“Low down” (ローダウン) is a Japanese term to describe something “lowered” in English, such as lowered cars, lowering springs, etc. I suppose that “low” alone doesn’t imply “down,” so both words had to be applied. Today, I’m going to chronicle my process of my “low down” Alto Works and it’s surprisingly disappointing results.
As evidenced from many of my pictures, the ride height on my Alto is pretty ridiculous and the offset on the wheels seem pretty high, as the wheels sink far into the wheel wells. Between the top of the tire and the fender lip, there is a huge 7cm (2.75 in) fender gap for the front and a 6.5cm (2.55 in) gap for the rear.
Yup, I can finger it pretty good. This definitely could use moar low to make it look more appropriately sporty. Besides looking better, what are the benefits or drawbacks of lowering a car? Lowering a car theoretically lowers the center of gravity, which can improve handling and roll, and minimizes underbody drag. There is a finite level of this, however, as slammed cars lose tire contact patch, have limited suspension travel, and risk damage to the undertray, exhaust, and numerous other parts. Lowering a car, even just a bit, changes suspension geometry which can also affect handling negatively, as OEM engineers designed the car for a certain specification. Lowering springs necessitate higher spring rates to prevent bottoming out on suspension components, which can worsen ride quality, comfort, and wear down struts and shocks prematurely. (There are numerous other factors at play, so let’s keep the discussion simplified for now.) As always, every car is a bit different, so there is not one answer that can be applied broadly to this argument.
I’m always thoroughly annoyed that a good majority of JDM cars have ugly amounts of uneven ride height. The Prius, Fit, Axela (Mazda3), MX-5, Civic, etc. etc. all have terrible fender gaps, some having more gap in the front suspension than the rear. Yes, I am aware that FWD cars tend to have more gap in the front to allow for travel, but at least they could do it so that both fronts and rears are even. This is made worse if you compare virtually all European makes like Mini, BMW, Audi, Mercedes, VW… front or rear drive, the majority have a nice, centered wheel gap that is both usable and even. You cannot argue that Japanese roads are worse, so they need the bigger gap, as European roads are notorious for uneven gravel, cobblestone, or pothole-ridden countryside roads. My friend always suspects its a conspiracy to keep the aftermarket suspension companies alive. Anyways, I digress. I frankly dislike the ride height as it stands now. Let’s find a solution to that and hopefully improve handling in the process.
There are still quite a few manufacturers offering lowering springs for the HA11S Alto, with huge price variations from around 9000￥ ($82 USD) to over 20,000￥ ($182 USD) for the springs alone. Most manufacturers offer similar lowering height, around 25-35mm lower than stock, and similar spring rates, about 2.4 - 3 kg/mm so the choice was pretty easy…
I’m cutting the springs. As much as I’d like a proper suspension setup, it’s difficult for me to justify more than 40,000￥ ($365 USD) for coilover fronts and adjustable rear perch sets, considering the price I paid for the car. Even at 10,000￥ ($91 USD) for a spring set from a better known aftermarket company, the price is a huge percent of what I paid for the car itself. For now, this experimentation on DIY lowering will have to suffice. I figure if the shocks wear out or I mess up cutting the springs, I can go aftermarket out of necessity. The project car will remain a poor man’s project. Don’t try this at home, kids.
Let’s get the car down by lifting the car up. First, off go the wheels. We opted to lower the fronts first since that would likely take the greatest amount of time and effort, as we would have to disassemble the struts every time we make a change in the spring height. Second, we removed two bolts at the steering knuckle and cleared the brake line. Two nuts hold the strut to the strut towers and the struts were clear.
With the aid of spring compressors, we made quick work of disassembly. Judging the spring, we estimated the first revolution of the coil would affect little change, so we decided at least 1.5 coils, and marked with a paint pen 1.5, 1.75, and 2. We could always go from there.
Alright, here goes nothing. Cradling the spring in a motorcycle stand (like I said, don’t try this at home), we used an angle grinder to cut the spring. Sparks flew and the spring cut through like… cold butter? Smoothly and with only a bit of resistance.
Reversing the install process and only hand tightening all the mounting points would be enough to check the spring compression. Of course, the wheels were properly tightened a bit more to ensure it wouldn’t fall off when we pushed down on the front to check compression.
Sadly, it wasn’t quite enough to get the spring where I wanted it to be. It only lowered the car by around a centimeter, so we disassembled the struts again and cut the spring at the 1.75 mark. This second cut was just the right height! Now there was about a 3cm gap in the front, making the front of the car that much better looking. Now onto the rears!
I knew starting this job the trailing bar rear end of the car was going to be easy and quick to lower, as the suspension setup is extremely simple. We lifted the car at the tow point, which was a reinforced loop at the rear frame, right behind the license plate. One bolt per gas strut allowed the entire trailing arm to be lowered, just enough to clear the rear springs with a bit of wiggling around. The gaps in the rear springs were much wider, so we would have to be a bit more careful with the cuts we made. In much the same process as the fronts, we instead paint marked at the 1 and 1.5 coil revolutions.
In addition to cutting the springs, I cut off the first notch of a three-notched hard rubber bump stop. This would allow the car to have more clearance when the car is lowered.
Sadly, our first cut resulted in little change. The car seemed to have only lowered around a half-centimeter. I’m glad the angle grinder makes quick work of lowering the car. We went for 1.5 revs for the second cut for the rears, which turned out to be a bit of a mistake, as I’ll explain soon.
Once the car was back on the ground, I was excited. The car stood at a gorgeous ride height all around, with a wonderful front wheel gap and a 2 cm rear wheel gap, translating to around 1.5 fingers at the front and barely 1 finger gap at the rear.
Unfortunately, on closer inspection, we realized the rear of the car was basically sitting on the rear bump stops. This means the spring has very little compression before it smacks up against the already-cut bump stop; terrible for driving on these bumpy, local roads.
I will admit, however, that the look of the lowered car was unbelievably gorgeous. Lowering it transformed the look immensely, changing it from pedestrian and stock to sporty and modified. I am so pleased at the look that I didn’t consider how terrible the ride will be...
...and it is horrendous. The rear bounces and hops at every deep dip, manhole, and bump in the road. On the more notable road imperfections, the car bangs against the bump stops, shaking and rattling the whole of the car. More worryingly, at higher speeds on curvy roads, any mid-corner bumps really upset the car and increase slip angle when the car hops. It was an “interesting” experience in the rain when the rear end wanted to meet the front unexpectedly… It’s actually like a rear wheel drive, but with a greater degree of risky, somewhat uncontrollable danger. Kinda like a Toyota MR2. Beyond the discomfort of driving on rough roads, it will be definitely dangerous to have any spirited drives in this state.
I will have to raise the rear of the car back up at a later date with, preferably, proper aftermarket springs or at the very least, replacement stock springs that I will have to re-cut. Like I said: don’t do this at home. Or at a garage. Just… don’t do it at all, in fact.