If you drive a typical passenger vehicle, there’s a good chance that your suspension system uses springs and shock absorbers. However, there is growing interest in air ride suspension in passenger vehicles, and this type of suspension has been in wide usage for a while in heavier cargo-laden trucks, buses and similar vehicles. But what is air ride, when is it worth considering, and what is all the fuss about?
Airing on the Side of Caution
All suspension systems aim to keep a vehicle chassis level and off the axle. They support a smooth ride over uneven terrain, protect components from vibration, impact and wear, and work with other systems like steering to help the driver maintain control and safe handling. Lighter passenger vehicles use metal springs and shock absorbers to accomplish this, pitting the weight of the load against the mechanical constraint of the springs, and these are generally enough to get the job done. But heavier vehicles, vehicles that tow heavy loads and, increasingly, luxury vehicles looking to create as smooth a ride as possible are turning to air ride to maximize handling and control by increasing responsiveness and reducing jounce.
Air ride suspension is called by many names depending on the manufacturer, but the main components are generally the same. An electric pump supplies air to the airbags or “bellows“ (the “springs” of the system) and a storage tank that keeps reserve air pressure at the ready.
The system is closely monitored by sensors that alert the computer to changes in ride height and other potential imbalances in the system. The amount of pressure in the bellows is then quickly adjusted as needed. This process occurs automatically, but it can also be called into effect on command. Components are connected and controlled by a series of pneumatic lines, valves and solenoids, and information is collected and transmitted by sensors and the Electronic Control Unit (ECU).
Potential Costs and Benefits
An air-based suspension system is great for heavy loads and smoother rides, and its ability to respond to changing conditions immediately makes it a safe and popular option for upgrades, but it does have potential drawbacks, primarily related to cost and maintenance. Components in any system will wear over time, but air ride components are costly to replace, and repairs and maintenance for these systems can add up over time. Keep that in mind if you’re considering an upgrade, and weigh these potential costs against the benefits — and the age of the system if you’re buying it used. For the most part, an air ride system can be converted into a conventional suspension system and vice versa, but that doesn’t mean the conversion process is going to be an easy one, especially if you’re going from conventional to pneumatic.
As suspension technology continues to evolve, the availability of air ride systems for passenger vehicles will likely become even more widespread. Make sure you’re informed about how an air ride system might benefit you and what you would be in for in the long term before you take the plunge.
Check out all the steering and suspension parts available on NAPA Online, or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on air ride suspensions, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.
Photo courtesy of Blair Lampe