A Beginner’s Guide to Car Suspension
(Photo Credit: ILTWMT)
Do you feel like your car bobs up and down like a boat? Want it to handle better around corners? Find out about the different ways to improve your car’s suspension!
There are many types of car suspension systems—from the basic torsion beam and leaf springs, MacPherson struts and even pseudo-MacPherson struts, to complicated multi-link or independent suspensions—and they all work differently. You may frequently hear these terms being thrown around by car salesmen and mechanics, but what exactly is a suspension system and how does it work?
This article is not some deep technical dive into how each system works, but a general explanation about the functions that suspensions serve.
In this article, we will briefly explore what role the suspension system plays in the car, and how you could improve your suspension to make it less floaty over bumps and corners.
How Does a Suspension System Work?
(Photo Credit: Road&Track)
The Physics Behind a Balanced Ride
A suspension system on a car plays two key roles.
The first role that a suspension plays pertains to ensuring that the car goes where you point it. Without suspension, you car might be thrown off balance and off course, because it will be unable to absorb the many bumps and undulations on the road.
The absorption of uneven surfaces on the roads also brings us to the second role that the suspension system plays—to give you a smoother and more enjoyable ride.
The Magic Behind Your Suspension: Springs and Shock Absorbers
You need only understand how two components of a suspension system works in order to know how it helps to absorb bumps and keep you planted on the road. The two components are springs and shock absorbers.
(Photo Credit: iStock)
This part should be quite self-explanatory; springs compress and expand in order to absorb bumps.
(Photo Credit: iStock)
Shock absorbers dampen a spring’s natural tendency to continue bouncing up and down when expanded or compressed (as in the case when you pass over a bump). This ensures that you have a suspension system that absorbs bumps when going over them, but at the same time does not generate unnecessary up-and-down motion after passing over bumps.
Additionally, the shock absorbers also take part of the weight of the car, so that the suspension still has enough play in the springs to compress and smoothen out bumps when moving.
Stock Suspension Systems
Your car’s stock suspension is tuned for comfort, which means there is usually more suspension travel than required. This makes the car feel “soft”, giving that boat-like effect of the car bobbing up and down more than it needs to.
This unnecessary suspension travel also means that while doing corners, you may feel like your car is leaning much more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
(Photo Credit: Rev Singapore)
With a stock suspension system, your car may end up being too bouncy, and you may lack the confidence to go through corners even if it is within legal speeds, simply because your car’s suspension induces too much roll for comfort.
For a more comfortable and confident ride, here are some ways you could improve your car’s suspension system:
Stock springs (black) VS lowering springs (red)
(Photo Credit: FT86Club)
Lowering springs may be the cheapest way to improve your car’s suspension. When you install lowering springs, your car’s ride height is lowered by reducing the gap between your tyres and your wheel well.
This is achieved through installing a set of springs that are smaller than your stock springs, thus making your vehicle sit lower than its stock ride height.
This modification is mainly used for aesthetic purposes than for improving handling, although lowering your car with a good set of springs could still improve your car’s handling and mitigate leaning in corners by reducing the car’s centre of gravity.
However, installation of unsuitable lowering springs could in fact make your car’s handling worse!
You could install springs that are too hard (to compensate for the reduction in suspension travel), and if they are too soft, your car risks bottoming-out over bumps, since there is less suspension stroke.
An improper set of springs might make you lose control of your car at high speeds. You will also lose out on comfort in daily use.
Hence, it is crucial that you purchase lowering springs that are designed specifically for your car model, rather than generic lowering springs that may not be suitable for your car.
(Photo Credit: Fong Kim)
Coilovers take things one step further than lowering springs. Whereas lowering springs entail the installation of a non-stock spring on your stock shock absorbers, a coilover system requires you to install a custom set of springs and shocks on your car.
What this means is a fully customisable suspension set-up for your car, which can be tuned according to your preferences. You could order and specify a suspension system that prioritises a hard and confident ride, or a slightly softer set-up that is more suitable for use even in a car meant to ferry the family around.
However, this full control of your car’s suspension characteristics also comes at a price. Compared to lowering springs, coilovers will be more expensive.
(Photo Credit: KSport)
Air suspensions are the most expensive type of suspension modification amongst the three types of suspension systems we are exploring here. However, compared to the other two types of suspensions, they will be guaranteed to give you a magic carpet ride—as if your car were supported by air!
A system of air bags are responsible for dampening and absorbing bumps, so no springs will be used at all as this system relies on the compression and expansion of air.
Hence, you need not deal with two opposing factors—the spring, which bounces, and the shock absorbers, which dampen the spring’s bounce—in this system. This is what allows air suspensions to give your car a smooth and comfortable ride, yet provide you with the tautness to tackle corners.
Additionally, you will also be able to control your car’s ride height with just a flick of a button. You will be able to pump air to raise the car’s height so you can overcome high bumps, or you could also release air from the system to get your bumper just millimetres off the ground.
Other suspension systems don’t come with this convenience, or the same quality of ride. Most high-end luxury cars are equipped with this type of suspension system for this reason.
Extra Info: Progressive VS Linear Springs
(Photo Credit: CJ Pony Parts)
Here is some additional information about the characteristics of springs. Did you know that not all springs on suspension systems are made the same?
There are two categories of springs that you should know about: progressive and linear springs.
A progressive spring does not compress at the same rate, but instead varies according to how much suspension travel there is.
A typical progressive spring is usually easily compressible at first, but has more resistance as the suspension travel reduces.
This means that a car on progressive springs is usually pliant at first, but gets firmer as the wheel gap reduces.
Such springs are usually recommended for lowering springs, as more resistance will be required to prevent bottoming-out.
On the other hand, a linear spring compresses at a linear rate, as its name would suggest.
This means a more predictable driving feel, as you can expect how the car would react over bumps and undulations on the road, even at high speeds.
Such springs are thus recommended for cars with coilovers, since they are tuned more towards performance and control.
If you think your car’s stock suspension isn’t performing well enough, there are three options you could take to remedy the situation.
Lowering springs will cost you the least, although you have to be careful to only install springs that are specifically designed for your car model.
Coilovers are more expensive, but you will get more control over how you want to set up your ride in return.
Air suspension systems will be the dearest to the wallet, but you will get unparalleled control over ride comfort and control, and you will even be able to control the ride height of your car.
Regardless of your budget, one of these three options should be able to cater to you.
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