Most of us aren't professional mechanics.
Even if you D.I.Y. your oil changes and replace your air filters, there's probably a lot about your car that you feel clueless about. One of those things is your car suspension system.
But just because you're not a trained mechanic with a full auto body shop doesn't mean you can plead ignorance about your car's suspension. After all, this part of your car is essential for a smooth ride, vehicle control, and passenger safety in an accident!
"The way I drive, the way I handle a car, is an expression of my inner feelings." - Lewis Hamilton
So what makes up your car's suspension system?
And how do you maintain and care for your vehicle's suspension system so that it lasts as long as possible?
Here's what you need to know:
Why Your Car's Suspension System Is So Important
When most drivers think of a suspension system, they think of a smooth (or, in the case of an old or faulty system, bumpy) ride. This is the most noticeable role of a car suspension system, but it certainly isn't the only one. Or even the most important.
Unfortunately, most roads have at least a few bumps, cracks, or potholes. Your car suspension system helps to absorb these obstacles so that you and your passengers don't bounce out of your seats with each pothole. If it weren't for this system, modern driving would be much less comfortable for everyone!
"The fact is I don't drive just to get from A to B. I enjoy feeling the car's reactions, becoming part of it." - Enzo Ferrari
As we said:
This isn't the only role that your vehicle's suspension plays in your driving experience. Since the suspension system helps keep your car level — even when not in motion — it is crucial to your control and stability in the driver's seat.
Have you ever ridden in a car that bucks forward when you hit the brakes? If so, you've been in a car whose suspension system wasn't doing its job.
You know what else?
If cars didn't have suspension systems, then all of the kinetic energy involved in stopping, starting, and turning would have nowhere to go. Plus, the tires would have zero wiggle room on uneven surfaces. As a result, your tires would constantly be at risk of losing contact with the road. Anyone who has hydroplaned knows how dangerous this is!
Some top-heavy vehicles even feature additional side-to-side leveling within the suspension system to prevent rollovers.
If you want to see how a typical car suspension system works, check out the short video below:
The Anatomy Of A Suspension System
Now that you know why your car needs a suspension system, let's take a look at the parts inside.
Below, you can see some of the most important parts of your vehicle's suspension:
Upper control arm
While each car is slightly different, there are some suspension parts that you'll see in almost every vehicle on the road. For simplicity's sake, we can break these parts into three major categories: tires, springs, and dampers.
That's not all:
We probably don't need to tell you what a tire is. But did you know that your car's tires are an integral part of the suspension system?
Even if the rest of your car suspension system is in optimal shape, it won't be as effective if your tires have the wrong air pressure or are missing tread.
Did you know?
The word “car” comes from the Latin word “carrus” – a two-wheeled wagon.
After all, your tires are the only part of your vehicle that actually touch the road. So if they're not up-to-standard, everything above is also affected!
Rotation is also important to keep your vehicle's suspension system balanced. This will help prevent uneven wear-and-tear on both your tires and the suspension system as a whole.
As you can probably guess, springs are a key piece of any car suspension system. Without them, your vehicle's tires, axles, and other structures wouldn't be able to adjust and move with the road and all of its imperfections.
The job of a suspension spring is threefold:
At the core, springs are essential to any car suspension system.
What goes up must come down. Or, what coils must uncoil.
After a suspension spring compresses to absorb a bump in the road or sharp turn, what happens next?
Here's what you should know:
If suspension systems employed springs alone, then the vehicle would bounce back and forth until the energy eventually dissipates. That's where dampers come in.
Dampers (frequently called "shock absorbers") are small hydraulic pistons that sit within the suspension system. When the spring compresses, so does the damper. However, the damper takes much longer to decompress, therefore slowing down the vehicle's impending ricochet.
In some cases, you'll see two-in-one suspension parts that include both a spring and damper.
The Different Types Of Car Suspension Systems
While most car suspension systems are extremely similar, they are not all alike.
There are countless different types of car suspension systems out there, each with their own configurations.
But these different systems can pretty much all be grouped into two categories: dependent and independent.
Let's take a look at the difference between these two configurations and why auto manufacturers might choose one over the other.
Check it out:
In a dependent suspension system, each set of front and back tires is connected with a rigid axle system. This means that if you drive over a bump or other obstacle, both the left and right tires must compensate.
This results in a smoother ride than one without a suspension system, but still isn't perfect.
So, what's the problem?
The biggest concern with dependent suspension systems is that your tires are more prone to lifting off of the road's surface (if one tire dips into a pothole, the other must lift). This puts you at risk of losing traction and other potential hazards.
While not as common as they once were, these systems are still used in modern cars. Dependent suspension systems are most popular in cheaper models and off-road vehicles.
Did you know?
There are more cars than people in Los Angeles.
Today, independent car suspension systems are most popular. In these systems, each tire is independently mounted so that they can each move alone.
If your right tire dips into a pothole, your left tire doesn't need to lift for compensation.
Independent suspension systems offer better traction and a smoother ride, so its no surprise that they've replaced dependent systems as the go-to choice.
How To Keep Your Suspension System In Top Condition
Here's what we found:
Your car's suspension system can certainly take a beating. But that doesn't mean that you can neglect it and hope for the best.
If you want your suspension system to last as long as possible, then proper maintenance is extremely important.
Fortunately, routine suspension system care is surprisingly easy. In fact, you probably already do much of this care in your normal car maintenance!
Either way, let's run through some of the most important (and easiest) ways to ensure your suspension system is in the best condition possible. Your car will thank you.
Check your tires
Your tires form the connection between your vehicle and the road. As a result, proper tire maintenance is one of the best ways to care for your suspension system as a whole.
Caring for your tires can include a variety of things. But when it comes to your suspension system, the most important are:
- Checking your tire pressure
- Checking your tire tread
- Rotating your tires
Your car's tires are responsible for absorbing smaller bumps in the road before they ever reach your upper suspension system. If your tires are worn or underfilled, though, these bumps will have nowhere to go but up into the springs and dampers.
This can result in unnecessary wear-and-tear and shorten the lifespan of your entire suspension system.
Align your wheels
Your vehicle's tires and wheels are two separate things.
Here's the thing:
When we refer to tires, we're talking about the air-filled rubber that offers traction and cushioning against the road. The wheel, though, is the metal piece that actually attaches to the axle.
Properly aligned wheels ensure that your vehicle handles well and prevents uneven wear to springs or dampers in your suspension system.
Most drivers should align their wheels every 30,000 miles or so. This will ensure that your tires and upper suspension system all wear evenly.
Uneven roads can knock your wheels out of alignment surprisingly fast! If you live somewhere famous for its potholes, don't be afraid to perform this maintenance more frequently.
Maintain your power steering
Since your car's steering and tires work hand-in-hand, it makes sense that the suspension system is also affected by your power steering.
When it comes to checking the state of your power steering, you should look at the fluid level and the belt. Too little fluid or a dislodged belt can damage your power steering. Which in turn can damage your suspension system.
If your power steering fails entirely, attempting to drive your vehicle anyway could also cause costly damage to the suspension system.
Vehicle owners should check their power steering fluid and belt every 5,000 miles (that's every oil change). Some vehicles also require a full power steering fluid change every 30,000 miles or so.
If this oil leaks, though, your dampers will stop working. And your suspension system will be much less effective.
Leaks of any kind underneath your car are a bad sign. If you notice any liquid pooling underneath your car, especially near the tires, it's time to get it checked out.
These leaks can occur after damage or just be a sign that your suspension system is aging. Either way, they should be taken care of right away.
That's not all:
Watch for leaks
Seriously, don't forget this:
Remember how we said that your car's dampers are small hydraulic pistons? Each damper uses oil to slow down the decompression of your suspension system's springs.
Always get a post-accident inspection
The time following a car accident can be stressful. Even if you don't think your car was damaged, though, it's essential that you get it checked after a collision.
Damage to your car suspension system can go unnoticed for a long time.
That is until it's too late.
A post-accident inspection will double-check your entire suspension system for damage. Plus, your mechanic will look over the rest of your car just to be safe.
Rather than driving around with a potentially damaged and hazardous vehicle, we always recommend taking your car to a trusted mechanic to be inspected!
Suspension System Troubleshooting And Repair
We've told you how to take care of minor suspension issues before they become major problems. But how do you know when something is seriously wrong with your car's suspension?
Stay with me:
Fortunately, it's pretty easy to pinpoint the suspension system as the cause of the problem. Once you've identified a suspension problem, you can then decide if you can handle fixing it at home or if it's time to visit the mechanic.
Regardless of how you decide to repair your vehicle's suspension system, it won't be cheap. However, the peace-of-mind that comes with having a safe and reliable suspension system is definitely worth the cost!
Common symptoms of suspension problems
As we said above, issues with your suspension system are pretty easy to identify. If something major happens to your suspension, you'll know.
Did you know?
The automobile is the world's most recycled product!
Sometimes symptoms come on slowly, though, and can be harder to identify. If you notice any of the symptoms below, chances are your suspension system needs repair.
This is what you should remember:
The most obvious sign of suspension system trouble is a bumpy ride.
Yeah, you're probably remembering a bumpy car ride right now.
All vehicles have their own base level of smoothness when driving. However, if you notice your commute getting a bit rougher each day, it's time to look at your suspension system.
Here's what you can do:
You can also check your suspension at home. With your car safely parked, push your weight down on the front bumper and release.
Ideally, your car should gently reset back to its original position. If your car bounces up and down, your dampers are likely failing.
While a little bouncing isn't the end of the world, you should still keep an eye on your suspension system going forward.
If your dampers do fail, though, you could be looking at serious damage to your entire car suspension system. As is the case with most car concerns, it's always better to err on the side of caution.
Pulling to one side
Okay, maybe not like that:
Oftentimes, you will find your car pulling to one side if you loosen your grip on the steering wheel. This is especially common after hitting a snowbank, curb, or large pothole.
This could signify a range of issues, only some concerning the suspension. But there are some common concerns you can double-check to help narrow down where this problem is coming from.
Your tires should be the first thing you check. In many cases, pulling to one side is a symptom of an underinflated tire.
If your tires look fine, the next thing to check is your wheel alignment. Unless you're particularly handy in the garage, you'll probably need to visit your local auto shop for this. If aligning your wheels fixes the issue, though, you can rest easy!
Finally, there might be substantial damage in your upper suspension system. Unfortunately, this is typically much more difficult — and more expensive — than repairing the tires or wheels.
While pulling to one side might seem like a minor annoyance when it comes to day-to-day driving, it's a good idea to find the root of the problem.
After all, it could save you the emotional and financial stress of a busted suspension system in the future.
Your car will do that:
Next time you walk past your car in your driveway or a parking lot, give it a quick once over. If you notice that one corner is leaning to one side, or that the vehicle is sitting low all together, you're likely dealing with a damaged spring.
The suspension springs are responsible for holding your car up at all times. So when one becomes damaged, your car slumps down onto its axles.
If one side of your vehicle is leaning when parked, you'll also probably notice a "thud" or "clunk" when you go over speedbumps or potholes. This is because there is no longer an effective spring between the bottom of your car's body and its axles.
A damaged or broken spring might not seem major. But this damage can snowball throughout the rest of your suspension system.
Springs and dampers work together. If one of your car's springs is broken, it will eventually cause the respective damper to break as well.
Tilting or diving
Not that kind of diving, ya dork!
One of your suspension system's primary jobs is to stabilize your vehicle during turns, stops, and starts. So if you notice your car tilting to one side or diving forward when you hit the brakes, something is wrong.
When this happens, your tires are still securely on the ground. Instead, it is the body of your car being flung around.
Either the suspension springs or dampers can be responsible for these symptoms. No matter which one is the culprit, though, you should get your vehicle to a mechanic as soon as possible.
Tilting or diving can cause additional damage or injury in the event of a collision, so don't wait!
Most power steering issues can be traced to low power steering fluid or a worn-out belt. Sometimes, though, your power steering will fail because of damage to your car suspension system.
If it's your suspension causing the problem, your control arms are probably at fault. The control arms are the joint between your wheels, suspension system, and auto body. They also help control the movement of each joint and reduce driving noise.
Since your control arms connect your steering system, suspension system, and tires, failure can cause all types of issues with your power steering.
Inspecting your vehicle's suspension system at home
For many drivers, hands-on car maintenance stops at filling the gas tank or adding more windshield wiper fluid. But if you consider yourself pretty handy around a vehicle, you can perform a basic car suspension inspection at home.
When you perform an at-home inspection, you're checking for a variety of signs that could indicate wear-and-tear or impending failure.
- Check the connection between your steering system and suspension system for a loose fit or play
- Check your wheel bearings for rough or loose movement
- Look for damage on all suspension springs
- Check for leaks from your dampers and joints
- Measure the ground clearance of your vehicle (if the left and right side have different measurements, something is uneven)
When inspecting your suspension system at home, make sure you always follow proper car maintenance safety. If you're not sure how to access or inspect a certain part of your vehicle, it's best to leave it to the professionals.
To see a basic at-home car suspension system inspection in action, check out the short video below:
Visiting your local mechanic
For those of us who don't know a wrench from a screwdriver, visiting the mechanic is the best option.
Your mechanic should perform routine inspections of your suspension system when performing oil changes and other services. However, you might need to request specific information from them regarding these inspections.
"Cars are the sculptures of our everyday lives." - Chris Bangle
When you visit a mechanic with a specific car suspension issue, the first step will be diagnosing the problem. After that, your mechanic can recommend repair, part replacement, or full suspension system replacement.
No car repair is cheap. And, unfortunately, this remains true for suspension repairs.
How much does suspension system repair cost?
One of the most stressful moments for any car owner is realizing your vehicle needs costly repairs. While we can't offer any secret discounts, we can at least give you a general guideline for how much car suspension repairs can cost.
Everything listed below is just an estimate based on self-reported costs from car owners throughout the U.S. Your repairs may cost more or less depending on the type of vehicle, type of damage, and your location. However, we recommend using the chart below for a rough estimate when scheduling repairs.
Full suspension system replacement: $1,000 to over $5,000
Shock absorber replacement (economy vehicle): $200 to $1,500
Shock absorber replacement (luxury vehicle): $2,000 to $5,000
Ball joint replacement: $350 to $2,200
Dealing With Car Suspension Failure
In an ideal world, car suspension failure would be fixed immediately. But in the real world, plenty of people drive around with a failing or already broken suspension system.
So what are the risks of driving with a busted suspension?
The answer depends on what exactly is wrong with your car's suspension system. In most cases, though, you're going to cause substantial damage to your vehicle by continuing to drive.
Here are some of the most common car suspension system failures and their potential consequences:
Your tires are technically a part of your suspension system, and flat tires are pretty common. If you continue to drive with a flat, you risk damaging the wheel or losing control of your vehicle while driving.
If your wheel is cracked, it can break at any time. And if this break happens when you're driving, it can easily lead to a serious collision.
With a broken suspension spring, your car will be difficult to control and can be more easily damaged by potholes and bumps. If your car body drops low enough, a broken spring could also cause your tire to burst.
Broken shock absorber
A broken shock absorber will cause your vehicle's body to tilt, lean, and move around when driving. At fast speeds, like on a highway, you could lose control of your vehicle completely.
Broken steering linkage
If the connection between your steering and suspension systems is broken in any way, you won't have control over when and how your vehicle turns.
Broken anti-sway bar
Anti-sway bars are found in top-heavy vehicles that are more prone to rolling over. With a broken anti-sway bar, you can still drive safely. However, you should take care around sharp turns.
Drive Your Car With Total Confidence
Most of us use cars every day of our lives. Without these vehicles, we wouldn't be able to commute to work, drive to the grocery store, or get away for the weekend.
Yet, many of us don't know anything about what goes on under the hood or beneath our seats. So when it comes time for maintenance and repairs, we're left lost and confused.
Whether you've just received your first car or have driven dozens throughout your lifetime, learning how to properly maintain and care for your vehicle is a valuable skill.
Even if you aren't comfortable performing repairs on your vehicle yourself, understanding the way your car works offers a whole new insight when things do go wrong.
With the knowledge of what your car suspension system is and how it works, you can more readily identify issues as they arise. You won't be left wondering what a certain noise is or why your car is suddenly bouncing more.
Plus, when it comes time to invest in repairs, you'll know what is necessary and what can wait. And you'll know how much you can expect to pay to get those repairs!
And maybe, if you're feeling confident, learning about your car's suspension system will be just the first step in learning to maintain and repair your vehicle all on your own.