When upgrading your rig’s suspension system, numerous options are available — leveling kits and lift kits included. Both of these mods can improve the appearance and performance of your vehicle. However, they serve different purposes and are appropriate for different situations.
Use a leveling kit for minor cosmetic changes or to remedy a forward rake. Conversely, choose a lift kit for more substantial ground clearance.
Performance lift kits, long-arm lift kits, adjustable air suspension, and leaf spring shackles — even a seasoned driver can get lost in these terms. Thankfully, there are several ways to discern one from the other. And this guide has got you covered.
Leveling Kit, Defined
As its name implies, a leveling kit levels your vehicle’s front with the rear. Here are the different types:
- Strut extensions — spacers placed on top of existing front struts that raise the front end of a vehicle
- Coil spring spacers — specifically used on vehicles with coil spring suspensions
- Torsion keys — specific to rigs with torsion bar suspensions
- Leaf spring shackles (view on Amazon) — involves replacing existing leaf spring suspensions with longer ones, resulting in additional lift.
- Adjustable air suspension — enables ride height to be adjusted on some high-end four-wheelers.
It compensates for the natural rake that most four-wheelers, like trucks and SUVs, have. The rake a manufacturer assigns to a vehicle is always intentional, as this difference in height between the front and rear allows for better weight distribution when hauling or towing. The drawback is that it can make your rig appear unbalanced when not carrying heavy loads.
Now, what does a leveling kit do? It actually corrects this ‘unbalanced look.’
How Do Leveling Kits Work?
Leveling kits typically consist of spacers installed on the front suspension to effectively raise the front of a vehicle. These few inches of lift make a world of difference in improving vehicle appearance while making it easier to install larger knobbies. And the best part? Leveling kits are relatively inexpensive and easy to install, making them extremely popular with 4WD vehicle owners.
Normally, these add-ons do not alter suspension geometry (which means they should not significantly impact handling). But do leveling kits affect ride quality? Yes, they can — to the extent of accelerating ball joint wear and affecting overall handling — when installed incorrectly. Several variables come into play in this scenario, such as the quality of the leveling kit, the size of the spacer or block used, and the vehicle’s suspension design.
Lift Kit, Defined
A lift kit elevates the entire vehicle, provides additional ground clearance, and allows for the installation of larger tires. There are various sizes of lift kits available in the market, from small-budget lifts that provide a few inches of additional height to larger, more expensive kits that can provide up to 12 inches of lift.
Typically, lift kits are composed of a combination of suspension components, which may include shocks, struts, and springs. They also feature spacers or blocks that lift the body of the vehicle. Compared to leveling kits, lift kits are more laborious and expensive to set up and may require further mods like brake line or driveshaft extensions.
When to Use Which
Leveling kits are a good choice if you would like to improve your vehicle’s appearance and stance, especially if you frequently drive without a load. They can also help prevent bottoming out and improve ground clearance to some extent, which can be beneficial if you often traverse rough terrain.
Other scenarios that may warrant installing a leveling kit for your four-wheeler are as follows:
- The front end is notoriously lower than the rear (i.e. Ford F-150)
- The vehicle has a noticeable forward rake or ‘nose-down’ appearance (i.e. Chevrolet Silverado, GMC Sierra, Toyota Tacoma)
- Wheelers with heavy aftermarket bumpers and winches (i.e. Jeep Wrangler)
- Adding a plow like MotoAlliance DENALI 72-inch Universal Snow Plow Kit (view on Amazon) to a truck or 4WD vehicle
- Improving road clearance and preventing bottoming out on uneven terrain for off-road vehicles
- 4×4 is typically heavily loaded in the rear (often resulting from towing or yard work applications)
- Sagging or compromised springs or worn-out suspension components
- Other aftermarket mods had significantly affected a vehicle’s ride height.
- Factory knobbies switched to low-profile tires with a considerably smaller diameter.
- Replacement tires affecting the weight distribution and balance of the vehicle (for instance, wider tires mounted on aftermarket rims with a different offset than stock)
- Decreased ride height due to age and wear
While most of these bullet points also apply to installing a lift kit, there are specific situations where choosing a lift kit over a leveling kit is best:
- Of-roading: The main advantage lift kits have over leveling kits is that the former provides a more considerable improvement in ground clearance — a facet essential to driving over rough terrain. This increased height also allows for much larger tires, which can greatly improve traction and grip.
- Heavy loads: For rigs regularly used for hauling or towing heavy loads, a lift kit does better in helping compensate for the added weight and preventing the rear of the vehicle from sagging.
- Extreme terrain: Off-roading extremists who immerse themselves in activities like rock crawling or mudding prefer lift kits over leveling kits. They find that the former is better suited for extreme terrain (not to mention that lift kits help ensure your vehicle’s suspension and drivetrain components are not damaged by obstacles).
- Visual appeal: While leveling kits can improve vehicle stance, lift kits do tons better in giving a vehicle a more aggressive and eye-catching look.
- Enhanced performance: The additional ground clearance and larger tires that can be accommodated due to installing a lift kit improve traction, handling, and overall performance by a large margin — especially if the vehicle is intended for off-roading.
- Flexibility: As lift kits can provide up to 12 inches of lift, they offer more customization options that meet drivers’ specific needs and preferences.
For any of these situations, it is crucial to note that leveling kits are not designed to increase overall height. Hence, they may be less suitable for off-roading or other applications requiring substantial ground clearance.
In like manner, lift kits can significantly alter a vehicle’s center of gravity, effectively impacting handling, stability, and even braking performance. That said, careful planning before installing these kits is highly advised.
When installing a lift kit or leveling kit like a 2.5-inch ReadyLift 46-2723 Coil Spring Leveling Kit (view on Amazon), follow the procedure below. However, some steps may not be applicable depending on the mod of your choice:
Choose the right kit.
When installing a lift kit or leveling kit, the availability of different types and brands can be overwhelming. Hence, selecting the right one for your vehicle and intended use is crucial. To make an informed decision, consider the vehicle make and model, desired lift height, suspension type, and whether you want a complete kit or specific components.
It is important to verify that your leveling/lift kit is compatible with your vehicle’s year, make, and model (and any other modifications you have made so far). Doing so may require reverting to your service manual for OEM specifications, researching online forums, contacting an installer, or consulting a qualified mechanic or suspension specialist.
Determine the proper lift height.
Before installation, determine the proper lift height to achieve a level stance. This may require measuring the current ride height, factoring in tire size and desired ground clearance, and being mindful of the type of suspension your vehicle has (among other things).
Generally, a vehicle with a solid axle requires a higher lift height than one with IRS — mainly because the axle is located higher in the frame and therefore warrants a higher lift to achieve the desired ground clearance.
Moreover, a higher lift helps solid axles compensate for their limited suspension travel. These points aside, the lift height required is also contingent on car make and model, intended use, and desired appearance.
Check for clearance issues.
Installing a leveling or lift kit can affect the clearance between the tires and fenders (especially if installing larger tires) or interfere with kit components and other vehicle parts.
Check for clearance issues by performing a thorough visual inspection and a test drive to see if further modifications are necessary to eradicate unusual noises and prevent rubbing or other issues.
Upgrade other components.
Because they are mods, leveling kits and lift kits can put additional stress on other components of your four-wheeler, such as the steering, drivetrain, and brakes. Depending on your specific predicament or reason for installing a kit (more on this in the ‘when to use’ section), upgrading one or more components may be necessary.
Properly install the kit.
Proper installation is critical to ensure safe operation and prevent damage to your vehicle. During the process, it is vital to follow OEM instructions carefully, use proper tools and techniques, and perform the installation accordingly — lest you experience handling issues, alignment problems, or suspension damage. Otherwise, you can outsource this task to a licensed mechanic or specialist if you are not too confident.
Check alignment and adjust accordingly.
This penultimate step is necessary after installing a lift or leveling kit, as it ensures proper tire wear and handling. Now, it may seem more appropriate if it were done last. But that spot is reserved for fitment of the tires and wheels — since it is assumed you have already made the necessary calculations with your kit of choice and desired tire-wheel combination in mind.
Select tire and wheel size.
Depending on your intention, installing a leveling or lift kit may allow for larger tires and wheels. A leveling kit that lifts the vehicle’s front to match the height of the rear can provide additional clearance for larger tires, as it levels out the vehicle stance and reduces the amount of wheel well gap in the front. Like a leveling kit, a lift kit can create more space between the wheel well and the tire, allowing for a larger tire and wheel combination.
If you are wondering what size leveling kit you need, it varies. But in general, you need at least three inches of lift since 1-3 inches typically only eliminates a vehicle’s ‘nose-down’ appearance. If you have heavy aftermarket attachments, you may need more lift to accommodate larger wheel and tire sizes. This estimation goes for both lift and leveling kits.
Whichever you choose, just remember not to go ham with the lift height and tire sizes, as you will need to maintain your vehicle’s proper suspension geometry and handling characteristics.
Conclusion — Leveling Kit vs. Lift Kit: Which One to Use?
At this point, you should now be more confident in determining which type of kit is better for you. Remember that choosing between a leveling kit and a lift kit not only hinges on your personal whims and intended application but also on the vehicle’s make and model.
So whether you are into crawling rock boulders, getting out of muddy holes, or simply giving your beloved truck a cosmetic makeover, do not forget to keep in mind the factors outlined in this guide. As long as you do, you will never go wrong in picking the appropriate leveling kit or lift kit for your vehicle.
Kris is an avid off-roader and outdoor enthusiast who loves to brave the elements and take on challenging terrain. He also enjoys sharing his passion and knowledge with others so that they, too, can appreciate the ride.