Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Bronco versus Jeep - Two Different Approaches

If 95% of the vehicles you sell never go off-road, it is worth it to make them capable of being modified to handle the Rubicon trail?

Much ink has been spilled about the demise of Ford in recent years.   Ford, like GM and Fiat-Chrysler is making money on trucks and SUVs, but the car business is a loss-leader, which is why activist investors are clamoring for these companies to leave that sector.   That makes sense in the short-term, but in 2005, we saw what happened the last time that tactic was tried - gas shot up to $5 a gallon and suddenly the market for $50,000 pickup trucks evaporated overnight.

Well, today, these trucks are topping $100,000 and Ford has taken the lead in slathering technology into these vehicles.  I ran into a friend with a three-year-old BMW 7-series and we were comparing notes on his car's features compared to our now five-year-old F150.   Turns out, BMW doesn't even offer some of the bells and whistles, three years ago, that Ford offered five years back.  Self-parking, for example (which works, and is handy for a parade float like the F-150) wasn't an option on the 7-series.

But overall, the Ford is more tech-heavy that the BMW.  The all-aluminum body, for example, or the twin-turbocharged, direct-injection V-6 with a ten-speed transmission (offered as of 2017) are on a par with Bavaria's best, and perhaps better.  Throw in the fact that Ford sells more F150s in a month than BMW sells cars in a year, and you can guess which is more reliable and cost-effective in the long-term.

Ford invested in technology to comply with Obama-era EPA mileage requirements which were somewhat extreme. Making CAFE averages equal to today's Prius mileage was something of a stretch, and pretty much mandated that each car company offer an electric car or cars in their lineups, so as to offset the lower mileage of their gasoline offerings.   Product cycles are measured in years, and products coming out today, such as the electric Mustang, were designed in a different era.  Today, everyone is talking the new Bronco, while few are talking about the e-Stang.

Jalopnik did a good article comparing the new Bronco to the old Jeep.  It is an interesting contrast in styles, and Ford wants to make "Bronco" a brand like Jeep is.  In fact, the new Bronco is two vehicles, the main Bronco and a "sport" model that is more akin to a Jeep Patriot or Compass - a car-based platform not really intended for off-road use.  It is a smart move, as evidenced by how many Compasses Jeep sells or sold.

I wrote about Jeeps before and why they are a poor vehicle choice for most Americans.  If you buy one to commute to work, you will find it noisy, uncomfortable, and cramped.  They get poor gas mileage and have sad little tow ratings (2000 lbs - hardly enough to tow a pop-up!).   If you are an off-road enthusiast, however, and don't mind dropping another ten to twenty grand (for starters) you can morph a Jeep into a real rock-climber or mud-bogger.  Doing so, however, makes it even worse for daily driving - the tire noise alone will drive you nuts (and those big sticky soft tires last maybe 15,000 miles on dry pavement).

The truth is, people buy Jeeps as image vehicles.  They want to project the image of rough-and-rugged adventure, as if they are going to go off every weekend to some remote lake and go camping, or perhaps climb some amazing rock trail.   But even a "Rubicon" Jeep with "trail rated" on the side of it is suited for little more than the occasional logging trail, and statistically speaking, 90% or more of Jeeps never go off-road.

Because of their primitive construction - which has largely remained unchanged since 1945, other than to finally ditch leaf springs for coils (that whole rollover controversy - remember?) Jeeps are pretty easy to modify for off-road action.  With two live Dana axles, front and rear, they can be easily lifted and modified to handle oversized tires.  So for the hard-core off-road set, the Jeep is a winner not in spite of its crudeness, but because of it.

Our old 1988 Toyota 4x4 pickup was one of the first with independent front suspension.  Instead of a live axle up front, it had half-shafts and CV joints - like a front-wheel-drive car, and what most car-based AWD mini-utes have today.  The advantage was in the ride and handling, but the off-road hard-core dismissed independent front suspension (IFS) because it was harder to mod.  The old live-axle design - on leaf springs no less - was easy to jack up.  Just put lift blocks under the springs and maybe a drop pitman arm on the steering box (on a Jeep,anyway) and you're good to go.   Well, that and new shocks.

Independent front suspension?  A little harder - you have to lift the front end with drop spindles or new control arms, and the angles of the CV joints will become more extreme - leading to their early demise.

So it was interesting to me that Ford chose an independent front suspension design for its new Bronco - the "real" one, not just the "sport" model.   IFS is used in the new Ranger, too, and replaced the "Twin I-beam front suspension" of yore in the old F150's.  Our two-wheel-drive F150 has the same suspension as the 4x4 - there is just a blank space behind the front spindles where the half-shafts were supposed to go.  Saves on parts cost and ease of assembly.

No doubt the commonality of design and parts reduces cost (even though IFS is a more costly design) as the Bronco can go down the same assembly line as the Ranger and share the same architecture.   But perhaps it is an admission by Ford that most buyers are not going to go rock-crawling with these vehicles, but instead just want the rugged 4x4 look - the tail fins of our era.

Oddly enough, the Bronco comes from the factory with (optional) 35 inch (!!) tires, so it has that "off-road" look available from the factory.  The Jeep, in contrast, has almost ridiculously tiny tires - but then again, they realize that the serious off-roaders will immediately drive over to the off-road shop for a new suspension, wheels and tire package.

The Bronco, like the Jeep is also available in a four-door model - both being another admission that it is style that sells, not practicality.   The short wheelbase of the two-door Jeep is by design - to allow it to climb over obstacles and not "hang up" or "high center" on the frame.   Going to four doors, well, it is just a styled grocery-getter, which is why Jeep offers (or offered) the four-door model in a two-wheel drive version.  It was the poser Jeep.

It remains to be seen whose marketing model works best.   I think the Bronco will force Fiat-Chrysler to up their game, as their basic design really hasn't changed (under the sheetmetal) in over a decade.   But IFS on a Jeep?  The hard core would revolt.  Ford isn't weighed down with the burden of a fanbase to appease, and can start with a clean slate.

I suspect in terms of riding comfort, handling, technology and whatnot, the Bronco will win hands-down over the Jeep, for daily driving and occasional off-road.   Of course, it will cost a lot more as well, which is again, why I was no big fan of the Jeep (which are now topping thirty grand!).   You pay a lot of money and get...  a steel box with a drive train from before the war.

Getting back to the demise of Ford, however, I think you need to look at the technology of the products they are offering.  I am quite pleased with the 3.5 twin-turbo "ecoboost" (which is now in a second, improved generation) and I hear the same from most other owners (of which there are a lot, as it is the most popular vehicle in America).  You put your foot into it, and she lets out a rough growl and propels you forward with aplomb - even when towing 5,000 lbs of trailer.  GM and Chrysler seem to be stuck in the past with their older V-8 designs.

Oh, and the gas mileage is startling, for such a large vehicle.   We've gotten up to 17 mpg - towing a trailer.  Almost 30 on the highway (with a tailwind, at 60 mph).  But it averages 20-22 mpg, and that is pretty astounding, again, for a parade float.

That being said, the cost of developing all this new technology is such that GM and Ford shared development costs for their new line of 9- and 10-speed transmissions.  Buy a Ford or a Chevy, it's going to have the same damn transmission in it.   Interesting thought, because in the early 1970's was when GM decided that development costs for engines were such that it no longer made sense for each division to have its own engine design (and people were outraged, although I don't know why).

One part at a time, the various divisions of GM basically merged and today, well, we have Chevy, GMC, Buick, and Cadilliac - and they all pretty much share components.  How long will it be before GM and Ford are badge-engineering each other's products?

Speaking of GM, they too, are seeing the wild profits Fiat-Chrysler is making selling empty steel boxes and want in on this Jeep thing as well.  So a new "Hummer" is coming out soon - something more Jeep-like (which was in the cards before the last recession, but was cancelled along with the rest of the Hummer brand) and in electric mode, too.   So pretty soon, we will be awash in a sea of Jeep-like vehicles, and the question will remain, how many of such vehicles can the market absorb?  And will there be enough sales to pay back the development costs?

Fiat-Chrysler has had a real money-maker on its hands with the Jeep brand, and had the field to itself, for a long time.  That is all about to change.   And if sales of Jeeps decline - siphoned off by Bronco and Hummer - will Fiat-Chrysler have the cash to invest in a redesign of the Jeep to stay current?

Fascinating questions - I don't have the answers.    It will be fun to watch, though.  But I would not count Ford out of the picture just yet.