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Bye-Bye, Body on Frame?

New models won't make it with a truck chassis. But body-on-frame vehicles haven't seen their last hurrah.

By Clifford Atiyeh Mar 22, 2012 5:24AM

GMC Yukon, (c) General MotorsLet’s answer the question Autoweek posed here Wednesday: No, the Chevrolet Trailblazer will not ever come back to the U.S. as a reborn, full-size SUV.

Partially, it’s because Chevrolet already sells two full-size SUVs (Tahoe, Suburban), a full-size crossover (Traverse), and a smaller crossover (Equinox). Then there’s the Acadia, a GMC-only midsize SUV. But the real reason? Body-on-frame trucks, at least in the U.S., are a surefire way to kill a new model before it even has time to linger.

Just ask Kia, which introduced the body-on-frame Borrego for 2009 and gave it the sweep that same year. When my colleague Bill Griffith tested one for The Boston Globe, he wrote that the “V8 version’s ride was rough enough to be disconcerting, even after trying lower tire pressures.” Like a garbage truck.

The Nissan Pathfinder is switching to unibody construction for 2013, the once popular Ford Explorer has ditched both the V8 and truck frame, and the Lincoln Town Car -- the only body-on-frame sedan still on sale here -- is departing forever after this year.

Unibody construction makes for a more carlike experience. The body floor, pillars and roof are welded together as one unit, and the engine and suspension hang off on subframes. They are lighter and more rigid than a body-on-frame chassis, which uses two thick steel beams braced together under a separate, mounted body.

Some off-road purists say that body-on-frame vehicles, because they allow more torsion, tend to take a beating better, and they’re mostly right. That’s why every pickup truck, save for the Honda Ridgeline, and full-size van uses a body-on-frame design. Their tough, simple construction allows for superior towing, payload and overall durability in heavy-duty use. Plus, as Hemmings notes, body-on-frame vehicles are cheaper to repair after an accident -- hence the reluctance for taxi companies and police agencies to give up their Crown Vics. They’re also heavier, meaning a fuel-economy penalty is unavoidable.

But has the unibody truly decimated the body-on-frame chassis? By my count, 22 body-on-frame vehicles are on sale in the US, excluding pickups, vans and heavy-duty commercial trucks. Let’s take a quick look at why they still exist when compared with their typically better-handling, better-riding and more efficient unibody competition.

Ford Expedition/Lincoln Navigator – These hulking dinosaurs have hardly been updated since their 2000s-era heyday and aren't as popular as the GM SUVs.

Jeep Wrangler – The original American rock-crawler won’t ever change its beefy body-on-frame design. It’s the last bastion between real trucks and wannabes.

Nissan Xterra – With the Pathfinder becoming “softer,” the Xterra is a less expensive, more hard-core ride for committed SUV buyers. 

Nissan Armada – The owner of a dog-grooming business down the street from me uses an Armada to haul her 165-pound Great Dane. She needs this truck more than anyone. 

Nissan Pathfinder – The 2013 Pathfinder will share its unibody platform with the brand-new Infiniti JX. The current Pathfinder is simply old.

Infiniti QX56 – Everything is enormous and overkill on this superluxe rig. For some reason, everything that fails to gain attention in the Lincoln Navigator -- huge V8 engine, houselike proportions, is working for Infiniti.

Toyota Land Cruiser/Lexus LX 570 – The Land Cruiser and LX 570 are old classics that are almost as nice as a Range Rover for somewhat less money.

Toyota FJ – Another classic, albeit with three windshield wipers. See Jeep Wrangler.

Toyota 4Runner – See Nissan Xterra.

Lexus GX 460 – This body-on-frame SUV not only looks awkward, but handled so badly that Consumer Reports issued a “Don’t Buy” rating in 2010.

Land Rover LR4 – It’s heavy, about 5,500 pounds, and floats above the earth. But it’s also one of the most serious SUVs imaginable when the road gets rough. None of its buyers care that it gets 13 mpg in real-world driving.

Range Rover Sport – The bigger Range Rover rides on a unibody developed in tandem with BMW. The Sport rides on the LR4 chassis, yet there is nothing sporty about it; buyers, meanwhile, eat up the Sport like free-range chicken.

Chevrolet Tahoe/GMC Yukon/Cadillac Escalade – These brutes continue to sell well, thanks to their simple styling and rugged specs. The Escalade continues to be stolen very often.

Chevrolet Suburban/GMC Yukon XL/Cadillac Escalade ESV – I drove an Escalade ESV for one day in Boston and then hid the keys. If I were a bus driver, I’d have been very happy.

Lincoln Town Car – The very last rear-wheel-drive, full-size American sedan without a unibody chassis. Livery drivers are seriously worried that no other car will replace the Town Car's smooth-riding, long-lasting performance for the money.

Mercedes-Benz G-Class – The Cold War relic that keeps on giving. Built on the same chassis since 1979, this German troop transport defies any and all logic, especially when the sticker gets to $130,000. 

Absolutely none of these vehicles returns decent fuel economy. Many, like the Infiniti and Rovers, are ultrapricey. Others, like the Wrangler and FJ, are in unbeatable niches. Most, if not all, make no sense to European citizens crushed under $8-per-gallon gasoline.

So while it’s tough, if perhaps even impossible, to launch a completely new body-on-frame truck, it’s apparently quite simple to keep the gas-guzzling brutes we have. What red-blooded, truck-loving Texan would disagree?

Clifford Atiyeh has spent his entire life driving and riding in cars he doesn't own. He was raised in Volvos and has grown to love fast, irresponsible vehicles of all kinds. He lives in Boston, is a member of the New England Motor Press Association, and has reported for The Boston Globe, Car and Driver, Popular Mechanics and The Times of London.

Mar 25, 2012 3:34AM
After having been burned and spurned by a "foreign automaker" due to to poor quality and warranty runarounds,I will be a hard sell consumer from now on and American made autos only, if possible?Sick.
Mar 22, 2012 6:46PM

Body on frame construction is stronger and lasts much longer but is naturally heavier. Look at the long term taxis, police cars and construction pickups used for the past 40 years and you won't find any without a frame. Plus if you are in an accident the framed vehicle always wins. Placing numerous airbags in these newer unibodies does help protect the occupants but just look at the structural damage difference.  

Newer isn't always better. Smile

Mar 23, 2012 8:58AM
My wife has a 2006 Pathfinder and it is definitely a truck (body on frame). The problem I have with unibodies is that the tow ratings decrease. Look at the new Dodge Durango. The max tow rating went down when they switched to unibody but the weight went up by 300 lbs over the old body on frame truck. I don't see the advantage there.
Mar 23, 2012 9:18AM

@Shrimp roll,


 The statement that body on frame vehicles transfer the force of the collision to the passenger is not the slightest bit true. The laws of physics cannot be denied. The stronger vehicle always wins in an accident. The test you mentioned with the '59 Chevrolet was rigged in many ways. For example, the '59 car had the engine, transmission, radiator, and drive shaft removed. It also had the steering column disconnected from the mounting point under the dash board, among other things. The test Dummy was also not wearing a seatbelt, and the front seat was unbolted from the floor of the car. Hardly a representative test, but they are trying to sell you the new Impala, not the '59 model. How did you expect the test to turn out under those conditions?

Mar 25, 2012 12:30PM
Uni-body, frame-on, who cars I own a tahoe two door model and just reel  happy with it. but with all this fuel rising crap and them pushing the electric crap. I have one question#. who the hell can afford to buy one??. but if you don't, how do we afford gas for what we can buy.  not sure about y'all but I hate being held by the short hairs.
As a contractor, i will never buy a unibody truck! in my line of work the ride means knowthing. its all about the pulling capability, and the ability to be able to work on your own stuff! the older trucks can be disasembled piece by piece! a good example would be a 2001 ford mustang unibody vs a 1994 f-250. the mustang is prone to have the radiator core support rot out. the problem, its all spot welded to the whole front clip! the f-250 can be taken apart piece by piece, and the piece needing replaced " the radiator core support" replaced! the mustang has to be taken to a specialized body mechanic to have it dis assembled cut and welded! did i mention the mustang has 123,500mi and the f-250 has 235,000mi! truck unibodys are a bad idea!!!
Mar 25, 2012 12:05PM
Who the hell can afford to buy anything anymore is what I'd like to know..........Maybe the hundred grand a yr. and above club?
Mar 25, 2012 8:01AM

Crap, all they want to sell us is crap. If I wanted a car I'd buy one. A truck has a frame. Just wait until Bubba takes his new unibody truck and overloads it and drives it down a bumpy back road.

Mar 25, 2012 12:28PM
I have both framed and unibody vehicles in my business and feel both have their points. My trucks are simple, durable and less expensive to fix. They are also much better on job sites where the ground is rough or off road. The front driver unibody models are less expensive, better in the snow and on fuel. They also tend to have a low center of gravity with a lot of available floor space. My only complaints revolve around torque steer, ground clearance, poor repair access (design related) and finally a modified front wheel drive instead of a four wheel drive. On average though if you pick the right vehicle for the purpose intended they both do the job well.
Mar 25, 2012 11:37AM
It really doesn't matter what "they" make,we can't afford anything on the lots now. The higher fuel costs are depleting our personal reserve wealth,and we are forced to run what we have.Those of us who chose well when things were better are lucky,those who couldn't wait to be the first to have the quirky offerings such as crossover/hybrid diposable vehicles are now totally screwed as far as unloading them on the unwashed masses.The 99 week unemployment money train has jumped the tracks,and there is truly no recovery in sight,no new factories,no new business centers,and no new insurance/banking headquarters sites coming to a fast growing city near you.Bailing out GM/Bank of America,etc. was the most irresponsible economic blunder in the history of our nation,The money is gone,and we'll never see any benefit from it again.Drive what you have,and buy the cheapest parts you can find to fix it,and maybe,just maybe there will be enough left to feed your family.
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