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Why CAFE standards will NOT kill the off-roader

CAFE - Corporate Average Fuel Economy - is a big thing. It’s a big thing because we as decent human beings like to pretend to care about the environment because we like the idea of breathing in clean air and having enough portable energy to last the duration of the species if nothing else. In the grand scheme of things CAFE standards is but one component of environmental stewardship, but it’s nonetheless a tool aimed at helping to amass a bigger picture towards that environmental stewardship. It also has a few people up in arms regarding how it will affect the total utility of their vehicles, whether performance vehicles meant to conquer track times or off-roaders meant to conquer Moab. Concerns over the raw performance aspects have been pretty quiet with supercars from McLaren, Ferrari and Porsche employing trick hybrid setups that themselves push technological boundaries and provide promise of “trickle-down” effects that will one day permeate to the Versas and Fiesta of tomorrow. With off-roaders, the concern is more palpable with fears of the government essentially banning and taking away our precious body-on-frame lifted rock crawlers. AggregateDemand crunched the numbers and it doesn’t look good, particularly for the perennial Yukon-stomper Jeep Wrangler and for every other “lesser” off-roader out there.

I’m here to explain why you shouldn’t be concerned at all.

What’s Going On In the First Place?

Again, AggregateDemand explains why the off-roader faces extinction under the new CAFE standards. In extract: it’s a combination of vehicle footprint and the more traditional factors of vehicle efficiency, primarily raw vehicle weight. The ability of a vehicle to be classified into a certain footprint class combined with the dead weight of body-on-frame construction and other factors conspires against your beloved off-roader.


So if The Off-Roader is Dying, What Are We To Do?

Nothing. Because the off-roader isn’t dying.

The first thing that needs to be understood is that CAFE doesn’t effect one vehicle per se - it effects a manufacturer’s entire lineup. You don’t hear anything about the Focus RS or Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG being threatened out of existence because of CAFE, because those represent a relatively miniscule population of Ford’s and Mercedes-Benz’s total manufacturing and consumer output. And it’s that total output, not individual car models, CAFE looks at. Individual car models, whether they be the Focus SE or the RS or the entire Focus lineup, are more or less invisible against the larger backdrop that is the fuel economy of everything coming out of Dearborn, Detroit proper, Germany, Mexico, etc. that is sold in the U.S. Hence the title Corporate Average Fuel Economy, not Model Averager Fuel Economy or something to that effect.

This means extreme volume-sellers, like say the Focus or Fusion SE or F-150 Platinum, more or less protect the niche performance models like the RS or the Shelby Mustang GT350 or the Raptor, provided those volume-sellers are fuel efficient enough to bring up the total CAFE standard in spite of the niche gas guzzlers. This is more or less by design, a way for manufacturers and government regulators to have their cake and eat it too - it basically exempts niche models by hiding them in the larger model lineup picture, but not totally to the extent where a manufacturer can pump out track-ready V8s with a city MPG rating of 11 in order to abuse loopholes, much like what a lot of people feel happened in the 90s with SUVs. In other words, manufacturers are still incensed to develop fuel-efficient and eco-friendly performance and niche vehicles, but not to the extent where they either have to bear bountiful fruit on those efforts to the extent that it strains technological and economic resources or be forced into extinction.

Unfortunately, it’s far from a perfect solution. A number of factors can still bring down a niche model despite the in-built protection from CAFE regulations. For example, a niche model can be such a gas guzzler it puts a heavy drag on the rest of the lineup to meet CAFE even as a relatively low-volume seller. Or maybe it’s not such a low-volume seller after all, but not to the extent where it’s worth the engineering effort to design it to be more eco-compliant.


Then again, CAFE isn’t the only automotive design conspirator. Crash regulations are likely a more significant factor in the extinction of a car model - as much as we like to imagine a body-on-frame vehicle being indestructible, unibody vehicles traditionally perform better than older models that still rely on body-on-frame construction. Then there’s concerns over labor, the geographic location of where the vehicle is manufactured (which usually is another labor issue), costs and tariffs related to the former two, etc. The Ford Ranger was a very fuel efficient light pickup truck in I4 form, so keeping it would’ve only improved Ford’s overall CAFE standing and helped hedge against heavier and thirsiter V6 F-150s, but the truck’s aging design against updated crash protection mandates and the infamous “chicken tax” doomed the truck in North America.

Toyota Isn’t Going Anywhere

So yes, the off-roader is going to get squeezed, but not out of existence or beyond the affordable reach of the average consumer. For one, I’m willing to bet the various permutations of the Toyota Land Cruiser/Prado - namely the 4Runner and especially the Land Cruiser proper along with their Lexus rebadge-jobs - are here to stay. Those vehicles are for the most part already imported (even the 4Runner - which, fun fact, is built in the same prefecture where Imperial Japanese dive-bombers used to attack Pearl Harbor were assembled - chances are along with your flat-screen, PS4 and Gixxer) while for the most part avoiding the crippling taxes that affect their European open-bed brethren. Yes, the Land Cruiser is expensive because of taxation, but only by 2.5% - about by the difference of including an automatic transmission and moonroof if that tax is applied to a moderately-priced compact sedan. As the 4Runner is also imported, it’s already affected by these same taxes, and has been since Marty McFly made black lifted Hiluxes cool.


This lack of domestic production plants serving non-global markets means a vastly decreased likelihood of said plants being idled and eventually eliminated due to shifting demands from, for example, CAFE influence (similar to what killed the Ford Ranger). Or, in other words, a healthy global demand for a model lineup sourced from consolidated factories will better ensure those factories keep humming. In the meantime, since those cars are already being made and are already crash-compliant anyway, why not import them our way to satisfy a relatively tiny demand, but in a means that still makes it profitable? This is what Hyundai is doing with the Equus and the Kia K900 stablemate despite both (the Kia especially) being money losers. This is what Toyota themselves are already doing, with the Land Cruiser and LX. The global demand of the Toyota SUVs protect them from CAFE and North American niche status by making up for profitable volume sales elsewhere. This same global demand incentivizes Toyota to make their SUVs up-to-date in crash protection and environmental stewardship as the rest of the world starts catching on to American consumer protection - but the inbuilt CAFE protection doesn’t force them to do so in an unreasonable manner, as long as demand remains in niche-territory and more efficient offerings from the Camry and Prius make up for it.

Yes, Unibodies Go Off-Road Too

So the extistant market forces provide reasonable protection for the Toyota body-on-frames, even if prices may experience an uptick (which shouldn’t be much and certainly will not effect the used market for much older Toyotas that still remain popular as rock crawlers). What about the volume-selling Jeep Wrangler? AggregateDemand notes that the sales of the Wrangler make it particularly vulnerable to CAFE regulation, basically putting it in the same classification of unibody CUVs. On that note, FCA might eventually be forced to replace the Wrangler with a CUV, which means bye-bye offroading.


Or does it?

The whole reason why the Wrangler is body-on-frame is because body-on-frame vehicles can go offroad. Everyone knows unibodies can’t go off-road, right? A unibody Wrangler replacement would be a disaster!


After all, it’s physically impossible to put a lift kit on a unibody!


Image from JeepInByAll.com


Image from JeepForum.com


Image from CherokeeForum.com


Image from JeepRenegadeForum.com

Unibody cars can’t go on trails! You need a frame in order for a car to be tough enough to go on a trail!


Image from AutoBlog


Image from allpar.com by way of jeepz.com

Perhaps it might come as a shock, but Wrangler aside most Jeeps - including the iconic Grand Cherokee and yes even the XJ Cherokee - are unibodies, and always have been since the last Cherokee/Grand Wagoneer SJ bowed out. Unibody construction is superior to body-on-frame in a variety of ways and even in the offroad world a body-on-frame potentially represtents nothing but dead weight to be punished by CAFE. Unibody SUVs can be as tough offroad as body-on-frame SUVs and can be lifted - and the XJ Cherokee and every single Grand Cherokee have been proving that for over thirty years and counting!


But, I know, the Wrangler has many quirks that can’t be replicated on a unibody. Quirks like having a removable top.


Image from Lessord Chrylser of Sodus, New York


Image from The Deccan Chronicle

Ok, so maybe it’s not exactly the same, but it shows that Jeep cares about your concerns for “true Jeep authenticity.” The only real things missing are the removable doors, which is just an engineering trick away provided Jeep can figure out how to get side impact crash protection to work on such doors, and the folding windshield, a feature literally nobody uses anyway.

Keep in mind this is the same guy who tested the spring-loaded grille on the Grand National and he took a complete pass on folding the JK’s windshield. He didn’t even know JKs can still do that. I think it’s a feature even hardcore Jeep enthusiasts can live without, especially as their off-road jacks mounted on their hoods make it difficult anyway.


So, no, the off-roader isn’t rock crawling into extinction or stratospheric unaffordability, even if it has to go unibody (which it already has in many cases, well before all the CAFE Armageddon worries). If you still want body-on-frame that badly, Toyota has you covered for the forseeable future.

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