A feature developed initially for bicycles and later applied to heavy aircraft and trucks, air suspension has since been a popular upgrade option on a wide range of vehicles, from motorcycles to racing cars. They are most commonly seen today on luxury cars and heavy towing vehicles. Potential buyers should understand how air suspension works and the benefits and drawbacks of this feature.
What does air suspension do?
Air suspension systems function through the use of an electric compressor that pumps air into textile-reinforced rubber bellows. These bellows, commonly referred to as air springs, inflate to a specific pressure to behave like traditional springs. Some air suspension systems are fully adjustable, allowing each wheel's air spring to be adjusted individually. This is what allows for flashy side-to-side or front-to-back tilts seen in show cars. Air suspension can also be added to trucks by removing their leaf spring suspension and replacing it with a multiple-bar linkage. Typically, air suspension upgrades to heavier vehicles serve to achieve a more functional purpose. The intent is to achieve a smooth and steady driving experience.
How does air suspension differ from normal suspension?
Vehicles typically come with stock coil springs. As you drive, these springs will react and absorb the bumpiness caused by potholes, paving seams, and rocks and reduce the shock created by larger obstacles such as accidental curb hits. While functional and standard, you can have a smoother ride through various upgrades, of which air suspension is one. Using pressurized air housed in rubber air springs, the driver can determine at the press of the button at what height he would like the vehicle to sit or how much suspension is necessary for the terrain or load. Some air suspension systems also feature sensors that will detect terrain resistance on all vehicle corners to provide a height reference and recommendation.
What are the benefits of air suspension?
There are many benefits of air suspension systems, whether the primary motivator is flash or function. The foremost advantage is the quality of the ride. Traditional spring suspensions simply cannot completely mitigate the felt disturbance of terrain unevenness, while "air ride" suspension is toted to glide over bumps seemingly. Air ride feels very similar to floating. This reduction in the ambient noises, the harsh feel, and road vibration can reduce driver fatigue. The suspension can be lowered to the point that the vehicle's body is nearly touching the ground, achieving a sleek and ritzy appeal. Air suspension "tricks" can even be performed on single-tire customizable systems. When it is time to take the luxury car back to the garage, the suspension can be raised to handle the speed bumps, steep driveways, and typical road terrain on the way. While aesthetically pleasing, the smooth ride also benefits the vehicle by putting a less vibrational strain on the suspension system.
Yet, since air suspension is completely adjustable, drivers can instead decide to increase the suspension system's pressure to improve towing capacities. A firm air suspension system can pull heavier loads that would weigh down a traditional spring suspension system. Some drivers opt to supplement their existing suspension system with "air helper springs" to increase load capacity while towing but still deflate them and enjoy the factory ride quality when not towing. It also provides a safer towing experience by allowing all wheels to be kept even. This is particularly beneficial to keeping trucks level when the cargo itself cannot be and reduces the likelihood of rolling the vehicle when turning corners. Even while using a higher level of air pressure, the smoother ride puts less strain on the suspension system itself and trailers. It reduces the tendency of smaller pickup trucks to bounce on rough terrain when the truck bed is empty and increase the vehicle's operating life.
What are the disadvantages of air suspension?
For all of the benefits, however, air suspension has some distinct disadvantages. The first significant drawback is the cost of buying and installing the air suspension system. While very high-end luxury cars and SUVs may include these systems as standard, it is a costly option for all the other vehicles. Maintenance is expensive, with broken systems requiring immediate care, and many drivers instead opting to replace their broken air suspension with traditional spring suspensions. The repair costs of an air suspension system can accumulate to three times the repair costs of a more conventional leaf suspension system over a period of ten years. A common source of air suspension failure is due to moisture that gets inside the air tank. During the winter, it is incredibly crucial that there is a water trap for the tank and a specifically designed antifreeze for air suspension systems. Leaks and tubing failures are also relatively common, although air fitting failure occurs most often when the vehicle is used infrequently. Fuel efficiency also takes a hit, affected by an air suspension system's heavier weight over traditional suspension systems.
Air Suspension FAQ
How much does air suspension cost?
Very few vehicles include air suspension as standard, primarily very high-end cars, and SUVs. The Mercedes S-Class and the Range Rover, as examples, come with air suspension as standard, but these vehicles already sport price tags of $200,000+. Other cars offer the optional upgrade, but it is a model upgrade in total, not singularly the suspension system. Upgrading to a more luxury model of a vehicle can raise the price significantly over the cost of the base model, averaging $30,000 additional. More frequently, drivers will choose to upgrade their existing vehicles. The installation process is straightforward for those comfortable with car maintenance, but a quality air suspension kit will start at around $3,000.
Is air suspension good for racing?
Cars fitted with air suspension can indeed be used for racing and drifting. Coilovers are the more popular choice, but air suspension has the benefits of on-the-fly dampening adjustability. The driver can immediately control the compression and rebound speed, allowing for smooth ride quality and safe, controlled movement. Adjusting ride height during a drive can come into play with the driver's race strategy. The same maintenance hazards exist, and it is essential to be sure that the coils are correctly installed and not hanging down.
Is air suspension good for daily driving?
A nuanced yes. Most coaches and buses in use today use air suspension. The coach can be maintained at a specific height regardless of the weight of its load. The air suspension levels adjustment also allows the coach to be lowered to load and unload passengers on street level. It will enable the coach to be raised higher than the typical riding height to avoid grounding out on steep crests. Due to these and many other advantages, air suspension has been used extensively on heavy and commercial vehicles since 1980. As concerns regular street driving, the biggest consideration is the weather. Summer months are when air suspension really shines, and there are no real maintenance hazards. Drivers can frequently lower the air pressure while on highways without concern and enjoy the low, smooth, controlled ride. During the winter, water or condensation trapped inside the air tank is more of a common problem. As many car owners use air suspension to lower their vehicle's height significantly, ice and hard slush in the road pose a concern. It would be wiser to eschew the physique of a lower vehicle during those conditions and increase the pressure in the air springs so that they raise the car as much as any customization has made possible.