BUYER’S GUIDE:SUSPENSION LIFT & LEVELING SOLUTIONS
By Steve Campbell
Small suspension upgrades bring big benefits to those who work their pickups hard
Every pickup’s suspension is designed to keep the tires in contact with the ground as they travel over uneven terrain at varying speeds.
Each suspension uses some form of spring to cushion the ride and shock absorbers to control the tendency of the spring to oscillate after it has been compressed, keeping the vehicle on a steady plane for a comfortable ride.
But when a substantial load is placed in the bed of a pickup or a heavy trailer is attached to its hitch like is common in the construction and contracting trades, the rear suspension is compressed and loses some of its travel.
Once the springs reach the limits of their travel, handling and comfort are compromised.
Pickups come from the factory with a forward rake where beefy rear springs hold the bed noticeably higher than the front end. The purpose of the tail-high stance is to allow the rear springs to squat under extra weight and still provide adequate travel without compromising ride and handling.
A pickup’s rake may be even more pronounced on vehicles equipped with a snowplow, winch or other accessory mounted to the front end, the weight of which compresses the front springs and limits their travel as well.
The average user may carry cargo or tow significant weights only occasionally, but for a professional who relies on a pickup daily, hauling and towing are often routine occurrences.
It’s also normal for pros to encounter rough terrain or obstructions on jobsites, and when the suspension is compressed under load, clearing obstacles and bottoming out the suspension can become issues.
Contractors also upgrade to taller tires in order to gain ground clearance, and the nose-low factory stance usually limits those types of tire upgrades to a 1- to 2-inch increase in rolling diameter.
The good news is all it takes to lift and level your working pickup without compromising ride and handling is taking advantage of suspension upgrades designed to address these issues.
A leveling kit is installed on the front suspension to raise the nose of the truck (especially useful when front-end weight has been added), or a lift kit can be installed to raise both the front and rear suspension while bringing it to a level stance.
Both options allow taller tires to be mounted, and taller tires equate to increased ground clearance.
Both options may also provide for greater wheel travel, depending upon the system and accessories used, which can improve ride and handling under load, on-road and off.
Pickup Leveling Kits
As noted, the purpose of a leveling kit is to bring the front end of the pickup level with the rear end, eliminating the rake. The type of front suspension determines how that is accomplished.
In some cases, a polyurethane or metal spacer is placed on top of the factory coil-over strut or atop the factory coil spring.
Either way, the installation is relatively easy and, since no modification has been made to the factory springs, the factory ride remains unchanged.
In a torsion-bar suspension, each factory torsion key is replaced with a new key that changes the position (or index) of the torsion bar, moving it up without any preload. So again the ride remains unchanged.
Shock extensions may be required with leveling kits to maintain adequate shock travel and may be included with the kit.
At least one company, Cognito Motorsports, also adds new upper control arms to help correct the upper balljoint angles and maintain the proper amount of wheel travel after leveling.
A block may be added to the rear suspension with any of these leveling kits if the standard rake is desired or required for hauling or towing.
Pickup Lift Kits
Lift kits raise both the front and rear of the suspension, usually to allow larger tires and gain greater ground clearance.
Small lifts of up to three inches can be accomplished using the same techniques as with leveling kits while also employing either blocks or longer shackles for the rear suspension.
In moderate lifts up to about 4 inches, like we have done on our Project Super Crew, an additional leaf may be added to the rear suspension, not only raising it but also providing additional load-carrying capacity.
That added capacity may come at the cost of a stiffer rear suspension and stiffer ride when there is no load in the bed and may require heavier-duty shock absorbers.
Ride quality all depends on how well the suspension package is designed: The better the design, the better the results.
In most cases, lifts of this type are utilized to fit the largest tires possible for either an imposing look or for use in extreme-duty off-roading.
Tall lift kits are obviously the most expensive and may also adversely affect on-road handling when towing trailers or hauling heavy loads in the bed.
Such lifts are not the best idea for a work truck unless it is seeing use in severe terrain where maximum ground clearance trumps all other aspects of the pickup’s use.
Pickup Air Suspensions
Air suspensions and air-helper springs are another solution for heavy loads. An air-bag suspension may be used to replace the stock suspension or to augment the rear springs for pickups that frequently carry weighty cargo.
Air-helper springs are a good option if the load squats the rear suspension past horizontal and you just need a temporary lift to set the pickup back to a level attitude.
In a full replacement air suspension system, link bars are used to locate the rear axle and large air springs carry the entire load.
Air pressure can be controlled electronically so that the bags can be partially deflated for a normal ride or fully inflated for maximum load.
The bags can also be pressurized differently from one side of the truck to the other, allowing awkward loads to be properly balanced.
With a supplemental bag system, the stock springs are retained and the bags are used only when the load causes too much squat for adequate travel.
This type of setup can also be used with either a leveling kit or a complete lift kit.
Installation and Removal
Leveling kits, low to moderate lift kits, and some air suspensions are designed to bolt into place without any cutting or welding.
They can generally be installed by any competent do-it-yourselfer using only standard mechanic’s hand tools. That also means they can be removed and the truck returned to its stock setup at any time, such as for resale or at the end of a lease.
In the case of taller lift kits and complete air suspension systems, some cutting or welding may be necessary in order to achieve the proper suspension geometry.
These are typically much more involved, so it’d be something an experienced pickup mechanic would have to undertake.
In those cases, it’s best to seek professional installation at a reputable 4WD or off-road shop.
Be sure to save all of the stock materials, since a truck equipped with a taller lift may still be returned to the stock configuration, though with considerably more expense than you might recoup at the time of trade-in or resale.
Modified Suspension Maintenance
Lift and leveling kits require no unusual maintenance after the break-in period.
Within 30 days and no more than 500 miles after the installation, all the hardware and fasteners related to the upgrade must be checked and retorqued to ensure tightness.
That’s the standard time period and mileage for newly installed parts to settle in.
Added grease fittings should be lubricated at regular intervals just as with any other suspension system, and air bags should be regularly checked to ensure they are inflated to a recommended minimum height (or minimum pressure) to prevent bottoming and excessive wear.
It’s also very important to maintain correct tire pressure (recommended with any vehicle for safe operation as well as optimal fuel economy), check lug nuts for proper tightness, and periodically inspect all parts of the suspension system for signs of unusual wear or contact interference.
Suspension Buying Tips
A little research goes a long way with any addition to a work truck.
But few upgrades make as big an impact on the pickup’s overall efficiency, ride and handling as a suspension change. So it pays to be very selective and thorough in researching the system you end up installing.
If you see a setup you like in a co-worker’s or friend’s pickup, ask for a ride and a few minutes behind the wheel. Nothing tells you more about how good (or bad) a suspension setup is than driving it yourself.
Then shop price and availability. The Internet is a good place to start, but it can contain misinformation. So make direct contact with suspension manufacturers to ask questions.
What they say can help with understanding how a suspension lift or leveling kit works. Such conversation will also give you a feel for the company.
Good questions to ask:
- Can the kit handle the maximum loads you’re likely to carry?
- Where is the kit manufactured?
- What level of experience is need to install it?
- How long is the warranty and what does it cover?
- Is there a factory-trained installer in your area?
The more informed the manufacturer is about how you use your pickup, the better they can match a kit to your needs and have a happy customer.
Lift and leveling kits aren’t for everyone.
But contractors and construction workers who have installed them on their pickups tend to make the same upgrades pickup after pickup because they do make a difference on the jobsite and off.
Click here to see the best new lift / leveling suspension products.