Background

Ground clearance significantly impacts comfort, handling (center of gravity), appearance, load capacity, and safety of all vehicles. Optimal height is always a trade off: lower clearance improves handling, stability at high speeds, and increases the responsiveness of steering, but higher clearance improves comfort and navigation over uneven terrain (includes all those dangerous potholes). A lower clearance vehicle is usually easier to get into (excepting super cars like the McLaren F1 of course).

Critical ground clearance points: front overhang, wheelbase midpoint, and rear overhang

Vehicles specifications list a single number for ground clearance — usually a measure taken from the middle undercarriage without passengers or cargo — but the optimal configuration is actually more complicated. Three passenger car measurements — front overhang, wheelbase midpoint, and rear overhang — characterize uphill and downhill driveway models with these minimums.

Minimum ClearanceFrontWheelbaseRear
Uphill driveway5.11”3.54”5.51”
Downhill driveway2.76”4.33”3.15”
All driveway access5.11”4.33”5.51”

Truck wheelbase midpoint clearance (using the Ford F-150 as a reference) ranges from 8.4″ to 11.5″ with the upper range required for very heavy loads and challenging terrain. In contrast, the New Beetle clearance is about 4.6″ which is very close to the passenger car minimum.

Structural lift kits

Lift kit on a New Beetle

New Beetle suspensions can be physically modified with new shocks, coil springs and fittings to raise ground clearance. High Life sells three different lift “stages” that change both front and rear clearances.

Lift kits are typically used for off-road applications or specialty racing. The raised chassis tends to detract from the Beetle’s body design, and lift kits are generally not easily adjustable.

Lift Kit OptionsFront IncreaseRear Increase
High Life Stage 11.5”1.75 to 2.0”
High Life Stage 22.0”2.0”
High Life Stage 32.5”2.5 to 3.0”

Wheel options

The New Beetle base trim shipped with 16-inch rims fitted with 205/55 R16 tires with a 24.9″ diameter. Fitting larger tires has an impact on ground clearance especially when used in combination with a suspension modification.

Wheel OptionsTire SpecificationDiameter (in)Max Load (lbs)
16-inch rim OEMMichelin 205/55 R1624.9”1356
17-inch rim OEMGoodrich G-Force 255/45 R1726.1”1653
16-inch Stage 2Continental 215/70 R1627.9”1764
16-inch Stage 3Grandtrek SJ6 205/70 R1627.3”1609
16-inch Stage 3Toyo Open Country 215/70 R1627.9”1708
16-inch Stage 3Pirelli Scorpioin ATR 215/80 R1630.1”2271

For example, fitting large 215/70 R16 tires (additional 1.5″ versus stock) with a Stage 3 lift kit (additional 2.5″) yields a net increase of 4″ over the stock clearance, or about 8.5″ total clearance at the wheelbase midpoint which is about the same as a typical pickup.

Air suspensions

Instead of swapping out shocks and coil springs to achieve a fixed height, an air suspension system can dynamically change ground clearance electronically.

Air Lift V2 control pad in dash panel

In an air suspension system, the coil is upgraded to an enclosed flexible rubber membrane, known as an air spring. These air springs can then be inflated and deflated at the touch of a button allowing for on-the-fly adjustments to clear obstacles or handle different cargo loads. The lift control interface can be embedded in the center dash console above the entertainment unit (the console is repainted red in example above).

Air Lift Performance makes a complete kit for the New Beetle with a 5.9″ front and 4.9″ rear drop.

Air Lift 75524 front kit for the New Beetle ($1000)

While the primary purpose of air suspensions is to significantly lower the vehicle, the top lift point can be set close to the stock height and then support this level with a high pressure setting (for a very stiff ride) when carrying a heavy load in the ute. This solution would allow for optimum handling for no load driving (the rear of the Ute is approximately 150 lbs lighter than stock).

A related issue is the New Beetle’s weight distribution of 63/27 front/rear engineered to take advantage of the car’s front wheel drive torque. However, since the conversion removes rear weight, this changes the distribution to about 66/33 front/rear. This 2-to-1 ratio may cause unwanted “bounce” over rough terrain and/or high speeds, so a stiffer rear suspension setting might be useful (not to mention the advantage of adjusting for different cargo weights).

However, the high cost of air suspension, about $4000 with electronic management, makes this a questionable cost/benefit upgrade.

Slammed Turbo S with Air Lift suspension

Air suspension requires a corresponding management system with an air tank, compressor, and distribution manifold to handle the pressures of the four air springs.

There is ample room to fit all these components into the spare tire hold.

Air Lift 11517 self-draining water trap

All air suspension systems must be drained.

As air temperature increases, moisture carrying capacity does too (about a 10x differential between freezing and 100 degrees). Air compression releases moisture much like squeezing a sponge and water will eventually fill the tank unless removed. A self-draining water trap, like Air Life 11517, automatically drains water out of the system and eliminates the need to access the spare tire hold under the truck bed floor.