A few years ago, I wrote a surprisingly popular article titled “I Regret Lifting My Daily Driver.” The story described how I paid over $1,000 to ruin my Jeep’s ride, handling, braking, acceleration, and fuel economy. Now, after dealing with this for seven years, I’m making some changes.
Last weekend, a friend and his surprisingly mechanically adept six year-old daughter came over to help me wrench on my 250,000-mile 1992 Jeep Cherokee — a vehicle that I plan to take on an off-road excursion this May. The Jeep runs and drives well enough, but I need to install skid plates and a transmission cooler, plus I need to figure out why the 4.0-liter inline-six that I bought for $145 out of a field runs so hot (I’m suspecting a clogged radiator).
The father-daughter pair and I didn’t get to any of those jobs last weekend because we were focusing on replacing my suspension, a highly-recommended Rubicon Express 3.5-inch lift kit that cost me well over $1,000 back when I was an engineer with only two vehicles and a bit of jingle in my pocket.
The problem with the 3.5-inch lift is that it actually ended up lifting the vehicle over four inches in the front and nearly five inches in the back. The overall look was great:
The problem was that the ride was absolute garbage. Consider the source when reading that, by the way. I’ve driven a 1948 Willys CJ-2A farm Jeep across the country, a rusted-out Postal Jeep, and I currently daily-drive a 1985 Jeep J10 — all of these vehicles ride better than this lifted XJ.
Part of the issue is that the lift height caused the control arm angles to be too steep when they should be as horizontal as possible. The issue with steep control arms is that they mean the vertical forces imparted to the wheel by the road are transmitted axially along the control arm and into the body of the Jeep, leading to a ride that just beats you up.
The other issue is the fact that the springs are just too damn stiff, meant for a later-model Cherokee (which was A LITTLE heavier) with a winch and steel bumper. My lightweight 1992 with its stock thin sheetmetal bumper and lack of winch can barely even compress those coil springs up front. And off-road? There’s hardly any flex whatsoever; it’s like I’m riding on top of two coil-shaped chunks of solid metal!
So I’m replacing most of my ~$700 lift kit with one that only cost me $120 from the junkyard. It’s a Trailmaster three-inch kit that appears to be significantly newer than my Jeep’s kit, which I bought in 2014. My springs are all rusty, while the junkyard lift kit’s springs look nicely painted:
Hopefully the new springs won’t be as stiff, and hopefully instead of four or 4.5 inches of lift, I’ll actually get just three inches. This should flatten out my control arm angles and reduce the loads sent into the chassis, yielding a much improved ride.
Despite the lower ride height, I actually anticipate an increase in overall off-road capability due to more suspension articulation. The reality is that an overly-stiff spring just doesn’t conform to the shape of the terrain like a softer spring can.
I will put the junkyard kit to the test next month, when nine Jeeps and a Lexus GX will head to northern Michigan for an epic off-road weekend.