When it comes to suspension systems there are seemingly endless avenues to travel. The ultimate goal for any double-duty 4x4 is to have a durable and well-engineered suspension system that allows for a smooth ride both on- and off-road. Coilover shocks and custom link-suspensions are great ways to get serious performance and travel, but expect to pay a premium for the high-end suspension performance. Sometimes a simple shock upgrade can make a tremendous difference.
It’s also important to find ways to improve your suspension without completely taking away its functionality. For example, using air bags to compensate for softer long-travel leaf springs in the rear of a truck will offer increased off-road performance without deleting the functionally and payload capacity of your workhorse. Suspension upgrades can often be had a little at a time, so take it slow and figure out what’s best for your needs.
Best all-around: A rebuildable shock from companies like King (www.kingshocks.com), Fox (www.foxracingshox.com), and Bilstein (www.bilstein.com) will allow you to finely tune your 4x4. Depending on your make and model, long-travel suspension kits are worth looking into. Many of the modern performance suspension systems can net you tremendous amounts of travel, while maintaining suitable road manners.
Middle ground: Shocks are a huge part of the suspension equation so at the very least get a set that is properly tuned and rebuildable. A shock that you can valve and build is one that can grow with you and your rig. Research suspension systems that focus more on vertical wheel travel instead of just lift numbers.
Budget-friendly: Don’t be too frustrated by the sticker shock of what suspensions cost these days. There are plenty of entry-level systems that are very affordable and work great off-road. Remember, inexpensive doesn’t always mean cheap quality. By simply disconnecting your sway bars and installing longer shocks, you can easily increase the performance of your stock suspension off-road.
Keeping your 4x4 low might sound easy enough, but a low COG (center-of-gravity) can absorb much of your rigs approach angle. This is especially true for modern 4x4s equipped with an extremely low-hanging front bumper. Stock bumpers adhere to strict federal safety standards and have aerodynamic cues built-in to help the truck’s overall efficiency. Upgrading your front bumper with a high-clearance unit will up your ground clearance, allow room for larger tires, and increase the vehicle’s approach angle. Just as we mentioned with the skidplates, weight plays a big role in the performance of your rig. Aluminum is a great option for some rigs, but we’re fans of simple DOM tube-style bumpers for simplicity and clearance. Your front bumper is the first thing to get smashed off-road, so pick something that is meant to take a beating. Basic brushguards will not cut it.
Best all-around: Plate bumpers similar to those offered from ARB (www.arbusa.com) usually flow well with factory body lines and can be painted to match. The drawback of a large plate-bumper is that they often decrease the approach angle over a tube-style front bumper. Much of the bumper decision comes down to personal preference and bumper availability.
Middle ground: High-clearance is the name of the game off-road. Don’t fret if you can’t get that ultimate winch and bumper you’ve been looking at. Look for a simple and lightweight front bumper that has tow-point attachments. Tube bumpers may look a bit more aggressive, but are often much lighter and offer more clearance over plate-style bumpers.
Budget-friendly: There are a few ways to trim your stock bumpers to create more clearance while keeping a clean look. Don’t be afraid to leave the stock bumpers at home either. Taking a few minutes to drop the factory guards might sound like a time burglar, but come Monday morning you’ll be glad you did it.
A differential locker is mechanism that sits inside of or replaces the differential carrier. The job of a locker is to “lock” both axleshafts in unison so they can rotate at the same speed. Most factory 4x4s are equipped with an open differential carrier, which allows for different speeds of the tires as they move through different arcs of a turn. This open-style differential only sends power to the wheel with the least resistance, where a locker actually splits the power between both wheels evenly. A locker, especially in the rear, will be one of the best investments and noticeable performance modifiers that you can place in your rig.
Best all-around: Selectable lockers are the cream of the crop for a daily-driven vehicle. On-road, most selectable lockers work identically to an open differential when not engaged. This means your rig’s street manners will be unchanged. With the simple flick of a switch or pull of a lever a selectable locker transforms into a type of spool, which engages the axleshafts to spin at the same speed. Selectable lockers are the costliest style of locker, but for those that spend the most amount of time on-road, they are a great investment.
Middle ground: Automatic lockers like the Detroit Locker (www.eaton.com) are full-carrier replacement lockers that automatically engage when power (throttle) is applied. Generally, this style of locker allows for wheel-speed differentiation for turning, and in longer wheelbase vehicles, is not very noticeable on-road. Differences in air pressure and short-wheelbase rigs like the Jeep Wrangler can bring out quirky handling characteristics. This style of locker is usually about half the price of a selectable locker and ranks high on our favorite list for their sheer strength and simplicity. If you can only pop for one locker, put it in the rear axle.
Budget-friendly: Lunch-box or drop-in-style lockers are a great for those building on a limited budget. Drop in style lockers go in-place of the spider-gears inside of an open differential. They work similar to the full-carrier replace automatic locker, but they are often noisier. Since you are re-using your factory open differential carrier, you don’t get the strength upgrade of the aftermarket carrier. Drop-in lockers are a little less costly than full-carrier replacement lockers, and can easily be installed in your driveway with basic tools. Again, if we had to choose a spot for only one, it would be in the rear axle.