SUVs for the rich who like getting filthy
ICONThe ICON Bronco series of customized sport utility vehicles.
Matt Orban says he is "persnickety" when it comes to his belongings, from his left-handed guitars to his collection of cars.
"All of my cars are unique," says the chief executive of Kurt Orban Partners, a specialty steel business in Burlingame, Calif. "I don't leave well enough alone."
So when he decided he wanted a sport utility vehicle for ski trips and other adventures, he turned to Los Angeles vehicle customizer Jonathan Ward, whose company, ICON, uses old Toyota FJ and Land Cruiser SUVs and 1960s-vintage Ford Broncos as the foundations for bespoke off-roaders that can sell for as much as $210,000.
Orban snagged ICON BR (for Bronco) No. 1, based on a 1967 design, but redone with a modern 5.0-liter Ford V-8 engine and manual transmission, disc brakes and an up-to-date off-road suspension.
"If you are driving a Lamborghini, everyone stares at you," Orban says. "The ICONs are nearly as expensive, but they don't attract everyone's attention."
Orban belongs to an exclusive but growing club of people willing to pay a premium for distinctive, custom-tailored sport utility vehicles tough enough for serious off-road adventures.
Most vehicles marketed as SUVs in the U.S. these days are designed as substitutes for minivans or sedans. Their suspensions and other hardware are adapted from small and medium-size cars and they rarely go off the highway. This is fine with most consumers, who have made smooth-riding, relatively efficient vehicles such as the Honda CR-V or Ford Escape the best-selling SUVs in the country.
The demise of Hummer--a victim of volatile gasoline prices and the General Motors Co. bankruptcy--and the disappearance from the U.S. market of the Land Rover Defender, have left a void in the market for premium off-roaders that some boutique SUV customizers--and Chrysler Group LLC's Mopar custom parts division--are looking to fill.
Tom McConnell loves kayaking, trout fishing and hunting in Northern Michigan, so he needs a real, off-roading sport utility vehicle to get his gear into the woods.
He used to drive a Hummer H2, a hulking truck that got about 11 miles to the gallon. Now that Hummer is extinct, McConnell has moved on to a vehicle that is both more exclusive and more practical: A black, 2011 Jeep Wrangler made over by American Expedition Vehicles of Wixom, Mich.
"This thing does everything my Hummer did, but it's more compact," says McConnell, who is 66 years old and owns a company that supplies gear to the military. Instead of 11 miles to the gallon, he says, "I'm getting 16-17 on the highway."
His customized Wrangler has a raised suspension for mastering rutted dirt roads, a custom roof rack for his kayaks, custom bumpers with built-in water tanks and a spare tire mount that can double as a reserve gasoline can. The total price for the Wrangler and the added equipment was about $67,500, he says.
American Expedition Vehicles, which outfitted McConnell's Jeep, is trying to carve out a middle ground between the very expensive, high-concept restorations that ICON offers and the low end of the SUV customizing market represented by dozens of companies that sell kits for do-it-yourselfers to jack up the suspensions of their Jeep Wranglers.
AEV uses current and previous generation Wranglers as the foundation for customization packages that the company installs at its shop northwest of Detroit. The makeovers can range from a $7,350 package that includes new bumpers, a more rugged suspension and 33-inch tires, to an $8,995 "Brute" kit that transforms a Wrangler into a pickup truck, to a $25,000 "Hemi" conversion that replaces the Wrangler's stock engine with a 470-horsepower V-8.
AEV co-owners Mike Collins and Michael Chetcuti say the company plans to expand its offerings later this year with a "Brute Double Cab" package that will transform the current, four-door Wrangler into a four-door pickup.
Chrysler, which owns the Jeep brand, has taken notice of the profit potential in SUV customization and is stepping up its own efforts. Wrangler owners spend an average of $600 per vehicle on after-sale accessories sold through the company's Mopar brand--the most of any vehicle in the Chrysler lineup, says Mopar engineer Steve Houtman.
The company last year began selling its own "JK-8" kit to put a pickup bed on the back of a Wrangler, listed at $5,499, and is about to start offering a Hemi conversion kit. Houtman says Mopar has sold more than 600 of the kits, many more than the company expected.
Joseph B. White writes the Eyes on the Road column for The Wall Street Journal.