Off-road trucks, lowriders and trick cars may seem to corner the market on lifting and lowering, but some drivers just want to lower or lift for appearance and improved daily performance. If you're hoping to put some distance between your car and the road, or if you're trying to get a little closer to it, either way is doable. Whether exploring the mechanics of a four-wheel suspension lift upgrade or considering a low-cost lowriding project car, there are some common ways to raise or lower your vehicle profile.
And, while body work, bumper lowering and roof-chopping alter a car's latitude or low-titude cosmetically, let's look at some ways to actually change the way a car sits.
Cars and trucks need flexibility for handling road conditions and withstanding stopping and turning. Springs positioned between the wheels and the frame allow for movement and come at set heights from vehicle manufacturers as part of the suspension system. Lowering a car by adjusting the spring length or placement is a popular and relatively easy place to start.
Drop springs sold by auto parts suppliers can replace existing factory springs. But some car owners choose to cut the manufacturers' coil suspension springs instead, but this method can often cause the springs to weaken and even fail, resulting in an uneven or dangerous ride. Shortcuts can cost more over time because they can throw the car's alignment out of whack, which causes wear and tear on supporting parts like the frame, tires and undercarriage. Manufactured drop springs work better because they are the proper ratios for the vehicle's specs. Most are affordable, and cost less than $50, but there are higher-end springs that can cost more than $400.
Lowering kits are convenient and time-saving options for lowering a car. The kits include specific parts for particular car and truck models that match with the accompanying parts of the vehicle. The matching parts means there's less opportunity for miscalculating size and compatibility, and most of the work of lowering is manageable, whether the project is a DIY job completed in a home garage or one finished by a professional.
Prices for the kits vary, and types include everything from simple cosmetic and off-road kits to high-end, high-performance bundles, but most lowering systems contain some common parts. Coil and/or leaf springs, arms, brackets or stabilizing bars, shocks and stops make up most parts, and instructions and a warranty are often part of the package, too. Depending on the kit, prices can range anywhere from $100 to $1,000s. Most are ready for assembly out of the box, or can be ordered with upgraded components for customizing.
When an inflatable flotation ring loses its air, it's pliable and more easily dragged through the water. But with air, it's buoyant and floats on top of the water bumping with the motion of the waves.
An air ride suspension lets a car float in a similar way. By releasing or filling the air pressure in the suspension system, the buoyancy creates a gentle lift and drop with the turns in the road. Heavy, flexible bags or canisters hold and release the air in place of springs, lowering and lifting the vehicle to adjust to changing road conditions or performance needs. Many lowriders use air suspension bags for slow or dramatic drops and rises, and these setups can cost thousands of dollars. Air systems are more affordable than hydraulics systems, but still cost in the $500 to $1,500 range, not including installation.
Lowering a vehicle while having the flexibility to tackle inclined driveways, speed bumps or changing weather conditions, makes hydraulics the No. 1 option for many. A hydraulic suspension system is very versatile because it puts the driver in control of the car's height -- and in quick bursts via a fluid pressure system. While air suspension systems do the same, fluid suspension action is usually considered faster, depending on the power used to create the pressure of the hydraulics.
Tricked-out autos that perform rapid back, front, or one-sided drops and rises often are controlled by fluid hydraulics. This high-performance method of lowering a car comes at a high price, however, and can cost anywhere between $2,000 and $5,000 or more, not including installation and upkeep.
Though there are guidelines for how low you can go depending on your vehicle type, pushing a machine to its limits in the most ingenious ways possible is some car owners' goal. Endless combinations of kits and custom systems for lowering make for hours of reading on Internet car forums and in print magazines. Some car owners start with a kit and a vision and end with a completely unique solution.
Custom car shops become famous for how they lower their own and their customers' cars and trucks, and weekend mechanics have cars featured in international lowrider competitions because of their ingenuity at combining, innovating and customizing, sometimes with ground-grazing sparks. From Japan to Serbia to Los Angeles, and from classic cars to mainstream minivans, lowering options for a driver's tastes and comforts abound.
Lifting is similar in principle to lowering in that there are custom and kit options, but it carries some different considerations in terms of handling and methods. Lowered cars tend to get tighter, while lifted cars may be looser. Our next five points look at lifting options.
Torsion bars in trucks help absorb impact. They are fixed to the body of a vehicle at a set height on one end, but twist, yield and return to a straight rod based on the movement of a control arm that levers up and down. This vertical arm attaches to the torsion bar by movable bolts. Tightening these bolts manually or with tools such as torsion keys can raise the bar and make a car or truck sit higher.
Picturing this setup is a little challenging due to the name "torsion bar." Though the torsion is absorbed through the bar, it's not actually horizontal rod moving up and down. It's more like when you're squeezing water out of a towel. Twisting the towel tightens it up and releases the absorbed water, while untwisting the towel loosens it up and makes it shaky. A torsion bar twists and acts as a spring to absorb the vertical force of the arm, and when the bar is tight, it's more rigid and creates a harder impact for the vehicle. If the torsion bar is too loose -- like the unfolded towel -- it holds too little of the spring and the car's handling becomes wobbly.
Lifting a vehicle with a few turns of the torsion bar is simple and quick, but getting the height balanced is key to maintaining the handling. Investing in torsion keys or kit systems in the $100 to $200 range is a good option to ensure a level lift.
Raising a vehicle with a body lift prevents some of the balance issues you might have with a torsion lift, so it's often preferred by those who like symmetry and spacing between the body and the wheels. Raising the body of a truck or car is easy with blocks made of rubber or polyurethane -- they build height and create lift, creating space between the frame and body. The suspension system remains in the same spot, while the body itself is lifted above the frame and the blocks are used to keep it in place. Whole body movement is seamless and improves off-road performance if done well.
Adding spring spacers with blocks also is an option. If cost is a consideration, body lifts are more affordable than higher-performance, suspension lift options, and can start at around $100, but upgrades to the lift, such as bumpers and tires can increase costs to $1,000 or more.
As with the hydraulics of lowering, fixed hydraulic systems work well for lifting vehicles, also. Raising a car or truck even an inch will make it behave differently, and hydraulics -- whether air or liquid -- compensate for the changing needs of the frame and the strength needed to withstand the altered up and down forces. Lifting a truck for off road use, or raising a car to make room for larger tires, create the same consideration: engineering the change for safe and smooth handling without adding too much stress on the vehicle structure.
Suspension lifts work as front only, rear only, whole body and one wheel well at a time, as well as in combination rises. And if overall improved performance is the main goal of lifting a car or truck, suspension lifts top that list, too. Where a body lift will take a vehicle up without raising the frame, a suspension upgrade lifts the frame itself farther from the ground. Lift kits are typically suspension lift kits, and are "aftermarket" because they change the suspension of the car as it was originally manufactured, or marketed. In a lift system, a vehicle's frame is in a sense "suspended" in order to minimize contact with the road. Suspension overhauls allow for better fine-tuning of all of the handling components, as well as increased customizing possibilities, and they often have a price tag to match, costing anywhere between $2,000 and $5,000.
Moving a heavy piece of furniture is hard when one person has the bulk of the weight at one end. If the load isn't balanced on both ends, the weight's no longer equally distributed and settles in the front or back. Taking that heavy-ended piece around a corner and up or down stairs intensifies the problem.
A car or truck is weighted in much the same way. It has balance at pivotal points of the frame and across the suspension, and if it is lifted, the weight distribution changes. Leveling kits complement a lift or serve to keep the rear lifted higher than the front or vice versa. Trucks may tend down in the front when their cargo beds are empty, and a leveling kit will balance the end, creating an even, leveled look and better performance than with the drag of a lowered front end. Loading a car trunk or truck cargo bed with bags of sand is common for winter weather drivers, and leveling works on the same principle of keeping the height balanced over the road for safety and performance. Leveling kits often include spacers, which create balance when inserted in the spaces of coil springs. These kits vary in price from about $40 to $500 or more.
While custom lifting is a specialty of some auto shops, lifting a truck or SUV with a combination of parts, kits and creativity is the ultimate solution for many. One combo is using a body lift with a leveling kit rather than a full suspension lift. Increasing height or improving handling with two kit types can give some of the perks of a suspension lift without the higher price tag. Premium kits run in the $200 to $1,000 range, depending on make or model.
Interested in some inspiring lowriders and hoppers or a little tech talk before lifting or lowering your own ride? See more articles on the next page.
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More Great Links
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- Sandoval, Denise. "Bajito y Suavecito: The Lowriding Tradition." Smithsonian Institution. 2003. (Nov. 17, 2010)http://latino.si.edu/virtualgallery/lowrider/LR_SandovalEssay.htm
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