Driving a lowered car for the first time can be a bit intimidating. We’ve all heard the horror stories of smashed oil pans and shredded bumpers. The truth is, as long as your vehicle is at a reasonable ride height and you don’t live in a war zone, you should be able to make it around town without inflicting damage.
Driving a lowered car on city streets does take a bit of finesse at times. You’ll need to pay closer attention to the road than you would with a normal car.
I’ve compiled a few tips that I’ve learned over the last 13 years of driving a lowered car below. Use these to adapt your regular driving style and you should be just fine. Knowing your vehicle and using angles to your advantage are the keys to success.
Take A Minute To Assess Your Vehicle
First, have a look at the vehicle itself. Where is it most likely to contact the ground? What part hangs the lowest? Are there any specific parts that you want to be extra careful with (like that brand new $600 Spoon front lip)?
Pay attention to where these areas of concern are from the outside, then get behind the wheel and make note of what it looks like from that perspective. Are your bumpers higher off the ground than the average curb height?
If not, you’ll want to make a mental note of where the edges of your bumpers are. This is important when pulling into a parking spot with an overhanging curb or parking brick.
Does your exhaust hang low at any point, and if so, where? For example, if it hangs low on the passenger side of the car, you’ll want to line anything sticking up out of the ground with your driver’s side. Get used to this now so that you don’t have to think about it in a split second decision on the highway.
Approach, Departure, and Breakover Angles
This is normally a subject for off-road vehicles but in this case, it applies to lowered ones on the street. The theory here is exactly the same.
Your approach angle is basically how far your bumper sticks out and how high off the ground it is. The departure angle is the exact same except you guessed it, for the rear bumper. Whether your bumpers are tucked in close to the wheels or hang out really far will greatly affect these angles.
The breakover angle of your vehicle is what determines whether you’ll get high centered on an incline or not. This comes down to your overall ride height and wheelbase. Longer vehicles will have poor breakover angles and are more likely to scrape in the center of the car.
Your car’s ground clearance plays a huge role in all of these angles. The gap between your wheel and fender doesn’t really matter. For example, my MR2 might appear to be really low, but because of its tall, 18″ wheel setup, it actually has pretty good ground clearance. That combined with its short wheelbase makes it pretty easy to drive around town.
One Wheel At A Time
Now you know which areas of your car to be concerned about. But how do you avoid hitting them? To put it quite simply, take all obstacles one wheel at a time.
Approaching steep driveways at a 45 degree angle rather than straight on will save your bumpers. The steeper the incline (or the lower your car is), the more of an angle you’ll need to use. You may hear some creaking and cracking as your chassis flexes in extreme cases but as long as your frame isn’t completely rotten, there’s nothing to worry about.
Make sure to plan your approach well ahead of time to avoid having to make a sharp turn or even worse, ending up in opposing traffic.
You have two options when it comes to tackling speedbumps. This is going to depend on your vehicle and what hangs down the lowest. For vehicles with low hanging parts that are near the wheels (like oil pans), it might actually be safer to approach a speed bump straight on.
Trying to straddle the bump at an angle can actually cause the oil pan to hit as opposed to it being elevated in the air when both tires are on top of the bump. If your vehicle doesn’t fall under this category though, feel free to stick with the “one wheel at a time” method. Remember to keep your speed slow.
Read The Road
This is another thing that will eventually become a natural instinct. Learning to read the road surface up ahead is the key to avoiding potholes, random bumps, and inclines. If you ride a motorcycle, you’ve probably already been taught this. There’s a trick to properly assessing how bad a bump or hole is in the road: watch how the cars in front of you react to it.
If you see what appears to be a big rough patch up ahead but the car in front of you is able to maintain the speed limit and barely even wiggles when it hits it, chances are it’s not as bad as it looks. On the other hand, if you see big trucks slowing down and still bouncing, you better be on that brake pedal!
Using another vehicle’s reaction to judge the road surface ahead only works if you follow their lead. If you aren’t lined up in the same groove they’re in, that information is useless. The bump could be much worse in the center of the lane and if that’s where your wheels are, you’re going to have a bad time.
Keep your wheels in roughly the same area as the vehicle up ahead, and you can trust them to be your guinea pig.
If you feel the need to “bob and weave” to avoid obstacles, try to make gradual, predictable movements. Other motorists aren’t going to expect you to do this so try not to surprise them. Also, if there are other motorists around you, ALWAYS stay in your lane. Remember, you chose to lower your vehicle. Don’t make it other motorists’ problem.
Plan Your Route
One thing lowered car owners have in common is that we have most of the streets in our cities memorized. Mention “that big dip on King street”, and they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s kind of like asking a taxi driver what the quickest way to get downtown at 6pm is – except for us it’s all about the surface.
Once you’ve memorized the problem areas, put this info to good use. Choose your battles. It’s so much easier to take the long way around than it is to confront obstacles. A lot of times it’s quicker too. If you know the front entrance to the mall you’re going to is steep, make it easy on yourself and head directly to the back.
Don’t Follow Too Close
Take it easy. Tailgating the vehicle ahead of you isn’t just going to annoy the driver. It’ll also block your view of the road ahead. All that talk about reading how cars ahead of you handle obstacles is completely useless if you don’t have time to react.
There could be a piece of debris in the middle of the lane that they have no problem clearing, but it’s just waiting to take a big chunk out of your bumper. By the time you see it, it’ll be too late. A safe rule of thumb is to double whatever following distance you would have in a normal car.
Don’t Forget You’re Driving A Lowered Car
I know this one seems obvious. But you’d be surprised how easy it is to forget that you’re driving a lowered car. It’s even more likely if you switch back and forth between multiple vehicles regularly. I swap between my lifted 4runner and lowered MR2 often during the summer months and find that sometimes I need to remind myself which vehicle I’m in.
The other problem is that some lowered vehicles are still really comfortable to drive. It’s easy to assume you’re in a normal car when the ride is nice and smooth. If you’re still having trouble remembering that your vehicle is lowered, a sticky note on the steering wheel or dash is a much nicer reminder than the sound of scraping metal or plastic.
The Worst Case Scenario
In the event that you have no choice but to hit a big bump or hole, try to scrub as much speed as possible. Then, let off the brakes completely and coast over the obstacle. Our first instinct is usually to make abrupt movements but it’s important to stay smooth here.
Slamming on the brakes will cause your vehicle’s weight to transfer toward the front wheels – the same ones that are about to take the hit. Doing this makes the impact even worse. It’ll also cause your front end to dive, giving you even less clearance.
When this happens, it’s already too late to avoid the hit. All you can do at this point is try not to make it worse. The time for avoidance is over, now you just have to accept it and hope there’s no damage.
Driving A Lowered Car In The Rain
Driving a lowered car in the rain isn’t any different from the above tips for general driving. The only extra thing you need to watch out for is standing water. The deep stuff. Since your car is sitting much lower than normal, your engine’s intake is too. Trying to navigate through flooded roadways in a lowered car isn’t worth the risk of hydro-locking your engine.
If you don’t have a choice, slow down and try not to let a wave build over your hood. If it gets to the point where your engine shuts off, don’t keep trying to crank it over. That’ll just make the internal damage worse.
Driving A Lowered Car In The Snow
I’ll be honest – you’re probably going to get stuck a few times. It’s easy to think that snow is harmless because it’s so pretty and clean looking. Let me tell you – snow can cause some real damage. Driving in deep snow is more like off-roading in clean, white mud.
Following in the deep tracks made by the vehicles that have gone before you might give you a traction advantage, but it also soaks up whatever ground clearance you may have had. That’s not the end of the world if you’re dealing with light, fluffy snow.
But winter driving conditions often feature thick, packing snow and even solid chunks of ice. A chunk of ice can tear through your bumper just as easily as a rock or stone.
Using the front bumper of your lowered car as a snowplow might be fun and look cool, but it’s a great way to scratch your paint or even worse, damage the bumper. That’s a lot of pressure being put on the front end. When snow builds up, it tends to get heavy. So unless you’re fine with pushing another vehicle bumper-to-bumper, I wouldn’t recommend pushing a mountain of snow around.
If you’ve never driven a lowered car before, I hope this quick crash course helps you out. Remember: plan ahead, take it slow, and use angles to your advantage. It’ll be 2nd nature to you before you know it. Feel free to leave a comment below if you have any more tips that I didn’t think of.
Tim is the creator of Canadian Gearhead. His experience with auto detailing and working for Toyota shows through all of the articles posted here. He runs the Canadian Gearhead site and YouTube channel full-time now and currently owns a 2007 4runner, 2006 Tacoma, and 1991 MR2. Read more about Tim: