The Secret Sauce Behind the New Era of Off-Road Trucks

The hood may say Ford or Chevrolet, but there are aftermarket fingerprints all over these dune-bashers

August 17, 2023 6:14 am
The 2023 Ford F-150 Raptor R, a hardcore off-road truck with some aftermarket help
FORD across the grille, Fox in the suspension.

If you’re in the market for an off-road truck — and these days, you don’t actually ever need to hit the dirt to covet one of the many options available to you — you should know who made it.

As trail-ready rigs continue to dominate the conversation in showrooms across the country, brands like Ford, Chevrolet and GMC have lifted their gaze outside the boundaries of their own engineering departments, bridging the gap between in-house and aftermarket by partnering with some of the biggest names in rough-and-tumble trucks. This has led to names like American Expedition Vehicles and Fox making major in-roads into the mainstream industry.

A development process cribbed from thousands of hours pounding sand and scrambling over rocks has been short-circuited to deliver a mix of custom-tuned and off-the-shelf solutions that bring big, burly pickups to market quicker and cheaper than an entirely homegrown effort. It’s a symptom of the modern world that we can now apply business buzzwords like “synergy” to the mud pit, but it turns out that there’s more to these partnerships than simply bolstering the bottom line for all involved.

2023 Ford F-150 Raptor R
The 2023 Ford F-150 Raptor R features Fox Live Valve shocks designed to handle the 700 hp and 640 lb-ft of torque.

High-Tech Crawlers

It might not seem like it at first blush, but modern off-road trucks have undergone an incredible evolution over the past two decades. While much of the attention on pushing the limits of automotive design has been focused on the hypercar revolution (where the impact of hybrid drivetrains and advanced electronic controls have pushed boundaries well past the 200-mph mark), trucks and SUVs have seen a similarly wild progression when it comes to the technologies they take with them when it’s time to leave the pavement.

In the early 2000s, the idea of a factory-built off-road vehicle fit into one of two fairly rigid boxes. The first followed the simple formula of a stiff-booted suspension with a modest lift over the standard model, with a limited-slip differential along for the ride if you were lucky. The second encompassed the extremely limited pool of hyper-specialized rigs that relied on old school designs marketed to Jeep Wrangler and Mercedes-Benz G-Class buyers who were willing to put up with the daily driving compromises embodied by traditional locking differentials and solid axles.

Review: The Ford Bronco Raptor Is Wildly Impractical, And a Total Blast
A normal Bronco is plenty capable, so who needs this overbuilt beast? Only one way to find out…

At the end of the decade, however, Ford made a move that changed the fortunes of the off-road faithful forever. Cognizant of the profits that Jeep was hoovering up by way of its tough-as-nails Wrangler Rubicon trim, the Blue Oval elected to abandon plans to build a third-generation version of its F-150 Lightning street performance pickup and instead transfer its flag to the dunes. 

Seemingly overnight, the extreme popularity of the Ford F-150 Raptor redirected the attention of pickup and SUV builders towards capturing some of the same fire in their own lineups. The concept of slow-and-steady off-roaders carefully picking their way across fields of boulders or chugging through cauldrons of muck were replaced in the public imagination by images of battleship-sized beasts blasting their way across a desert wash at triple-digit speeds. Terms like “long-travel suspension” and “remote reservoir shock absorbers” entered the lexicon of sales teams eager to demonstrate the hi-po proclivities of this new class of all-terrain truck, which caught air just as easily as they clambered up a rocky trail.

2023 Ford F-150 Raptor R spinning tired in the sand
This ain’t your father’s F-150.

Ford, Meet Fox

It turns out that ensuring the longevity and rapidity of increasingly enormous off-road machines required a serious investment in suspension and electronic controls that had never before been seen playing in the factory mud. Flying a pickup through the sky is easy enough to achieve with a sufficiently-angled ledge and enough horsepower in the mix, but landing it so that it might live to launch another day is an entirely different matter.

This sent traditional truck builders scrambling to come up with cost-effective solutions. Unsurprisingly, the easiest answer for several was to tap the aftermarket. Although major players like Bilstein had long been involved in producing OEM components for all-terrain trucks and SUVs, this time the search expanded to build relationships with a new set of players.

Fox had already made a name for itself in both professional motorsports and the garages of thousands of off-road fans across the country for building strong, customizable and effective suspension solutions for a wide variety of vehicles. It was a short stop for companies like Ford and Toyota (via its TRD division) to reach out to Fox about using some of its existing options as the starting point for a model-specific shock absorber that could be installed at the factory.

The Fox deal did more than just solve the problem of sticking the landing. It also offered a unique opportunity for OEM manufacturers to bask in the reflected glory of the company’s reputation among off-road enthusiasts, giving them one more peg on which to hang the halo of models like the Raptor and the TRD Pro. The flipside of that was Fox’s own credibility boost as it became a corporate partner with brands that collectively sold more than a million trucks a year.

The 2024 GMC Canyon AT4X AEV Edition, close up on the tires and wheels
The 2024 GMC Canyon AT4X AEV Edition gives American Expedition Vehicles billing right in the name.

Leaders And Followers — And More Followers

As with any successful business model, the aftermarket move was quickly copied by the competition. As Ford continued to evolve its Fox offerings, adding increasing levels of electronic control and fine-tuning, General Motors turned to race car builder Multimatic for an implementation of its dynamic suspensions spool valve (DSSV) shock absorber system that could be outfitted to its ZR2 trim of the Chevrolet Colorado pickups. Shortly after that, Chevrolet tagged in American Expedition Vehicles to produce a specialized version of the Colorado ZR2 known as the Bison. Featuring extensive parts and expertise from AEV, the truck served as the tip of the spear for the Colorado’s trail efforts, flaunting advanced drive modes, remote lockable differentials and numerous accessories pulled from the outfitter’s catalog.

This template was repeated a few years later when the full-size Silverado ZR2 was introduced with a Bison trim of its own. The Silverado’s GMC Sierra platform-mate went even further in underlining the partnership by way of its AT4X AEV Edition, which put the aftermarket company front and center in its marketing message. A mid-size Canyon AT4X AEV soon followed.

Even Ram, which had held the line on in-house development with its solid-axle Power Wagon pickup model, eventually succumbed to temptation. The Ram TRX, perhaps the most direct competitor to the Ford F-150 Raptor, makes use of advanced, electronically-controlled Bilstein Blackhawk shocks developed specifically for leaping the model over whatever obstacles it chooses not to crush.

2024 GMC Sierra 2500HD AT4X truck
There’s more where the GMC Sierra 2500HD AT4X came from.

No Signs of Slowing

Why start from zero, the argument goes, and set money on fire to achieve results that could be much more easily procured with a signature on a corporate order sheet? Especially when that partnership pulls double-duty as a marketing outreach to the exact class of customers these vehicles are aimed at? While we might never see companies like AEV or Fox build full-on trucks of their own, it’s no stretch to think that for at least a few key models, their influence and engineering expertise is indispensable, and likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future. 

The aftermarket-OEM team-up shows no signs of slowing. By absolving major brands of the substantial research and development costs required to come up with high-level chassis tech — essentially duplicating what already existed in the aftermarket — getting outside parties involved slices time and dollars from the development schedule of the off-road trucks and haulers Americans simply can’t get enough of. 

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.