Off The Road Again

Nov 21, 2009

When you think about it, there’s a lot more “off-road” than there is “road.” To cover all that diverse terrain, there is considerable difference between four-wheel-drive, off-road vehicles. “You have to separate the markets,” insists George Kreppein, vice president of Rockland Gear in Sloatsburg, N.Y. “There’s the SUV market for soccer moms and gold chain wearers, and there’s the off-road market for the trail and for rock crawlers. Expeditions don’t go rock crawling.”

Jeeps, however, do. They’ve been around “forever,” and remain big in the off-road market. “Jeeps never die,” Kreppein reveals, adding that Jeep is still the #1 off-road enthusiast vehicle, despite ever-increasing competition. Jeep’s popularity stems from its agility and fuel economy, as well as the low cost of repair. “From the mid-’80s to 2004, the parts are interchangeable. You don’t have that in other vehicles. They were still building new transmissions for 2000-2004 Wranglers.” Now that they’re not, business for Rockland, who remanufactures transmissions and builds specialty Jeep transfer cases for heavy-duty applications, has increased.

“They are the original 4WD vehicle,” Rockland’s Mike Weinberg says of Jeep. “They gained fame in WWII and remain popular.” Some of the reasons he gives for their continuing popularity include the best selection of sizes and the ease of ownership for entry-level buyers. “Initial purchase price is a big influence, especially if it’s going to be a daily driver.” Furthermore, resale is “always good.”

As Kreppein says, everyone needs a 4WD, so when Jeep designed a $25,000 4-door Wrangler to look like a Hummer, sales, “took off. That’s a trend that’s not changing.”

Keeping Them In Suspension

Recently, Pro-Comp, located in Chula Vista, Calif., introduced long-arm suspension systems for the Jeep JK, Jeep TJ and Chevy Silverado, as well as a Ford Super Duty XXX system. “We are focusing on the hardcore Jeep market,” state Dave Simpson and Mark Matthews. Top-selling items include suspension systems for the Chevy half-ton [two and four-wheel drive], although the Ford F150 and Super Duty, Dodge Ram and Jeep are also seeing strong sales.

Although it’s likely that the economy and high fuel prices have affected the off-road aftermarket, they maintain that business is good and, in fact, is increasingly competitive. Fortunately, they report, “Many consumers are looking to make other enhancements to their vehicle beyond the performance suspension system. The industry is driven by what happens with new vehicle sales. We’re seeing a lot of interest in performance products and accessories for light trucks. ECU tuners, HID lighting and differential covers are just some of the products we offer to complement our full line of suspension systems.” Another new item includes a line of electronic performance tuners and calibration tools for late model light trucks.

Off-Road Power

Katech may be relatively new to the general off-road market, but the Michigan-based company’s engines are well known in off-road racing.

“The LS7 engine is just exploding right now,” Caleb Newman says, referring to the engine’s popularity. “It’s a great crate engine to put in anything: buggies, trophy trucks-¦It’s reliable and economical, and it’s a good way to gain horsepower. It’s a cost-effective platform to build on.”

The cost-effectiveness of the LS7 fits with Katech’s goal as a supplier: to provide great value for money and consider the total cost of ownership. “We’re not inexpensive, but we offer value for the money. We enable a lower cost of ownership and a lower cost to go racing. Containing costs-without losing a competitive edge-is goal number 1.”

But, it’s not all about horsepower. Newman says many of their 630-680-horsepower engines are competing against 750- horsepower specialty race engines that cost twice as much or more.

While Katech strives to keeps costs reasonable, they do not sacrifice quality or durability. Newman notes that air filtration is critical. That’s why Katech is working with its sponsored teams on a pre-filter system. “We want our engine to last longer to give our teams an advantage. Filtration systems make engines last longer.”

Where The Rubber Meets The Off-Road

No matter what kind of off-road vehicle, suspension or engine you have, you won’t go very far without a rugged set of tires. Mike Green of Pit Bull Tires in St. Louis, Mo., deals with extreme off-road enthusiasts who want rugged, long-lasting tires. “Our customers want an aggressive tread pattern-a unique pattern that bites at any and all angles.” His patented patterns allow tires to bite, grab and flex, which helps them last longer.

Green, who refuses to make a specific competition tire because he wants his tires readily available to everyone, claims Pit Bull tires, “kick butt in competition and still get good mileage on the street.”

That’s important these days, he explains, because fuel prices and a soft economy are affecting the sport. Although he sees more people getting into off-roading because it’s less expensive than other sports, some enthusiasts are leaving the sport due to its costs and other obligations. Those who do stay aren’t going as often or as far. That inevitably reduces the number of times they go because, as Green says, “You don’t want to go to the same place all the time.”

Despite the market changes, sales are increasing for Pit Bull Tires. Green thinks that’s due in part to their relative newness to the industry [1994], but also because of the durability of his tires. “They don’t slice. That’s important for rock crawlers. Our rock crawling tires corner better, perform better and flex better.” They’re even used on desert racing teams, he adds.

What The Customer Wants

Whether you’re talking tires or torque, off-roaders want to reach a better performance level than the next guy. That translates into better ratios and stronger components for transmissions. Kreppein says repair shops are looking for direct replacement parts. “They don’t want to engineer, cut and weld stuff; they just want to swap it out and bolt it in: easy. The market is changing to make it simpler for the end-user. People are putting money in tires, wheels and bolt-ons to make their 4WD stronger. Simple add-ons and bolt-ons are the future.”

Consumers may want it to be simple, but they also want it to be good. Simpson and Matthews explain that off-roaders are looking for a good product that provides an aggressive off-road look while maintaining a factory ride quality and handling for the street.

“Pro Comp suspensions offers a balance of these criteria because we know how important it is for our dealers to be able to make money selling and installing our products. We support our dealers with deep margins and aggressive incentives,” says Matthews.

When it comes to customer service, one of the top three concerns Katech discovered among customers is the ability to reach technical support via the phone. “We often provide trackside tech support, but we also diagnose over the phone,” Newman explains. In addition to prompt service, customers want quick engine turn-around time, good value and commitment from the manufacturer.

That goes hand-in-hand with what they want from an engine, Newman says. “Their top three priorities are reliability, drivability and torque. They always want more power, but reliability is more important and always ranks higher.”

Katech does a lot of durability runs at Le Mans, but Newman says they’re aware that off-road racing requires a different strategy and driving technique. “The off-road market is less about politics and performance management; they’re just out there to go fast. It’s still like the Wild West. Actually,” he reflects, “it works well with our engine because our drivability is better. At the Baja 500, you use peak power rarely: about three minutes overall. So you don’t have to have the highest torque.”

Other benefits are that it’s easier on other parts: drive shafts rarely break and the power curve puts more power on the ground with less tire spin. That’s important, because while Newman says fuel prices and the economy don’t typically affect racing purchases, fuel economy plays a strategic factor.

Customers have to be savvy about purchases in today’s economy. Green jokes that his customers want “free stuff,” but says realistically they’re looking for, “good quality at a good price from a company that stands behind what it sells.” Pit Bull does that with live service techs to address problems: no automated answering system and no message-takers. “The person you talk to is the person who handles your problem. Or, you can talk to me. If I’m busy, I’ll call you back the same day.”

Because Pit Bull tires are typically sold through dealers, Green may not be the first call customers make. He uses a qualifying process for all his dealers, looking for tire and business knowledge and a sense of humor. Often, he knows his dealers first. Despite the screening, he knows he can’t control everything that happens at the dealer level; however, he insists that he’ll take care of all problems. “I want the customer to have a good experience.”

Off-Road Forecast

Off-roading is a strong market and Kreppein thinks it will continue to grow, despite rising fuel costs. “The price of gas has slowed people down, but it will level out, especially in regions with four seasons.”

How it will grow is a different matter. Jeeps are more advanced now than they were in WWII, and Kreppein envisions continued evolution, with diesel power coming “in a big way,” but Weinberg says the 3-liter diesel Grand Cherokee on the German market is over-priced. He predicts it won’t sell well in the U.S.

Simpson and Matthews contend that the diesel performance market is strong, as evidenced by the popularity of their ¾- and 1-ton suspension systems for Ford, Dodge and Chevy. Off-road racing also continues to be strong.

Simpson adds, “Our involvement in CORR and SCORE continue to pull products through consumer brand awareness. Rock crawling is strong for us as well, but we have a new focus with long arms, high clearance and high articulation systems.” To assist that focus, Pro Comp recently added a new 25,000-square-foot R&D facility.

Much of Green’s R&D occurs in competition. He sponsors some off-road race teams because he likes to see his products used in order to get field-tested feedback. That feedback translates into new products. “We have 21 new sizes [of tires] coming out in September-”sizes that make the papers,” Green announces. For sand buggies, they will offer a 31-1150-15 and a 32-1200-16 as early as August.

Katech also works with race teams, actively developing new engines. “We’re working on new specs as teams want more power cost-effectively and reliably,” Newman reveals. He predicts the advent of, “a lot of products that will enable great engines,” such as an LSX block: a cast-aluminum block with more displacement.

“We always have to be working on something new, even if teams aren’t asking for it yet,” Newman chuckles. Currently under development is a new intake manifold. “The single-plane manifold is not as good for air-fuel distribution as the plastic version. We want to develop something even better.”