Jun 2024

We should level with ourselves for just a second before we get started – Jeeps in all their many forms straight off the factory floor are some of the most off-road capable vehicles ever put into production. Some might argue they are the most capable, but I’ll let other folks hash that one out. 

Your stock Jeep will take you nearly anywhere you want to go. But as we start to explore harder and harder terrain, and we build more and more skills behind the wheel, the call to upgrade your rig’s capabilities in step is hard to ignore. 

The first go-to modification we usually reach for is a lift. This can be as simple as adding some taller springs and a larger tire, or maybe a set of coil spacers. But when you really need more lift and more suspension travel, there are two tried and tested ways to go: “short arm” and “long arm” suspension lifts.

Each has its advantages and drawbacks. It’s important to remember that any time you modify your suspension from the manufacturer’s carefully calibrated designs and intentions, you will create new capabilities in some areas of its operation but deficits in others. Suspension is complicated stuff. But, the aftermarket has carried proven short arm (sometimes called 3-link) and long arm (sometimes called 4-link) kits for Jeeps for decades, and both are a common upgrade.

Let’s take a look at both, and see where you might fall. Are you more T-Rex or Gumby?

T-Rex – The Short Arm Suspension Lift

What are we talking about when we say “arms”? The arm refers to the control arm, which ties your Jeep’s axle to the frame on either side of the vehicle. If you are adding more and more lift, the total travel of the control arms maxes out, negatively affecting the motion of the axles through the suspension.

This can cause a harsh ride, poor tracking, and can be a contributing factor in the dreaded “death wobble” – an intense vibration through the steering at higher speeds. To help correct this, most lift kits over 2″ do include lengthened control arms to compensate for the changes in suspension geometry. Despite these technically being longer arms than your stock equipment, they still mount in the OEM control arm location, whereas long arm lifts do not.

The great advantages of short arm lifts are in their ease of installation and low cost. You can generally add up to 2-3 inches or so of lift with just a weekend’s worth of DIY work before running up against the same limitations as the stock arms. They also preserve the added ground clearance you just added to your Jeep by maintaining the stock mounting location on the frame. Many rock crawlers gravitate to the short arm lift because of the greater articulation it affords, as well as “droop”, which helps keep your tires in contact with the terrain.  

However, because of their more limited range of motion compared to long arm lifts, they can result in a harsher ride, and reduce steering feel and the directional consistency of the vehicle in normal driving. But, if you prize ground clearance and really big rubber under the fenders – short arm lifts are the way to go. Just be prepared for a bit of a compromised ride on the way to the rock gardens. But once you’re there, you’ll be stomping through it like it’s the late Cretaceous and you’re after a Triceratops.

Gumby – The Long Arm Suspension Lift

Here is where things get a little more complex. Long arm lifts up the ante by using a control arm that is so much longer than stock that it needs a new mounting point welded to the chassis behind the stock location. Changing the mounting point in this way provides more flexibility, and a greater dynamic range of travel and response for your lifted suspension, particularly at higher speeds. It can also offer a bigger range of articulation as well – but because of the decreased ground clearance caused by the larger arm hanging down from the chassis, bigger tires are a must to take advantage of that extra travel.

This new geometry smooths out the ride, increases stability, and can really transform your Jeep’s performance over rutted or washboard trails. If you dream of Baja and are a pre-runner at heart, or if you love charging across empty desert expanses, long arm suspension lifts may be for you.

The first drawback here is in the complexity of the installation. There are many more components involved in a long arm lift, and for some kits, specialist skills are needed – particularly welding. Though many of the newer long arm kits on the market now offer a bolt-on solution that ties into or replaces the stock transmission brace. They are much more expensive too, and if you’re paying a shop for the labor to install it, you’ll need to calculate that into the equation.

In addition, it’s a big pain to go back to stock or even a short arm lift if you commit to welding in what is basically an entirely new suspension. In all cases, you will need to cut away the stock control arm brackets to accommodate the longer arms. Lastly, as we already noted, these lifts can negatively affect your ground clearance because of the greater distance the longer control arm needs to travel between its two mounting points.

However, those long Gumby arms give your Jeep the flexibility and range of motion to bend and twist up, around, and over pretty much anything in your path.

Making the Jump to a Lifted Suspension

In either case – whether you’re leaning toward a T-Rex or a Gumby solution, it helps to keep a few things in mind. Any time you make a dramatic change to your Jeep’s suspension, you will in equal measure change how the vehicle rides, steers, tracks, and gains traction.

Big lifts mean you will need to take into account effects on other chassis and driveline systems. You may need longer drive shafts that can safely compensate for the increase in distance between the axle and the center differential. Longer brake lines might also need to be on order, and for older Jeeps, possibly even a slip-yoke eliminator. Be sure to factor in the cost of larger tires, and maybe even wheels, so you can gain the full advantages of your new lift. But fitting bigger rubber can change your final drive ratio, and even affect other driving dynamics, like braking effectiveness, fuel economy, and highway stability.  

Finally, a well-executed lift will require a major upgrade in the damper department. Upgraded shocks are a necessity for both taking advantage of the greater off road performance the lift affords your Jeep, but also for absorbing the greater physical stresses in play. King Shocks builds a range of high-quality dampers for any lift and almost any Jeep – from 2 inches to 6 inches.

Every product King sells is the result of constant testing and development done with top racers in competition worldwide. This real world testing exposes their designs to a level of abuse and destructive forces that cannot be duplicated in a laboratory. In addition to their busy field-testing schedule, preliminary designs are quantified using their state of the art electro-magnetic shock dyno. King also offers complete tuning and rebuilding services for every damper they sell.

If you can, find a buddy’s rig that has one of these systems installed and take it for a ride. See if you like it. Be clear with yourself about how you most use your rig – a short arm suspension is less expensive, but can be a detriment to your daily commute. A long arm suspension is a pricey commitment that’s hard to undo if you decide it’s not for you. 

As always, have your Jeep professionally aligned at a shop that regularly deals with lifted vehicles after the installation, and confirm the good condition of the rest of your suspension components like shocks, bushings, and steering arms. 

Finally, get your Jeep out on the trail and have some fun! 

Images: Bestop, King Shocks