How Low Should You Go? Pros and Cons of Lowering a Street Car or Truck
How low is too low when dropping the suspension on a car or truck? It's a question that has a hundred different answers, because it's almost entirely dependent on the owner, their project desires, and where and how they plan to drive. There are a lot of considerations to make when planning out a suspension setup, and you need to take into account the realities of living with a lowered car, along with the compromises that come with certain suspension technologies.
Here's a look at the pros and cons of lowering a street car or truck.
Advantages of a Lowered Street Car
One of the main reasons to lower a street car is to improve its handling. Why does a suspension drop have an impact on a vehicle's cornering capability? By pushing your car's center of gravity closer to the road surface, you make it easier for the its suspension system to control body movement. This leads to flatter cornering at higher speeds, reducing the tendency of your car to lean as a result of centrifugal force. This benefit is a big part of the reason why high performance cars sit low to the ground straight from the factory, and why race cars hover just off the surface of the track.
How a car cuts through the air is also directly related to how high it rides off the ground. By snugging down close to the asphalt, it's possible to reduce the amount of air that slides under the car when driving, which ultimately improves stability. This is especially true in a racing environment where aggressive aerodynamic body work can be added without having to deal with potholes or speed bumps. On the street, while there may be some modest aero gains in terms of reducing lift, the main benefit of a lower car slicing through the air is improved fuel mileage.
Finally, it's impossible to discount the esthetic benefits of a car that sits low. Often, a lowered suspension draws attention to a vehicle's body lines, while at the same time visually widening it. A lowered car typically also shrinks or completely eliminates any wheel gap between the tires and the top of the fender, which further enhances visual appeal. On the street, it's safe to say that a significant percentage of dropped cars are chasing style over outright performance.
Disadvantages Of A Lowered Street Car
Not all lowered street cars are going to handle better than stock. A vehicle's suspension is a system, and each component that goes into making up that system needs to work in harmony in order to maximize benefits. Unfortunately, there are some lowering practices that can have a negative impact on overall performance.
It was once popular to cut a few coils off of a spring in order to reduce its height. While this will give extra inches of drop, it can also alter the spring rate to the point where it's no longer capable of dealing with the weight of the car or truck, which will lead to a bouncy ride with a lot of corner lean. At the same time, using a lowering spring with too high of a spring rate creates a rough ride that will be difficult to control over all but the smoothest of roads, and can often lead to dangerous and unpredictable conditions like bump steer. It's also important to match the right set of shock absorbers with any set of lowering springs or risk similar issues with comfort, cornering, and stability.
There are some types of lowered vehicles where style is prioritized over any performance benefits. Hydraulic suspensions that can lift and lower a car or truck with the flick of a switch look fantastic, but they can be considerably heavier than a traditional coil or leaf setup and are rarely tuned specifically with handling in mind. Air suspension systems that are primarily geared towards improving fuel mileage or slamming a car straight to the ground can also fall under this banner. Some rear flip kits, where the leaf springs at the rear are flipped under the axle, can also signficantly impact a truck's carrying capacity in terms of passengers, cargo, and towing.
Ground clearance is a major concern for anyone with a lowered car. As mentioned earlier, speed bumps and potholes become a major hassle when driving an extremely low vehicle, but level crossings, parking lot entrances, and anywhere there's a height difference to be negotiated can wreak havoc on underbody components (mufflers, oil pans, and control arms), and body work (bumpers, splitters, diffusers).
Finally, consider the consequences of a very low suspension in a winter setting. If you live somewhere that sees regular snowfall, chances are a lowered car is going to be considerably more tricky to drive once all of that white stuff is being plowed by a barely-off-the-ground bumper, to say nothing of the perils of snowbanks or slush getting stuffed under the vehicle.
The Sweet Spot
If you want an extreme esthetic when parked and aren't interested in corner carving, an adjustable air or hydraulic setup will get you from A to B without any unnecessary scrapes along the way.
If you're seeking to balance looks and performance, a drop of one of two inches using either a tried, tested, and true shock and coil spring pairing, or a coilover setup, is likely to be the best bet. A coilover suspension is especially helpful for street tuning, as you can dial ride height up and down to experiment with how much clearance and comfort you need on a daily basis.
An ultra-low, static drop is best left to those who don't have to concern themselves with the street at all. It's a lot easier to live with a slammed vehicle that gets trailered to show or to the track than it is to try to drive one in traffic.
Lowering a car or truck doesn't have to be a hassle. The key to a successful suspension drop is balancing all of the above with your particular project goals. Ultimately, the best suspension drop is the one you can live with and the one that isn't going to impact how you enjoy your vehicle. If your suspension setup sees you staying parked more often than hitting the road, it's likely you've gone too far past your comfort zone.
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