It’s hard to look at a tastefully lowered car and not marvel at the work and tuning it took to make it work properly. It’s even harder to look at a clapped-out 1997 Civic with a lowering kit that seems to have been installed with a screwdriver in the Pep Boys parking lot. Suspension upgrades come in all shapes and sizes and can greatly improve or, just, change a vehicle’s appearance, for better or worse.
Knowing what a suspension upgrade can do for your car is important, but there are several other things to consider when you’re looking for a change. Car Bibles’ editors have made nearly every mistake in the book when it comes to suspension upgrades, and we’re here to help you get started down the right path.
Let’s get rolling.
What Is a Car’s Suspension?
Suspension, as a term, generally encompasses shock absorbers, dampers, springs, linkages, and even the wheels/tires. As a whole, those components are tasked with working together to provide two main services to the vehicle, which include facilitating a smooth ride and keeping the tires in constant, even contact with the road.
What Does It Mean To Upgrade Suspension?
What a suspension upgrade means to you depends on what you’re hoping to get out of your vehicle. If your goal is cornering, performance, and handling, the parts you choose will look vastly different from those that you’d need to build an off-road rig or slammed lowrider. In general, an upgrade will include new shocks, struts, springs, sway bars or chassis bracing, wheels, and tires.
So What Should I Consider When Upgrading My Suspension?
Let’s delve into a few key considerations.
Remember, the goal of your project will guide every component you choose for a suspension upgrade. Consider what you’re trying to accomplish and research the parts and installation methods that you’ll need to get there. Make sure you’re looking at all of the “project-adjacent” parts that will make the suspension upgrade a success.
This can be things like bodywork to accommodate the car’s altered ride height, skid plates and large tires for off-road builds, and may include airbags or another type of adjustable suspension.
Once you’ve determined what your goals are, you need to figure out what you can afford. Keep in mind that building a suspension system with the main goal of it being as cheap as possible may not be the best strategy, and certainly won’t promote longevity, performance, or ease of installation.
If you can only afford to complete the project in stages, that’s perfectly fine. Just make sure that you choose to install components that can work independently while you wait to add other parts to the suspension system.
This goes hand-in-hand with your budget, because your skill level in doing the work yourself will dictate a large part of the costs associated with a suspension project. Further, opting for a complex suspension system can require a level of knowledge from you to adjust and set up properly, so it’s important to be aware of your comfort level with wrenching before stepping into a project you either can’t finish or can’t live with after completion.
Unfortunately, working to improve one area of your vehicle’s suspension and performance almost always leads to a change in performance elsewhere. Trade-offs are a fact of life when modifying your vehicle, so it’s important to understand what you’ll be giving up to achieve your suspension goals.
Lowering a car or giving it stiffer suspension components can greatly improve handling and cornering abilities, but you’ll likely give up ride quality and the ability to cruise mindlessly through potholed streets and parking lots. Likewise, slapping a lift kit on your 1999 Ford F-450 can give you the meanest brodozer in town, but you’ve got alignment and driveability issues to contend with, too. It’s all about understanding and making peace with the things you’ll be giving up to achieve your suspension goals.
Car Bible’s Glossary for Suspension Upgrades
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Shocks can be thought of as small liquid-filled (oil) pumps that work to absorb impacts and keep the vehicle’s tires in constant contact with the road surface. Inside each shock, a piston moves with the motion of the vehicle, which works against oil inside the unit. Small holes inside the piston allow tiny amounts of oil to pass through, which slows spring movement.
Struts are made up of coil springs and the shock. Their job in life is to support the vehicle and absorb jolts from the road to keep the ride comfortable while keeping the wheels in contact with the road.
Springs are used to cushion a vehicle’s ride and absorb shocks while it’s in motion. Alone, a spring would allow continuous bouncing, so a shock or strut is needed to work against the spring and keep the vehicle from bouncing around on the road.
Chassis bracing refers to components such as strut tower braces and anti-roll bars. Their job is to prevent flex and unnecessary movement in a vehicle’s chassis, which improves handling and performance.
Lift kits are components that raise the body of a vehicle, primarily for off-road performance and aesthetics. In general, two major types of lifts are performed. The first is a body lift, which is cheaper than a suspension lift. The kits raise the body without changing the suspension or mechanics of the vehicle, and can allow the use of larger wheels and tires. Suspension lifts raise the entire vehicle from the axle and are more complicated and expensive to install.
A lowering kit, as it sounds, does the exact opposite. A lowering kit can come in many different forms, but the basic idea is that the vehicle’s ride height is dropped with the use of coilovers, air ride suspension systems, or other devices.
Air bags, or air suspension, uses an electric compressor or pump that inflates bags to replace springs in a suspension system. Air bags can offer the ability to raise and lower a car, and can help reduce vibrations and harshness in ride quality.
Cutting springs can lower a car and improve handling, but makes the ride much firmer. In most cases, cut springs should be paired with upgraded dampers to prevent damage or bottoming out.
The Car Bibles Questionnaire
Car Bibles answers all your burning questions!
Q: How much does it cost to upgrade my suspension?
A: The cost of a suspension upgrade totally depends on the type of upgrade and on the vehicle. Lowering springs and other necessary components can cost as little as $500, but an air suspension kit can cost $10,000 or more. Much of those costs are labor, so you’ll be able to save quite a bit if you’re able to do the work yourself.
Q: Do I need chassis bracing?
A: Chassis bracing isn’t a required component in a suspension upgrade, but adding one or more braces can drastically reduce flex and improve handling along the way. If you’re upgrading your suspension on an off-road vehicle, bracing may be a necessity to prevent damage on the trails, so do your research ahead of time.
Q: Is lowering a car bad?
A: Lowering a car for the sake of lowering it isn’t bad, per se, but going all-out for an aesthetic can lead to serious trade-offs in the form of ride quality and vehicle usability. Keep in mind that even a mild drop can cause your vehicle to bottom out on speed bumps and can wreak havoc on your front bumper as you drive over otherwise tiny obstacles on the road.
Q: I don’t want an expensive suspension system. What can I do?
A: Wheels and tires, all day, followed by brakes. One of the easiest and most affordable ways to drastically improve your car’s handling and performance is to add better tires and upgraded brakes.
The Suspension Upgrade Video Tutorial
Car Bible’s Favorite Suspension Upgrade-Related Products
If you’re looking to improve your car’s handling and ride, a suspension upgrade is the way to go. It can be hard to find the right parts to get your project rolling, though, so Car Bibles’ editors have chosen a few of their favorite products to get you started. They include Pro-Lift Jack Stands, Mechanix Work Gloves, and Megan Racing Front Upper Tower Braces (model-specific).
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