Pneumatic suspensions have come a long way in the past few decades. No longer limited to luxury vehicles, these active systems have become more advanced and increasingly common. Whether you’re considering purchasing a car with one or thinking about fixing one on a car you already own, understanding the benefits and drawbacks of an air suspension system can help you make an informed decision.
In the following article, we go over the key things you need to know about air suspensions, along with their most important advantages and disadvantages.
What Is an Air Suspension System?
An air suspension system is a type of active suspension for personal cars and other vehicles. Rather than the static shocks and struts found on passive systems, they use pressurized air to adjust resistance to respond to changes in road surface and weight distribution. The result is an actively-managed ride that is smooth and comfortable for the driver.
How Do Air Suspension Systems Work?
Air suspensions – also known as pneumatic suspensions and air rides – work by using electronically-controlled parts to adjust the amount of “give” in the shocks and struts. It’s a process that happens constantly while the vehicle is in motion. And although it happens almost instantly, there are several steps to this rather complicated process:
- Sensors take a reading: Ride height sensors mounted at each wheel take constant mechanical or electronic readings of the vertical distance between the road and the wheel mount.
- A computer decides what to do: The readings from the ride height sensors are delivered to a small computer called a suspension control module. This computer determines whether each corner of the vehicle needs more or less resistance to keep the ride at the optimal height.
- A compressor makes air: The control module then sends instructions to an air compressor about how much pressurized air it needs to generate for the system. With this information, the compressor makes the air that’s needed and sends it to a reserve tank.
- Air gets delivered to the springs: Simultaneously, the control module also instructs a manifold on where it needs to send air and how much it needs to send. The manifold pushes the pressurized air through a series of hoses and into air springs, which inflate (or deflate) to provide the ideal amount of resistance or give for current conditions.
What Are The Benefits and Drawbacks of an Air Suspension System?
More and more manufacturers are outfitting their vehicles with air suspension systems. So it’s clear that they offer a lot of benefits and that people seem to like them. However, they are not without their downsides – several of which could have a serious impact on you and your vehicle.
Air Suspension System Pros and Cons: Quick Look
Before we get into a more detailed breakdown of the benefits and drawbacks of air suspension systems, you’ll find a summary of those points in the table below.
Air Suspension System Pros
Air Suspension System Cons
Extremely comfortable ride
Lots of components that need to work together
Can provide better handling and cornering
Can be expensive to fix or replace
Helps longevity of other components
May be hard to identify the source of issues in the system
Air Suspension Benefits
Air ride systems have a lot to offer drivers. The benefits associated with these systems are a big part of why they have grown so much in popularity in the last few decades.
When it comes to the comfort of your vehicle’s ride, there is simply no comparison. Air suspensions and other active suspension systems are the gold standard.
By actively managing the resistance of the air bags supporting your vehicle, a good air ride can all but eliminate the impact of changes in road surfaces for the driver. Even as a car travels over things like cracks, small potholes, or sudden dips in the road, the driver will feel little to nothing. The feeling of driving a vehicle with a high-quality air suspension has often been described as “cloud-like.”
It’s not just bumps and cracks in the road that air suspensions respond to. They also adjust the suspension when a vehicle is maneuvering around the road.
When a car with a passive system is cornering, the force of that motion can be distributed unevenly. This can feel like the weight of the car has shifted to one side for the driver and can change how the vehicle interacts with the road.
An air suspension system, on the other hand, can adjust the resistance in the air springs to compensate for this change in force. As a result, the car can maintain even contact with the road and prevent the driver from feeling like the car is “pulling” away from the turn.
Reduced Wear and Tear
Air suspensions don’t just benefit the driver, they can also help keep a car healthy. As an active system, it is much better at evenly distributing the forces of a car moving and stopping than passive systems.
Because of this, many of the steering and stopping components of your vehicle share the stress of driving much better. This reduces wear and tear on individual components. It also helps these components wear out more evenly, which also can increase their longevity and keep the car safer to drive.
Air Suspension Drawbacks
Despite advances in technology and more experience in manufacturing, air ride systems still have a few notable drawbacks. These disadvantages are certainly worth considering if you’re thinking about buying a car with an air suspension or fixing your current air ride.
All of the components in the system need to be working as intended for the system to function properly. If one part fails, it will begin to put stress on other parts of the system and even some outside of it.
For example, let’s say an air spring develops a leak. When that happens, the control module will recognize that it needs more air to keep it inflated and will instruct the compressor to generate that additional air. This will put an abnormal burden on the compressor and could lead to it degrading and failing early.
Expensive Parts and Labor
As high-tech systems, air suspensions come with some pricey components. A single air spring may cost more than $1,000 on its own. Other parts like the compressor and control module can also be expensive.
Fortunately, some companies make high-quality aftermarket replacement air suspension parts that cost far less than OEM components. But even then, the systems themselves can be complicated to work on. That translates to more time in the shop and a much higher labor bill.
Unlike passive suspensions that only have a few parts at each wheel, there are dozens of parts to an air suspension. That means that there are far more things that can go wrong at any time.
It also means that diagnosing an issue with the system is more difficult. You may, for example, get a suspension warning light that indicates a problem with the system. That could be anything, but let’s say that you know it’s a leak somewhere. Even then, there are four air springs, dozens of feet of air delivery lines, and scores of seals and gaskets where that leak could be coming from.
Diagnosing air suspension problems can be difficult and time-consuming. That either means paying for more shop labor or spending more time yourself looking for issues.
Are Air Suspensions Worth It?
Air suspension systems have some drawbacks worth considering. However, they’re still worth it for most drivers to keep and maintain. That’s because some of those drawbacks have become much less of a factor – cost, especially.
Fixing an air suspension used to cost a small fortune. Components were much harder to come by and, for many cars, OEM parts were the only choice. As a result, manufacturers had a monopoly on replacement parts in many cases and could charge much higher prices.
But in recent years, many high-quality aftermarket air suspension parts have hit the market as the systems have become more popular. Third-party manufacturers have been able to replicate – or even improve – on the quality, fit, and performance of the originals. And they’ve been able to do so at a fraction of the cost.
Anyone who has driven on an air suspension knows that when it comes to the feel of the ride, nothing else stacks up. When you consider the other benefits of an air ride and the recent improvements on some of their drawbacks, keeping your air suspension in good working order is very much worth it.
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