simply walk up and slide her lazy butt into the driver seat, she didn’t want it. She didn’t care about load capacity, towing, braking, acceleration, ground clearance, or anything about what a real truck should be capable of. All she cared about was seat hip height. These kinds of people don’t deserve to be in a truck, and real 4x4 trucks and SUVs should never be built to accommodate their needs.
Don’t get me wrong though, I’m not so stupid that I don’t understand platform sharing, parts interchangeability, and the business model of a typical auto manufacturer that offers 4x4 vehicles. I totally get that the vehicle manufacturers want to offer 4x4s to the masses and not just small enthusiast groups. Several different surveys tell the manufacturers that most consumers never even shift their vehicle into four-wheel drive, much less use it off-road at an enthusiast level. So the manufacturers’ argument is why bother building an easily modifiable, capable, and durable solid-axle 4x4 when the typical consumer will never use it in such a way. I don’t subscribe to this thinking. I think the small numbers of modified 4x4s and their owners fill a marketing gap. Each modified 4x4 is a rolling billboard and every owner is a salesman. For example, who do non-Jeep owners go to when they consider purchasing a Jeep? That’s right—they go to other Jeep owners. And it’s not just the casual Jeep owner they go to, it’s the neighbor or friend known as “the Jeep guy.” He’s the guy who spends every extra dime he has on his Jeep, and he is a champion of the brand. He often knows more about the vehicle in question than the salesmen on the showroom floor. When you consider this free, built-in sales force, it starts to make sense for an OE to create a vehicle that is embraced by both the off-road aftermarket and enthusiasts alike.
For the enthusiast, IFS is generally more expensive and complicated to modify and less durable than a solid front axle. Not every affordable IFS 4x4 has been embraced by the aftermarket industry, in fact very few of them have. But every affordable solid-axle 4x4 ever built has been successful in the enthusiast aftermarket. These vehicles have also sold well at the dealer lots (aside from a few misguided media-inspired hiccups). Think about it, this would include the ’87-present Jeep Wrangler, ’84-’01 Jeep Cherokee, ’73-’87 GM truck, ’79-’85 Toyota truck, ’86-’95 Suzuki Samurai, and so on. Today, the only affordable solid-axle SUV offered in the U.S. is the Wrangler, and even though the traditional automotive media outlets lambast it for its caveman-like on-road handling, Jeep can’t build them fast enough to meet consumer demand. The Toledo factory currently runs 20 hours a day, six days a week, and pumps out about 700 Wranglers a day. That number will increase to 790 by June.
If it’s selling so well, why doesn’t the Jeep Wrangler have any direct competition? Where is the modern-day solid-axle Ford Bronco, Toyota FJ40, Chevy Blazer, Nissan Patrol, or Ram Ramcharger? I hope the automotive manufacturers are getting the hint that there can be success (and money) in niche vehicles, especially in the true enthusiast 4x4 world.