Introduction to How Car Suspensions Work

Photo courtesy Honda Motor Co., Ltd. Double-wishbone suspension on Honda Accord 2005 Coupe.

When people think of automobile performance, they normally think of horsepower, torque and zero-to-60 acceleration. But all of the power generated by a piston engine is useless if the driver can't control the car. That's why automobile engineers turned their attention to the suspension system almost as soon as they had mastered the four-stroke internal combustion engine. The job of a car suspension is to maximize the friction between the tires and the road surface, to provide steering stability with good handling and to ensure the comfort of the passengers. In this article, we'll explore how car suspensions work, how they've evolved over the years and where the design of suspensions is headed in the future. If a road were perfectly flat, with no irregularities, suspensions wouldn't be necessary. But roads are far from flat. Even freshly paved highways have subtle imperfections that can interact with the wheels of a car. It's these imperfections that apply forces to the wheels. According to Newton's laws of motion, all forces have both magnitude and direction. A bump in the road causes the wheel to move up and down perpendicular to the road surface. The magnitude, of course, depends on whether the wheel is striking a giant bump or a tiny speck. Either way, the car wheel experiences a vertical acceleration as it passes over an imperfection. Without an intervening structure, all of wheel's vertical energy is transferred to the frame, which moves in the same direction. In such a situation, the wheels can lose contact with the road completely. Then, under the downward force of gravity, the wheels can slam back into the road surface. What you need is a system that will absorb the energy of the vertically accelerated wheel, allowing the frame and body to ride undisturbed while the wheels follow bumps in the road.

which occurs as centrifugal force pushes outward on a car's The ability of a vehicle to center of gravity Cornering travel a curved path while cornering.a car's ability to safely accelerate. Most automobile engineers consider the dynamics of a moving car from two perspectives: y y y Ride .occurs during acceleration. Because the nose of the car dips toward the road.) Road Holding Keep the tires in contact with the ground." The opposite effect -. Minimize the transfer of vehicle weight from side to side and front to back. raising one side of the vehicle and lowering the opposite side. . which shifts the weight of the car from the front tires to the back. Transfer the weight of the car during cornering from the high side of the vehicle to the low side."squat" . brake and accelerate. because it is the friction between the tires and the road that affects a vehicle's ability to steer. oscillation in the vehicle. The table below describes these principles and how engineers attempt to solve the challenges unique to each. this type of motion is known as "dive. Minimize body roll. brake and corner These two characteristics can be further described in three important principles . Principle Definition Goal Solution Road Isolation Absorb energy from road Allow the vehicle bumps and The vehicle's ability to body to ride dissipate it absorb or isolate road undisturbed while without shock from the passenger traveling over causing undue compartment rough roads. and you need to understand some of these concepts in order to appreciate why a suspension is necessary in the first place.road isolation.a car's ability to smooth out a bumpy road Handling . road holding and cornering.The study of the forces at work on a moving car is called vehicle dynamics. as this transfer of weight reduces the tire's grip on the road. The degree to which a car maintains contact with the road surface in various types of directional changes and in a straight line (Example: The weight of a car will shift from the rear tires to the front tires during braking.

y Prevent excessive body dive (body tilts down in the front) when braking. y Work with the steering system to help keep the wheels in correct alignment. and cargo. Chassis . working from the bigger picture of the chassis down to the individual components that make up the suspension proper. y Provide a smooth. Let's look at the parts of a typical suspension. y Allow rapid cornering without extreme body roll (vehicle leans to one side). even after striking bumps or holes in the road. y Prevent excessive body squat (body tilts down in rear) when accelerating or with heavy loads.A car's suspension. y Keep the tires in firm contact with the road. The suspension system functions are as follows: y Support the weight of the frame. comfortable ride by allowing the wheels and tires to move up and down with minimum movement of the vehicle. engine. body. provides all of the solutions described. passengers. transmission. with its various components. drive train.

This is the most common type of spring and is.mechanism that enables the driver to guide and direct the vehicle. With this big-picture overview in mind.components that make vehicle motion possible by way of grip and/or friction with the road So the suspension is just one of the major systems in any vehicle. absorbs and dampens shock and helps maintain tire contact The steering system . which are in turn supported by the suspension The suspension system . Coil springs compress and expand to absorb the motion of the wheels. These systems include: y y y y The frame . Springs Today's springing systems are based on one of four basic designs: y Coil springs . .setup that supports weight.structural.Car Suspension Parts The suspension of a car is actually part of the chassis. The tires and wheels . dampers and anti-sway bars. it's time to look at the three fundamental components of any suspension: springs. load-carrying component that supports the car's engine and body. which comprises all of the important systems located beneath the car's body. a heavy-duty torsion bar coiled around an axis. in essence.

to the torsion bar.This type of spring consists of several layers of metal (called "leaves") bound together to act as a single unit. front of car to back of car) or transversely (i.e. as did Packard and Chrysler in the United States. through the 1950s and 1960s. When the wheel hits a bump. The other end is attached to a wishbone. vertical motion is transferred to the wishbone and then.y Leaf springs . The main advantage of the torsion bar over the Coil spring in the Front suspension is the ease of adjusting front suspension height. This is how they work: One end of a bar is anchored to the vehicle frame. y Torsion bars . The torsion bar then twists along its axis to provide the spring force. through the levering action. The torsion bar replaces both Coil spring and Leaf springs in some suspension systems. which acts like a lever that moves perpendicular to the torsion bar..Torsion bars use the twisting properties of a steel bar to provide coil-spring-like performance. Some are mounted longitudinally (i. Torsion bar . They are still used today on most trucks and heavy-duty vehicles. European carmakers used this system extensively.e. Leaf springs were first used on horse-drawn carriages and were found on most American automobiles until 1985. from the left side to right side of the car)..

Loosely sprung cars. such a car is prone to dive and squat during braking and acceleration and tends to experience body sway or roll during cornering.i. but they minimize body motion well. And to make matters more complex.engineers often find it convenient to talk about the sprung mass and the unsprung mass.e. So. but not so good at dissipating it. The stiffness of the springs affects how the sprung mass responds while the car is being driven. leather diaphragms. however. are required to do this.y Air springs . much like a bellows. Tightly sprung cars. such as luxury cars (think Lincoln Town Car). use the compressive qualities of air to absorb wheel vibrations. while the unsprung mass is loosely defined as the mass between the road and the suspension springs. Air springs from this era were made from air-filled. designing and implementing them on a car to balance passenger comfort with handling is a complex task.Air springs. Why? Because springs are great at absorbing energy. even around corners. Based on where springs are located on a car -. known as dampers. which means they can be driven aggressively. .. The concept is actually more than a century old and could be found on horse-drawn buggies. Springs: Sprung and Unsprung Mass The sprung mass is the mass of the vehicle supported on the springs. are less forgiving on bumpy roads. between the wheels and the frame -. can swallow bumps and provide a super-smooth ride. such as sports cars (think Mazda Miata). while springs by themselves seem like simple devices. springs alone can't provide a perfectly smooth ride. Other structures. they were replaced with molded-rubber air springs in the 1930s. which consist of a cylindrical chamber of air positioned between the wheel and the car's body.

In a twin-tube design. and the outer tube is known as the reserve tube.Dampers: Shock Absorbers Unless a dampening structure is present. while the lower mount connects to the axle. which in turn sits in a tube filled with hydraulic fluid. or snubber. which in turn is connected to a piston. a car spring will extend and release the energy it absorbs from a bump at an uncontrolled rate. depending on the terrain.. A shock absorber is basically an oil pump placed between the frame of the car and the wheels. one of the most common types of shock absorbers. the unsprung weight). .. The spring will continue to bounce at its natural frequency until all of the energy originally put into it is used up. The reserve tube stores excess hydraulic fluid. The inner tube is known as the pressure tube. Shock absorbers slow down and reduce the magnitude of vibratory motions by turning the kinetic energy of suspension movement into heat energy that can be dissipated through hydraulic fluid. A suspension built on springs alone would make for an extremely bouncy ride and. Enter the shock absorber. To understand how this works. the upper mount is connected to a piston rod. The upper mount of the shock connects to the frame (i.e. a device that controls unwanted spring motion through a process known as dampening. an uncontrollable car. it's best to look inside a shock absorber to see its structure and function. near the wheel (i. the sprung weight).e.

and they provide structural support for the vehicle suspension. A typical car or light truck will have more resistance during its extension cycle than its compression cycle. under great pressure. This slows down the piston. The compression cycle occurs as the piston moves downward. passes through. Struts perform two jobs: They provide a dampening function like shock absorbers. Because the orifices are relatively tiny. The extension cycle occurs as the piston moves toward the top of the pressure tube. while extension controls the heavier. With that in mind. which in turn slows down the spring.the compression cycle and the extension cycle. This enables shocks to adjust to road conditions and to control all of the unwanted motions that can occur in a moving vehicle. the energy of the spring is transferred to the shock absorber through the upper mount. Dampers: Struts and Anti-sway Bars Common strut design Another common dampening structure is the strut -.basically a shock absorber mounted inside a coil spring. only a small amount of fluid. Orifices perforate the piston and allow fluid to leak through as the piston moves up and down in the pressure tube. brake dive and acceleration squat. including bounce. sprung weight. All modern shock absorbers are velocity-sensitive -. the more resistance the shock absorber provides. compressing the hydraulic fluid in the chamber below the piston.the faster the suspension moves.When the car wheel encounters a bump in the road and causes the spring to coil and uncoil. That means struts deliver a bit more than shock . down through the piston rod and into the piston. Shock absorbers work in two cycles -. the compression cycle controls the motion of the vehicle's unsprung weight. sway. compressing the fluid in the chamber above the piston.

kits make it easy to install the bars at any time.they only control the speed at which weight is transferred in a car. not the weight itself. they can be considered critical safety features. Worn shocks and struts can allow excessive vehicle-weight transfer from side to side and front to back. An anti-sway bar is a metal rod that spans the entire axle and effectively joins each side of the suspension together.absorbers. which don't support vehicle weight -. When the suspension at one wheel moves up and down. Anti-sway Bars Anti-sway bars (also known as anti-roll bars) are used along with shock absorbers or struts to give a moving automobile additional stability. although if they're not. it combats the roll of a car on its suspension as it corners. For this reason. This creates a more level ride and reduces vehicle sway. the anti-sway bar transfers movement to the other wheel. Because shocks and struts have so much to do with the handling of a car. In particular. almost all cars today are fitted with anti-sway bars as standard equipment. This reduces the tire's ability to grip the road. as well as handling and braking performance. .

the two wheels connected by the front axle and the two wheels connected by the rear axle. That means that a car can and usually does have a different type of suspension on the front and back. our discussions have focused on how springs and dampers function on any given wheel. When one tire hits a bump in the road. The dependent suspension has both left and right wheels attached to the same solid axle. Basically. we'll look at some of the common types of front and back suspensions typically used on mainstream cars. which provide pivot points for each wheel. The former arrangement is known as a dependent system. kept in place by leaf springs and shock absorbers. this looks like a solid bar under the front of the car. the steering knuckle and wheel spindle assemblies are connected to the axle beam by bronze-bushed kingpins. dependent front suspensions haven't been used in mainstream cars for years. Much is determined by whether a rigid axle binds the wheels or if the wheels are permitted to move independently. or spindle bolts. But the four wheels of a car work together in two independent systems -. Common on trucks.Suspension Types: Front So far. while the latter arrangement is known as an independent system. its upward movement causes a slight tilt in the other wheel. With a solid axle setup. In the following sections. Dependent Front Suspensions Dependent front suspensions have a rigid front axle that connects the front wheels. .

With the independent front suspension the use of ball joints provides pivot points for each wheel. developed by Earle S. Since each wheel is attached to its own suspension unit. In operation. the front wheels are allowed to move independently.Independent Front Suspensions The independent suspension allows one wheel to move up and down with a minimum effect on the other wheels. In this setup. MacPherson of General Motors in 1947. The MacPherson strut combines a shock absorber and a coil spring into a single unit. The MacPherson strut. . especially in cars of European origin. the swiveling action of the ball joints allows the wheel and spindle assemblies to be turned left and right and to move up and down with changes in road surfaces. This provides a more compact and lighter suspension system that can be used for front-wheel drive vehicles. is the most widely used front suspension system. movement of one wheel does NOT cause direct movement of the wheel on the opposite side of the vehicle. This type of suspension is most widely used on modern vehicles.

may have bushings on both ends. as the wheel moves up and down. They are used at the outer ends of the control arms where the arms attach to the steering knuckle. The front of the strut rod has rubber bushings that soften the action of the strut rod. as shown in figure 8-6. The end of the stud on the ball joint is threaded for a large nut. permits the control arm and wheel to move up and down) Control Arms and Bushings The control arm.SUSPENSION SYSTEM COMPONENTS The basic components of a suspension system are as follows: y CONTROL ARM (a movable lever that fastens the steering knuckle to the vehicle frame or body) y CONTROL ARM BUSHING (a sleeve. as well as side to side) y SHOCK ABSORBER or STRUT (keeps the suspension from continuing to bounce after spring compression and extension) y STABILIZER BAR (limits body roll of the vehicle during cornering) y SPRING (supports the weight of the vehicle. holds the steering knuckle. . The outer end of the control arm has a ball joint and the inner end has bushings. fastens to the outer end of the lower control arm and to the frame. These bushings allow a controlled amount of lower control arm movement while allowing full suspension travel. The control arm bushings act as bearings. it force fits the tapered stud in the steering knuckle or bearing support. a grease fitting and grease seal are normally placed on the joint. When the nut is tightened. Since the ball joint must be filled with grease. the swiveling action of the ball joints allows the wheel and steering knuckle to be turned left or right and to move up and down with changes in road surface. These bushings may be either pressed or screwed into the openings of the control arm. bearing support. Strut Rods The strut rod. having control arms on the rear suspension. as shown in figure 8-6. which allow the control arm to move up and down on a shaft bolted to the frame or suspension unit. or axle housing in position. This prevents the control arm from swinging toward the rear or front of the vehicle. In operation. Ball Joints The ball joints are connections that allow limited rotation in every direction and support the weight of the vehicle. Vehicles. which allows the control arm to move up and down on the frame) y STRUT ROD (prevents the control arm from swinging to the front or rear of the vehicle) y BALL JOINTS (a swivel joint that allows the control arm and steering knuckle to move up and down.

The ball joint holds the control arm to the steering knuckle or bearing support. therefore. The top of the steering knuckle or bearing support is bolted to the strut. direct-action type. is similar to a conventional shock absorber. The top of the strut is bolted to the frame or reinforced body structure. The strut assembly replaces the upper control arm. In a MacPherson strut type suspension. and an upper damper unit. only one control arm and a strut is used to support each wheel assembly. lower unsprung weight.Shock Absorbers and Struts Shock absorbers are necessary because springs do not "settle down" fast enough. a dampening device is needed to control the spring oscillations. However. It would also be dangerous because a bouncing wheel makes the vehicle difficult to control. Such spring action on a vehicle would produce a very bumpy and uncomfortable ride. the shock absorber piston rod is pulled in and out and resists these movements. usually a control arm. Only the lower control arm and strut are required to support the front-wheel assembly. The advantages are a reduced number of parts in the suspension system. One end of the shock absorber connects to a suspension component. 8-8) used on modern vehicles is the double-acting. The strut assembly consists of a shock absorber. This device is the shock absorber. On some vehicles you may find a MODIFIED STRUT SUSPENSION that has the coil springs mounted on the top of the control arm. it is longer and has provisions (brackets and connections) for mounting and holding the steering knuckle (front of vehicle) or bearing support (rear of vehicle) and spring. A conventional lower control arm attaches to the frame and to the lower ball joint. coil spring (in most cases). The other end fastens to the frame. This type of suspension is the most common type used on late model passenger vehicles. The most common type of shock absorber (fig. because it allows the use of more flexible springs. In this way. MacPherson strut. it continues to shorten and lengthen for a time. After a spring has been compressed and released. and a smoother ride. not around the strut. .

Semi-elliptical spring designs. but it did enable the body and the wheels of the carriage to move independently. Ltd. While there are several different possible configurations. Photo courtesy Honda Motor Co. Double-wishbone suspension on Honda Accord 2005 Coupe Now let's look at some common rear suspensions.a term still used today to describe the entire class of solutions. Suspension Types: Rear Historical Suspensions Sixteenth-century wagons and carriages tried to solve the problem of "feeling every bump in the road" by slinging the carriage body from leather straps attached to four posts of a chassis that looked like an upturned table. the system came to be known as a "suspension" -. By the time powered vehicles hit the road. this design typically uses two wishbone-shaped arms to locate the wheel. . The slung-body suspension was not a true springing system. which describes the degree to which the wheels tilt in and out. Because of these characteristics. quickly replaced the leather-strap suspension. buggies and carriages. Each wishbone. They also help minimize roll or sway and provide for a more consistent steering feel.. also known as cart springs.The double-wishbone suspension (British name). the double-wishbone suspension is common on the front wheels of larger cars. however. is another common type of front independent suspension. the semi-elliptical springs were often used on both the front and rear axles. also known as an A-arm (shape of an A or V) suspension. other. Because the carriage body was suspended from the chassis. bears a shock absorber and a coil spring to absorb vibrations. Double-wishbone suspensions allow for more control over the camber angle of the wheel. tend to allow forward and backward sway and had a high center of gravity. more efficient springing systems were being developed to smooth out rides for passengers. Popular on wagons. They did. which has two mounting positions to the frame and one at the wheel.

In the former design. then all of the wheels are mounted and sprung individually. which reduces the amount of space the suspension takes up. the leaf springs clamp directly to the drive axle. American car manufacturers preferred this design because of its simplicity. The same basic design can be achieved with coil springs replacing the leaves. Independent Rear Suspensions If both the front and back suspensions are independent. For many years. This means that rear independent suspensions can be simplified versions of front ones. the steering rack -. then the suspension is usually quite simple -based either on a leaf spring or a coil spring. the spring and shock absorber can be mounted as a single unit or as separate components. in the rear of the car.the assembly that includes the pinion gear wheel and enables the wheels to turn from side to side -." Any suspension that can be used on the front of the car can be used on the rear. The ends of the leaf springs attach directly to the frame. the springs can be much smaller. In this case. although the basic principles remain the same. . Of course. When they're separate. and versions of the front independent systems described in the previous section can be found on the rear axles. resulting in what car advertisements tout as "four-wheel independent suspension. and the shock absorber is attached at the clamp that holds the spring to the axle.Dependent Rear Suspensions If a solid axle connects the rear wheels of a car.is absent.

the primary benefit of a double-wishbone suspension is control. But what about the suspensions of specialty cars. but they don't allow computer-controlled. To accommodate this. For example. the rules regulating suspension design say that all Formula One racers must be conventionally sprung. however. . Specialized Suspensions: Formula One Racer Formula One racecar The Formula One racing car represents the pinnacle of automobile innovation and evolution. Instead. they do provide additional benefits unique to the driving conditions they must navigate.and each joint is hinged to guide the wheel's motion. In such an arrangement. Lightweight. safer and more reliable cars. For the most part. The geometry of the arms and the elasticity of the joints give engineers ultimate control over the angle of the wheel and other vehicle dynamics.two at the frame and one at the wheel hub -. Unlike road cars. To elevate driver skill as the key differentiating factor in a race. Recall that a double-wishbone design uses two wishbone-shaped control arms to guide each wheel's up-and-down motion.and rearwheel-drive cars -. powerful V10 engines and advanced aerodynamics have led to faster. the pushrods and bell cranks translate the up-and-down motions of the wheel to the back-and-forth movement of the spring-and-damper apparatus. such as hot rods. What follows is a brief overview of how suspensions are designed for three types of specialty cars -. composite bodies.Formula One races. which use a multi-rod mechanism equivalent to a double-wishbone system. In all cars. the shock absorbers and coil springs of a Formula One racecar don't mount directly to the control arms. active suspensions. they are oriented along the length of the car and are controlled remotely through a series of pushrods and bell cranks. squat and dive. racers or extreme off-road vehicles? Although the suspensions of specialty autos obey the same basic principles.cars that drive on normal roads in normal driving conditions. such as lift. we'll look at the suspensions of specialty cars.Next. Each arm has three mounting positions -. the cars feature multi-link suspensions. this article has focused on the suspensions of mainstream front. stringent rules and requirements govern Formula One racecar design.

Amplifiers provide electricity to the motors in such a way that their power is regenerated with each compression of the system. this paradigm-shifting suspension won't be available until 2009. The LEM can also counteract the body motion of the car while accelerating. virtually eliminating all vibrations in the passenger cabin. the basic design of car suspensions has not undergone a significant evolution over the years. Until then. Unfortunately. The wheel's motion can be so finely controlled that the body of the car remains level regardless of what's happening at the wheel. How does it work? The Bose system uses a linear electromagnetic motor (LEM) at each wheel in lieu of a conventional shock-and-spring setup. . The main benefit of the motors is that they are not limited by the inertia inherent in conventional fluidbased dampers. an LEM can extend and compress at a much greater speed.the same Bose known for its innovations in acoustic technologies. when it will be offered on one or more high-end luxury cars. Some experts are going so far as to say that the Bose suspension is the biggest advance in automobile suspensions since the introduction of an all-independent design. braking and cornering.The Bose Suspension System Photo courtesy BOSE Bose® Suspension Front Module While there have been enhancements and improvements to both springs and shock absorbers. giving the driver a greater sense of control. As a result. drivers will have to rely on the triedand-true suspension methods that have smoothed out bumpy rides for centuries. But all of that's about to change with the introduction of a brand-new suspension design conceived by Bose -.