See “Suspension Update,” where Tony Curless talks about changes in offroad equipment.
Jeeps, offroaders and 4x4s wear their badges proudly.
We wanted to know what those “Do it in the Dirt” guys and gals do when they go to their local truck, Jeep and 4×4 performance stores with money in their hands. We asked a number of sources about the current market – and you might be surprised by their answers.
What’s first on the ‘to-buy’ list?
Our first question was about the top aftermarket items Jeep and 4×4 owners tend to add to their vehicles first. Shane Barrington, president of Thunder Mountain Truck Outfitters, Logan, Utah, says, “We tend to see a suspension upgrade done in combination with a larger tire/wheel combo. On newer Jeeps, we are doing a lot of 4″ long-arm suspension lifts, with a 37″ tire on a 17″ wheel, such as the BFG KM2. This is often followed by a gear ratio change.”
“A full build would require the addition of an aftermarket front and rear bumper. We like to up-sale a Warn Power Plant with a new front bumper. If they [the customers] are a rock crawler type, Rock Sliders are a must, as well. For trucks, lift kits are still big, but we are mainly doing just a mild level kit. Most truck customers are coming in and asking for a KMC, or an XD wheel by name.”
Marc Cloutier, marketing manager for MBRP Inc., Huntsville, Ont., says, “For the serious rock crawler, protection is No. 1. For the 4×4 owner, the logical starting point for greater performance is the “triple play” of a programmer, air intake and performance exhaust.”
Over at Aftermarketing LLC, Tony Curless, company president of the marketing agency for JKS Mfg., Alliance, Neb., tells us, “Regardless of whether the individual actually intends to venture offroad, most owners begin to accessorize their 4WD with suspension and tires.
“The typical offroad enthusiast clearly understands the limitations of the stock tire size and tread pattern and will immediately select a larger and more aggressive alternative that is designed for offroad terrain. The onroad driver often takes a similar approach, but is motivated by aesthetic value more than performance. As a result, they are more likely to select a tread pattern that is quieter and more comfortable on the road, while still rugged in appearance.
“When it comes to choosing suspension products,” continues Curless “the offroad enthusiast is more likely to select individual components based on performance considerations. Those working with tighter budgets may even build the suspension in stages. This allows the customer to spend more time researching each upgrade to ensure it meets his needs, and less time replacing parts of an off-the-shelf kit that doesn’t. The onroad driver is more inclined to choose a complete suspension kit from a recognized brand or even a budget-type lift that uses spacers to achieve the extra height. The end goal tends to be the appearance of a capable offroad machine, and less time and money is invested in making sure the parts actually perform offroad.”
Megan Thompson, marketing manager of Bestop, Broomfield, Colo., says, “People tend to buy an aftermarket top first and then, once they get accustomed to Bestop quality, they start looking at our other products to upgrade their Jeep. It also depends on what they use their Jeep for: daily driver, weekend warrior or rock crawler/offroader.”
Larry Trim, president of TrailReady Products LLC, Everett, Wash., agrees and gave us the biggest reason: “Tires, wheels and related suspension. Consumers start here because it offers the biggest and most immediate visual impact.”
Our second question was about navigation systems. We wanted to know how today’s buyers feel about them, and what our suppliers think of them, even if they don’t have them in their product line.
Cloutier from MBRP says, “We can only respond as enthusiasts ourselves. Navigation technology has opened up the world to people who would otherwise never dare to try orienteer their way with map and compass.”
Curless, for JKS says, that “although my clients don’t handle navigation systems, I would still have to say that they are certainly growing in popularity among Jeep and 4WD owners. As the technology advances, the maps supplied with navigation systems are becoming more detailed and comprehensive. Offroad enthusiasts can now rely on them to navigate most Forest Service roads and even some routes that are not indicated on printed maps.”
Barrington, from Thunder Mountain, has a different view. “Nav systems are often a tough sale,” he notes. “Most of your A-list customers buy a “fully loaded” vehicle off the lot. Therefore, they usually have a nav system. The nav systems we do sell are usually the type that can be temporarily mounted in your truck or Jeep, but can be easily removed to take directly to your ATV or boat.”
Add-ons to add on
We also want to know about other top products people generally want on their Jeep or 4×4. Curless tells us, “Instead of focusing on the most obvious suspension components, springs and shocks, the following components are equally as important but rarely given the same amount of consideration by consumers:
Control arms: “One of the most critical parts of late-model Jeep suspensions is the control arms,” he says. … “More and more Jeep owners are gravitating toward adjustable arms that utilize flexible rubber bushings to isolate road noise and vibration without limiting offroad performance. Adjustable control arms from JKS Mfg. were the first aftermarket Jeep control arms to establish this trend and are still considered the benchmark by which others are compared today.”
Adjustable track bars: “Track bars with adjustable-length design become a necessity on Jeeps lifted more than 2″-3″ because the increased chassis height forces the axles out of alignment with the rest of the vehicle. -¦ Heavy-duty construction and flexible rubber bushings to isolate noise and vibration are the most popular among Jeep owners.”
Adjustable sway bars: “Experienced Jeep owners are discovering the advantages of trail-tuned aftermarket sway bars, such as [our] new SwitchBlade Swaybar.”
Thompson, from Bestop, lists her choices: “Jeep: doors; offroading gear: bumpers, winch plates, racks to store stuff on, tire carriers, bikinis and seasonal items.”
Barrington adds, “For Jeeps, some guys opt for an Atlas, or a type of locker. Items we often upsale to Jeep owners when we do their build are grab handles, fire extinguishers, bikini tops, D-ring shackles, receiver shackles, tire air-down devices, snatch blocks and tow straps.
“We have also developed our own ‘recovery bag.’ Being that we have tried and tested all recovery items, we have learned which is the best of the best. We have put all of these together in a high-quality bag that fits into the Jeep.
“Also, remembering to keep the vehicle legal in most states, we have to explain to them the importance of larger fender flares and mud flaps. Tera Flex makes a great detachable mud flap. The customer can easily remove them to go off road, but put them back on, (with no tools) when they reach the trail head.”
Cloutier says, “We are seeing that Wrangler owners are always adding something to their Jeep. We know this from the large number of small items that we are selling. Everything from light bars to fire extinguisher mounts, spare tire brackets to skid plates.
“On the more big ticket items, we know protection is No. 1 with our customers. The JK rock rail kits from our Off Camber Fabrications division have been very successful, though part of that success may be because they have a removable step which makes it attractive for those daily drivers that also see offroad use.
“We have also seen considerable success with a performance exhaust system that we developed for the JK. We moved the muffler ahead of the axle, significantly reducing the danger of the exhaust getting crushed.
“Finally, our heavy-duty roof rack system – and the various accessory items that we offer to go with it – has been very popular proving that there are still a lot of folks hitting the trails in their Jeeps.”
What about those rock crawlers?
Focusing on the offroader/rock crawler, we asked what items they might outfit their vehicles with and why. Thompson gave us the quick list of, “bumpers, winches, element doors from Bestop, tire carriers.”
Trim tells us, “Again, tire/wheel/suspension. Then add to that: proper gear ratio, lockers, and a winch for function.”
Barrington agrees, “Hard-core offroaders will usually buy a winch. We strongly encourage a high-quality winch. Some guys will want to save a couple hundred dollars; but remember, that couple hundred dollars could save your life.
“Next would be body armor. Crush corners and rock sliders for Jeeps. These products allow the driver to slide down or over rocks without damaging their high-dollar investments.
“Suspension systems have endless possibilities,” he continues. “Many offroaders will select a suspension system that will provide both function and comfort. We also try to recommend an aftermarket rear bumper for people who choose 37″ tires for their Jeep. An aftermarket rear bumper can accommodate a heavy-duty spare tire carrier. The last thing you want to do is hang a 35″ or 37″ tire from the end gate of a new Jeep. It just cannot hold that weight and be bounced around.”
Cloutier says that “from Moab to Rausch Creek to Northern Canada we meet up with some of the most extreme offroaders. They are always looking for bumpers that will give them better approach angles, rock rails that won’t crumple – gear that shows an understanding of the challenges that they put their Jeeps through. They have bought too much gear that comes up short when the sheet metal meets the trail. That’s why we believe that our muffler-forward exhaust systems have been such a success. The system answers a real challenge that the offroader/rock crawler faces in a way that makes sense and works.”
We asked about matching the right product to the client’s needs. Trim notes, “Where wheels are concerned, we offer both real and faux beadlocks. A quick discussion on how the vehicle is used will put us on the path to the correct model and style of wheels.”
Curless sees this as an industry hot spot: “Excellent question! This is increasingly important for manufacturers and retailers to consider. It’s easy to match a customer with the right product in a retail showroom, where the vendor can learn how the customer uses the vehicle on a daily basis or if he has future plans or aspirations for the vehicle.
Unfortunately, it’s much more difficult to define and address each customer’s specific needs online. The strategy used by JKS is to provide the education that customers need to make an informed decision and purchase with confidence. Jim Nollette [president of JKS] says, ‘If we are unable to speak directly with the customer, as is the case with most online transactions, we want to make sure the quality of information they receive from our website is just as good as the information we provide in person. For every product we make, our website features an overview section that provides the customer with the context necessary to understand the problems and limitations related to the part being replaced. By helping customers understand and identify the problems, they are better prepared to recognize the product features that really address their concerns.'”
JKS applies this strategy to the point-of-purchase on their website, as well. “Important vehicle-specific details and distinguishing product features are incorporated to guide the customer to the appropriate selection for their application,” Curless notes.
Barrington speaks of interacting: “We are fortunate to have a very nice area in our showroom where we can sit down in a comfortable setting to really spend some time and get to know our potential customers. We spend a lot of time to truly get to know how their vehicle is going to be used. Is it used as a daily driver, a weekend rock crawler, a work vehicle in the field or a combination of all of them? After we have an idea of how they use the vehicle, we can start making suggestions.
“Many people will come in on a budget. In this case, we plan the whole buildup, but often split it into Phase 1, Phase 2 and Phase 3. Oftentimes, we will actually take a trip up the canyon with the customer to demo certain parts and accessories for them. If the customer is out of state, we have often traveled to them to personally go over the build and get to know them better.”
Cloutier adds that “the key for us has been to address the needs of as broad a range of Jeep owners as possible. That’s why we offer bumpers in full and stubby, winch and non-winch.
“We offer a roof rack for some gear and an extension.
“With mufflers, we have some that simply improve sound and performance, and others that provide real protection for the extreme crowd. Jeep owners cannot be pigeon-holed except to say that they want a well-built vehicle for whatever their needs. As an aftermarket manufacturer it is our responsibility to provide the gear that they need whether they are trekking through the jungle or over the freeways.”
Bestop’s Thompson shows another way: “We don’t sell direct, so we can’t really answer this. We manufacture items based off what we hear at consumer events, customer shows, customer requests, existing product compilations and much more.”
We changed gears for our last question, which was about getting involved with any 4×4/Jeep events: We wondered if it helped business for installers, retailers or restylers.
Offroad shop owner Barrington tells us, “Yes, we try hard to sponsor or put on as many events as we can. This is an excellent way to promote your shop, and show the public that you are knowledgeable and trustworthy. We sponsor a lot of events annually: car shows, mud bog events, demolition derbies, rodeos, trail rides and many others.
“We sponsor and take part in so many events that we literally have an event (or two) every weekend of the summer. This is tough to do and takes a toll. You are actually working six or seven days a week. The results are well worth it. We take these opportunities to distribute as many hats, T-shirts and literature, as possible. People really like that. You will pay $9 for a T-shirt with your shop’s logo, people will wear it and it will be seen.
“Plan a trail ride. Show others in your community how you outfitted your vehicles and how well they work. This will build their trust and confidence in you and your shop.”
Says Thompson, “We are involved with a number of 4×4/Jeep events throughout the United States. By either attending, sponsoring or supporting with raffle items, we make sure to get out there as much as we can. These events are a way to put a face to the manufacturer’s name and really hear about what our customers are saying about our products. It’s the best R&D, customer service opportunity available. It’s also a great way to get customers over to our customers since we don’t sell direct.”
Trim says, “Yes. It’s a good practice to continue brand awareness.”
One of our more profound answers for this question came from Cloutier. Maybe, his first comment should be on a plaque hanging on the wall of everyone in the industry.
He says this: “A manufacturer has a choice to either sell to a market or become part of a community.
“The benefits for us in doing the latter have been many. Aside from getting the opportunity to promote our products, we have gained a sense of perspective – an enthusiast’s perspective – that we otherwise would not. Our Off Camber Fabrications division was, and still is, built on enthusiasts telling us what they were missing when it came to available gear for their Wranglers, on and off road.
“We are a sponsor of the jkforum.com, as well as sponsoring events through the forums. At Moab, we sponsored some forum member get-togethers. On the 4×4 side, we have been the NHRDA title sponsor for many years and sponsor many diesel forums.”
Now you have better, more focused choices for the Jeep and offroad 4×4 market. You can either get into it or be left in the dust.
Tony Curless talks about a couple of changes in offroad equipment that have become significant. Specifically, suspension features that appeal to the rock crawling customer include these:
Low center of gravity: When rock crawling first gained popularity among Jeep owners, maximum lift height was considered a priority. In order to clear massive boulders and other obstacles on the trail, a vehicle needed excellent ground clearance. But it soon became clear that center-of-gravity played an even more important role than lift height. A tall suspension offered little value to the rock crawling enthusiast if it didn’t inspire real seat-of-the-pants confidence on the trail.
Eventually, suspension manufacturers started to “reel in” lift height and focused on alternative methods to increase ground clearance. For instance, low-hanging drivetrain components were mounted higher on the chassis, and wheel openings were enlarged to make room for larger tires.
Improved approach/departure angles: Another modification that has always worked well for rock crawlers is improving vehicle approach and departure angles.
This process proved much easier on coil-sprung Jeeps than it was on earlier leaf-sprung models. As adjustable control arms were introduced, Jeep owners were able to lengthen the control arms, which pushed the front and rear axles farther from the vehicle centerline. This allowed the tires to ascend/descend steep obstacles, which, formerly, would have contacted the bumpers or chassis. Moving the axles outboard had another important advantage: It extended the wheelbase. This was especially beneficial on Jeep Wrangler models, which all shared the same short wheelbase for 20 years until the current JK model was introduced. The extended wheelbase allowed drivers to climb steeper obstacles with less speed and more control.