Once upon a time, 4x4 enthusiasts bought leaf springs shaped like smiley faces and then put blocks under them in an effort to be closer to the heavens. They thought that this would make them off-road gods, and were carried by an army of chrome shocks. Those days, fortunately, are behind us now. Instead, lift kits provide not only room for larger tires but also increased articulation and a smoother ride. Manufacturers like Jeep and Ford are building vehicles with larger wheelwells to accommodate big tires without the need for excessive lift or cutting. There’s nothing wrong with putting a 6-inch lift on a truck to clear 37s without cutting versus a 2-inch lift and cutting the heck out of the fenders. And while the center of gravity is higher with a lift, so is the body and frame. This means the sheetmetal is farther from harm so there’s less need for things like rocker protection, and there’s more clearance to get over obstacles.
Land Rover is credited with the expression “As slow as possible but as fast as necessary.” I would modify that to “As low as possible but as tall as necessary.” Sometimes “as tall as necessary” is taller than we would like. That is the case with my Toyota pickup, which started as an IFS vehicle and has straight frame rails that require a significant amount of lift in order to package the steering components between the frame and the axle.
Fast-forward to when my Tracker was built and Jesse Haines actually made new framerails that are taller to keep the ride height low with plenty of uptravel. This is a better solution, but certainly not an easy one. As with most things in life, a bunch of little modifications is a better choice than a silver bullet like new framerails. To me that means a small body lift that allows you to tuck the drivetrain between the framerails, a small suspension lift that leaves the geometry close to stock, and cut fenders to fit the largest tires possible.
Verne SimonsTech Editor
This is a no-brainer for me. I like—nay, love—a low wide vehicle in almost any situation and will choose it over an overly lifted vehicle almost all the time. Slapping on a lift kit to make a tire fit under bodywork is silly, and hopefully that practice is dead. I am more than happy to trim bodywork, move axles, shed plastic inner fender well liners, redesign steering, move shock mounts, and more in the hope of building a 4x4 that sits as low as possible on the largest tire.
The perfect example of this is between two otherwise very similar Jeeps I’ve driven. One was a 2004 TJ rental Jeep Wrangler Rubicon I spent time with in Moab several years ago. This rig was well equipped with a high-end 4 1/2-inch suspension, factory lockers, 35-inch tires, long-arm suspension, sway bar disconnects, and more. The other vehicle was my 1997 Jeep Wrangler, Shrink Ray TJ. A rig with almost no suspension lift (Grand Cherokee front coils and 3/4-inch rear coil spacer) also on 35-inch tires thanks to well-thought-out bumpstops and fender trimming. On the road the rental TJ swayed and leaned like a drunken giraffe in the turns, and that was with the sway bar connected. On the trail with the sway bar disconnected, it flopped and floundered and was downright scary. By comparison, Shrink Ray TJ is low and stable, inspiring confidence on the trail and on the road, and that’s without any sway bar on the vehicle—none.
Trent McGeeNuts & Bolts author
I’m guessing that I’m going to be the lone dissenter here, as the current trend is to build stuff low and cut to fit. It’s absolutely true that a low center of gravity helps keep a vehicle stable in off-camber situations, and conservative lifts don’t mess with steering and suspension geometry nearly as badly as taller lift kits do. But here’s the thing: Keeping things low and cutting to fit for larger tires isn’t always practical. Few people are going to take a Sawzall to the fenders of their brand new $70,000 truck to fit some 37-inch tires. There’s an unbelievable amount of stuff under the hood of a modern truck. Relocating various computers, wire harnesses, and other components so you can cut up the fenderwells is very difficult. Plus, with some vehicles you’re not going to gain much room without cutting into things like the passenger compartment and HVAC equipment. Tossing the heater or having a ventilated floorboard on a dedicated trail rig is one thing, but are most people going to throw away the air conditioning and deal with less legroom on something they’re still making payments on? No. Some platforms like the JK and JL Wrangler lend themselves to clearing big tires without much lift, but there are many more platforms that were not designed with an eye towards a larger tire and wheel package. An off-the-shelf lift kit is a bolt-on solution to making room for larger tires on those vehicles, and there’s no shame in adding the lift needed (within reason) to clear the desired tire size (within reason).
I remember when I first came to 4-Wheel & Off-Road as a newly hired feature editor. The first thing I asked my editor to do was let me install a 6-inch suspension lift under my Ramcharger. The rig worked well, but it did feel tippy and I had to battle rear axlewrap issues through most of my time with that vehicle. Nowadays I don’t even think I’d lift the suspension. Need to fit big tires? Keep it low, stupid, and cut the body. That’s where it’s at. Sure, go ahead and work over the suspension with better flexing springs, higher-end shocks, and even coilovers and links, but don’t lift it. Worried about your breakover angle? Make the drivetrain flush with the bottom of the frame and add skidplating. The only exception to keeping your center of gravity as low as possible is if you’re building a swamp buggy.