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Body-on-frame [light] trucks refuse to die

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Automotive News  /  June 26, 2017

A low-risk, high-reward proposition for automakers

They had been left for dead as recently as this decade. Hulking dinosaurs, reeking of inefficiency and poor ride quality, body-on-frame SUVs were supposed to have ceded their turf to crossovers and moved firmly into the industry's rearview mirror by now.

Consumers had other plans.

While the overall number of body-on-frame SUV nameplates has shrunk since their heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, the remaining players are thriving. So healthy are sales and profit margins for their makers and sellers that new variants such as the Ford Bronco and Jeep Wrangler pickup are set to join the fray.

It's a group of vehicles steeped in tradition and backstory. Like the Mustang and Corvette, they're among the one-name models in the industry: Wrangler, 4Runner, Bronco.

Among the factors driving today's healthy market for body-on-frame SUVs:

• Gasoline prices are down and expected to stay there while SUV fuel efficiency is up — somewhat. This combination gives consumers and automakers confidence to invest in a body-on-frame SUV.

• The economy has recovered from the recession, so consumers are again looking at discretionary purchases.

• With most nameplates switching to a unibody setup, there's less competition for the remaining body-on-frame models.

Crucially, because most of these vehicles share their components with either high-volume pickups domestically or other SUV models sold globally, a body-on-frame SUV is a low-risk, high-reward proposition for their makers.

"Because you're not starting with an all-new platform, you're starting with something and leveraging an investment you've already made. It just makes [an SUV] much easier and less risky," Craig Patterson, Ford's large-SUV marketing manager, told Automotive News.

The low-risk, high-reward rationale is driving Ford's decision to resurrect the Bronco nameplate in 2020. When it arrives, the new Bronco will ride on the same platform as the upcoming Ford Ranger midsize pickup — one currently sold in other markets globally.

Thus, if the Bronco debuts and Ford dealers hear crickets from consumers, the automaker won't face a huge loss. Conversely, when a pickup-based SUV sells well, it can mean big profits for the automaker.

Ford has other reasons for stepping up its SUV game.

Like all automakers, Ford sees consumers' preference for light trucks as a permanent evolution. By adding the Bronco to its lineup, Ford can diversify its portfolio to lure in — or keep — a consumer who might have otherwise picked a Wrangler or 4Runner when they wanted a capable off-road machine.

Ford also has a portfolio of fuel-efficient engines to offer in the new Bronco that it didn't the last time it sold the 4x4 back in 1996. Thus, body-on-frame construction doesn't necessarily mean terrible fuel economy. Patterson said the use of Ford's EcoBoost turbocharged engines in the Bronco was "inevitable" though he declined to discuss specifics.

Lucrative customization

Then there's the customization factor. Because these types of SUVs are often discretionary purchases that fall under the "want" category rather than "need," they're often bought by the kind of person who isn't content with a stock vehicle.

"To be considered legitimate in the off-road space, you have to be able to give the folks what they want — and what they want is to be able to customize it," Patterson said.

Ford plans a full line of accessories and modifications for the Bronco — many of which will land at dealerships pre-installed.

One has only to look to Fiat Chrysler's use of its Mopar products on Wranglers to see the potential.

Several years ago, Mopar head Pietro Gorlier made the shrewd decision to grab a larger slice of the massive aftermarket industry that existed in the Wrangler's orbit. The 4x4 has been ranked by the Specialty Equipment Market Association as the most customized SUV on the market every year since 2010, a market that spends billions of dollars annually customizing light trucks.

Built-in Mopar

FCA gets in on the action early, modifying many of its Wranglers with Mopar parts at the Toledo Assembly Complex where they're assembled. Thus, they arrive at dealerships with aftermarket options that are covered by warranty, creating a tempting new toy for someone looking to avoid the hassle and expense of customizing their Wrangler part by part. On average, each Jeep Wrangler has $850 worth of customization, according to data released by FCA at the 2016 SEMA show.

Plus, higher transaction prices for these Wranglers means higher amounts financed. All of this adds up to a significant windfall for both FCA and its dealers. FCA declined comment for this story.

Wrangler aficionados will soon have a new toy to play with. Jeep's highly anticipated next-gen Wrangler is expected to be on sale by the end of this year. When it does, it will bring with it new iterations that show FCA's confidence in spending precious development dollars on one of its most iconic models.

A pickup iteration of the Wrangler will give FCA a midsize competitor to the highly popular Toyota Tacoma and GM Canyon/Colorado duo, while a diesel Wrangler in the U.S. market will help fuel economy figures.

History has favored Jeep when it expands the Wrangler's offerings. It wasn't until 2007 that Jeep sold a four-door model known as the Wrangler Unlimited; today this higher-content version makes up about 75 percent of U.S. Wrangler sales, which totaled 191,774 in 2016.

Dealers lobby

Consumer and dealer enthusiasm for these kinds of SUVs have gone a long way toward ensuring their survival. Toyota experienced this firsthand.

"[SUVs'] biggest impact is the emotional element; buyers desire these products, they're willing to pay for them," Andrew Coetzee, Toyota's group vice president for product planning and strategy told Automotive News. "It's not just a must-have, it's a want. It's an emotional draw, which means they're flexible in what they buy."

This makes a difference to dealers, who value this type of consumer and let Toyota know about it. This has saved the body-on-frame 4Runner at least once.

Several years ago with gasoline prices at their peak and stiffer regulations looming, the Japanese automaker was reconsidering whether it was prudent to continue selling the 4Runner in the U.S.

At the time, Toyota's RAV4 and Highlander unibody crossovers were vastly outselling the 4Runner — they still do — and the crossovers were doing so while being significantly more fuel efficient.

But after customers and dealers — a group with whom Toyota has a close, deferential relationship — spoke up in favor of the venerable 4Runner, the automaker's confidence in the 4Runner's business case was renewed and Toyota left it alone.

"That's always something that makes a difference for us," Coetzee said of both dealer and customer support. "It's tough to deny their voice, so we try hard to try and match what they're looking for."

The move was a prescient one. Despite the current model's age, 4Runner sales were up 15 percent in 2016 to 111,970; through May of this year they're also up 15 percent.

That doesn't mean that the 4Runner's identity is inextricably linked to being a body-on-frame vehicle, however. While there are no current plans to swap the 4Runner to unibody, it's not outside the realm of possibility.

"In theory, I think there's some openness on the part of buyers as to how their vehicles are built," Coetzee said. "I'm not sure you'll see us abandon [body on frame] any time soon. I'm just open to any scenario of how engineers can develop tough vehicles because I think our people are capable of change over time."

Land Rover is a perfect example of consumers' openness to change if the vehicles' off-road abilities remain stout. With the recent replacement of the LR4 with the Discovery, Land Rover now lacks a body-on-frame vehicle for the first time in its long and storied off-road history (the next-generation Defender could return as body-on-frame when it debuts within a year). Yet sales — and owners' perception of strength — remains a key selling point for Land Rover.

4Runner loyalists

As with the Wrangler, the 4Runner has enjoyed a loyal following since it was introduced in the U.S. in 1984. Like many original SUVs of that era, the 4Runner was essentially Toyota's pickup with a different body on top — in this case, a removable fiberglass roof covering a second row of seats and a rollbar.

It was launched to compete with the second-generation Jeep Cherokee, also from the class of 1984, kicking off a golden era of body-on-frame SUVs in the U.S. that would include the Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder, Isuzu Trooper, Chevy S-10 Blazer, Honda Passport and Mitsubishi Montero. (Ironically, another standout from that era, Jeep's second-generation Cherokee, was a beefed-up unibody design.)

These models were downsized from the large, unwieldy Suburbans and were more family-friendly than the two-door Chevy K5 Blazer or Ford Bronco of the era. The new SUVs promised the practicality of the station wagons baby boomers had grown up with, with an extra dose of ruggedness baked in.

Automakers loved the prospect of selling SUVs instead of station wagons to consumers since SUVs were cheap to produce and counted as a light truck, therefore facing less-strict fuel economy standards. Lower costs meant more profits for automakers and cheaper prices for consumers.

Everything was fine in SUV-land until Toyota took this evolution one step further in 1994 and introduced the first modern unibody crossover, the RAV4. It promised the best attributes of SUVs: practicality, commanding view of the road, all-wheel drive and the impression of safety, while adding better fuel efficiency and comfort.

Lexus came next in 1998 with the RX, kicking off the luxury crossover revolution.

Other automakers quickly followed suit, adapting their sedan platforms to accommodate a crossover body. In 1999, the 10 crossover models on the market made up 6.4 percent of all passenger vehicle sales in the U.S. In 2005, 38 crossovers accounted for 14.5 percent of the market; in 2016 there were 77 models eating up a third of all sales.

SUV sales went in the other direction: 1995 saw 31 models making up an 11.9 percent market share; in 2005 it was 55 models and 12.6 percent market share and in 2016, 29 models made up 7.5 percent share. The body-on-frame SUV was no longer the high-flying king of the road. But it has a bright future as a profitable prince.

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And in addition to the Bronco, hopefully Ford will wake up and also bring the Everest here.   and for those who say Ford has too many  SUV variants, I say get rid of the Flex-  2000 units a month!

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I continue to be amazed that the slow selling Flex is still around... Maybe it has friends in the executive suites?

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Just now, TeamsterGrrrl said:

I continue to be amazed that the slow selling Flex is still around... Maybe it has friends in the executive suites?

The Flex is extremely popular in California.

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20 hours ago, Mackpro said:

Uni-body construction is not for everyone.  In my situation we need constant towing ability but not to the point of needing a 3/4 or 1 ton truck. Towing my jet ski or one UTV or golf cart I could get by with a small/ mid size front wheel drive SUV. My camper and boat would be a no go. I've seen enough eco-boost engines turn into a hand grenade that I won't go down that road till some serious longevity issues are addressed ( that don't require very expensive repairs) and I was a ford man for 20 years. I'll keep chugging along in my  5.3 and 6.0 Chevy gas guzzlers with their full frames and are cheap to repair and most of all safe for my family to ride in. Safety over rides MPG for me and my family. 

No argument on your point on BOF construction.  As for your comment on Ecoboost "hand grenades"-please elaborate.  My SHO just hit 90,000 miles.  Been to the dealer once in that time ( AC issue)

What are the issues?  These in 150's?   And what kind of mileage?  

I believe the take rate on Ecoboosts in 150's is close to 50%.  Given the number of 150's sold per year, that is a lot of experience/mileage o the books.

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49 minutes ago, Red Horse said:

No argument on your point on BOF construction.  As for your comment on Ecoboost "hand grenades"-please elaborate.  My SHO just hit 90,000 miles.  Been to the dealer once in that time ( AC issue)

What are the issues?  These in 150's?   And what kind of mileage?  

I believe the take rate on Ecoboosts in 150's is close to 50%.  Given the number of 150's sold per year, that is a lot of experience/mileage o the books.

These are our work trucks. Low mileage injector failures with one hydro-locking the engine. However our oldest one is high milage with no issues. When we were investigating theses failures we were shocked that we're not the only ones with this issue. So far 2 of our 3 have had this issue. A friend of my mine took his on vacation and up north east and broke down in Pennsylvania with same injector issue.  A quick google search shows cracked heads, blocks and rod through the side of blocks most can be traced back to injector issues. All theses were F150's.  In a car it would be a fun little engine. But I don't like having to deal with our local car dealers so I try to stick with tried and true reliable designs  that even I can work on  if need be. This is also why I won't own a diesel pickup. 

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Full sized pickups are an expensive addiction- I'd double my cost per mile if I switched to one. Unless you need the load capacity, why waste the $$$?

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typically at my house, the newest most expensive vehicle is the wife's car, somthing new reliable won't brake down while im away working, its a new nissan altima i think has around 13k miles right now. second most expensive vehicle will be my primary vehicle witch is always a 1 ton or 3/4 ton pickup right now its 2006 a srw f350 diesel 115k on the clock. then ill typically have a secondary witch will just be a beater car. then i have a service pickup and a couple play cars.

but typically the newest most expensive ones will be her car followed by my pickup. i need to have a pickup that is good enough to hook up a big trailer and drive wherever whenever in any weather. and that is the vehicle ill use as my primary transportation, when im home i'm always running somewhere picking up parts or hauling tree branches hauling supply's for a project, a half ton would work for 90% of my use but the other 10% requires atleast a 3/4 ton. 99% of the time ill have a beater economy car ill use for some of the running around. long trips without a trailer we take the wifes car seems like were pulling a trailer on 90% of our long trips though.

service truck isn't really suited for normal pickup duty's carry's a lot of tools around and its heavy 10k lbs is its every day weight. its a gas engine too so it has its tongue hanging out even with a smallish 4-5k lb trailer behind it. but whenever you have work to do on something somewhere other than at the shop it the best thing sense sliced bread.

i guess a long story to say yeah my daily driver is a 1 ton pickup so sue me....lol yeah i could daily drive a half ton or even a ranger for much of my use but that would mean having yet another vehicle. my 1 ton does everything and i already have a small fleet of vehicles, i have to think about it to tell you how many i have at the moment but at least 5-6 running driving registered vehicles + a few more. 

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1 hour ago, TeamsterGrrrl said:

Full sized pickups are an expensive addiction- I'd double my cost per mile if I switched to one. Unless you need the load capacity, why waste the $$$?

 I need the capacity. A ranger won't pull my tractor on my gooseneck trailer, or my horses, or my log loading trailer or haul hay or wood like my one ton will. If you had a good Diesel they get about the same mileage as a Ford ranger with a v6 by the way. 

Edited by HeavyGunner
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2016 dodge 4x4 megacab 2500 cummins diesel 21 mpg, 86 ford ranger 4x4 v6 5sp. 25 mpg.  ranger can haul me and one other + one med. sized dog in the cab "packed"  mega cab 4 people 2 dogs still have elbow room, and can pull a trailer.

 

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1 Series Deere is as big a tractor as I need and my Golf TDI can tow it. Local farm store and elevators give me full ton price on wood pellets and corn and let me take it home in half ton or less trailer loads. My Ranger can handle a half ton+ on it's back or a ton on the trailer, but I haven't needed it in months. So I pretty much don't even need the Ranger, never mind a full size pickup. Buy buying what I need I can pay cash and got to retire early...

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I agree, We bought last year a new  left over Ram 5500 Quad cab dualie. Cummins power  w/6 speed manual, 4 x 4.  I removed the dump body and added a full size pick up bed on it. Re tired it with 12.5 x 36 x 19 singles for towing my race trailer and goodies, hauling our hounds and general things. Decent ride an better on fuel the the D- 150  that now is sitting in the corner.

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I'm not criticizing you guys that need a big pickup for work or farming. What rankles me are the condo and townhouse dwellers that buy a full size pickup when the biggest thing they ever haul is a full cartload from Sams Club or Costco.

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11 hours ago, fxfymn said:

I recently went to a 2016 Chevy 3500HD dually to tow my gooseneck and fifth wheel trailers. I am pleasantly surprised by how well it rides, even in comparison to my 2011 3500 srw truck. My guess is that since GM has been building these things since Capt. Marvel was a Lieutenant they have been able to keep refining the suspension to achieve the ride that the truck delivers.

I just don't see any other practical  solution other than a body on frame design for those of us that need a true heavy duty pick up. Do I wish I could get better mileage? Sure, but averaging around 15 MPG in town and 20 MPG on the highway is not terrible either.

 

5 hours ago, 41chevy said:

I agree, We bought last year a new  left over Ram 5500 Quad cab dualie. Cummins power  w/6 speed manual, 4 x 4.  I removed the dump body and added a full size pick up bed on it. Re tired it with 12.5 x 36 x 19 singles for towing my race trailer and goodies, hauling our hounds and general things. Decent ride an better on fuel the the D- 150  that now is sitting in the corner.

You are both right. As I mentioned in my post, there are some applications where body on frame is the only way to go especially for heavier duties. BOFs are also more versatile for up-fits and modifications. New technologies have allowed heavier applications to not sacrifice ride quality. Some BOF designs have coil springs, independent suspensions and even air ride.

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KSB, is the flex considered a carcinogen in California....like everything else 😁

 

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The bottom.line I think as several of you have mentioned is this is America and we can buy any vehicle we can ( or possibly can't) afford! When the Dodge Cummins came out a couple of my buddies pulling a full load of insulation on a heavy steel 48 ft flatbed were documenting 20mpg! In the early days they had problems with the Getrag 5speed tranny ( ironically the same company that builds race car trannys) It turned out to be a lubrication problem. The thing was rated around 180hp but ran like a big block Chevy due to the torque! Imagine putting that pre emissions Cummins in a late model p.u! My friend had an early F350 dually with an early Cummins and a 10 speed r.r! Used a little electric compressor  to work the range selector! I haven't quite figured out why all these people in Florida (who obviously don't off road from the spotless condition of their trucks) buy 4 wheel drive trucks! Maybe they enjoy the lower fuel economy and all those extra parts to wear out!

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One of the benefits of freedom is people are free to do stupid stuff. I've found I can move anything I need with a VW Golf diesel, and it's hard to get worse than 40 MPG with one. My 2003 has cost about $10k for fuel and depreciated around $14k in 138k miles. My 1998 Ranger 4 by 4 pickup has cost around $15k for fuel and $17k in depreciation in a mere 92k miles. Other expenses like maintenance, tires, insurance, etc. were similar for both vehicles. So the 40+ MPG Golf cost $8k less to run half again more miles than the 17 MPG Ranger, and those dollars went into my retirement funds and grew even more. If I'd put as many miles on the Ranger as the Golf the differences would be even starker- about $16k more to run the Ranger than the Golf diesel has cost. The costs would have been even higher for an F150 or similar full size pickup.

Anytime you buy a big tractor, boat, or RV you doom yourself to buying bigger vehicles for the life of that tool or toy. For example, if I'd bought a heavier tractor than a Deere 1 series I'd have to upsize to a vehicle with a 3500 pound tow rating. Cheapest vehicle with that tow rating is a compact pickup or Ford Escape for around $25k and they get around 20 MPG, half what my VW diesels get. BMW's diesel SUV will tow 7700 pounds and get 25 MPG, but they start at around $60K! And don't get me started on full size pickups- $30k for a stripped one that gets only 17 MPG!

 

 

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you can buy something 5-10 years old for 50-25% of its original purchase price. that buys a lot of fuel. just sayin. 

$60,000 new pickup buy it used in 8 years for 25,000 savings = $35,000 

$35,000 = about 13,500 gallons of diesel fuel

lets say the truck get 15mpg i get free fuel for 201k miles, ok ok so i got to do a couple repairs on it i woulden't on a new truck 150k miles of free fuel

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