Is there a reason why motor manufacturers and insurance companies don’t like vehicles’ body mechanics being lifted higher than the standard design? Are they just killjoys, or do they know something the 4×4 industry doesn’t know – or want to know?
Customers are always asking me to lift their vehicles by a few inches, some by as much as four to six inches. My first reaction is always, “Why?”
Frankly, excluding the hard core off-roaders, I don’t understand the industry’s obsession with lifting 4×4 vehicles. Yes, your car looks more aggressive and you won’t have trouble finding it in a crowded parking lot, but the drawbacks are often way more serious than the industry would like to take responsibility for.
The consequences of lifting a vehicle, more often than not, aren’t properly explained to a customer. The 4×4 suspension salesman will always push for the big sale, regardless of the vehicle owner’s needs. The customer is convinced that the lift will improve the off-road ability of the vehicle, but the negative influences are often glossed over, or not mentioned at all.
The most common request in our store is for a quote on lifting a vehicle. The customers are asking because that’s what everyone has told them to do, and not necessarily because it’s what they need to do. The explanation is usually that an increase in ground clearance is needed, or that the client wants to fit bigger tyres.
Both of these reasons often have little or no merit. You can lift the vehicle by 50mm and it will look the part of a proper off-roader, but the sad reality is that you’ll only gain a little more clearance in extreme cases as most of the suspension and drive train remains at standard height. The car will, unfortunately, have no real advantage off-road over a stock-standard model. (This will be confirmed by the manufacturer and the driver training schools that the companies use to teach you how to drive off-road.)
Putting bigger tyres on a vehicle can be the answer if you want more ground clearance, but be warned that this can be damaging to the car. A manufacturer designs a car with a certain wheel size in mind, and increasing the size can have consequences for other parts of the car. Bigger wheels will often make the car more sluggish and put more strain on the differential and gearbox. They will make the speedometer read incorrectly, and you can certainly expect a significant increase in fuel consumption. One can only wonder whether the vehicle will last as long as a standard model, and what the additional repair costs will be in the long term.
One also has to consider safety aspects when modifying a vehicle in this way. Most 4x4s these days have fully independent suspension (at least in front) which means you will end up with a narrower track width combined with a higher centre of gravity. This is surely a recipe for disaster when driving at high speed, and particularly on dirt roads, where the continual oscillation of the axles can cause loss of control and traction. The risk of a roll over is increased dramatically, and this is the part your insurance company won’t like. If there’s an accident and they see that the car has been lifted above the manufacturer’s designed height, prepare for a repudiation of your claim, unless you’ve had the foresight to notify the company up front and get clearance for the modification.
Look at the small print in your policy and you’ll see that “all modifications to the vehicle should be disclosed to the policy underwriters” and that failure to do so could result in a repudiated claim.
When it comes to handling, a lifted vehicle will react entirely differently to normal and things like bump steer, and excessive camber, to name just two things, can cause problems if you encounter a dangerous situation.
A mistake that is often made in lifting a vehicle is the use of heavy duty springs in the suspension set-up. These springs put a lot of strain on the shock absorbers, shock mounts and chassis. Heavy duty springs should only be used to carry additional weight that is permanently fitted to the vehicle, and not to lift up the car. The vehicle can be lifted with a standard rate spring that is coiled in such a way that the car will sit higher. This will ensure the longevity of the dampers.
Also be aware that because you’ve made changes to the mechanics of the vehicle, any warranty offered by the manufacturer will probably become void.
The big problem, in my opinion, is a lack of proper safety legislation in SA. There are such measures in Europe and Australia. The Australian government banned lifting vehicles altogether, but the resultant uproar in the 4×4 community forced them to reconsider the ruling, which now imposes a maximum lift of 50mm on cars suitable for the adjustment.
My message is quite simple. Before you lift your vehicle, ensure that you understand the consequences of doing so. Ask yourself if it’s really necessary, and whether you are making the car suitable for the exception (the odd off-road trip) and compromising the rule (going to work every day).
Check with the manufacturer on whether your vehicle is suitable to lift, and ensure that your insurance cover remains intact. Make sure, too, that the products you purchase have the suitable safety clearances and warranties, and that the company supplying the parts will cover damage to other parts on the car that may be harmed by the lifting. These could be the drive shafts, differentials, gearbox, brake pipes and cables.
Most people who purchase lift kits probably wouldn’t buy them if they fully understood what they were doing to their cars, and the potential problems that could occur down the line. Couple this to the limited benefits of the lift and you have to wonder whether they are viable. Or is lifting just a money spinner for the salesman with commission in mind?
My advice to anyone thinking about fitting off-road suspension is to consider just one thing. If the salesman doesn’t ask you what the main purpose of the vehicle is, you probably shouldn’t be talking to him.
* Steve Hurly is the owner of Koni Shocks in Boksburg. He distributes his world-famous products all over SA and has spent a lifetime in the automotive industry, specialising in suspension fitment.