Detonation; The Right Suspension
As I was touching down at the airport in Las Vegas, Nevada, it was hard to believe a year had come and gone since I attended the last Specialty Equipment Market Association show. I would spend the next few days intently wandering about the Las Vegas Convention Center gathering materials and information for my reports on the sights and sounds of SEMA 2017.
The sheer size and spectacle of this year’s event was amazing. There were so many exhibitors displaying their wares that getting to even half of them seemed nearly impossible. But as I traversed the countless aisles of product displays, it was hard not to notice all the vehicles being exhibited: cars, trucks, hot rods, and motorcycles—all with unique interpretations of style and taste. They varied from lifted to lowered and heavily modified to stock externally with a huge array of engines tucked under the hood. The large variety of styles made almost everyone stop and gaze in awe.
Something that caught my attention while checking out all the cool rides were the different types of suspension systems used by builders. Some were pure custom with one-off fabricated components and huge coilover shocks, while others had much simpler setups.
At SEMA 2017, it seemed many of the vehicles’ suspensions were more for show than function, built to look pretty and catch an eye with lots of chrome, paint, and anodizing. I understand a huge part of having vehicles on display is to show off their highlights and grab people’s attention, hence the term “show car.” But it was also nice to see vehicles that were more drivable.
Suspensions intrigue me as much as nice engines do. Much of my interest comes from the years of doing repairs and upgrades when I saw too many improper setups. Heck, I have even seen a few OEM suspensions over the years that don’t appear to be completely figured out. Sometimes a design flaw can’t be seen right away.
Aftermarket suspension systems, whether from a big brand or a small shop, are designed for different purposes. Some are engineered for getting the maximum performance from a vehicle, while other setups are more intended to catch attention. Many times, it’s hard to tell how well the suspension will work until a vehicle is actually driven. The system could retain the factory ride, make it worse, or improve it. There are so many factors that go into making a suspension work well that there is no perfect recipe. Sometimes a modified suspension will work better at speed or in the dirt, but that performance gain may affect other aspects of handling and ride quality. From my experience, the best all-around suspension (for general use) on a vehicle is normally the stock setup or close to it. The farther a suspension gets from stock, the more the handling characteristics can change.
I learned a long time ago that there’s a difference between a lift kit and a suspension system on trucks. Lifts kits normally do what the name implies: lift a vehicle up. They typically use the simplest means to elevate a vehicle: relocating a bracket, taller springs, or adding spacers. A good suspension system, however, can do more than simply provide lift, as its components are engineered to provide better ride quality, increased wheel travel, and more control than simply lifting a truck. These systems use A-arms, coilover shocks, links, and so on to improve the vehicle.
The same concepts hold true for other types of suspension systems on trucks and cars. A lowering kit may only lower but not improve handling and ride quality, while a tuned suspension system may cover all the criteria.
A lot of time and money goes into building a proper suspension system. Companies invest in research and development to make sure everything works properly. I have found that many of the best systems and components come from companies that continually use and test their products, which allows them to refine things. They don’t simply build it and sell it.
No matter how nice the shocks, springs, control arms, and such look on a truck or car, don’t forget that suspension plays an important role in a vehicle’s safe operation. If the suspension does not work properly, your car or truck could be dangerous to drive. Do diligent research and make sure your ride is set up properly with the right components for its intended use. Also, make sure everything is installed properly. I have seen more than one crash due to poor workmanship.