A Beginner's Guide to 4×4 Suspension Lift Kits
You see them all the time: Light trucks, Sport Utility Vehicles, Jeeps, and more, coasting down the highway, sitting atop towering truck suspension lift kits and sporting a set of tires so big that a person could live in them. If you’re the curious type looking to lift up your own rig, a more important question than “How do I get my ride to do that” is “Why should my ride do that?”
There are several reasons why people might customize their vehicles with suspension lift kits, as well as quite a bit to know before you get started. If you’re a seasoned veteran who has conquered the most vicious terrains and knows your vehicle better than your own mother, there probably isn’t much for you to learn here. On the other hand, if you’re just getting started and want to familiarize yourself with the basics, read on.
Why should I lift my ride?
Glad you asked. Equipping vehicles with a suspension lift kits involves much more than buying the sexiest looking truck lift kit and then dropping your ride off at the local mechanic. Actually, chances are good that if that’s all you plan to do, lifting your ride might not be right for you in the first place. Installing truck suspension lift kits requires some hard work, a bit of technical savvy and consistent upkeep and attention to your vehicle’s components.
The first determination you need to make when considering suspension lift kits is what you want to do with it. There are essentially two main purposes for installing truck lift kits: style or function. Although the two are somewhat interrelated, it’s still important to consider which purpose you most wish to pursue, as it will assist you in making the correct modifications to your vehicle.
Let’s face it: Transforming a vehicle into a style statement has been a popular hobby ever since the advent of tailfins and flame decals. As much as we all might chuckle at a hybrid hatchback sitting on 18″ wheels, or the family sedan with a wing that resembles the Seattle Space Needle more than a spoiler, we also find our own vehicles having fuzzy dice hanging from the mirror, or a bobbling hula dancer statuette on the dash. As far as style is concerned, adding truck lift kits makes more of an impression than anything else you can do to your ride. Heads turn instantly at the sight of a lifted rig with massive tires that appear to be sprouting fangs and an exhaust system that scares stray puppies into hiding.
When it comes to adding suspension lift kits to make a style statement, looking good is the easy part. Sometimes it’s easy to overlook general, everyday performance in the midst of decking out a ride. For this reason, choosing the right suspension lift kit with attention to comfort, reliability, durability, safety, and not to mention price, should be given just as much consideration as those precious inches you want to add.
So you’ve made the jump into tuning your rig for the off-road world, and you’re ready to take the plunge to invest in one of many truck lift kits. But before diving headfirst into a custom truck lift kit and gigantic tires, there are a number of issues to address to ensure a correct setup. The first step is to ask yourself what you will be doing the most, whether it’s slow-speed rock crawling, high-speed desert racing, general purpose 4 wheeling, mud racing, or long distance open country treks. From there, you can narrow down what you need to do in order to customize your vehicle to suit your needs.
Whether you’re just starting out, or you’re the experienced professional, tuning your rig for optimum off-road performance is an expansive hobby with numerous factors to be wary of. The possibilities are limitless, which can sometimes make it hard to determine exactly which suspension lift kits are ideal for what you want.
Where do I begin?
As if determining which suspension lift kits to purchase weren’t complicated enough, installing truck lift kits can alter other components in your vehicle, sometimes causing unforeseen issues that could affect performance or be potentially detrimental to the vehicle itself. For example, drive shaft length, steering geometry, brake lines, highway performance and handling, gear ratios, and overall weight are just a few of the factors that could potentially be impacted by adding truck suspension lift kits.
Finding ample resources to determine what products you need can be difficult. Speaking with a mechanic can provide some insight. Reading factory service manuals, off-road magazines, internet message boards, manufacturer’s guides, and a number of other resources can help as well. But by far the most useful way to determine what truck lift kits are right for you and your vehicle is to consult an experienced and knowledgeable person who has a vehicle similar to yours and uses it in the manner similar to what you want to do. Not only can such a person suggest the correct products, but also likely has experience with installation tips and general drivability.
In the meantime, here are some of the basic elements of suspension lift kits for you to keep in mind as you plan your modifications.
What does a Suspension Lift Kit do?
For starters, one of the foremost reasons for installing truck suspension lift kits is to raise the height of your ride off the ground to enable steeper ascent or descent off-road, and higher ground clearance. In general, it makes sense that when driving over boulders, slogging through mud, coasting across the desert, or even just making your way through the occasional forest trail, higher clearance facilitates negotiating certain obstacles. This can often be a tricky bit of artistry to manage, as higher clearance also raises your vehicle’s center of gravity, which can reduce handling.
- Larger Tire Fitment
The general consensus suggests that larger tires equate to more traction, right? Well, not entirely. While larger tires may provide some improvement to traction in off-road conditions, there are other ways to improve a vehicle’s traction that are far more efficient than simply bulking up the rubber. Aside from the obvious stylistic discretion, the main reasons for adding larger tires are for higher vehicle clearance for improved performance in mud, deep snow, rocks, and deeply rutted trails. Certain tires designed specifically for off-road conditions can improve traction depending on the circumstances, but the added clearance is the most immediate and direct benefit of larger tires.
Factors to Consider with Truck Suspension Lift Kits:
- Installation: Many manufacturers offer manuals for installing truck lift kits onto certain vehicles; however, some installations are quite intricate, requiring some welding or cutting in order to add some necessary components. In this case, having a trusted mechanic or a few knowledgeable friends is the best resolution.
- Additional Modifications: Upgrading to truck lift kits with taller tires also means that a number of components may require part upgrades or some tuning to compensate. For instance, a truck’s engine is tuned at specific gear ratios to propel the vehicle. When adding taller tires, the gear ratios must be tweaked accordingly, since the engine has to spin much larger, heavier tires. Again, consult with more experienced individuals for further insight.
- Highway Performance: Larger, wider tires can sometimes result in instability on roads or a noisy, uncomfortable ride, particularly at high speeds. Also, more aggressive off-road tires tend to wear faster on the highway, and traction might not be as great as you would expect on wet roads. In this sense, larger tires can sometimes be a gamble without any direction from an experienced off-road veteran.
- Weight: larger tires are heavier, which can put a lot of strain on your suspension, particularly if it’s a stock suspension. Trusted, durable suspension components and lighter aluminum wheels can sometimes help to reduce the strain.
- Handling: Adding truck suspension lift kits will undoubtedly raise the vehicle’s center of gravity, resulting in less stable turns. This is a common issue when installing truck lift kits, but is mostly just a matter of becoming accustomed to a vehicle’s change in performance.
- Legality: Some suspension lift kits are such a serious change in your suspension system that it may not be legal. Check the suspension regulations within your country, state, or province to be sure.
- A Few Useful Accessories: Before installing a lift kit, it’s a good idea to first examine if any components will be affected by your vehicle’s new height. Here are a few useful accessories that may need to be upgraded:
- Brake Upgrades: Stock brakes can’t always accommodate larger tires, or will wear easily due to the added strain.
- Drivetrain and Differential: Axles, gears, differential covers, lockers and more ensure that your drivetrain is up to par with your suspension.
- Replacement Parts: Longer Control Arms and Track Bars to compensate for the additional height of your rig.
- Shocks: For those taller lifts, longer shocks will ensure the smoothest performance both on and off road.
- Other Parts: Steering linkage, slip yoke, drive shaft length, u-joint angle, and brake lines are all worthy of consideration before installing suspension lift kits.
Installing Suspension Lift Kits:
When it comes time to install a lift kit, there are two ways possible ways to go about it: install it yourself, or have a professional do the job. Naturally, each has its advantages and disadvantages, and when it comes to your rig, attention to detail is crucial. A general rule to follow is that even if you know you want a large lift, it’s best to start with a small lift and work your way up. This allows you to work out any kinks and hindrances along the way to make sure your kit works right.
Even if you’re not technically inclined, taking the time to learn the inner mechanics of your vehicle is a valuable experience that can save you time and money. An intimate knowledge of your rig can also allow you to make your own modifications to your vehicle if the need arises. There are numerous resources available that can usually guide you through the majority of the process; however, one must keep in mind that it’s a lot to take in, and tweaking the intricate components of your vehicle is no small matter. It’s always a good idea to have a second set of hands or an experienced individual assisting you.
On the downside, even with the increasing availability of bolt-on kits, installing suspension lift kits is no easy task, particularly if you’re a beginner. Additionally, certain instructions or resources can sometimes be misleading or based upon the personal preferences of individual gearheads. Often times, after installing a lift kit you’ll find yourself spending hours tweaking the other components of your vehicle to get them back to spec. That’s a whole lot to take on, particularly if you’re inexperienced.
A licensed professional installing your lift kit is typically the best way to ensure that suspension lift kits are installed correctly, so long as you’re willing to pay the labor charges. A professional can perfectly tune your vehicle to your liking and see to it that all components are working as they should, all within a fraction of the time it would take even the most experienced gearheads to install it themselves.
On the other hand, as is the case with regard to any mechanic, it might be difficult to find one you can trust to install the kit properly while not overcharging you for any unnecessary parts. Also, if you’re not a gearhead, anytime there’s a functional deficiency or your vehicle needs minor tweaking, you have no choice but to return to the mechanic for service.
Suspension Lift Sizes:
Small: A small lift consists of 1.5 or fewer inches, and will grant you a little more clearance and room to run slightly larger tires. The most common way to gain a small lift is by using coil spacers in front and long shackles in the rear.
- Advantages/Disadvantages: Small lifts are inexpensive and easy to install with very few complications.
Medium: A medium lift is roughly 2″ of lift, and is a good choice for those looking for the best tire clearance, but aren’t planning on doing any off-roading. Common medium-sized lifts use spacer and add-a-leaf lifts, and sometimes come with new shocks.
- Advantages/Disadvantages: You’ll notice changes in handling and performance: some good, some bad. You’ll also need strong rear springs, and if you plan to use an add-a-leaf kit, later modification for more lift may be difficult, since add-a-leafs are designed to lift stock springs.
Large: The largest lifts consist of 3 to 4″ or more for an aggressive look and the best off-road performance. A common large lift setup consists of new front coils and add-a-leafs in the rear, plus some combination of new front coils and new rear springs. These kits often include a matching set of shocks.
- Advantages/Disadvantages: Large lifts are obviously the most expensive, and more complications are expected than with smaller lifts. On-road performance will also be affected, sometimes dramatically. But a large lift will transform your rig into an intimidating off-road machine that will stand out among a crowd.
Types of Suspension Lift Kits:
Spring Over Axle (SPOA):
SPOA suspension lift kits are most popular among serious rock crawlers looking for the utmost articulation (up and down wheel travel). These truck lift kits keep the tires on the ground for maximum traction, while correctly lifted springs lifts everything out of harm’s way, including the springs.
Shackle Reverse (S/R) Suspension Lift Kits:
S/R truck lift kits are designed to provide a smooth ride upon mild terrain such as forest roads, desert driving, and scenic trails; however, high-speed driving on highways is not recommended.
Coil Suspension Lift Kits:
The choice of many of the world’s best-riding 4 wheel drive vehicles, Coil Suspension Lift Kits offer unrivaled ride quality and cheaper springs, but installation sometimes requires some welding. The end result, however, is a suspension lift kit that provides excellent articulation on the trail, and a comfortable ride you have to feel to believe.
Lifted Spring Suspension Lift Kits:
The most commonly used type of truck lift kits in the world, Lifted Spring systems are easier to install, and an excellent choice for first-time lifters in the off-road world. These truck lift kits allow you to run larger tires for additional clearance, while producing control on the highway.
Shackle Suspension Lift Kits:
As probably the most affordable way to add inches to your rig, Shackle Suspension Lift Kits are primarily for the truck enthusiast looking to add larger tires, yet are not intending to do much hardcore off-roading. Moderation is recommended with these truck lift kits, as Shackle systems are known to affect steering and sway control.