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SEMA 2015 Trends: What’s hot and what’s not

Posted in Features on November 17, 2015
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Having regularly attended the annual Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) show for nearly two decades, we’ve seen a lot of trends come and go. It wasn’t long ago that nearly all SEMA 4x4 builds were simply garbage magnets assembled by some marketing manager that had never even driven off-road. Fortunately, it looks like those days are behind us—for the most part. Don’t get us wrong, there are still a ton of show-only 4x4s, but the ratio of functional off-road–ready wheeling rigs has certainly changed for the better.

Every year, the SEMA Show has a different feel and vibe. Some years the attention is drawn to the latest hot rod, other years it’s vintage vehicles, UTVs, or race cars. This year proved to be the year of the off-road vehicle. We saw at least $15 million worth of Trophy Trucks, a multi-million dollar Mercedes big-rig overlanding vehicle, and even a steampunk flatfender Jeep built with mostly secondhand parts. So what trends resonated with us and what trends do we hope die a quick death? Read on to find out what’s hot and what’s not.

Hot
We absolutely love when companies like Legacy Power Wagon (legacypowerwagon.com) make an old truck new again and repower it with a modern drivetrain. Ask any true automobile enthusiast in the world and they will likely tell you old vehicles trump the new ones any day of the week.

Not
Making a new Jeep, such as this four-door JK Wrangler, look old with fake painted-on rust and other vintage accouterments, like tailgate chains, is just pathetic. The fake patina paint job looks much better on old vehicles that are old enough to look like that. The lowered suspension on this JK is the epic turd in the punchbowl.

Hot
Military surplus and discharged military vehicles from places like Gov Planet (govplanet.com) have always been a good source of heavy-duty drivetrain parts. So why not use some of the extremely heavy-duty IFS and IRS components found on many of the modern military 4x4s? We don’t think this will be the last time you see a conversion using military IFS parts like this.

Not
We’re probably more patriotic than the average American, but you shouldn’t have to build goofy Hot Wheels–looking faux military 4x4s to prove it. Fake guns bristling from an unarmored Jeep Wrangler isn’t what the military uses. Do you think our top-tier soldiers are driving around on the battlefield in an overly tall and unstable vehicle with “Special Forces” emblazoned on the grille? It just looks silly.

Hot
You know beadlock wheels have become mainstream when both Ford (ford.com) and Mopar (mopar.com) offer street-legal convertible beadlock wheels. If you mount the tire on the inside bead, its completely legal for the road. Move the tire bead to the outside position and you can clamp it in place with the aluminum locking ring.

Not
Can we stop putting 20-plus-inch wheels on 4x4s yet? These copper-coated 26-inch monsters would provide a harsh ride and dismal traction off-road. Large-diameter wheels with low-profile tires also transmit a lot of stress to steering and suspension components. More tire sidewall helps damp the shock load. A friend has a pretty good rule of thumb for wheel sizes on a 4x4. He says the wheel should be less than half the diameter of your tire. We generally prefer to stick to 17-inch wheels or smaller, unless the brakes require a larger wheel.

Hot
We like to see well thought out old 4x4s that utilize the latest suspension and drivetrain technology. We also like vehicles that are subtle. We enjoy scouring over the chassis looking for hidden Easter egg modifications.

Not
Form shouldn’t precede function when building an off-road 4x4. This Willys garnered a ton of attention for its aesthetic detail, but a closer look at the engineering revealed things like a wing nut on the steering linkage, a questionable rollcage, and 8-10 degrees of negative steering caster, among other things. We consider it more a piece of art than a functional and practical 4x4.

Hot
We like to see fullsize trucks with low lifts that fit big tires like this American Expedition Vehicles (aev-conversions.com) Ram 2500. With the right combination of lift height, axle location, and fender flares, this truck cleanly fits 40-inch tires and remains functional on- and off-road. All with drive and handling characteristics that are as good or better than factory.

Not
Are your 4x4s tires nowhere near the inside of the wheelwells? You probably have a ridiculous amount of lift, making your 4x4 unstable and generally worthless off-road. Your neighbors probably laugh at you, too. The only scenario that this is acceptable is if you built a mega truck or monster truck with massive 66-inch tires that would never fit in the wheel openings at full suspension compression.

Hot
Solid front axles are becoming less common on new 4x4s. Fortunately, mainstream lift kit companies like Pro Comp (procompusa.com) are embracing bolt-on long-travel suspension lifts that work off-road. The company has longer A-arm kits for the current Toyota Tundra and Ford F-150, with more applications on the way.

Not
If you simply want to put larger tires on your newer IFS 4x4 and maybe roll on down some graded dirt roads, these giant lift kits are fine. However, if you really plan to take your bracket-lifted IFS 4x4 up some difficult trails, you’ll quickly learn that you need to stack up spare halfshafts and steering components like cordwood.

Hot
Diesel engine swaps are popular, but good, quality used engines are getting difficult to find. Cummins is working on offering a new crate engine program that may include a 2.8L inline-four, a 5.0L V-8, and the massive 6.7L inline-six diesel engines. Fill out the Cummins survey (cumminsengines.com/repower-survey) to help the company decide what should be included in the engine kits.

Not
We’re all for powerful engine swaps, as long as it’s in the right vehicle. A 632ci, 800hp big-block V-8 with exhaust stacks in a flatfender is a bit much. We’re not even sure of the kind of terrain where that kind of power would be advantageous in this chassis. The huge amount of ground clearance, open top, and small overall size scream slow crawling in rocks, but the massive motor cries mud or sand. It’s cool to look at, but ultimately it’s a 4x4 that probably doesn’t work all that well anywhere.

Hot
Rogue Racing (rogueracing.com) designed a coilover and bypass link rear suspension system for the Ford F-150. The cantilever setup allows the shocks to remain hidden under the original factory bed. There is no need to ruin the bodylines of your truck with fiberglass fenders or cut up the truck bed and take up space with suspension bits.

Not
There are multiple companies trying to design and offer 4x4 cars. All of them have hideous bodies designed to cover the underpinnings. We’ve said it before but just because someone can fabricate a vehicle, does not mean they have a good eye for design.

Hot
Shock technology for enthusiast 4x4s has advanced by leaps and bounds. Overlanders and other off-roaders that hit higher speed now have the option of running Old Man Emu (arbusa.com) BP-51 bolt-on adjustable internal bypass coilover shocks. These shocks provide better damping over rough terrain for longer periods of time than a traditional shock.

Also Hot
It seems like every high-end shock manufacturer had bolt-on adjustable bypass shocks for the Jeep JK Wrangler. The companies included King (kingshocks.com), Rubicon Express (rubiconexpress.com), and Sway-A-Way (swayaway.com). We think you’ll start seeing lots of other bolt-on bypass shock applications surface real soon.

Not and glad it’s gone
It wasn’t all that long ago when many people thought they were brilliant by not running any shocks at all. It provided a smooth ride at slow speeds and lots of articulation, but it made the 4x4 totally scary and uncontrollable at any kind of speed. Fortunately, the no-shock trend faded away pretty quickly. Let’s not bring it back.

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