The Suspension & Locker Showdown
Over The Past Few Decades Advances In Suspension Technology have elevated many of the factory 4x4s to entirely new heights. Where leaf springs once dominated the dirt, now more modern multilink suspensions seem to be controlling the off-road world. But if travel really equals traction, does that mean a good suspension setup is money better spent than lockers? We set out to test this theory on two identical '07 Jeep Wrangler Rubicons. As one of the only vehicles available with factory selectable lockers and a disconnecting sway bar, the Rubicon was about as close as we could come to comparing apples to apples.
During the test we wheeled the two Rubicons in four configurations (fully locked connected, open connected, fully locked disconnected, and open disconnected), all in low range with ESP disabled while we followed the same lines with each pass up the trail. The object here is not to test the vehicle as much as it is to learn how each variation made the driver feel and how the vehicle reacted. Want to try it yourself? Try wheeling with your sway bar connected, then with it not. If you already have lockers and a flexible suspension then great! Keep wheeling. But for those of you still building a 4x4 on a budget, this will hopefully give you some insight on what the next big investment might be for your rig.
when tackling the rocks it's important to make sure your suspension is doing most of the work. having the sway bar connected tended to make the vehicle bounce and seesaw more dramatically, thus creating a "tipsy" feeling. also notice the angle at which the axle sits in relation to the body. with the sway bar locked, the front of the jeep and the axle are virtually parallel. but with it disconnected the axle is able to travel further into the fender and allow the jeep's body to stay on a more level plane.
To get an idea of what the Jeeps were capable of right out of the box, we headed over to this stair-climb obstacle to gather a few impressions and see how far the vehicles could make it under the different configurations. Clearly the lockers let the Jeep go the furthest distance, but with the sway bar engaged we almost had the boss' Jeep on its side.
I have long held the opinion that lockers are the most important off-road upgrade, while at the same time feeling the extreme travel trend of the late '90s-when RTI ramps had everyone building super flexi, barely driveable 4x4s-was a mistake. Yet this test gave me some new insights on the pros and cons of lockers and long travel. Lockers are still a priority upgrade in my book and with good reason. I like attempting crazy climbs and deep notches in trails where the tires of any 4x4 may end up gasping for traction. In those states where rain is more common than the saltine cracker known as Southern California, you can easily recognize that a small bit of mud will have an unlocked rig doing the well-known sit and spin (sit still, spin tires). However, lockers do have a few low points. First, installing them usually requires either some skill in the wrenching department or a qualified shop. Second, steering a vehicle with the lockers engaged can be difficult as they like to push straight and fight tight maneuvers. And finally, lockers can have unusual on-road driving characteristics depending on which versions you use, though this is normally not a problem if you keep the tire aired up to equal pressures.
The nice thing about axle articulation is that by keeping the tires on the ground, the driver has a more enjoyable driving experience. This may sound weird but let me give you an example. While testing I drove up a stair step that had the front right tire off the ground when the sway bar was connected. Not a problem since the lockers were locked, but almost a problem when I drove a little further and the weight balance shifted. I hate calling the boss explaining that I laid his Jeep over on its side, especially when it's his brand-new loaner. The same line in the Jeep with the sway bar disconnected never got that extreme weight shifting; the body stayed level, and there were no white-knuckle moments.
Having the flexibility in your suspension means less banging around inside the cab for the driver, and a comfortable driver always has more fun. Of course being able to reconnect that sway bar makes the vehicle that much safer on road, but a flexible suspension off road really makes the trip less jarring, more stable, and more fun. In the end I feel the lockers will take you more extreme places off road and offer a more "wild" ride, where the suspension articulation makes for a more pleasant and comfortable off-road experience. Thus you need to decide your priority, or better yet, choose a mixture of both-lockers with a flexible but controlled suspension, and go have fun in comfort.-Fred Williams