Not many companies want to admit this, but when it comes to off-road suspension there are two unofficial schools of thought:
Here are some parts to help you fit bigger tires
Here are some parts to actually improve your vehicle’s performance off-road
Now don’t get me wrong, #1 is not a knock against anyone! Not everyone has the same goals for their vehicles, and just wanting to fit bigger tires while leaving overall suspension performance about the same is certainly no sin. If it was, I would be the first to admit guilt, because I feel like almost every vehicle looks cooler with big knobby tires — so much so that I lifted and fit beefy tires on a 20-year-old Audi wagon.
With that being said, this article will be covering the fundamental basics in upgrading your suspension for off-road and the positive and negative repercussions of doing so. Whether that means just fitting bigger tires, getting some real improved performance out of your vehicle, or hopefully both. Whatever your goal is, there is a right and a wrong way to go about it.
My job is to make sure you’ve got the essentials down so you’re in a good position to move forward with your project. You don’t want to under prepare and end up costing yourself more money down the line, and you also don’t want to go overboard and spend more than you need to.
A pretty common misconception is that beefed up off-road suspension stiffens the ride and makes it so you’ll be bouncing all over the road. That may have been true back in the day, but with a combination of off-road racing technology and performance trickling down to consumers as well as steadily growing popularity on off-roading, you would be surprised at just how nice a well-sorted rock crawler or desert rig rides.
Think about the job your suspension has off-road. It needs to be able to soak up smaller bumps, washboard, and rocks not only to keep your spine in one piece, but also to be able to maintain a good contact patch for your tires. If you and your tires are bouncing all over the place, you’re never going to get enough traction to make it up that boulder or blast over those whoops safely. At the same time, the suspension needs to rebound quickly enough to be able to maintain enough suspension travel to soak up that next bump.
Here’s an example for you. Ever notice that the super off-road trims of different trucks like the Raptor or TRD Pro trucks have a lower payload rating than other trims? That’s because the softer, more specialized suspension just isn’t designed for hauling heavy loads. Ever drive a big 3/4-ton truck on a dirt road without a load in the back? It’s a pretty punishing ride because the suspension is tuned for basically the exact opposite purpose.
There’s a big difference between using your truck/SUV to explore some mild fire roads and some light overlanding (more on that later) and wanting to blast over whoops at triple-digit speeds or climb up rock walls that would be difficult to free climb up, let alone getting a car up and over. One thing I want to say is that people tend to vastly underestimate what a stock 4×4 can do. I ran into this in my early days running with Jeep clubs where there were stock Jeeps right along side me, running the same trail that I had dumped thousands into my rig to do. Granted I tended to have an easier time of it, but they still made it to the top just as I did. That changed my perspective quite a bit.
Don’t pay for what you don’t need, is the point.
The point of this section is not to talk you out of lifting and modifying your vehicle. I’m a realist. Everything in this industry is a compromise of some sort and these are some good things to be aware of and keep in mind. Just like your body, your vehicle is a complicated system of interconnected and co-dependent processes to get anything done. Changing one thing can have effects in other areas, with varying degrees of severity depending on what you modify and to what extent.
In more recent years the off-road industry as a whole has been moving away from sky-high lifts in favor of striking a balance between fitting as larger a tire as you can while lifting the least amount possible to achieve that goal. It makes complete sense, everyone knows a lift and big tires will change your center of gravity, potentially to the point of being dangerous depending on how you drive. The trend now is not only more tasteful aesthetically (in my opinion), but is safer, more practical, and helps to preserve what precious little fuel economy we can hope cling onto.
I want to emphasize the point about fitting the largest tire you can within reason. While a lift kit does increase ground clearance in terms of approach, break-over, and departure angles — larger tires do that as well, but are the only thing that will give you more clearance under your axles.
Also, the bigger your lift, the higher your center of gravity becomes and more unstable your vehicle can be, especially during quick maneuvers. When you lift your vehicle, it changes the geometry of your suspension. Sometimes this results in a “top-heavy” effect where your vehicle may feel a bit more tipsy than it did before, even at the same ride height. This is especially true in tall, narrow vehicles like Jeeps and many trucks. Again, this is not a reason to avoid lifting your vehicle, just something to be aware of and mindful of in certain situations.
Related to the above point, lifting your vehicle can significantly change the way it rides. It’s important to understand that a lifted suspension doesn’t necessarily mean a rough ride. Modern suspension systems are quite advanced and can provide a smooth and controlled ride even with a moderate lift.
However, you should expect some differences in ride quality. A lifted suspension may feel stiffer due to the upgraded components used, and it might transmit more road imperfections to the cabin. If you're used to a plush and smooth ride, this can be a noticeable change. On the flip side, if you're upgrading to an off-road suspension for improved performance on rough terrain, the slightly stiffer ride may be exactly what you want.
Additionally, the overall handling characteristics of your vehicle can change with a lift. As mentioned earlier, the center of gravity is altered, and this can affect cornering stability. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's something to adapt to and be mindful of, especially if you drive your lifted vehicle aggressively.
You can read my full write-up on this here, but essentially a leveling kit is just a small lift for the front of your vehicle to bring the height of your front suspension level with the rear. Trucks especially tend to leave the factory sitting like a stink bug with the rear end sitting higher than the front. This is done so that your truck doesn’t sag in the rear when you add a decently heavy load. Leveling kits are typically done with spacers above the front coil springs, making installation easy, keeping cost down, and mostly maintaining factory driving characteristics.
A lift kit, on the other hand, will typically raise the front and rear both — often times lifting the front an inch or two more than the rear in order to still achieve that leveling effect. This can be done with spacers as well, could be a set of height-adjustable coil overs, or could be a complete rework of your rig’s suspension. This all depends on what you want to achieve as well as how deep your pockets are.
Upgrading your off-road suspension is a great way to enhance your vehicle's performance and capability in rough terrain. Whether you're interested in fitting larger tires, improving off-road prowess, or achieving a more aggressive look, it's essential to understand the factors involved in suspension upgrades.
Consider your specific off-road needs and the type of terrain you'll be tackling. Determine whether a lift kit, leveling kit, or body lift is the right choice for your vehicle. Keep in mind that while suspension upgrades can provide numerous benefits, they also come with trade-offs in terms of ride quality and handling characteristics.
Ultimately, the key is to strike a balance between achieving your off-road goals and maintaining a comfortable and safe driving experience. With the right suspension upgrades and a clear understanding of their impact, you can take your off-road adventures to new heights.
Have questions or need assistance with choosing the right suspension components for your vehicle? Feel free to contact our team of off-road experts for personalized guidance.