If you’re serious about off-roading, or just want to look as if you are, you’ll need a lift kit. But what kinds of lifts are available? And which best fits your vehicle and your needs?
Lift kits fall into two broad categories: body lifts and suspension lifts. Each type has its strengths and weaknesses, and choosing the wrong one can cost you time, money, and enjoyment. Whether you’re looking to trick your ride out while keeping it on the road, or need a vehicle that can tackle any terrain, it all starts by knowing your options. This guide aims to help you start off on the right foot by choosing the right type of lift.
Body lifts are little more than aluminum or polyurethane blocks inserted between the body and the body mounts, leaving the chassis and drive train at their original levels. They are generally used to achieve lifts of one to three inches: not a dramatic change, but it improves approach and departure angles and allows the installation of larger wheels, which along with the extra clearance can make a vehicle ready for basic off-road duties. While we’re at it, wider wheels are always recommended whenever you install a lift, even if it’s to achieve an extra inch or two.
And while every lift method raises a vehicle’s center of gravity above its intended level, body lifts do so far less dramatically than suspension lifts. That’s because in a typical vehicle only 20% or so of the vehicle’s entire mass is being lifted. A three-inch body lift only increases a vehicle’s center of gravity by .6”, while a suspension lift raises it the full three inches.
For all their advantages, body lifts have some drawbacks. Most importantly, be sure that your lift blocks are at least as wide as the original body mounts. And use the right hardware. Even a modest lift increases the shear stress on mounting bolts and points, making it especially important to use proper hardware. At minimum, you should use Grade 5 (US) or Class 8.8 (metric) bolts when installing lift blocks.
Depending on your vehicle’s make and model, you might also encounter some secondary issues. Some of these may be moot, and others especially pronounced.
- The steering column may touch the firewall
- Fuel- and brake lines may not be long enough to accommodate the lift
- Elements of the radiator assembly, especially fan shrouds, may fall out of alignment
- The firewall may interfere with the steering column
- Gaps will appear near chassis-mounted external features such as bumpers and bullbars
To achieve a three-inch lift, you’re likely to spend no more than a few hundred collars for the kit itself. Installation can be a different issue. Some drivers balk at paying more for labor than for the cost of parts themselves. Some enjoy a challenge. Others prefer to leave the finer points to more experienced professionals.
Suspension lifts offer more range than body lifts—standard kits are available that provide up to six inches of lift, and for reasons having nothing to do with performance you can find kits promising as much as fourteen inches. Because of this range, you’ll want to check the state and local regulations governing vehicle height in your area before considering a suspension lift.
The most simple suspension-lift kits are based around specially designed spacers and bump stops that add distance between selected suspension components. More advanced kits include new parts that replace or enhance existing suspension and drive train components, including new shock absorbers, new or additional leaf springs, additional sway bars, extended control- and radius arms, and even new drive shafts. Some of these parts provide lift; others counteract the degraded handling and increased sway that comes with a raised center of gravity. Remember: suspension lifts raise nearly all of a vehicle’s weight, meaning that a two-inch suspension lift produces very nearly the same rise in its center of gravity.
Along with the significantly greater downside that comes from a higher center of gravity, suspension lifts offer some benefits over body lifts. For starters, along with better approach angles, the increased height of the chassis provides much greater ramp-over abilities. The suspension’s articulation—the axles’ ability to travel up and down while maintaining stability—is greatly improved in suspension lifts. And though they cost a good deal more than body-lift kits, quality suspension-lift kits preserve the original suspension’s geometry in ways that can actually aid braking and, with the right tires, increase gas mileage.
Expect to pay between $400 and $3,500 for mainstream suspension-lift kits, with another $750-$2,500 in most cases for professional installation.
For drivers who rarely take their vehicles off-road, body lifts are a quick and inexpensive way to achieve a bit more clearance and allow for slightly bigger wheels. Those advantages quickly disappear, though, when conditions call for the the superior clearance and functional reinforcement provided by high-quality suspension lifts. Take a moment (or more) to consider your needs and your vehicle’s capabilities before choosing the lift-kit option that’s right for you.