Different Types of Off-Road Suspension Setups

Some trucks/buggy/all terrain/side by side owners look at their suspension setup as a secondary feature. It’s something they choose to do to get the lift and only the lift they want. But if you want a good ride, you’ll have to pay attention to the details!

The setup you choose will have a massive impact on performance, not just lift. Tire size, shocks, and suspension (springs) and the amount of suspension travel will all play their part in making sure your vehicle gets an excellent ride and excellent traction in a wide variety of different terrains.

When your plans include a ground up build, in addition to the needed suspension components, you will have to pay attention to the items below:

  • Caster – Built into the front suspension, the caster angle will affect how your steering returns itself to the center.
  • Camber – This is all about the angle where the rubber meets the road. A negative camber describes a setup where the tire leans toward the vehicle at the top, while a positive camber describes a tire leans away from the vehicle at the top.
  • Ackermann Effect – A system, which was patented by Rudolph Ackermann in the 1818, turned the wheels at different angles and created a smooth turn for four-wheeled vehicles.

If your vehicle build is based on good existing steering geometry you can skip the above and move right into the fun stuff, shocks, bumps, dampers, springs, links, sway-bars, tires, and more.

Independent Suspension

An independent suspension system allows each wheel on the same axle to move independently of the other in a vertical direction. In other words, one wheel can respond to a bump on the road without disturbing the wheel on the other side. Your suspension spring rates can still be tied together with a sway bar without having their motion directly tied together.

Most modern vehicles use an independent front suspension (IFS), and the independent rear suspension (IRS) is also common. A fully independent suspension allows each wheel to move independently. Like any option, you might choose, going with an independent suspension will present both benefits and drawbacks.

Having said all of the above, solid axle swaps are becoming more and more popular. Switching from an IFS, where they pull the front IFS and put in a solid axle front end. We have/do many swaps for many reasons . . .  lower cost, much stronger, and easy to build. With all the new suspension components available a good fabricator can make a solid front axle work as good or better than some IRS front suspension set ups.

The advantages of an independent suspension include all of the following:

  • An independent suspension is built to provide adequate traction when the driving surface is bumpy or irregular. That certainly applies in the world of off-road racing, which is why this type of suspension setup is so popular.
  • Since an independent suspension is good for keeping all tires on the ground, it also lends itself nicely to a smooth ride. Any impact to one wheel will be isolated instead of being transferred through the axle to the opposing wheel.
  • IRS systems are popular in most rear engine off-road vehicles because of the first two points, and superior cornering is the cherry on top. That’s why you might also find independent rear suspension setups in a lot of performance cars.

We’ll be the first to tell you that you should always consider both sides of each decision you make for your off-road vehicle. With that in mind, there are a few downsides to the IRS:

  • Independent suspension setups are complex, and they contain a lot of moving parts. With more parts in play, there are more chances that something can go wrong. Plan on committing to regular maintenance as you keep up with repairs and replacements.
  • Another downside to this complicated approach is that it can be expensive to design and build an IRS system. You can expect to pay for the performance you get from your independent suspension setup.

Solid Axle

Also called live axle or beam axle, this approach can generally be considered the classic suspension setup for off-roading. It’s exactly what it sounds like: an axle that runs straight from one side of the vehicle to the other. When one side of the axle moves vertically, the other side drive tire camber will increase. This design hasn’t fundamentally changed in a long time, and it’s still a popular choice for off-roading.

Suspension “Leaf Springs”, front and rear, run parallel to the frame and attach to the axle as they suspend the vehicle. Most leaf springs vehicles are designed to use the Leaf springs for dual purposes, suspend the vehicle and to hold the solid axle in place. Leaf springs take up a good deal of room, are very heavy, and they have internal friction between leaves that greatly affects their spring rate of force while suspending your vehicle. Their size, their weight, their internal friction (which changes due to dust dirt between leaves), in all, makes it hard to size/fit leaf springs correctly into most vehicle modifications. The only real way to get leaf springs that work well on a vehicle is with trail and error and or to copy another vehicle that works well and is close to identical in the vehicle size, wheel travel and vehicle weight.

Again, there are some pros and cons to consider. Some of the best things about a solid axle include the following:

  • A solid axle suspension setup is extremely durable compared to an IFS axle, and it’s also easier to change. Durability and reparability are huge factors for off-road trucks, so this goes a long way.
  • A solid axle system can be great for getting traction over large obstacles.
  • There are fewer parts involved, so the transfer of power is less complicated. This can help maximize torque to the ground.

Weigh those benefits against these drawbacks to see if a live axle is for you:

  • The vehicle ride is harder to tune, it will take more time and effort to get a smooth ride but with work it can be as good as independent coil spring suspensions.
  • Some people appreciate a little bit of a bumpy sensation when they’re off-roading, but a rougher ride can also mean your truck is harder to control.
  • A solid axle is likely to be somewhat more massive than an independent axle, so consider if weight is a big concern.
  • Since a solid axle goes straight across instead of going up to a control arm, your ground clearance may be a little bit lower, than an IFR vehicle in the center at ride height.
  • Since a solid axle goes straight across instead of going up to a control arm, your ground clearance will never go below the ride height axle to ground clearance.

Which Off-Road Axle Should I Choose?

Part of the reason we take a customized approach to off-road racing is that everyone’s needs vary. If you’re going to be climbing many hills, a solid axle may last longer and get you better traction along the way. At the same time, though, an independent suspension may help you get clear larger rocks. If you’re going to be doing a lot of sand racing, an independent suspension is likely to be the best choice.  When in doubt call us and we can guide you.

Why Choose F-O-A an Off-Road Suspension?

First Over All Off-Road Shocks is based in Las Vegas, Nevada. This puts us right in the middle of the off-road racing community here in the United States, and we’ve been in the industry for more than three decades. With many thousands of shocks in use, we offer suspension kits for Chevy, Ford, Toyota, side by side’s and custom builds, and we can get you just about any amount of travel you might need. Browse our suspension kits today, or reach out to us if you have any questions about the best custom setup for your off-roading needs. We have the equipment, skills, experience, and most important the time and the desire to help you design a custom setup that will optimize your performance off the road.  Let f-o-a.com help you make a wise decision on your next project.

Featured Image: Milkovasa / Shutterstock