Introduction to How Car Suspensions Work

car suspension
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.

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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.

suspension

The study of the forces at work on a moving car is called vehicle dynamics, and you need to understand some of these concepts in order to appreciate why a suspension is necessary in the first place. Most automobile engineers consider the dynamics of a moving car from two perspectives:

  • Ride - a car's ability to smooth out a bumpy road
  • Handling - a car's ability to safely accelerate, brake and corner

These two characteristics can be further described in three important principles - road isolation, road holding and cornering. The table below describes these principles and how engineers attempt to solve the challenges unique to each.

Principle Definition
Goal
Solution
Road Isolation The vehicle's ability to absorb or isolate road shock from the passenger compartment Allow the vehicle body to ride undisturbed while traveling over rough roads. Absorb energy from road bumps and dissipate it without causing undue oscillation in the vehicle.
Road Holding 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. Because the nose of the car dips toward the road, this type of motion is known as "dive." The opposite effect -- "squat" -- occurs during acceleration, which shifts the weight of the car from the front tires to the back.) Keep the tires in contact with the ground, because it is the friction between the tires and the road that affects a vehicle's ability to steer, brake and accelerate. Minimize the transfer of vehicle weight from side to side and front to back, as this transfer of weight reduces the tire's grip on the road.
Cornering The ability of a vehicle to travel a curved path Minimize body roll, which occurs as centrifugal force pushes outward on a car's center of gravity while cornering, raising one side of the vehicle and lowering the opposite side. Transfer the weight of the car during cornering from the high side of the vehicle to the low side.


A car's suspension, with its various components, provides all of the solutions described.

Let's look at the parts of a typical suspension, working from the bigger picture of the chassis down to the individual components that make up the suspension proper.

Car Suspension Parts

Chassis
Chassis

­The suspension of a car is actually part of the chassis, which comprises all of the imp­ortant systems located beneath the car's body.

These systems include:

  • The frame - structural, load-carrying component that supports the car's engine and body, which are in turn supported by the suspension
  • The suspension system - setup that supports weight, absorbs and dampens shock and helps maintain tire contact
  • The steering system - mechanism that enables the driver to guide and direct the vehicle
  • The tires and wheels - 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.

With this big-picture overview in mind, it's time to look at the three fundamental components of any suspension: springs, dampers and anti-sway bars.

Springs
Today's springing systems are based on one of four basic designs:

  • Coil springs - This is the most common type of spring and is, in essence, a heavy-duty torsion bar coiled around an axis. Coil springs compress and expand to absorb the motion of the wheels.

coil springs
Photo courtesy Car Domain
Coil springs

    leaf spring
    Photo courtesy HowStuffWorks Shopper
    Leaf spring
  • Leaf springs - This type of spring consists of several layers of metal (called "leaves") bound together to act as a single unit. Leaf springs were first used on horse-drawn carriages and were found on most American automobiles until 1985. They are still used today on most trucks and heavy-duty vehicles.

  • Torsion bars - Torsion bars use the twisting properties of a steel bar to provide coil-spring-like performance. This is how they work: One end of a bar is anchored to the vehicle frame. The other end is attached to a wishbone, which acts like a lever that moves perpendicular to the torsion bar. When the wheel hits a bump, vertical motion is transferred to the wishbone and then, through the levering action, to the torsion bar. The torsion bar then twists along its axis to provide the spring force. European carmakers used this system extensively, as did Packard and Chrysler in the United States, through the 1950s and 1960s.

torsion bar
Photo courtesy HowStuffWorks Shopper
Torsion bar

  • Air springs - Air springs, which consist of a cylindrical chamber of air positioned between the wheel and the car's body, use the compressive qualities of air to absorb wheel vibrations. The concept is actually more than a century old and could be found on horse-drawn buggies. Air springs from this era were made from air-filled, leather diaphragms, much like a bellows; they were replaced with molded-rubber air springs in the 1930s.

air springs
Photo courtesy HSW Shopper
Air springs

Based on where springs are located on a car -- i.e., between the wheels and the frame -- engineers often find it convenient to talk about the sprung mass and the unsprung mass.

Springs: Sprung and Unsprung Mass
The sprung mass is the mass of the vehicle supported on the springs, while the unsprung mass is loosely defined as the mass between the road and the suspension springs. The stiffness of the springs affects how the sprung mass responds while the car is being driven. Loosely sprung cars, such as luxury cars (think Lincoln Town Car), can swallow bumps and provide a super-smooth ride; however, such a car is prone to dive and squat during braking and acceleration and tends to experience body sway or roll during cornering. Tightly sprung cars, such as sports cars (think Mazda Miata), are less forgiving on bumpy roads, but they minimize body motion well, which means they can be driven aggressively, even around corners.

So, while springs by themselves seem like simple devices, designing and implementing them on a car to balance passenger comfort with handling is a complex task. And to make matters more complex, springs alone can't provide a perfectly smooth ride. Why? Because springs are great at absorbing energy, but not so good at dissipating it. Other structures, known as dampers, are required to do this.

Dampers: Shock Absorbers

shock absorbers

Unless a dampening structure is present, a car spring will extend and release the energy it absorbs from a bump at an uncontrolled rate. The spring­ will continue to bounce at its natural frequency until all of the energy originally put into it is used up. A suspension built on springs alone would make for an extremely bouncy ride and, depending on the terrain, an uncontrollable car.

Enter the shock absorber, or snubber, a device that controls unwanted spring motion through a process known as dampening. 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. To understand how this works, it's best to look inside a shock absorber to see its structure and function.

A shock absorber is basically an oil pump placed between the frame of the car and the wheels. The upper mount of the shock connects to the frame (i.e., the sprung weight), while the lower mount connects to the axle, near the wheel (i.e., the unsprung weight). In a twin-tube design, one of the most common types of shock absorbers, the upper mount is connected to a piston rod, which in turn is connected to a piston, which in turn sits in a tube filled with hydraulic fluid. The inner tube is known as the pressure tube, and the outer tube is known as the reserve tube. The reserve tube stores excess hydraulic fluid.

When the car wheel encounters a bump in the road and causes the spring to coil and uncoil, the energy of the spring is transferred to the shock absorber through the upper mount, down through the piston rod and into the piston. Orifices perforate the piston and allow fluid to leak through as the piston moves up and down in the pressure tube. Because the orifices are relatively tiny, only a small amount of fluid, under great pressure, passes through. This slows down the piston, which in turn slows down the spring.

Shock absorbers work in two cycles -- the compression cycle and the extension cycle. The compression cycle occurs as the piston moves downward, compressing the hydraulic fluid in the chamber below the piston. The extension cycle occurs as the piston moves toward the top of the pressure tube, compressing the fluid in the chamber above the piston. A typical car or light truck will have more resistance during its extension cycle than its compression cycle. With that in mind, the compression cycle controls the motion of the vehicle's unsprung weight, while extension controls the heavier, sprung weight.

All modern shock absorbers are velocity-sensitive -- the faster the suspension moves, the more resistance the shock absorber provides. This enables shocks to adjust to road conditions and to control all of the unwanted motions that can occur in a moving vehicle, including bounce, sway, brake dive and acceleration squat.

Dampers: Struts and Anti-sway Bars

suspension
Common strut design

­A­nother common dampening structure is the strut -- basically a shock absorber mounted inside a coil spring. Struts perform two jobs: They provide a dampening function like shock absorbers, and they provide structural support for the vehicle suspension. That means struts deliver a bit more than shock absorbers, which don't support vehicle weight -- they only control the speed at which weight is transferred in a car, not the weight itself.

Because shocks and struts have so much to do with the handling of a car, 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. This reduces the tire's ability to grip the road, as well as handling and braking performance.

car suspension
Photo courtesy HSW Shopper
Anti-sway bars

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. An anti-sway bar is a metal rod that spans the entire axle and effectively joins each side of the suspension together.

When the suspension at one wheel moves up and down, the anti-sway bar transfers movement to the other wheel. This creates a more level ride and reduces vehicle sway. In particular, it combats the roll of a car on its suspension as it corners. For this reason, almost all cars today are fitted with anti-sway bars as standard equipment, although if they're not, kits make it easy to install the bars at any time.

Suspension Types: Front

­So far, ou­r discussions have focused on how springs and dampers function on any given wheel. But the four wheels of a car work together in two independent systems -- 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. Much is determined by whether a rigid axle binds the wheels or if the wheels are permitted to move independently. The former arrangement is known as a dependent system, while the latter arrangement is known as an independent system. In the following sections, we'll look at some of the common types of front and back suspensions typically used on mainstream cars.

McPherson suspension

Dependent Front Suspensions
Dependent front suspensions have a rigid front axle that connects the front wheels. Basically, this looks like a solid bar under the front of the car, kept in place by leaf springs and shock absorbers. Common on trucks, dependent front suspensions haven't been used in mainstream cars for years.

Independent Front Suspensions
In this setup, the front wheels are allowed to move independently. The MacPherson strut, developed by Earle S. MacPherson of General Motors in 1947, is the most widely used front suspension system, especially in cars of European origin.

The MacPherson strut combines a shock absorber and a coil spring into a single unit. This provides a more compact and lighter suspension system that can be used for front-wheel drive vehicles.

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

The double-wishbone suspension, also known as an A-arm suspension, is another common type of front independent suspension.

While there are several different possible configurations, this design typically uses two wishbone-shaped arms to locate the wheel. Each wishbone, which has two mounting positions to the frame and one at the wheel, 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, which describes the degree to which the wheels tilt in and out. They also help minimize roll or sway and provide for a more consistent steering feel. Because of these characteristics, the double-wishbone suspension is common on the front wheels of larger cars.

Now let's look at some common rear suspensions.

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. Because the carriage body was suspended from the chassis, the system came to be known as a "suspension" -- a term still used today to describe the entire class of solutions. The slung-body suspension was not a true springing system, but it did enable the body and the wheels of the carriage to move independently.

Semi-elliptical spring designs, also known as cart springs, quickly replaced the leather-strap suspension. Popular on wagons, buggies and carriages, the semi-elliptical springs were often used on both the front and rear axles. They did, however, tend to allow forward and backward sway and had a high center of gravity.

By the time powered vehicles hit the road, other, more efficient springing systems were being developed to smooth out rides for passengers.

­Dependent Rear Suspensions
­ If a solid­ axle connects the rear wheels of a car, then the suspension is usually quite simple -- based either on a leaf spring or a coil spring. In the former design, the leaf springs clamp d­irectly to the drive axle. The ends of the leaf springs attach directly to the frame, and the shock absorber is attached at the clamp that holds the spring to the axle. For many years, American car manufacturers preferred this design because of its simplicity.

The same basic design can be achieved with coil springs replacing the leaves. In this case, the spring and shock absorber can be mounted as a single unit or as separate components. When they're separate, the springs can be much smaller, which reduces the amount of space the suspension takes up.

Independent Rear Suspensions
If both the front and back suspensions are independent, then all of the wheels are mounted and sprung individually, resulting in what car advertisements tout as "four-wheel independent suspension." Any suspension that can be used on the front of the car can be used on the rear, and versions of the front independent systems described in the previous section can be found on the rear axles. Of course, in the rear of the car, the steering rack -- the assembly that includes the pinion gear wheel and enables the wheels to turn from side to side -- is absent. This means that rear independent suspensions can be simplified versions of front ones, although the basic principles remain the same.

Next, we'll look at the suspensions of specialty cars.

Specialized Suspensions: The Baja Bug

­For the most part, this article has focused on the suspensions of mainstream fron­t- and rear-wheel-drive cars -- cars that drive on normal roads in normal driving conditions. But what about the suspensions of specialty cars, such as hot rods, racers or extreme off-road vehicles? Although the suspensions of specialty autos obey the same basic principles, they do provide additional benefits unique to the driving conditions they must navigate. What follows is a brief overview of how suspensions are designed for three types of specialty cars -- Baja Bugs, Formula One racers and American-style hot rods.

baja bug
Photo courtesy Car Domain
Baja Bug

Baja Bugs
The Volkswagen Beetle, or Bug, was destined to become a favorite among off-road enthusiasts. With a low center of gravity and engine placement over the rear axle, the two-wheel-drive Bug handles off-road conditions as well as some four-wheel-drive vehicles. Of course, the VW Bug isn't ready for off-road conditions with its factory equipment. Most Bugs require some modifications, or conversions, to get them ready for racing in harsh conditions like the deserts of Baja California.

One of the most important modifications takes place in the suspension. The torsion-bar suspension, standard equipment on the front and back of most Bugs between 1936 and 1977, can be raised to make room for heavy-duty, off-road wheels and tires. Longer shock absorbers replace the standard shocks to lift the body higher and to provide for maximum wheel travel. In some cases, Baja Bug converters remove the torsion bars entirely and replace them with multiple coil-over systems, an aftermarket item that combines both the spring and shock absorber in one adjustable unit. The result of these modifications is a vehicle that allows the wheels to travel vertically 20 inches (50 cm) or more at each end. Such a car can easily navigate rough terrain and often appears to "skip" over desert washboard like a stone over water.

Specialized Suspensions: Formula One Racers

formula one
Formula One racecar

­The Formula One racing car represents the pinnacle of automobile innovation and e­volution. Lightweight, composite bodies, powerful V10 engines and advanced aerodynamics have led to faster, safer and more reliable cars.

To elevate driver skill as the key differentiating factor in a race, stringent rules and requirements govern Formula One racecar design. For example, the rules regulating suspension design say that all Formula One racers must be conventionally sprung, but they don't allow computer-controlled, active suspensions. To accommodate this, the cars feature multi-link suspensions, which use a multi-rod mechanism equivalent to a double-wishbone system.

Recall that a double-wishbone design uses two wishbone-shaped control arms to guide each wheel's up-and-down motion. Each arm has three mounting positions -- two at the frame and one at the wheel hub -- and each joint is hinged to guide the wheel's motion. In all cars, the primary benefit of a double-wishbone suspension is control. 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, such as lift, squat and dive. Unlike road cars, however, the shock absorbers and coil springs of a Formula One racecar don't mount directly to the control arms. Instead, they are oriented along the length of the car and are controlled remotely through a series of pushrods and bell cranks. In such an arrangement, 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.

Specialized Suspensions: Hot Rods

hot rod
Photo courtesy Street Rod Central
1923 T-bucket

­The classic American hot rod era lasted from 1945 to about 1965. Like Baja Bugs, classic hot rods required significant modification by their owners. Unlike Bu­gs, however, which are built on Volkswagen chassis, hot rods were built on a variety of old, often historical, car models: Cars manufactured before 1945 were considered ideal fodder for hot rod transformations because their bodies and frames were often in good shape, while their engines and transmissions needed to be replaced completely. For hot rod enthusiasts, this was exactly what they wanted, for it allowed them to install more reliable and powerful engines, such as the flathead Ford V8 or the Chevrolet V8.

One popular hot rod was known as the T-bucket because it was based on the Ford Model T. The stock Ford suspension on the front of the Model T consisted of a solid I-beam front axle (a dependent suspension), a U-shaped buggy spring (leaf spring) and a wishbone-shaped radius rod with a ball at the rear end that pivoted in a cup attached to the transmission. Ford's engineers built the Model T to ride high with a large amount of suspension movement, an ideal design for the rough, primitive roads of the 1930s. But after World War II, hot rodders began experimenting with larger Cadillac or Lincoln engines, which meant that the wishbone-shaped radius rod was no longer applicable. Instead, they removed the center ball and bolted the ends of the wishbone to the framerails. This "split wishbone" design lowered the front axle about 1 inch (2.5 cm) and improved vehicle handling.

Lowering the axle more than an inch required a brand-new design, which was supplied by a company known as Bell Auto. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Bell Auto offered dropped tube axles that lowered the car a full 5 inches (13 cm). Tube axles were built from smooth, steel tubing and balanced strength with superb aerodynamics. The steel surface also accepted chrome plating better than the forged I-beam axles, so hot rodders often preferred them for their aesthetic qualities, as well.

Some hot rod enthusiasts, however, argued that the tube axle's rigidity and inability to flex compromised how it handled the stresses of driving. To accommodate this, hot rodders introduced the four-bar suspension, using two mounting points on the axle and two on the frame. At each mounting point, aircraft-style rod ends provided plenty of movement at all angles. The result? The four-bar system improved how the suspension worked in all sorts of driving conditions.

The Bose Suspension System

suspension
Photo courtesy BOSE
Bose® Suspension Front Module

­While there have been enhancements and improvements to both springs and shock absorbers, the basic design of car suspensions has not undergone a sign­ificant evolution over the years. But all of that's about to change with the introduction of a brand-new suspension design conceived by Bose -- the same Bose known for its innovations in acoustic technologies. 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.

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. Amplifiers provide electricity to the motors in such a way that their power is regenerated with each compression of the system. The main benefit of the motors is that they are not limited by the inertia inherent in conventional fluid-based dampers. As a result, an LEM can extend and compress at a much greater speed, virtually eliminating all vibrations in the passenger cabin. 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. The LEM can also counteract the body motion of the car while accelerating, braking and cornering, giving the driver a greater sense of control.

Unfortunately, this paradigm-shifting suspension won't be available until 2009, when it will be offered on one or more high-end luxury cars. Until then, drivers will have to rely on the tried-and-true suspension methods that have smoothed out bumpy rides for centuries.

For more information on car suspensions and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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Related HowStuffWorks articles

More Great Links

Sources

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