Lift kits are that first all-important mod that most overlanders make. Lifts on overlanders are so ubiquitous that in many places you can walk right off the dealer lot with added height and tire, both factory-backed and aftermarket. Stepping back from the assumption that you have to have a lift to overland, we need to ask ourselves why we need or want to lift our vehicles.
The goal is simple - more space between your vehicle’s hard bits and the trail, means more capability in rough terrain.
Secondary objectives would be to gain comfort, load capability, suspension performance, or simply to look the part, which is an important consideration for more people than would care to admit.
There are many different ways to lift a vehicle - suspension lift, body lift, subframe lift, and spacer lift to name a few. They all have their pros and cons but as a general rule, how much you want to spend will be directly related to what you get out of your lift.
There is no shortage of lift kits out there in the market, and they range dramatically in price from a few hundred bucks to thousands of dollars. What do you need? What do you get for your money? And are they any different really? To make sense of the marketplace I wanted to get an expert's opinion.
One of the benefits of living in Utah, is access to a wealth of knowledge of seasoned off-roaders and companies that have made a living in the red dirt. Sure enough, just down the street from me is located one of the true legends in aftermarket Jeep components, and Mr. Dennis Wood of Teraflex was incredibly generous with his time in helping me gain this valuable insight in this maze of options.
A gracious host, Dennis starts with a quick tour of the campus, which has grown from a low of 48 employees in 2017 to over 200 today and includes a new 100,000 square foot facility where they manufacture Falcon shocks.
The front wall is plastered with hundreds of Jeep components, from TJ short arms to axle floater kits and brakes. Teraflex exists for Jeepers and the parking lot is jam packed with JK’s, JT’s, JL’s and a few other Jeeps. They know Jeeps
Soon into the tour, we stop at a photo studio with a bare JLU chassis that’s been setup to demonstrate a few of the different products Teraflex makes for the platform. Talking over the products I get some fascinating insights into their development program and it’s obvious that this is far more than your run-of-the-mill fabrication shop, this is an engineering firm.
This is exactly what I came to find out - Why should I pay for something expensive like a Teraflex system when there are so many other, cheaper ways to achieve the goal of added ride height. Is there really a difference?
Talking about spacer lifts, Dennis tells me a story that illustrates this last question very well:
“Back in the JK days, when they first had puck lifts - the springs compressed so little when you were at ride height and you flexed them, the rear coils would shift out or just drop out. We saw one at a dealership where the puck was sideways, about to pop out. When we did ours we did a little snap in so it would click in, and then we put a long extension on them so the spring would reposition as it slid down. We put some thought into it.”
The downside is that kind of engineering and product iteration takes time.
“We aren’t first to market anymore like we used to be. It takes us forever to get things out because we’ve got to go through all these processes.”
The way he tells it, Teraflex is happy to wait and sell kits to all the people disappointed with the kits that are first out.
“It’s better, we’re coming in and batting clean up. Customers will say, well I won’t do that again, next time I’ll just buy a Teraflex.”
And honestly I think he’s got a point. I’ve been fiddling with the suspension on my Land Cruiser for years and only now do I feel like I have it mostly where I want it. It was a lot of trial and error, or what Dennis calls “arts and crafts”. Looking back on it now, I could have saved myself a lot of trouble, time and money with a kit that was fully engineered from the beginning.
It’s here I want to step back a little to say this isn't so much about Teraflex, per-se, but rather in trusting a company that emphasizes engineering, real world testing and experience in their designs. There are cheaper kits out there, and some of them will be fine, but it’s something to consider at the very least.
So how much lift do you need? For height, I can’t help you there as every vehicle is a little different and your trail needs will be completely different than mine. For many people, stock suspension and a little more tire might be all you need. For others, it could be that every quarter inch of difference you lift will add up.
In terms of height, I will leave you with two thoughts:
First - buy the smallest lift you can for the most tire you need. This gives you the most benefit for the least tradeoffs.
The second is related - be honest about how you plan to travel and realize that every inch of lift is going to cost you something. Anything past 1-2 inches on most vehicles is going to start to cost you dearly. A 4runner with a 4 inch lift and 35’s sure looks the part, but that kit will cost a fortune to do it right and still drive substantially worse than a smaller lift with a smaller tire - to say nothing of wear and tear on components and decreased economy. Be sensible for best results. Once you raise your vehicle past a certain point, doing it right becomes expensive.
Why is that? I ask Dennis.
"Roll center, scrub radius, panhard lengths and angles, joint angles, up travel, down travel, castor, camber... it goes on."
There is a lot of engineering that goes into your vehicle’s suspension to make it drive right. There is some amount of alteration you can make without upsetting this engineering and outside of this range, you need fairly dramatic alterations to bring this geometry back.
Steering geometry is critical to keep your vehicle driving down the road close to how it was from the factory. Camber, caster, scrub radius, etc. Getting these corrected is crucial for a safe, well driving lift.
That's just the start, however.
“You can have all the steering angles back, and be all great... but you go out and try to flex it and you have all these restrictions on it.” In other words, you have to get the geometry right and make sure you can cycle the suspension, nothing binds or hits, or that the range of motion doesn't allow for any critical angles.
A good illustration of this is the panhard rod on the front of a JL Jeep. The panhard is the rod that locates the axle left to right and it's done by attaching one side of the axle to the frame with a long rod. As you lift the vehicle, the angle becomes steeper and if you don't correct for strength, length and angles on this rod you actually risk binding it up and sucking the axle down under full droop or bending dramatically as you come down from full droop at speed.
Ride quality, brake dive, impact forces, axle movement and alignment, etc. These are all considerations for getting a kit to work with a chassis.
As another example: The mounting location for the lower control arms of a Jeep’s suspension. When the Jeep leaves the factory the angle of these arms is relatively flat and forces from impacts are translated into the frame in a way that is straight and strong. When you lift that angle on the frame side becomes more pronounced. So now when you hit a was at speed that force is going to try and pull the axle under the vehicle and stress that mount more, plus you introduce brake dive and all sorts of undesirable conditions.
The Teraflex drop bracket, which moves the mounting location down and forward is meant to correct this, but more than that, it also has to factor in loads and hangups in its new location.
“You gotta figure these guys are going to abuse it. And you have to make sure it’s going to flow [over rocks].”
“We ripped off a lot of prototype brackets, tore them right off the frame. You gotta real world it. You’ve got to do real world [testing].”
The further you go down this rabbit hole the more you realize that doing it right simply costs more.
We’ve come a long way in this article and we’ve haven’t talked about shocks yet, so what about 'em? The truth is that while Teraflex builds their own shocks and tunes them to match with their system, they’ve also made a conscious choice to sell many of their kits without shocks. I asked why and the answer is surprisingly revealing.
“Preference. You know some people like Bilstein, that’s fine. Some people like this or that. We make our kits to work with our shocks but for some people they just want to run their own.”
To be clear, Teraflex recommends their shocks, which are tuned to work with their system. The Falcon and Teraflex shocks enjoy a great reputation and I would consider them some of the very best out there. This isn’t about that at all. This is a statement that while shocks get all the glory, the real meat of a great lift kit is in the thoughtful engineering into the links, bushings, coatings, welds, and 100 other things that don’t enjoy the same limelight as the highly visible shocks.
Let’s back up. Before you select a kit you need to ask yourself a few simple questions. How much lift?
At the risk of being obnoxious, I’m going to give you the standard answer of “it depends”. Obviously this is a question you are going to need to ask yourself. It’s my personal opinion that the less you do to your overlander, the less you ruin it... or maybe that’s just me.
You probably thought you saw a typo up there when I said a few questions, plural. “How much lift?” is actually a two parter - how high and how sophisticated?
I’ve already given you my 2 cents on how high, but how sophisticated should you buy? We've come a long way in suspension technology, particularly in dampers, but here is my simplified answer for the 2nd: the basics still apply.
You can get bogged down in coil type - linear, progressive, dual rate, etc - or in damper technology - bypass, adjustable, remote res, etc - but the thing that will make the most difference on any vehicle is going to be correcting geometry and using high quality, tested components.
For the sake of not leaving you hanging, I will offer this cheat sheet for the Jeeper looking for an upgrade from stock.
Dampers are your choice. It's my personal opinion that the weight of vehicles these days require a minimum of 2 inch bore shocks for any real use and 2.5+ for heavy use. Comfort, adjustability and edge case performance are what you buy when you move up this ladder.
And of course it goes without saying that you will want to consider your budget. If you have the budget, you won't be disappointed with shelling out for a high performance system. The good news is that if your build fund isn't flush with cash, you won't be punished for choosing a well engineered budget system either.
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