Do You Need a Suspension Lift Kit?
Last updated 28/09/2017
Do you need a lift? According to some, one of the most important modifications to any 4WD is the installation of after market suspension lift kit. Is this really true? Is after market suspension universally a good idea?
Why So Low Out Of The Factory?
Why are vehicle manufacturers bringing out their independent front suspension (IFS) four wheel drives with so little ground clearance? Just a little bit more would be great. It doesn’t need to be huge, just enough to keep the belly off the ground in a typical rut. It seems that standard vehicles can bottom out in the ruts even on an easy track to popular family beach and camping spots. Why not give us a few more centimeters to clear those tracks?
It’s not a matter of cost. What’s it take to increase ground clearance slightly? A tighter pre-load wound up on the spring? The cost is practically zero. Do vehicle manufacturers have shares in after market suspension companies? Are they just being stupid?
There is a good reason – the ride height is purposely chosen in a IFS vehicle to minimize CV angles and minimize failure rate. The drive shafts on a stock vehicle are designed to be perfectly level and the CVs to be completely straight when the front wheels are straight. With straight CVs, wear is minimized and longevity and reliability are maximized. The front wheels spend the vast majority of their time pointing straight ahead, so with level drive shafts the CVs are only significantly worn during the small fraction of a vehicle’s life spent turning corners or when on uneven terrain.
As soon as you lift a vehicle the CVs start wearing out more than they otherwise would. Not a bit more. A lot more. Driving straight ahead is wearing them out due to the non zero angle. So instead of wearing out a small percentage of the time, they are wearing out all the time. The wear is constantly accumulating, increasing the risk of a future failure.
The CVs in a stock vehicle are less likely to fail for two reasons:
1. They will be less worn so will be stronger when faced with a potential failure event, such as a shock load when offroading.
2. Any potential failure event will occur at a lower CV angle, reducing the stress on the CVs.
People often associate a failure with what they were doing at the time. Instead of holding the suspension lift accountable, they’ll blame the fact that they were tackling a demanding track at the time. Or they were showing off and driving too hard. Actually failures have many contributing factors which accumulate over long periods of time. As soon as you lift your vehicle the wear is accumulating and potentially contributing to a future failure. See this article for an explanation on how failure works.
To reduce the risk of CV failure, the differential can be lowered when installing a suspension lift. This reduces the CV angles. Ground clearance will be lost directly under the diff, however ground clearance across the rest of the vehicle will be improved, as well as approach angle and the ability to fit larger diameter tyres. This is no different to installing a suspension lift on a vehicle with live axles. The differential ground clearance is not changed for live axle vehicles.
Get After Market Suspension For Better Performance
After market suspension manufacturers often claim their products afford superior handling and performance. One of the key parameters that determines a vehicle’s handling is its centre of mass. Take a look at a Ferrari or Lamborghini. They are low. Raising a vehicle’s centre of mass degrades its handling, increasing body roll, increasing rotational inertia, deteriorating steering feel and increasing the risk of rollover. So right off the bat, all other things being equal, a lift kit will degrade handling.
Apart from lowering the centre of gravity, the other way to enhance handling, given suspension geometry and linkage design is already fixed, is stiffer suspension (with matched shock absorbers). After market suspension is often stiffer than factory suspension. Stiffer springs means they will sag less under the load of the vehicle, providing lift. Stiffer springs also have increased load carrying ability. Many after market springs are provided for increased load carrying so again they’ll be stiffer than stock springs. Stiffer springs do enhance steering response and reduce body roll. But stiffer isn’t better. The vehicle manufacturer could have easily fitted stiffer springs without additional cost. The spring stiffness is a compromise between handling, load carrying ability, passenger comfort, articulation and traction over bumpy terrain. The vehicle manufacturer picked a stiffness they thought was the best compromise. Stiffer springs aren’t superior quality, they simply offer different advantages and disadvantages. So in my opinion you wouldn’t get after market suspension because it’s universally better in terms of performance. It’s different. Get it if you want to carry heavy stuff or you want increased ground clearance and articulation. If you want superior on-road handling you’d lower your vehicle and fit stiff springs.
We’ve already discussed how lifted suspension negatively impacts CV reliability. What about the reliability of the suspension itself? The stock suspension is reliable. It’s simple and the geometry is well constrained to ensure it stays safe. There isn’t much that can go wrong. Imagine how many hundreds of thousands of vehicles the manufacturer sells, most running stock suspension. Mining, agriculture, rental vehicles, commercial fleets – they’re all stock. For the small fraction of vehicles running after market suspension, in my experience they account for a disproportionate quantity of failures. Over extension of ball joints, impacts between various suspension components due to flawed suspension travel, strut failures, mounting bolt failures – these are problems I’ve seen in vehicles with after market suspension (in addition to CV failures). Maybe it’s because those vehicles are driven over tougher terrain and with heavier loads. Regardless, stock suspension is reliable in my experience. I wouldn’t get after market suspension for the purpose of increased reliability.
Shock absorbers wear out so it’s possible that after market shock absorbers could last longer. So maybe you’d consider after market shock absorbers if you wanted greater life out of them. However the slow deterioration seen in shock absorbers is not something that will see you stuck out in the bush. If reliability is defined as simply being able to drive then longer lasting shock absorbers don’t really offer enhanced reliability but will offer better performance on bumpy surfaces compared to worn factory shock absorbers.
What About Lifting Live Axles?
Installing a suspension lift on a live axle still degrades handling through increased centre of mass and worsens reliability of UV joints but not to the same extent as CVs in independent suspension. Although universal joint angles are increased, the change in angle is much less when compared to the same lift height on independent suspension and the effect on wear and longevity is much less. This is why live axles are preferred for extreme offroading. They can be configured for huge lift and articulation without effecting strength as much.
Do You Need Big Flex for Going Offroad?
With open differentials it pays to have good flex in your suspension so that all wheels maintain firm contact with the ground. With differential lockers (or traction control) it doesn’t matter if you lift a wheel. The grounded wheel will have more traction because all the weight is on that wheel, and it will receive all the torque through the diff locker or traction control. If you want to maintain driveability on road and minimize increasing the center of mass of your vehicle you are better off getting selectable diff lockers than changing the suspension to get more flex.
If you are doing hard core trails then more flex does have advantages. It keeps the vehicle more stable which is useful if for example you are pushing the limits of traction and inclination. Lifting a wheel causes instability where the vehicle may rock back and forth, potentially triggering a loss in traction or worse a rollover.
When To Get After Market Suspension
In my opinion you should get after market suspension if you want to carry heavy loads for long periods of time and / or if you want improved off road performance through increased ground clearance, articulation, flex, approach angle and departure angle. Another reason is if you want to fit larger diameter tyres to your vehicle. Get some experience with your vehicle before deciding on a lift kit. Does the rear end feel saggy and sloppy when you’re fully loaded? Are you bottoming out on the tracks you usually drive on? If you answer no to both of these questions then maybe you don’t need after market suspension.
Lift your vehicle by the minimum you can get away with. This keeps the centre of mass as low as possible, minimizes negative effects on reliability and hopefully keeps your 4WD legal. Increasing lift increases wear on your CVs disproportionately. A small lift doesn’t make much difference. A large lift means you’ll probably break CVs every so often.
For me, the front end on my hilux was a bit too low for what I wanted to do. It would often beach itself too easily in soft sand and would clip the ground on relatively tame rocky trails. I also didn’t want to lose ground clearance when fully loaded for touring. So I got a small lift – 40mm. And I got stiffer rear springs rated for constant heavy loads. The lift I got is below the 50mm lift limit enforced in most jurisdictions in Australia to keep it legal. Remember you must keep the total lift below the limit. This means suspension lift + body lift + lift garnered through larger diameter tyres must be less than the maximum allowable lift according to the law in your state or territory.
Types of Lift
There are a few ways of lifting your vehicle. Some legal, most not. I’m no expert on vehicle modification laws so do your own research. This is my interpretation of the limited and possibly inaccurate information I’ve come across regarding suspension lift in Australia.
Strut spacers: This is a spacer between a coil strut and the strut mount. It shifts the entire assembly down. This introduces potential problems with over extension of suspension components / steering linkages and bump stops no longer adequately limiting travel. I understand strut spacers to be illegal.
Spring over: This is where leaf springs that have been designed to run under an axle are re-positioned on top of the axle, providing a lift equivalent to the thickness of the axle. I understand spring overs to be illegal.
Extended shackles: This is installation of longer shackles on leaf spring suspension. I understand extended shackles to be illegal.
New springs / struts / shock absorbers: This is the only way that I know of to provide a true suspension lift legally without getting engineering certification, as long as certain requirements are met like not exceeding maximum allowable lift height. New springs will be longer and / or stiffer, providing the lift. Shock absorbers are also replaced to suit the spring rate and travel.
Body Lift: This involves installing spacers where the body fixes to the chassis. It does not improve ground clearance but does provide extra room to fit larger diameter tyres. It is not a suspension lift. I’m not sure on the legality of body lifts. A body lift will increase the twisting force that the mounting surfaces experience. This increases the risk of mount failure during an accident.
Air Bags: These are pressurized bags that provide lift assistance for your existing suspension and are used to adjust ride height and stiffness. The air pressure in air bags can be adjusted to suit different loads and conditions. Their adjustability is what makes air bags superior to other suspension arrangements. The problem with air bags is that they may load the chassis at a position where it is not designed to take that load. Chassis failures have occurred as a result of air bags. Use them for fine adjustment of your springs rather than as a substitute for springs designed to carry the load. Air bags may or may not be legal depending on how they impact suspension travel.
Checkout outbackjoe on facebook
Bridgestone Dueler D694LT 48,000km Review
Diff Locker vs Traction Control
How Often Should I Service My Car?
How to Improve Fuel Efficiency
Why No Diesel Performance Chip?
back to 4WD, Touring and Camping
Really loving your no bullshit approach. It astounds me how many $ city folk spend on their 4wd’s….seems the “setup” is more important than actually using it! Anyway I could go on & on…
Question; I have a 2013 Triton with Old Man Emu suspension with what ever their standard lift is. I didn’t necessarily want a lift but needed stiffer on back due to fitting a tradesman type tray/canopy. I am really fussy about suspension and am delighted with the OME set up. (I originally had “The Ultimate Suspension” fit a “system” DO NOT go anywhere near those guys, it was unbelievably terrible!!!!)
Do you think it worthwhile the cost of fitting free wheeling hubs to save front CV joints/fuel/wear and tear. I would need to get 6 new wheels to allow fitting of hubs, this could be anything from $10 for stock steel wheels from other vehicles with correct specs up to heaps for brand new alloys + $300 or so for hubs themselves.
My Triton is the base model with gear lever selection of 4wd, so no danger of destroying the transfer case at the flick of a switch with hubs unlocked whilst driving.
Yeah most of the discussion with many of these folk is around setup and “mods”. Not much about getting out and about. I reckon less mods, less working to pay for them, more camping and more fishing.
I’ve heard good things about ultimate suspension, shame they didn’t perform for you. I had the perception they were premium stuff but have no direct experience.
I’ve thought about freewheeling hubs. I think the benefits are marginal so decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. So my opinion on freewheeling hubs is maybe. Lift from OME kits is typically modest at around 30 to 50mm so your CVs should still be pretty reliable if that’s the case. Fuel saving I don’t reckon would be much but I have never tested it.
BTW I have a DP Chip that I transferred from a previous vehicle that came with it, cost $150 to be re-mapped. It makes a slight improvement to torque etc but NO WHERE near enough to warrant the $1700 or so price tag, I would be so pissed off if I had paid that!
Thanks for your insights, they seem to make a lot of sense. I am also trying to find the right compromise for me – I am about to spend a few months with my young family of 5 travelling through the Kimberley and central Australia and hope to get off the beaten track where possible. I own a 200 series land cruiser and plan to fit a winch to my Sahara bar, and will be towing a 1.5 ton hybrid camper plus all our gear, water,fuel and people etc. My vehicle already naturally slopes down to the front, and fitting the winch on the front will only exentuate this….
Whilst I don’t really want a lift kit for the sake of it, I am being told ( mainly by people that sell these kits!) that a suspension upgrade is almost essential given the weight we will have on the vehicle and the tracks we will be travelling on. I am weighing up an old man emu set up involving a very modest lift (25mm front and 20mm rear) vs a respected local off road mechanic who has suggested a 50mm front lift and 40mm at the rear using blistering shocks, king springs and air bags for the rear which can be deflated when not towing. I am also going to get a new set of all terrain tyres with a marginally larger rolling diameter.
Any suggestions welcome.
Hey Andrew yeah sounds reasonable dude, you don’t want sagging suspension when hitting the tough stuff. Marginally larger tyres are good too, that’s what I did. Keep the lift to minimum. Apart from lift, ensure spring rate is for heavy loads. You can get no lift but replace the springs with firmer springs. Lifted springs will still sag too much if spring rate is not adequate. Higher spring rate will handle the heavy load better but will yield a firmer ride when unloaded.
Hi Joe, any thought would be appreciated as to why a distinct bass sounding drone noise inside car commencing at 60kph plus and sometimes remaining all the way down to 5 kph, possibly depending on various road surfaces, has developed on my 2008 vx cruiser with KDSS, when a 40mm old man emu upgrade was fitted.
Thank you Glenn Phillips
Hey Glenn not sure mate. Could be something to do with the KDSS going out of whack due to the lift and constanty trying to correct. Try pulling the fuse to the KDSS and see if it goes away. Does it change when you put clutch in / go in neutral? Change with engine RPM or gear selection? Any other mods installed at the time? I’d try a vehicle specific landcruiser forum for more expert advice.
After explaining cv wear in relation to lift, you still lifted your vehicle .
So I take it you are willing to compromise a little for the sake of a lift ?
Im considering a small lift, 40-50mm as my vehicle, a bt50 has such a long wheel base. (I already have 32″ tyres).
Im trying to improve the ramp over angle as it belles out too much.
Your thoughts ?
Hey Dean doesn’t matter what you do, you are compromising.
Big tyres plus lift is a bit stressful. But if you’re often dragging the belly then maybe you need it. You carrying big load up front? Bullbar, winch, spot lights, dual battery etc? Then go for smaller lift and stiffer springs. Stiffer rear end may also help if you have a saggy ass.
Thanx Joe, appreciated.
I just came across one of your articles about engine boosters and went on to read the ‘do you need a suspension lift kit’ article. Both relevant to me at the moment, and as a ‘non mechanically minded person’ it is in terms I actually understand. I know I don’t need a suspension kit for any other than reason than re-levelling my front end after the sag of fitting a bullbar and winch. I would like to know your thoughts on just putting in spacers in the front to return height to standard. Would this place the same stress on the suspension components as actually increasing the height? Thanks in advance
Hey John see “strut spacers” in the article. Generally they aren’t a good idea. People have had strut failures caused by strut spacers. Maybe, for correcting a bit of sag, you could use a strut spacer no more than 5mm thick which would give you about 10mm lift. There’s still risk by not as much as bigger spacers. Stiffer spring is the proper solution.
Thanks for the reply and explanation on best way to go. Any recommendations on an appropriate spring manufacturer?
I’m not sure I have no personal experience purchasing springs alone. I bought ironman lift kit which came with springs and they’re fine. I’ve heard of King springs but dunno much about them.
As a total 100% newbie to 4×4 (just bought a Triton today) I would know I want slightly bigger tyres than the stock tyre and the a little bit of security of knowing my diff is less likely to get stuck on my travels. Not been super rich what is my best cost effective option?
Yo Peter it all depends on what you are trying to achieve. The most cost effective is doing barely enough so that your vehicle is just capable of doing what you need it to do. Often this means keeping it stock. I wouldn’t upgrade tyres and suspension just for security with no regard for the intended application. People in the 4×4 community will tell you to do that coz they are either trying to sell you something or they’re addicted to throwing money at their car.
What sort of work will you be doing with your Triton? Maybe get some experience first with the vehicle, understand its limitations, understand what you want to do with it, and then decide what modifications you want. As security, for the first few times, go out with mates and / or don’t do anything too difficult.
Great advice OBJ, in nearly 30 years of owning 4×4’s I have done fine with just swapping tyres from highway to all terrain and using tyre pressure adjustments to suit environment. Any time I’ve been bogged or struggled with a tough off road situation the other lifted vehicles with increased tyre size have nearly always met the same fate. I have a limited budget so I have chosen to invest in a bullbar and winch and other recovery gear instead.
I have a 2008 TD 4WD Hilux.
Shocks have all been replaced with 4×4 HD shocks.
Height is standard but find the rear sits about 2-3 inches higher than the front as I don’t carry much in the tub.
My mechanic recommended putting 2″ HD springs on the front to even it out, I can get these for about $200 on eBay then fitting is $300.
Will this be bad for my cars driveshaft angles? Or beneficial because it will sit even?
Hey James if you increase cv angles you will always increase wear. But if you only want a few cm to even up with rear then it won’t make much difference. I’ve heard of handling issues when raising the front without raising the rear. If you put heavy crap in the back then you will end up with a nose high arrangement which might upset the handling but I dunno specifics it’s only what I’ve heard.
Love your blogs. So informative and well written!
I recently bought a 2010 SWB 150 series Prado with 70,000 kms on the dial. Before buying, my mechanic checked it over and advised it had a leaking shock at the front. I re-negotiated the price to take this into account. Bottom line is I need to replace at least the front pair. I live close to Fraser Island and will be travelling there numerous times a year (maybe half a dozen or so) for both work and recreation. To be honest, the remainder of my driving is mostly on the black stuff but further exploration of Australia beckons in future years. My question is, should I just replace “like with like” or take the opportunity to upgrade the entire suspension with a lift kit? I am a bit concerned about the issues you raise with regards to wear on other components, and also the compromised handling resulting from a higher centre of gravity, remembering that a lot of my driving will still be on bitumen. However, better clearance in soft sand with deep ruts might also be handy, especially given that I will be running low tyre pressures. Any advice would be appreciated!
Hey Darren always err on the side of keeping it stock if you want maximum longevity and minimal cost. If your shocky is still working ok despite the leak take it for some runs onto fraser and see how you go. Fraser Island sand is pretty easy, most people hardly let down their tyres and make it through ok although they cut up the inland tracks pretty bad. There’s a butt load of standard soft off roaders that go ok on Fraser. I found on my hilux I bottomed out too easy on the narrow sloping boggy beaches around Perth. So I got small lift and slightly bigger tyres. Maybe the inland tracks and the entry / exit points into the beach is where you’ll test it most on fraser.
How do I get a job where I get to cruise down Fraser a few times a year?
Thanks for the advice. Yeah 75 mile beach is easy going. It’s more the inland tracks that develop deep ruts and can get very soft if there has been no rain. I get the barge from Hervey Bay so I need to go across the island to get to the eastern beach communities. My work is in property valuation. Not many privately owned freehold properties over there but enough that we get at least a few jobs per year. Are there options somewhere between ‘factory’ shocks and lift kits that I should look at?
You can put spacers in but they no good can cause damage. You could put in a slightly stiffer spring into the factory strut assembly but then if it’s not matched to the shocky it might not handle well. Otherwise a small lift is still pretty reliable. Limit to maybe 40mm. Another option is slightly bigger tyres but that degrades acceleration and fuel economy and also more stress on drive train. Nothing comes for free unfortunately.
Sorry, forgot to mention that loads will generally be light. Stock standard SWB Prado. Work trips to Fraser just me, recovery gear and an overnight bag. Trips with the wife add camping gear & supplies for a couple of nights. The odd trip with 2 passengers in the back but not much gear.
Great article thanks. Makes a lot of sense. I always ask myself, ‘what would a farmer do?’. Here in NZ there’s plenty of mud, but you never see a farmer lift their truck. Other than whack on some MT’s, they keep they’re utes standard and boy do they get a work-out. Around town or at the supermarket you see a lot of lifted trucks – out in the country on farms hardly ever.
Have to say, A very well written and explained article. Yes, Its the continuous wearing of the body parts that lead to the vehicle failure on the tracks. This is the only reason you should invest in a good lift kit considering the vehicle full load capacity.
Loving the articles so far mate, and good to see articles that aren’t biased from manufacturers. The biggest mistake I see people make is jumping into putting mods on, particularly if they are new to the 4wd life style. I am certainly guilty of putting mods on my hilux, but have been around this sort of lifestyle for a long time.
Before any mod I decide to go with I think long and hard to determime if it is something I need or just a gizmo toy that won’t do much except force me to do more overtime at work. Most mods e.g. my 2 inch suspension lift and 32 inch tyres will change the way my hilux drives, but it justifies what I do with my ute and where I take it. The way I have set up my hilux (and upcoming mods e.g. diff locks) are for the car to perform offroad, on my farm and get me to the camping, hunting and fishing spots I love. I lot of my friends who have spent 25k in mods have never taken it anywhere but the one time they came out to the beach track and got bogged….all the gear and no idea!
One mod I am looking at I would like to hear your opinion on. It is not a neccessity, particulary with just the 2 inch lift, but would benefit were I to go to 3, or 4 in the future (along with diff and sway bar relocation/drop $$$). After market upper control arms, a few mobs that I have been looking at include nolathane and superior engineering. The arms are solid pipe construction, have longer ball joint movement, and also greaseable balls joints, being an electrician and a fitter mechanic I don’t mind going under the hood with a spanner. The price aren’t too excessive for a pair and simply to install which saves a bit more coin on labour, although will certainly get an expert to perform a wheel alignment after.
As I said, probably not an neccessity whoch two inch lift as the front coil springs have plenty of clearance from the UCA with the flex travel at that lifted height and tyre size, however the castor and camber correction for even a 2 inch lift and bigger tyres could be very beneficial, as well as a stronger part, which always helps with IFS.
Would like to hear what you think mate, idealy one day I can afford a 70 series cruiser and have the benefits of a live axle!
Also, these uca’s are adr approved, the brands mentioned anyway, knock off ali baba brands of cal off road uca’s or something like that probably not so much.
Hi Ben I dunno much about the after market upper control arms. Just make sure you have an actual problem or limitation that needs to be corrected. Don’t get them just coz they’re stronger and better. Get them for example if your current setup is not capable of being aligned correctly. Or if you’re getting scrubbing or mechanic clash between components or something.
I haven’t heard of control arm failure. I don’t know if that is a significant risk that should be addressed.
I can afford a cruiser. Doesn’t mean I’m going to get one. The opportunity cost from capital outlay and increased running cost would mean a lot less camping and fishing and hanging out with my friends and family. So my old hilux stays until it dies.
Yeah that’s essentially the frame of mind I am in, have never heard of a UCA failing except for maybe the rubber bushes perishing but that’s a simple consumable part that is easily fixed, in saying that my hilux is 8 years old and the bushes are fine, so will probably only go for it should I decide to heighten my suspension further and it becomes a necessary fix. I have really only heard about them lately they have sort of sprung out on the market, most likely because a lot of new four wheel drives be it a ute or suv are running IFS. I can’t think of many modern four wheel drives apart from the 70 series that are still live axles.
My problem with the landcruiser is that I have been obsessed with them since a young age so just have to keep my self control strong and not send myself broke just to drive one haha.
I don’t want to sound like a preachy wanker but something to consider is that you’re obsession is not your own internal desire. It’s bullshit. It’s something you’ve been trained to believe by marketing, by consumer culture, by your consumer friends and family, by the culture of the farming community. It’s not you. It may feel like you coz of a lifetime of training. Best thing is overcome it by understanding where it comes from, free yourself from that desire, save yourself a hundred grand then spend heaps of time camping and fishing and hunting with your friends and family or whatever it is you want to do.
That’s probably exactly what it is, and had the same reaction when my mate bought a Sahara for 113k, how the hell could you justify taking a 113k car four wheel driving? When I refer to landcruiser I am more referring to the 70 series gxl or troop carrier, the 200 series or Sahara would be ok but doesn’t really suit what I would want it for and the whole in my bank account doesn’t sound nice, why buy a car when you can buy a house? Luckily I also love hilux’s and mine has never let me down and with a few customised tweaks here and there in terms of mods it is one of the best performing 4wds out bush in my opinion.