This Is Not Your Father’s Front Suspension

Apr 17, 2014

Jeep’s JK Wrangler is hinting that it will go from its solid front axle to independent front suspension (IFS) for better handling and a smoother ride. Traditional Jeep enthusiasts are up in arms thinking Chrysler is catering to soccer moms and others who welcome the softer, kinder Wrangler that IFS enables. Originally the entire Jeep line used to have solid front axles, but today the Wrangler is the last man standing.

Offroad desert racing is a great place to look for state-of-the-art developments and real wheelers tend to favor a solid front axle, especially for rock crawls. Talking to members of the 4×4 racing community sheds some light on the merits of the two suspension systems and their future roles for consumer offroad vehicles.

Solid vs. IFS in Racing

“As long as we’re doing big rocks there’s always going to be solid axle race cars,” says Dave Cole, owner of King of the Hammers and head of Hammerking Productions. He notes that solid axles tend to be more robust as far as strength, and they’re cheaper. The question really boils down to how often you plan on encountering big rocks on your offroad excursions. Cole was among the first to shed his solid axle skin and build high-end IFS racers.

Tim Lund of Wild West Offroad just completed a race build with IFS.

“It features high clearance lower control arms, an industry first, giving the IFS a huge ground clearance advantage over a live axle,” Lund says.

At Wild West, they’re looking at everything they do desert-wise and thinking they can make it work for the rocks. According to Lund, “The prototype for the build was racer Jason Scherer’s 4400 car that made its debut at the 2012 King of the Hammers.”

Although IFS cars have become all the rage at King of the Hammers, Trail Gear tech specialist Nick Poudrier points out they seem to be getting further from the finish.

“Shannon Campbell is the only guy who’s been able to get a first place with IFS (Campbell did it in 2011),” he says. “When Loren Healy built an IFS car that didn’t win, he got back into his solid axle and won this year.”

It’s a Father-Son Thing

At this year’s King of the Hammers race in February, a handful of entrants embraced the new trend of running vehicles with IFS. Among them was Dave Cole’s 17-year-old son Bailey. He ran a second generation Toyota 4 Runner with IFS in the Stock Class of the Everyman Challenge. Bailey struck up a deal with the racers from Ridgecrest who were running a solid front axle: if he had trouble in the rocks they’d pull him in.

What ended up happening was just the opposite. The Ridgecrest rig ended up needing a tow and Cole was proud that his son stuck to his word and towed them to the pit.

“We spent the last 15 years cutting IFS off of Toyotas and putting solid front axles on and now people are  doing the opposite,” he laughs.

Lund of Wild West Offroad works with his 23-year-old son Dallas on a lot of builds.

“He was in the garage helping build 4x4s since he was in his baby seat holding wrenches,” says Lund.

Dallas has become quite a designer and Lund marvels at his son’s designing skills. He just got out of Mechanical Engineering University and “Dallas has taken over and is taking it beyond levels that I would have,” Lund says.

What the Future Holds

There will always be a core group of Jeep owners who prize the solid front axle’s ruggedness for tasks like heavy towing. They welcome the jarring in their Jeep when a solid axle takes on extreme terrain. Another reason they choose it is because they can modify suspension with aftermarket Jeep parts and accessories.

“I’m sure Jeep has thought it through and they’re not going to come out half-cocked,” says Poudrier. “It’s going to be something made to take the abuse that a normal Jeep product can.”