Head to the Hills

Jun 15, 2011

It’s the time of year that off-road action comes alive. Along with the new flowers, trees and other spring growth, the cars and trucks of off-road come out to play.

And with any season, that means change. So, we asked a number of manufacturers for their take on the new off-road season-what it may bring and how shops can best-position themselves to help those performance enthusiasts who are heading to the hills.

What Goes Up

Our first question was about which types of off-roading is the most popular this year.

MasterCraft Safety’s Kelli Willmore says, “With the introduction of the JK and the availability of four doors on a Jeep, MasterCraft Safety realized a heavy spike in sales to the already strong Jeeping market segment. The four-door Jeep JK is a solid weekend off-road vehicle choice for families and there was an immediate demand for products such as our Baja RS reclining off-road seat, occupant restraints, and grab handles.

“Now that the JK has been out nearly five years and the sluggish economy has slowed new vehicle sales (especially in the ‘toy’ market), MasterCraft Safety has seen a resurgence with enthusiasts once again fixing up and/or upgrading the TJs, YJs, CJ5s and early Broncos,” she adds. “Our best educated guess is the economy is the driving force behind owners keeping their vehicles longer and fixing them up-which is why we have seen a rise in sales of our products to the older-model Jeeps and Broncos.”

Vinson Pratt from TeraFlex Mfg. agrees.

“The Jeep JK Wrangler was presented as a new model update for 2007, but continues to be the hot seller in the off-road/SUV market. For 2011, Jeep gave the Wrangler an interior refresh that further stimulated sales and encouraged existing Wrangler owners to upgrade. Because the Wrangler is one of the most accessory-friendly vehicles (SEMA 2010 – Hottest SUV Award) it has one of the most loyal followings by vehicle owners, and lends itself to intense aftermarket product competition.

“For TeraFlex, we have seen a huge increase in the demand and interest for a long-travel suspension system that handles not only highway drivability and rock crawling, but also the fast fire road expanses found on many rock crawling trails,” he adds. “This is the true test of any suspension system-to handle all areas perfectly.”

Apparently, this year will be Jeepers Creepers all the time.

“The new JK Jeeps are a hot new market and have opened the floodgates to a whole new breed of Jeep owner that wants both off-road performance and daily street performance,” notes Rick Squires of STS Turbo. “We are also seeing customers desiring a wider range of performance for their off-road vehicles. With exciting races like the King of the Hammers events, these dedicated vehicles are being revamped to be adaptable to rock crawling, hill climbing and racing across the desert at 100-plus mph.

“The need for adaptable and complex suspension pieces that can handle the flexibility of obstacles, yet keep things straight hitting bumps at high speeds, has opened up new suspension markets as well as created a great turbocharger market,” he continues. “It takes a lot of horsepower to climb thousands of feet in elevation and run down a sand wash at 100 mph. We have seen great success with the STS Turbo Universal kits in the off-road market and see this amazingly flexible product as the key to being highly competitive on a modest budget.”

But from the very fast, there’s also the very slow.

“From what I’m seeing, the rock crawlers are becoming very popular,” says Glenn Thompson of Stage 8 Locking Fasteners.

Reaching the Summit

Our second question was about the challenges facing shops selling to off-roaders.

“The number one challenge is helping customers to understand that you really do get what you pay for,” says Pratt. “There are so many products on the market that focus so much on price point and are incomplete for a correct installation. This only leads to additional purchases down the road to fix the problems that should have been addressed in the first place. Typically, we recommend to purchase the highest-quality components you can afford and to plan your modifications with the future in mind. So, if you think you want to run larger tires down the road, plan for that now and save yourself the upgrade if possible.

“Of course, making the customer comfortable with their purchase is very important,” he continues. “You really need to find out how the customer is going to be using the product. Sometimes they think they want a 12-inch of lift and 42-inch tires, but what they really need is a suspension system that fits their driving style and meets both highway drivability and off-road performance.”

Dual-purpose vehicles seem to be the trend, notes Squires.

“One of the big challenges that we see shops facing is the evolution of performance enthusiasts. It used to be you had your hobby vehicle and you had a daily driver. Technology has come a long way over the last decade and is now allowing customers to have their cake and eat it, too. Basically, they want to have a daily driver vehicle that delivers high performance and reliability in extreme conditions.”

That means providing products that perform under varying conditions.

“The quality of parts and service required is taken to a whole new level when power is increased and then that power is used to the full extent both on and off the road 365 days a year,” Squires says. “We think this is great for the market because we are seeing customers put big tires and lift kits on, then put the turbochargers on to get their fuel mileage and power (actually a whole lot more) back. Then they spend a lot more on suspension and drivetrain parts to ensure that their vehicle can handle the newfound power without breaking components when they push the limits off road. Bottom line, when you have a dual-purpose, high-power vehicle, customers can justify spending more money on that vehicle because they get to use it all the time.”

Of course, making a profit on that sale is the key for shops.

“Pricing is becoming the hot button as more and more shops are stocking up on parts that were once hard to find,” Thompson says.

Bottom line is that salespeople and installers need to know the market.

“The off-road market is so diverse that it is difficult to know what exactly to stock and when,” says Willmore. “Local shops often experience the difficulty of having the right product on hand at the right time and understanding the product cycle needs throughout the year. Within the off-road market there are niche sub-segments that are all very diverse and also have specific product needs. What the extreme rock-crawling or desert-racing enthusiast needs will not be the same product that the weekend Jeeper needs for trail riding.”

That means understanding the specific needs of your customers.

“Defining the shop by a niche market segment, stocking products relevant to that segment, and catering to that specific clientele will set the shop apart from the competition and create goodwill as the go-to shop and the expert within the field,” she explains. “Another major hurdle that local shops experience is being able to compete on price with major retailers and online and mail-order companies. Working with manufacturers that have MAP policies in place and diligently enforce their outlined MAP policy will provide some assurance that the customer will not be able to leave the store and obtain a better price elsewhere.”

Technology-Driven

Next, we asked how technology has changed the industry.

“With the ability to reprogram factory computers, the doors have opened up for turbocharging a wide range of vehicles for both on- and off-road applications,” Squires says. “Given the power, performance, fuel mileage and emissions-compliance benefits of these new EFI engines, they are becoming increasingly popular swaps for everything from muscle cars and old trucks to dedicated off-road race vehicles.

“The need to spend tens of thousands of dollars building high-dollar NA engines to get 600-700 hp is fading away. That kind of money gets you a turbocharged daily driver with 1,000 hp on pump gas these days,” he adds. “We are seeing a lot more of our turbochargers going on these types of projects, both here in the U.S. and around the world.”

Technology has also improved the strength and utility of off-road products, notes Thompson.

“Back in the day, you were hard-pressed to find custom-fabricated parts. Now, with everybody having CNC machines, etc., places everywhere are turning out awesome parts that are better and stronger than ever imagined.”

Of course, newer technology in vehicles can mean more work and attention for aftermarket product manufacturers, says Willmore.

“As vehicle technology advances, manufacturers are faced with obstacles in the development of new products that were not a factor just a few years ago,” she explains. “MasterCraft Safety seating is Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard compliant, however, we still have the challenge of side airbags and weight sensors in seats that we now need to work around. While the advancements in technology are important to overall vehicle safety, these improvements create challenges for the manufacturers and slow down new product releases.”

It also requires shops to better their knowledge of new systems.

“The factory installed electronics systems (ESP, CANbus, TPMS, etc.) are all designed for specific purposes. It is very important to learn to work with these systems rather than try to bypass them,” Pratt says. “By working in conjunction with the factory controls, TeraFlex is able to produce a product that retains all of the installed safety features and allows the owner the freedom of aftermarket components.”

Technology is moving at such a fast pace in the off-road industry, he explains, because one smart advancement tends to spur another.

“Trickle-down technology is also a large part of the off-road industry. TeraFlex has been using our own trickle-down R&D to develop products for production,” he says. “Our PreRunner Suspension is a perfect example of this method. Rock crawling has been shifting in popularity to short course and King of the Hammers-style high-speed racing. We picked up on this trend early on, and spent considerable time and resources to stay on the cutting-edge. Testing and tuning the suspension while prerunning down in Southern California and Baja Mexico provided hours of research data to work with. We also worked with FOX Racing Shox, which drew from its racing heritage to develop a remote reservoir shock package that would complement the production suspension. Both of these efforts were a result of the trickle-down effect that introduced new technology to the consumer.”

Hot or Not

With all that technology, what are the hot products and vehicles this year?

“I think it’s the lift/suspension kits for the newer Jeeps,” says Stage 8’s Thompson.

“The SNELL Memorial Foundation released a new helmet standard in late 2010,” says MasterCraft’s Willmore. “Even though the helmets rated to the previous standard are still approved for use in most off-road racing sanctions for several more years, Impact and MasterCraft Safety realized a drastic spike in sales and a huge demand for our 2010 SNELL-rated off-road-specific helmet as soon as it was released for sale.

“Another item that is in demand for the off-road market is our new line of restraints featuring the Quick Safety Adjuster (QSR) mechanism. Because of the length of most off-road races, driver and co-driver changes are a necessity and our QSR-equipped restraints provide for seamless and faster driver changes. Both MasterCraft Safety and Impact are now also offering our race restraints with head-and-neck-restraint-compatible shoulder harnesses.”

Pratt from TeraFlex says anything for the aforementioned Jeeps is popular.

“The Jeep Wrangler is definitely still the hot vehicle. The only major drawback that it has is a huge lack of power. Increasing engine performance and long-travel suspensions are two of the most requested products. Consumers are following the trend of power and speed and demand that their Jeep is upgraded with these performance parts.”

Jeep power is also at the top of the list for Squires of STS Turbo.

“Our hot new product this year is the newly released STS turbocharger system for 2007-’11 Jeep JK V-6 Wranglers. I think Jeep really hit a homerun with this new four-door Wrangler. It is big enough to be a daily driven family vehicle and not just a dedicated weekend toy. It also has a long enough wheel base to actually tow something safely. However, with the standard addition of larger tires, it leaves the Jeep customer with all the desire to conquer mountain passes and tow trailers but frustratingly unable to, due to the little V-6’s serious lack of power.

“The STS turbocharger solves all of these problems and turns this really cool Jeep into a fun and functional vehicle both on and off the road. And with gas nearing $5 a gallon, a nice gain in fuel mileage is as welcome as the power.”

Up & Down the Road

Lastly, we wanted to know what the future holds for off-roaders?

“Honestly, the future of off-roading is ominous as our public lands are constantly under attack and under the threat of being shut down,” says Willmore. “It is our responsibility to ensure that our public lands stay public and that we always promote responsible off-roading. As an industry, we all need to work as a unified voice to keep our trails and land accessible.”

Pratt sees a continuation of the dual-purpose vehicle.

“The future will continue to navigate toward performance-oriented vehicles that can also handle the daily rigors of commuting. Dependable street drivability has and always will be the one key factor in what separates great components from mediocre parts. The JK Wrangler has really redefined how families go off-road. The four-door, body-on-frame configuration was a homerun hit for the struggling Chrysler Corp. and has given consumers a very dependable off-road vehicle with the refined interior creature comforts that are now a necessity. These buyers typically are able to afford upgrade parts and aggressively search them out. They are willing to spend money on components that make both an aggressive aesthetic change and increase performance and handling.”

As we all know, it’s a Jeep thing…

“Jeeping is more than just an automotive hobby for many of these consumers; it is their lifestyle,” he adds. “That is part of the reason that the Wrangler has been able to maintain such a strong loyal following for 70 years.”

Thompson also sees the potential for tighter regulations putting the squeeze on off-road activities.

“To me, that’s the $64,000 question. There are dirt-worshipers everywhere trying to take away access, so I think that’s very much up in the air at this point.”

Even as off-roaders continue to climb to new heights.