Leveling kits are a very popular accessory with truck owners, and the Tacoma is no exception. Yet despite the popularity of lift kits, there is an incredible amount of misinformation about lift kits. What follows is a good-faith attempt to explain the benefits and disadvantages of every basic lift-kit type.
First, let’s address some basic lift-leveling kit concepts:
- Most lift or leveling kits do not increase ground clearance. On most kits, additional ground clearance comes from increased tire size only. Please note the emphasis on “most.”
- Almost all lift kits involve some sort of compromise. The trick is to make sure that compromise doesn’t impact your intended use.
- There are a lot of very smart people who have differing opinions on the long-term durability of various lift-leveling kit designs. While there is a lot of room for debate, one thing is clear: durability is directly related to use. Heavy off-road users have to be much more concerned with these questions than someone who occasionally drives down a dirt road on the way to a fishing spot.
- You always need an alignment after installing a lift or leveling kit.
- All front-end lift kits over 1.5″ should also include a differential drop kit**. This will keep the CV joint angles as close to stock as possible during normal driving conditions. Some companies don’t include a diff. drop in their basic package – be sure to add one on.
** As noted by Chris in the comments below, there is a good reason NOT to install a differential drop kit. Dropping the differential reduces the ground clearance benefits of a lift kit, which means your differential (and a lot of other expensive parts) are that much closer to the trail. For Tacoma owners who don’t venture off-road often, or who don’t get too aggressive when they go off-road, a differential drop kit will save your CV joints in the long run. However, if you like to get serious off-road, CVs are cheaper to break than your differential, etc. SO, in that case, you may not want a differential drop kit.
- Whatever kit you buy, make sure it’s quality and backed by a warranty.
Different Types of Leveling and Lift Kits
Essentially, there are seven different types of front-end lift kits for the Tacoma:
- Above coil spacer lift kits (aka strut extension kits)
- In-coil spacer lift kits (aka “preload” kits)
- Combo kits that use both above and in-coil spacers (including adjustable shock spring seat kits such as the Bilstein 5100 leveling shock)
- Coilover kits that include new springs, and/or replacement springs
- Drop bracket kits
- Body lift kits
- Spindle lift kits
- Long travel kits and solid axle swaps
To lift the rear of the Tacoma, there are four different types of kits:
- New leaf packs
- New shackles (95-04.5 Tacomas only)
What follows is a good-faith attempt to describe each front and rear lift method in brief detail.
Tacoma Front End Lift Kit Methods
1. Above coil kits increase the length of the coil assembly, which in turn increases distance between the wheel hub and the upper control arm and raises the static ride height. Above coil kits are popular because:
- they don’t require a spring compressor to install (a tool that most home mechanics don’t have) and
- they’re usually the most inexpensive option
Unfortunately, despite their low cost and ease of install, above-coil kits can cause suspension damage at full down travel (aka full droop or full extension). This is because the increased length of the coil assembly isn’t 100% compatible with the stock suspension – ball joints, cv joints, cv axles, the sway bar, and the control arms should all be changed or lengthened if the coil length changes. Otherwise, they are all outside of factory design limits at full down-travel.
ToyTec (a lift kit and leveling kit manufacturer) has told us that they’e also seen some above-coil kits cause the spacer to come into contact with the upper control arm (UCA) at full droop, which is obviously a bad thing. This isn’t to say that every above-coil kit could damage the UCA, but it’s worth considering.
Also, anyone who has installed one of these kits will tell you that they can be hard to pry into place – a large pry-bar and/or a ratchet strap are usually required to get the new longer coil assembly to fit.
2. In-coil spacer kits do not increase the length of the coil assembly to accomplish lift. Instead, they reduce the amount the factory coil can compress by “taking up space” in the coil pack. This is commonly (and incorrectly) referred to as spring “preload.”
Because the spacer is “taking up space,” the length of the spring is reduced. This changes the spring rate of the coil and that in turn raises the truck…the spring is pushing harder in this semi-compressed or “preloaded” state.
In-coil spacer kits are well-liked because:
- Provided you have access to a quality spring compressor (or a local shop that has one), in-coil spacer kits are very easy to install and do not require any prying like above-coil kits
- They are usually very inexpensive
The downsides to this type of kit are reduced up-travel and, arguably, reduced ride quality. Since the spring isn’t technically being “loaded” (it’s just losing some length), ride quality isn’t effected by a suddenly stiffer spring. While it is true that reducing the amount of compression distance slightly changes the spring rate, the difference in ride is likely very small on most vehicles. Many people who have installed in-coil spacer kits have not noticed a decrease in ride quality.
However, the reduced up-travel is an issue with in-coil spacer kits. By reducing the up-travel, the truck is more likely to hit the bump-stops during hard use. Obviously, hitting the bump stops results in a severe jolt and – if done excessively – can have multiple negative ramifications.
3. Combo kits use both an in-coil and above coil spacer to accomplish lift. By using both types of lift, these kits minimize the downsides of both designs while also gaining the benefits of both. In truth, most in-coil spacer kits – as well as adjustable “leveling shocks” like the Rancho quickLIFT or Bilstein 5100 – fit into the combo kit category.
Shock-based leveling kits offer quite a bit of value. They cost about the same amount as a quality above-coil or in-coil spacer, yet they also include new shocks. The main limitation of these kits is that they max out at about 2.5″ of lift.
Remember: Spacer lifts are the most popular type of front-end lift / leveling kit. Provided your truck doesn’t see much off-road use, it’s unlikely that any of the issues associated with spacer lift kits will ever cause you a problem.
A Note About Spacer Kit Sizes
Since the Tacoma doesn’t have a tremendous amount of rake, a very slight spacer kit is sufficient to level out the truck (only 1-2″ of front-end lift is needed to level a 95′ or newer Tacoma). Since most people are looking for a way to install larger tires on their trucks, pure leveling kits that raise the front end 2″ aren’t nearly as popular as 3″ spacer lift kits that raise both the front and rear of the truck.
4. Coilover kits and/or new coil springs are often said to be the best lift kit option available short of a long-travel kit. A new coilover kit (which typically includes a spring, shock with spring seat, and all-new mounting gear) can increase lift by using an adjustable ring that will decrease the amount of spring compression height.
Coilover kits are inherently better than spacer kits because they include a new coil spring that is designed for the specific application. The new coil spring is tuned to account for whatever lift the kit is designed to provide, which decreases the chances of suspension damage occurring during heavy off-road use compared to a spacer kit.
5. Drop bracket lift kits are easy to visualize. Imagine adding a new section of frame to the bottom of your truck’s existing frame, and then mounting all your suspension parts to that new section and you’ve got it. The main advantage of a drop bracket kit is size – they’re a reasonably simple mechanism for grabbing 5-6″ of lift, an amount that is impossible to acquire using a spacer lift kit alone. They also preserve the factory ride.
The main disadvantages of drop-bracket kits are:
- Cost – $2500 is not an uncommon figure for parts, not to mention labor
- Challenging install (especially for the average home mechanic)
- Higher center of gravity
- They’re essentially irreversible
Despite these disadvantages, most of the “big” lifted trucks you see driving down the road are riding on a drop bracket lift kit. This is often because of economics.
6. Body lift kits are just what they sound like – a kit that lifts the body of the vehicle 1-4″ off the frame using a series of spacers (also known as “pucks”). The main disadvantage to a body lift kit is the install – most kits have 20+ spacers to install – and some can take the better part of two days to install. The main advantage of a body lift is that it can be installed alongside almost any other lift kit. SO, if you’re doing the math at home, adding a 3″ body lift to a truck with a 6″ drop bracket lift = 9 inches of lift!
If you’ve got time and not a lot of money, combining a 3″ body lift kit with a 3″ spacer lift kit is a low-cost alternative to a 6″ drop bracket kit. Another advantage is that adding a body lift kit to a spacer lift kit results in a lower center of gravity than a drop bracket kit, a nice benefit for anyone concerned about handling and/or rollovers.
7. Spindle lift kits are available for 2wd trucks (more info on these is coming).
If you see a very large lift kit – 9-12″ – this is often a 2wd truck with a spindle lift and one or more additional kits to achieve massive heights. While a lifted 2wd truck isn’t for everyone, it must be said that a) to each his own and b) 2wd trucks do just fine in some off-road racing situations…so you might not want to dismiss these types of trucks out of hand.
8. Long-travel kits are perhaps the very best suspension lift option available. Essentially, a long-travel kit is a new front suspension system. The critical components (upper and lower a-arms, uniball, coils, and shocks) are all replaced and/or upgraded. Some kits also include new axles, although Tacoma owners can modify Tundra CV axles to work with long-travel kits.
Once all these parts are installed, the Tacoma’s ride height is increased while the factory suspension travel and geometry are maintained. In fact, since most long-travel kits use better quality components than Toyota uses at the factory, a Tacoma with a long-travel kit will perform considerably better than a stock Tacoma in almost all situations.
Long-travel kits are awesome in terms of performance, but they come with an awesome price tag too. Not only are the parts expensive (figure $2,000 minimum) but the labor involved is significant. It’s not uncommon to spend more money on installation than on the kit itself. Of course, if you have the tools, the time, and the know-how, labor is something you can provide yourself.
Most long-travel kits require body panel modification too. The Total Chaos 96000 kit, for example, requires Tacoma owners to install new fiberglass fenders. A set of fiberglass fenders installed and painted to match your truck will cost about $1,000 (less if you can do the fender install and light bodywork yourself). Long-travel kits are the best possible way to raise your truck’s ride height, but many people have spent over $5,000 to install one…which is why long-travel kits aren’t even 1/10th as popular as spacer kits.
Finally, we come to solid axle swaps (SAS). These kits are major modifications that require quite a bit of explanation. The big picture is that solid axles are most popular in the rock-crawling community, where there strength, durability and simple maintenance and repair requirements are major assets. If this is your area of interest, check out popular rock crawling forums like Pirate 4×4 as well as rock-crawling threads on popular Tacoma forums. Solid-axle swaps usually involve considerable labor and a very high-level understanding of vehicle suspension design, so it might be a good idea to speak with some local 4×4 shops if you’re interested in a SAS for your Tacoma.
The Great Spacer Lift Kit Debate
Many off-road purists detest spacer lift kits and berate anyone who installs one, citing the fact that spacer lifts negatively impact both suspension geometry and travel. While the purists are correct – spacer lifts reduce travel and negatively impact geometry – these changes may or may not impact your particular use. The fact is that, for many Tacoma owners, spacer lifts are a perfectly acceptable option.
On the other hand, many spacer lift-kit manufacturers will attempt to gloss over the compromises inherent in using their product. While this behavior likely comes from a good place, there’s no denying that spacer lifts reduce suspension performance in many measurable ways. Spacer kits are not the best way to increase ride height in terms of suspension performance.
So, are spacer lift kits bad?
In a perfect world, no one would install a spacer lift to increase ride height. Instead, they would opt for a long travel kit with a new coilover, new upper and lower a-arms, new axles, tie-rod extenders, etc. Of course, these things cost money. A quality long-travel suspension kit that will increase ride height 3-4″ while retaining factory suspension performance costs in excess of $2,000. Installation costs can sometimes equal the cost of the kit, and then many long-travel kits require other modifications (new fenders, for example) that have a cost as well.
Which brings us back to spacer lifts. For significantly less money ($200-300 for parts, $200-300 for labor), a spacer lift can increase ride height 2-3″. While they do reduce the overall performance of the suspension system, many “average” truck owners never notice the difference.
Should you use a spacer lift kit? Hopefully the information in this article will help you make that decision.
Tacoma Rear End Lift Kit Methods
The standard leaf spring suspension is conceptually very simple – the spring pack mounts to the frame, and the axle attaches to the spring. However, don’t let the simplicity of the concept fool you – this suspension must resist axle wrap, allow the axle to articulate, and also carry your truck’s payload.
Block lifts are just what they sound like – hunks of steel or (more commonly) aluminum that rest between the axle and the leaf spring. Along with a new set of u-bolts, a rear end block lift can be used to add 1-3″ of lift. Unfortunately, despite their low cost, block lifts are the least desirable of all rear-end lift methods because they increase axle wrap…which leads to a myriad of other problems including broken blocks, broken drive shafts, busted shocks, shackles, leaf springs, etc.
Having said all of this, a small block lift (1″) doesn’t appreciably increase axle wrap and associated risks, and many Tacoma owners have no problems with 2″ block lifts. Still, this is the most undesirable rear-end lift option. Anything else would be better.
If we’re talking about blocks in the context of normal truck duties – towing, hauling, and light off-roading, than blocks are A-OK. If we’re talking about serious off-roading, than blocks are undesirable.
Add-a-leafs are the next best rear end lift option. While not as good as new leaf spring packs, they offer many of the same benefits. They increase lift by increasing the rear leaf spring pack stiffness, but many people find that add-a-leafs deteriorate over time. Because you’re changing the stiffness of the spring, new shocks are recommended.
Additionally, a truck that has an add-a-leaf will almost certainly ride much rougher than a truck with a block lift or new spring pack…consider yourself warned.
A new leaf spring pack is the best way to lift the rear-end of your Tacoma. Replacing the stock springs with stronger, stiffer after-market springs further enhances resistance to axle wrap as well as providing lift. Unfortunately, new leaf spring packs can be pricey – four to five times as much as an add-a-leaf kit. Also, just like an add-a-leaf, new shocks are needed here too.
Of course, like most of the components described, new leaf packs can dramatically change the way your truck rides and handles. If you were to install a new leaf pack designed for racing on your daily driver, you’re probably not going to enjoy driving nearly as much as you used to.
Older Tacoma owners (95′ – 04.5′) can also use new shackles to gain suspension lift. This is a commonly accepted lift method that doesn’t change the existing spring stiffness, and provided the new shackles aren’t too long (2″ or less), you may be able to get away with using OEM shocks. Still, new leaf packs are the first choice.
The Best Lift Kit Is…
In a perfect world, every 05+ Tacoma owner would choose new coilovers to gain about 1.5″ of lift because:
- 1.5″ is enough to install a solid tire upgrade – nothing massive mind you, but definitely capable (learn more about tire sizes for lifted Tacomas)
- Going with such a small amount of lift keeps most of the factory suspension geometry – your suspension will perform as it was designed to, yet your upgraded components will give you excellent performance
- The handling and ride will not degrade – in fact, both handling and ride may improve if you purchase some new shocks to go along with your new coilover kit.
- Mostly stock vehicles with only mild lifts complete the Baja 1000 every year…your Tacoma (most trucks, in fact) is quite capable in the stock configuration.
However, a lot of people aren’t satisfied with 1.5″ of lift. While some of these people are looking for better off-road performance (improved clearance, bigger tires), a lot of these people just want to go BIG. Whatever you buy, the most important thing is to match your intended use with your lift kit. Buying a spacer lift and then jumping your truck off sand dunes is going to cost you a lot of money, but buying a set of coilovers for your strictly pavement truck is a waste of money too.
Likewise, investing in all the finest lift kit components designed for racing is going to turn your mild-mannered pickup into a truck that rides so rough you’ll hate every pothole.
Like most things in life, there are a lot of arguments about the ‘best’ option…Read what you can, ask lots of questions, and take your time before buying.
Lift Kits and Your Factory Warranty
Many truck owners are understandably concerned about how a leveling kit or lift kit will effect their warranty. There are two answers to this question:
1. The law protects vehicle owners. The Magnusson-Moss act makes it illegal for an auto manufacturer or auto dealer to void a warranty just because a vehicle has been modified. The only way that a vehicle warranty can be effected is if the lift or leveling kit is the direct cause of a failure.
2. Some dealers are “cooler” about lift kits than others. Some Toyota dealers view themselves as the keepers of the sacred warranty flame, and they refuse to warranty anything unless a customer yells and screams. Other dealers, wise to the ways of the world, embrace owners who install lift kits and even install after-market lift kits themselves. If you can do your new vehicle service work at a dealer who sells brand-new lifted trucks, you’ll probably never have a warranty argument about your lift kit.
Often times when Tacoma owners install a new lift kit that’s 3″ or greater in size, they find that their truck has some sort of vibration that it didn’t have before. This is because the geometry of the driveline has been changed. There are three common solutions to these problems described in detail in the following articles:
On popular forums, some Tacoma owners will guarantee that one of the items above will solve your vibration problem. But unless they’re running the same setup or they’ve gotten under your truck and taken a look at your specific geometry, they’re only guessing. The experts we’ve talked to – Tom Wood’s Custom Drive Shafts and KLM Performance – say that every truck is a little different. So, you should try one solution at a time and/or you should work with a 4×4 shop to get a professional opinion.
It’s also worth noting that often times new wheels and tires are installed alongside a new lift kit. A poorly balanced wheel can mimic a driveline vibration, so it’s a good idea to verify wheel balance when diagnosing this problem.
Other Sources of Information