F-150 system. Photo: Courtesy of Camburg
Author: Craig Perronne
For many, blinded by the excitement of significantly improving their suspensions, only two items are considered when looking at a long-travel system: price and amount of wheel travel. However, selecting the right suspension involves a myriad of decisions. A host of factors must be thoroughly thought through before plunking down your hard-earned cash for the latest and greatest in suspension technology. Let’s take a look at some of what can be the difference between opening a can of whoop ass or a can of worms.
All Travel is Not Always Equal The fact that all suspension travel is not always equal was vividly demonstrated during the maximum articulation craze of rock crawling at the beginning of the millennium. With the focus completely on getting as much suspension movement as possible, all manner of ill-conceived suspension products, systems and designs were developed. While all that flex might have looked cool, the result of the goofiness was suspension systems that really didn’t work all that well. The low speeds of rock crawling might have masked the problem for awhile, but the lesson that more is not always better was eventually learned, and the focus shifted to more functional, better performing suspensions. Earlier modified I-Beam Ford F150s and Rangers also illustrated this in the desert, but to a much lesser extent. While easy to get travel from, if not done properly the side affect was radical camber changes as the beams cycled through the wheel travel. The results were less desirable handling and bump steer (without the proper steering setup). However, I-Beams made up for this with their simple and extremely strong design. They could (and still can) withstand abuse much better than other more elaborate designs.
So what is the point of this mini history lesson? Not all wheel travel is equal, and more of it is not necessarily better if that extra travel is not carefully designed not to degrade the handling of the vehicle. If one suspension system offers a couple more inches of wheel travel over another, that doesn’t automatically make it better.
Street Cred When the economy was booming, long-travel companies seemed to pop up overnight looking to get rich off of those wanting to spend their excess cash and add some wheel travel. Each seemed to promise a better or less expensive suspension than their competitor. Some were valid companies, while others were more questionable with minimal engineering and fabrication skills.
Once the economy tanked, so did many of the newbies. The majority of those that have weathered the economic storm have done so for a reason; they enjoy a solid reputation for making high-quality suspension systems. One of the biggest factors in your purchasing decision should be what kind of reputation the company who manufactures whatever system you are looking at has. Shopping just by price and amount of wheel travel alone can definitely be a pitfall. Often the first step in researching a company is to look on the Internet and eventually some kind of forum. A few words of caution are needed here. While forums can be great places from which to glean information, they also need to be taken with a grain of salt at times. There will always be someone who has a problem with a company or product no matter how high its quality. And, there will also always be someone who absolutely raves about how great a suspension is even if it is garbage. While there are definitely knowledgeable people online, just because someone has signed up on a forum doesn’t automatically make them an expert. It is always best to see what the overriding or average opinion is instead of putting stock into just one person’s view.
Also, don’t take this as a knock against new entries into the market. Every company has to start somewhere, and if nobody ever bought their products then there would simply be no new companies. However, for companies without any reputation to go on, one should take an extremely careful look at the quality of construction and components of their products. The absolute last thing you want to be is someone’s guinea pig or “research department,” finding out for them that a design is flawed or product is failure prone.
Build Quality and Engineering One important lesson to learn when looking at suspensions is that just because someone is a fabricator it doesn’t necessarily mean they can design a proper long-travel system. They might be capable of building it, but designing a properly working suspension is another matter all together. The often-overlooked engineering side of a suspension company is just as important (if not more so) as whoever builds it.
Most modern companies use some form of computer aided design and employ engineers to make sure their suspensions are strong, will function properly and provide excellent performance. Others have had enough experience simply to know what will work and what won’t. Either one or a combination of both can work, but the point to remember is that just because a guy can fabricate a couple arms and some spindles and hires a couple of buddies to help him out, doesn’t automatically make him a legitimate long-travel suspension company. Once again, reputation can be a key indicator here.
Build quality is also a good way to be able to distinguish a proper long-travel system from an imposter. One of the easiest ways is to take a close look at the welds. Many suspensions are MIG-welded which is fine, but if it looks like someone learned to weld while building it, then chances are the same shoddy craftsmanship is found throughout the rest of the components. The chances are also good that the engineering behind it is sub par as no sane company would spend the time and money needed to engineer and design a system and then have some hack build it. Racing can also play a role in vetting what works and what doesn’t. If a company successfully campaigns their own race vehicle or sponsors a racer who runs their suspension, more than likely those products actually work. It is also a very good indicator that a company can properly engineer and build a long-travel system if they are manufacturing complete race vehicles and prerunners as well. Just make sure that extremely modified versions of their products are not being used and that their sponsorship goes beyond just stickers. Remember that this is not a hard and fast rule. Some quality producers of very nice suspensions do not have the extra time or resources to go racing.
Components and Materials Build quality is also directly related to the quality of the components and materials used to construct a long-travel kit. When we think of a long-travel system, most of us envision upper and lower A-arms and maybe a set of spindles, if needed. We tend to drool over the major components and not look closely at the details. Often though, it is those very details that can separate one kit from another. This is where corners can be cut to save cost and offer a system that has the same travel as a competitor’s, but at a lower price point. An uneducated customer might overlook or be unaware of the differences and think they are getting a great deal, when in reality they are getting the shaft. For example, high-quality hardware can cost a lot of money. It is not unheard of for a single bolt to cost upward of $50 depending on its size and quality. The same can be said for the proper uniballs, rod ends and other expensive components. Many of us might scratch our heads when comparing what appears to be identical kits from two companies with different price points, but take a closer look and usually the differences in what some think might be “minor” items usually appear. Often those little things can add a fair amount of strength and longevity to a suspension system along with cost.
Materials are also an area where a company could skimp if so desired. An important question to ask is what is everything made of? Are the A-arms chromoly? Is it 4130? What are the spindles made of? If someone gives a shrug to these questions or doesn’t know, then it is best to move on to another system, no matter how attractive the price may be.
Beautiful welds and construction are dead giveaways to the overall quality and engineering of a suspension system. Look closely and you can also notice the internal gusseting to add strength on these Brenthel arms. Photo: Craig Perronne
Completeness of System Another often-overlooked area that can have a direct impact on price is how complete the long-travel system is. Does it come with longer brake lines or will you have to figure that out? Are upper shock mounts included or do you need to fabricate your own? Does it come with limiting straps? Is every piece of hardware part of the system or do you have to source your own? While these might not seem like major parts of the purchasing decision, it is often surprising how quickly the little things can add up. While going with the lowest price is tempting, it is often more of a hassle having to find a multitude of small items to complete the system. Paying a bit more on the front side of the purchase can save both time, headaches and even money in the long run.
What is an option and what is included in the price also needs to be looked at carefully. One suspension system might be more when compared to another because it includes items like steering upgrades, fabricated spindles, upper shocks mounts and the like in the price, while for the other they are optional upgrades. Remember a long-travel system often goes well beyond just a couple of A-arms, so make sure you are comparing apples to apples and not a base kit with a bunch of parts missing.
Getting Shocked With any long travel system it shouldn’t be exactly shocking that you are going to have to purchase shocks. Most manufacturers do not include the price of shocks with their systems, but you can easily expect to pay an additional $1,500 for two high-quality coilovers from any of the big brands of racing shocks. If you want to add bypasses, be prepared to plunk down at least another $1,500 on top of that. Nothing about going the long-travel route is cheap. Besides being aware of the costs, one of the most important considerations when it comes to shocks is whether or not they come with valving specific for your application. The best suspension manufacturers religiously test their products before they ever hit the market, not only to test strength and reliability, but also to perfect shock valving. This is huge as it means your system will already be working at its best without having to spend days testing and making valving adjustments. All of the hard work has already been done, leaving you with the simple task of just bolting in shocks. If a manufacturer can’t provide you with the right valving, be prepared to spend long hours being a guinea pig and making lots of adjustments.
Rear Options Another factor that must be considered is the rear suspension. For whatever reason, most companies focus on the front and many do not offer a complete rear system, but rather pieces of one. Consequently, some custom fabrication will have to happen. While some companies will gladly tackle the rear as well, others are more focused on production and would rather not handle time-consuming custom work. This means you will have to find a competent fabricator who is capable of building a rear suspension usually consisting of at least a spring-under conversion, a bed cage with shock mounts and some new shackles (for leaf-sprung vehicles). Of course, new rear shocks are also part of the equation, further adding to the cost.
Before plopping down some big money for a long-travel front suspension, one should also look into how complicated it is to get wheel travel from the rear. For most leaf-sprung trucks it is a fairly straightforward affair, but for other vehicles that already come with a coil-sprung rear — such as Toyota 4Runners and FJ Cruisers — getting enough travel to match or exceed the front can be a fairly complicated affair involving lots of custom fabrication. Make sure to research how much of a task building the rear of your vehicle will be.
Many modern suspension companies now employ CAD design to ensure quality, eliminate any trial and error and speed production. Photo: Courtesy Brenthel
Getting It On In terms of costs, installation must be considered. Some systems are fairly basic when it comes to putting them on and can be installed by almost anyone. Others are more advanced, requiring welding and lots of tools and mechanical skill. Make sure you know what you are getting into before making a purchase. And, if you have any doubts about your abilities, it is probably best to fork out the extra cash to get it professionally installed. At least that way you do not have to worry about something expensive breaking because it was put in the wrong way. Also, a suspension failure at speed can be extremely dangerous, so having the professionals put it on can bring peace of mind.
Total Cost and Is It Worth It? By now you should be starting to realize that going the long-travel route will cost some significant money. By the time one adds up the cost for the front and rear suspension, shocks, any upgrades, the fiberglass fenders and bedsides that are often needed, paint and any custom fabrication, it can easily exceed $10,000. And, if a front bumper, lights, new wheels and tires are part of the mix, that cost goes up even further.
A long-travel suspension also does not instantly transform one into Robby Gordon. You are still driving a basically stock vehicle, albeit with a heavily modified suspension. There is no cage tied into the chassis to add strength unless you are adding one. The frame is still basically stock and, more than likely, so is the rear axle. It is not a Trophy-Truck, and if you treat it like one by constantly catching big air and beating on it hard, eventually something is going to break.
That being said, it is easy to double the amount of available wheel travel in a vehicle with a long-travel suspension, and that is always a very good thing. Suspension performance will increase dramatically, and so will the speeds that you can travel over rough terrain. All of this will undoubtedly bring a big smile.
So is it worth it? Well, only you can answer that question, but before you do make sure to research what you are doing properly. Find out the total cost of everything, whose suspension you are going to use and address all of the previously mentioned concerns. Follow those steps and your answer is much more likely to be a resounding “hell yes!”