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Suspended Animation

Leveling is a modestly mild alternative to the animated wild lift
Wednesday, October 1, 2008 - 00:00

Leveling is a modestly mild alternative to the animated wild lift

specialty parts suspension suspension parts repair shop repair shops automotive aftermarket

Economic uncertainty has forced some enthusiasts to become more frugal when it comes time to modify their suspension. Today, people want a cost-effective way to enhance performance, aesthetics and fuel efficiency; therefore, huge radical lifts are starting to lose market share to milder leveling kits. Sure, adding more power is always a top priority, but in the my-truck-looks-better-than-yours mentality, with a quality suspension system, enthusiasts can both see and feel the difference.

Despite the slumping economy, suspension component sales increased 111 percent from 1993 through 2007 and typically are among the top 10 to 12 modifications in the light truck and sport compact segments, according to the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA).

Staying Level Headed

The off-road market has a different set of parameters than the street market; however, the end result is similar. In both instances, consumers try to optimize comfort, traction, control and stability, says John Hotchkis, president of Hotchkis Sport Suspension, based in Santa Fe Springs, Calif.

A prominent trend in the off-road suspension aftermarket is the shift toward shorter lifts. Truck enthusiasts used to want to jack their trucks as high in the air as possible, but now 2- to 4-inch lifts are more common because of their low center of gravity, better ride and handling characteristics on the street, and they don't require such a large wheel and tire package, according to Mark Matthews, marketing manager, Pro Comp, based in Chula Vista, Calif.

Pro Comp's Level Lift caters to entry-level users looking for a bigger wheel and tire package. It's fairly simple to install, but doesn't have all the performance advantages of a fully developed and engineered suspension system. But it gives end users room for a bigger tire to build upon.

"Off-road enthusiasts desire a certain look, and as they become more educated they want higher-quality features and better performance to go along with that look, which is why we're seeing more coilovers and tuning and engineering going into products than before," Matthews says. "The off-road racer is most concerned with performance and function in a severe-duty environment, so their priorities are very different than in a street application, which is lighter duty."

For street racing, there's always the quest to simply make the car handle better, whether it's lowering or making basic upgrades from factory suspension, according to Lee Grimes, automotive and motorsports manager, KONI North America in Hebron, Ky.

One current technological gain is a focus on eliminating the compromises associated with improved handling. Typically, as handling is upgraded, ride quality is degraded. KONI's Frequency Selective Damping (FSD) product is a patented mechanical design that allows users to optimize ride quality while improving handling and mechanical grip.

"Installing stiffer springs, bigger tires and more aggressive dampers improves a vehicle's handling, but the driver can feel every bump in the road; it's kind of like braille," Grimes says. "FSD allows users to see through a lot of those high-frequency initial bumps the suspension can't absorb."

Trent McGee, director of marketing for Daystar Products International, based in Phoenix, sees the suspension aftermarket trending toward leveling kits.

"The biggest factor is the plus-sized wheel and tire craze. People want to put 20- and 22-inch wheels on their vehicles, and a leveling kit allows them to do that without radical modifications or impacting ride quality,"he states. "Leveling kits are much less complex than a full-blown lift kit, and they're more affordable."

Vehicles also are getting more complex with stability controls, and taller lift kits tend to trigger those systems more so than leveling kits. The purpose behind leveling kits is to work with factory parameters, so Daystar uses the factory variance designed in all its suspension systems.

Leveling kits appeal to the off-road crowd, but they also appeal to street truck enthusiasts.

"For performance, our product appeals to consumers concerned about impact factory ride and handling,"McGee says. "They want the ability to go up an inch or two but don't want the harsh ride sometimes associated with more radical suspension modifications, which is another reason why leveling kits appeal to many different market segments."

The whole advent in coilover truck suspensions providing a car-like ride has been the biggest change, according to Joe Pace, general manager, Rancho, located in Monroe, Mich.

"There's the traditional off-road group and there's the street enthusiast, which is split between function and looks or a combination of the two,"he states. "Then there's a whole new segment we're calling the outdoor enthusiast, and that's really the hunting, fishing, camping person — the guy who's not crazy about his truck but is crazy about what he does. We're constantly building new products to help make their vehicles more capable of doing what they love to do most."

Traditional off-roaders want bigger shocks. Trucks are so big owners need a bigger shock to match the truck, similar to the trend with exhaust where tailpipes began to look like 40-gallon barrels, according to Pace.

"We took that concept and developed a new product called the Rancho 9000XL — a big, beefy 2 ¾-inch liquid metallic finish shock absorber that hangs out the back of the truck and caters to people who want functionality — a better, smoother ride," he says. "The product's best feature is it can be adjusted so the truck rides soft on the highway or firm if you want a sporty-type ride."

For the non-hard-core off-road consumers, Rancho's 9000XL offers improved performance. Pace states that it offers a mild lift combining function and looks.

According to Lance Martz, marketing manager, Viair, based in Irvine, Calif., the air suspension industry is faltering. The bigger distributors are still doing well but the smaller distributors are struggling.

"Luckily, we're diversified enough that we're holding pretty steady across the board," he says. "The off-road 4x4 segment is barely tapped and will continue to trend upwards as long as you're advertising in the right places and working with the right distributor."

Modifying suspension is more popular in light trucks than sport compact cars, according to Kevin O'Keefe, director of marketing, Bilstein, based in Poway, Calif. He believes a tightening of retail spending due to economic uncertainty has led consumers to steer clear from the full dialed-in, ride-height-adjustable, complex suspension kits and move toward a lowering spring and performance shock absorber.

Technology Evolution

Suspension products that once were exclusive to racers are now ending up in the lighter-duty off-road market, according to Matthews. One example of this is air bump stops, which used to be found only on hard-core race vehicles, but now there's an opening in the market as the off-road enthusiast seeks more performance, style and function from their suspension system.

Technology has been refined with periodic breakthroughs, such as electronic suspension, but they tend to be limiting, Grimes says. KONI developed an electronic system in the mid-1990s called CVD, which never really came to market because of manufacturing costs. So, the company went from electronic to the FSD mechanical systems, which can be bolted to any car without built-in wires.

The industry also has matured, so the tools are more precise and there are better shock dynamometers.

Over the past 15 to 20 years, McGee has seen a conversion from the traditional solid axle front suspension, which is simple and durable, but sacrifices ride quality.

"A whole new segment emerges as the truck demographic changes from the consumer who hauls heavy loads to your everyday drivers,"he reports. "Truck buyers are looking for a vehicle that rides like a car but has the utility of a truck, so manufacturers have turned to independent front suspension with torsion bars and struts to optimize ride quality."

According to O'Keefe, technology has evolved from a twin-tube shock toward a monotube high-pressure gas shock absorber and strut, which allows larger piston diameter, better control and more finitely tuned inaccuracies in the suspension.

One of the biggest advancements Hotchkis sees is in balance handling where the suspension works as a complete unit, instead of having somebody else's springs, anti-roll bars or shocks that weren't developed together.

"When components are engineered, developed, and tested to work together, the customer gets the best handling, ride and most fun possible," he says.

Directing Your Customers

When consumers buy a car, the first thing they want is to go faster. "However, people soon realize power isn't much of a benefit if the suspension isn't capable of putting it to the ground," Grimes notes. "Secondarily, having crazy amounts of horsepower on the street doesn't do you much good. You'll probably get better function if you do a suspension upgrade. Also, when a guy adds horsepower to his car, his friends and neighbors don't see it. But when he lowers the car on a coilover kit or puts bigger wheels and tires on it, there's a visual."

The economy is obviously in a slump, but you still can make money by focusing more on quality, longevity, durability and true function, Grimes advises.

When installing leveling kits, pay attention to how the suspension is modified. For those concerned about ride quality, they should stay away from products that preload coil springs or increase spring rate on a strut-equipped vehicle. Your customer will be happier with a product that spaces down the coil or strut assembly instead of preloading it, McGee advises.

In the past, to put bigger wheels and tires on their trucks and SUVs, consumers had to buy an expensive full lift kit. Now, instead of going to a specialty installer, consumers can buy a product like QuickLift and get bigger wheels and tires at any corner garage or tire shop, according to Pace.

According to Martz, some consumers will do air suspension first then go with wheels and tires while others do their wheels and tires before their air suspension knowing they've got to get the right offset on the wheels and tires or the air suspension isn't going to work well.

"The best thing people can do to add value to their system is put a quick disconnect on their tank so they can fill up their own tires and run air tools right off the truck," he says. "Most guys don't realize they have a tank, they have pressure, all they really need is a regulator, a quick connect and an air line, and they're ready to go. It's pretty easy to upsell anybody with that stuff."

On the light truck side, O'Keefe advises installing a drop hitch if consumers use their truck for towing, and anti-roll bars for street vehicles if they're putting on a suspension kit.

According to Hotchkis, headers and catback exhaust are necessary modifications, but drivers will feel more if they put on a good anti-roll bar package and shocks.

"Retailers probably don't understand how quick of a response they can get from their customer if they recommend suspension and the customer tries it," he says. "I guarantee they'll call back and say, 'now that was a big improvement.'"

Lowering Springs vs. Coilovers

For which applications is it necessary for the enthusiast to invest in the coilover, and when does a standard lowering spring suffice? The lowering spring is a shorter spring that reduces the vehicle's ride height, while a coilover is a more tuned setup that provides a controlled ride if the spring rate is properly matched with the shock assembly.

"Coilovers are typically pricier than a standard drop coil, but customers are looking for higher quality and a better ride, so the coilover usually isn't as hard a sell for many people, especially on newer applications," Matthews says. "On older vehicles the customer is usually going to lean toward the least-expensive option."

Grimes describes a coilover as an adjustable perch or lowering system, whereas a lowering spring is a fixed perch in which the spring design does the lowering.

"For consumers unlikely to adjust ride height, a fixed perch system will suffice. For those looking to adjust ride height or corner weight the car for more specific performance, a coilover can be a big benefit. It all depends on the goals and uses of the car," he says.

According to Hotchkis, enthusiasts who want to lower their car fairly inexpensively should use a standard lowering spring.

"But you can't just make springs to lower a car, because when you do that you limit the amount of travel you have left so a good spring will help manage that travel,"he notes.

A coilover has a more sophisticated shock and generally a smaller spring, so there are more alignment possibilities and consumers can run their car lower without the suspension bottoming out.

Coilovers are a viable way to go for someone who does track events and wants more adjustment than a standard lowering spring will provide, Hotchkis says.

Best Bang for the Buck

Grimes believes a good performance damper can make a big difference. "Most factory dampers are marginalized to work for a lot of people, but they're not very high-tech. By taking an otherwise stock car and putting on a set of good performance dampers you can really wake the car up considerably without even having to install lowering springs."

Daystar leaves all the factory suspension components intact for those who want to maintain ride quality.

"We don't preload coil springs or risk hyper extending the strut. If the guy wants to increase cornering ability, larger anti-roll bars are a good option and premium shocks that are valved and geared more toward performance can net substantial gains in handling characteristics," McGee states.

Pace suggests keeping the truck stock height and installing a set of the 9000XLs, which provides the flexibility to ride from highway to sport to towing all the way to off-road. "Add the MyRide wireless controller to manually adjust ride height and you've got complete versatility while you're driving. To take the next step up, add two taller QuickLift units to the front and you're able to add bigger tires and wheels," he says.

An anti-roll bar package is a big bang for the buck and a huge benefit, but not just any anti-roll bar package, according to Hotchkis.

"Some people will try to sell just rear anti-roll bars. You have to have a balanced setup that has been tested. If you do your homework right you can put on an anti-roll bar package that will really wake up a car and make it much more fun to drive," he reports. "It's a great starting point with suspension because anti-roll bars don't hurt the ride when going straight. They only come into play when there's some force or body roll. We've even improved the new Corvette Z06 with anti-roll bars over the factory."

Appearance vs. Performance

Grimes says each market deserves respect for what they're looking for.

"There's a huge show car crowd who are mostly interested in looks and the possibility of performance," he says. "For the true performance people, if it looks good, then fine, but of greater importance to them is that the car really goes, handles and turns well. We attract a broad range of enthusiasts, and they all have their own interests."

According to McGee, appearance is the impetus for the near enthusiast — the guy who doesn't know a lot about modifications; he just wants to make his truck look cooler than his neighbor's.

"For this type of enthusiast it's all looks driven and we're seeing more of that. But then you've got the other segment that's after the performance gain, whether it's ground clearance for better off-road performance or cornering ability," MgGee explains.

In all cases, cosmetics definitely have something to do with what the consumer purchases, O'Keefe says.

"Appearance may be the motivation to start, but the higher-end sport compact and older demographic are very selective on modifying for performance and handling. However, in the back of their minds it goes back to cosmetics, which is the reason for wheels, shorter sidewall tires, and lowering the vehicle."

ReadyLift, based in Costa Mesa, Calif., reports that its customers tend to buy more for appearance.

"We're a low-cost solution to a high-priced product. Jobbers should realize once they get customers hooked on wheels and tires they can easily sell them a leveling kit, which is basically the cost of another wheel and tire setup," according to Scott Poncher, president of ReadyLift.

Keys to the Future

In the future, enthusiasts will see more utilization of higher-end shock absorbers, according to Matthews. The shorter lift will become more popular as gas prices continue to increase, but suspension engineering and technology must keep up with vehicle stability control systems, which will require more development time to accommodate technology added by the OEMs.

KONI is still in a growth situation, as the overall economy is affected, but people are going to continue to make improvements to their cars.

"We'll learn more as time goes on about alternative fuels, diesels and hybrids. Technology will march along so companies can't sit on their laurels and expect everything to remain the same," Grimes offers.

McGee believes leveling kits will continue to be a hot commodity and increased complexity of stability controls built into factory trucks will become a bigger obstacle for taller suspension kits.

"Staying inside factory parameters will become more key," he adds "The market will turn toward mild suspension modifications because they don't impact gas mileage or ride and handling as much as a full-blown lift kit."

According to Pace, the giant lift kits will continue to decrease.

"The OEs will continue with modular-type suspensions that are more complex and computerized than they are today. Aftermarket products will be simple to install and more readily available to consumers than ever before,"he says. "We balance what's going on at the OE end of our business and how we can take that intelligence and do something really creative and innovative for the consumer."

The awareness level for leveling is at its infancy state. "We're up more than 40 percent over last year, so I see it continuing to grow in double-digit increments as more people become aware of the benefits," Poncher says.

Perhaps most important, as long as people stay passionate about their cars, they'll always want to modify them so the aftermarket suspension business can only get stronger.

Chad Simon is a freelance writer and previous managing editor of Styling & Performance, the specialty parts sister publication of Motor Age.

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