Doing only half the job

Posted on August 2nd, 2012 in Opinion,Suspension by Julian Edgar

The function of the suspension is to allow tyres to follow the ups and downs of the roads, while at the same time the car’s body movement doesn’t replicate those ups and downs.

However, if that was all that was needed, a very soft suspension would achieve these aims very well – but the car would handle poorly. So the first two points subsequently need to be modified to achieve competent handling.

And for decades – perhaps eight or nine of them – this was the way in which suspension development in cars occurred. Cushioning occupants was primarily about spring rates; maintaining tyre contact was about damping; and achieving good handling was about dynamic wheel location, roll centre height and roll stiffness.

The trouble is, to my way of thinking, in the last decade or so that whole approach has gone out the window. The approach is now:

(1) gain best handling

(2) refine system to provide acceptable ride comfort

Now let me say loud and clear: in sporting cars that’s fine.

But in all cars?

How stupid.

Let’s put all this a different way. Pick a car from 30 years ago and pitch it in a handling contest against the current equivalent. Yep, the current car will win. Now fit the old car with low profile and wide rubber, massively stiffen its springs and damping and anti-roll bars – and I’d suggest that the old and new will now be very close in handling….as measured on real roads.

I’d argue those designers of that 1980s car could have had similar handling if they’d chosen to degrade ride comfort in the way of current cars.

But this is not a blanket condemnation of modern car technology. Electronic stability control is a fantastic handling innovation. All-wheel drive with variable torque direction is a fantastic handling innovation. Electronically-controlled power steering is a fantastic handling innovation (“handling”, because it allows higher degrees of castor, and so greater negative dynamic camber addition). Multi-link suspension systems and variable direction suspension compliance are fantastic handling innovations.

It’s not the current technology: it’s the current philosophy.

The outcome is rather bizarre. There are now many people who have never been in a car that rides well. They have no knowledge of what is possible: they simply believe that all cars ride in a manner in which in the past only trucks rode.

Recently I drove a diesel sedan from a car yard. The ride, factory standard, was so harsh I could hear my wife’s voice changing as air was forced out of her lungs by the bumps. Just in a normal suburban area of an Australian city. I took the car back.

“I won’t buy this,” I said, “the ride is so harsh.”

The young salesman’s face contorted in genuine disbelief. “How do you figure that?” he asked incredulously.

Clearly, he had never been in a car with a good ride.

It’s a bit like people who have listened to only MP3s played through tiny speakers. They have literally no idea of what good sound is like.

So what would be logical reasons that current car designers have chosen to degrade ride comfort at the expense of handling?

Oh, well speed limits have gone up hugely over the last 20 years, so better handling is needed to cope.

And another: the enforcement of driving behaviour is so much less rigorous than it once was, so everyone can now punt their cars hard on the road.

And a final: all roads are now so well surfaced that the poor roads of 20 or 30 years ago are now gone.

But not one of these is true!

Cars with suspension set up for smooth race tracks (or to put this another way, set up so that they get good media reviews from young, single, performance car drivers) are silly for general road use.

These days, the vast majority of new cars have tyre profiles that are too low, bump and rebound damping too stiff (especially at high damper shaft speeds), and springs that are too high in rate. For car occupants, roads are a procession of jolts, where they could be a smoothed and relaxing surface.

And all for what purpose? Very little that’s justifiable.

17 Responses to 'Doing only half the job'

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  1. Ben said,

    on August 2nd, 2012 at 10:48 am

    On a related note, I was driving along a Dunedin street in my 1989 mercedes 300 se. A car for comfort if there ever was one. Beside me was a modified lancer. I was looking out my window at the drivers head and it was moving up and down noticably every second and I didn’t even know the road was bumpy…

    It was a similar story when a mate and I owned legacy wagons. His was turbo, low and fitted with big wheels. Mine was not, and faster point to point because he couldn’t go fast over a bump.

    People often go the wrong way modifying cars too…

  2. Edward said,

    on August 2nd, 2012 at 2:09 pm

    Agreed. The wife’s NB MX-5 complete with high profile 15” wheels is one of the best handling cars I’ve ever driven. It has a beautiful ride quality (no really!) and despite the frankly lacklustre engine it’s way quicker than my old Civic Type-R on the bit of country road I use to get to work. The Type-R is admittedly a sports oriented car but even so the ride was horrendously horrendous. Pity as the engine/gearbox was awesome…. when you had the opportunity to use all the revs.

  3. Marinus said,

    on August 2nd, 2012 at 9:28 pm

    And the standard fitted tyres’ profiles get lower and lower – and dearer and dearer with that.

  4. Roger said,

    on August 2nd, 2012 at 11:08 pm

    I know where you are coming from. My 1952 Dodge is so much more comfortable than our 2001 Falcon. It doesn’t handle like the Falcon but it doesn’t need to. It’s just a nice cruiser. It really smoothes out the bumps. The coil springs in the seat help as well, rather than the foam and flat springs in the Falcon.

  5. Wolf said,

    on August 3rd, 2012 at 5:29 am

    The low profile tyres are needed with the huge rims that all new cars have. Big rims are a fashion statement , and it sells.
    My stepfather’s Citroen C4 diesel has larger rims (17″) than my 98 Impreza WRX (16″)
    If big rims sell , car manufactures will sell them , no matter the cost on ride quality.

  6. Mark said,

    on August 3rd, 2012 at 7:26 am

    I totally agree.

    My car is the base model that has the smallest wheels available, these are still 16″ with 215/55/16 tyres. The ride is actually fairly good as is the feel and handling on less than perfect roads. I’d say the suspension was just about right, but I’d be interested in trying out 15″ rims.
    The ‘superior’ models have larger rims and harder,
    ‘sports’ suspension -The manufacturer has apparently started putting a warning about the hardness of the ride in the brochure…

  7. Nathan said,

    on August 3rd, 2012 at 10:52 pm

    And why do modern cars have rock hard seats? Sat in a new model Corolla and compared to my Saab 9000 I thought I had sat on an old wooden church pew!

  8. Paul said,

    on August 5th, 2012 at 12:10 am

    I too notice how hard new seats are when I go from my Saab 9000 to my wife”s Subaru. I’ve also noticed that most people like to run their tyre pressures at the maximum. My 205/55/16 were set at 40+psi and gave a harsh ride. I backed them off to 32psi and the ride changed dramatically with little noticeable change to handling and no change to fuel consumption.

  9. DavidZ said,

    on August 5th, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    Yet a few years ago, ok decades, you J.E. would have held handling/grip as the holy-grail!
    I like how the Koreans tune the suspension for Aussie condions, and stuff it up completely…lol
    The current Falcon is not so bad, and the injected LPG model has around the real-world lowest $/km on the market.
    Your hard-hitting road test are sadly missed!

  10. Julian Edgar said,

    on August 5th, 2012 at 12:55 pm

    “Yet a few years ago, ok decades, you J.E. would have held handling/grip as the holy-grail.”

    Not true. I relished the high speed suspension comfort of my Liberty RS, before that tried my darnest to get my VL Turbo to have both ride *and* handling, before even that thought my BMW 3.0si with my choice of springs and dampers was pretty good at both (and of course the BMW had springs in the seat, not just high density foam…). Sold my Audi S4 cos I couldn’t get the ride/handling outcome of my wife’s Lexus LS400. I could go on….

  11. Ben said,

    on August 8th, 2012 at 11:26 am

    Regarding the seats: it’s probably difficult to make a coil spring seat that has good side support, whereas with foam it’s a snap. That said I pulled the seat out of my newly acquired jzz30 soarer (for some trim repair) and it has a curious mix of foam on the sides/front and springs for where your butt sits. No wonder the car was so expensive…

  12. Gerry O said,

    on August 9th, 2012 at 9:47 pm

    The car with the best ride I have been in recently was a Land Rover Discovery 3 (2.7 diesel). Really smoothed out the bumps and yet no roll in corners. Quite an amazing truck.

  13. Richard said,

    on August 10th, 2012 at 11:25 am

    I remember taking a current Clio RS out for a test drive on some Sydney suburban roads. I literally couldn’t wait to get out of it. The ride was so harsh on the potholes and speedbumps. It wasn’t helped by the hard and restrictive seats. I honestly don’t know who could live with it on a day to day basis.

    I do now understand why, for a hot hatch, the Golf GTI sells so well. It has a much more liveable suspension tune.

  14. doctorpat said,

    on August 13th, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    I wonder how much this contributes to the huge and growing popularity of soft-roader vehicles, with their long travel soft suspension and tall tyres.

  15. Julian Edgar said,

    on August 14th, 2012 at 6:28 pm

    “I wonder how much this contributes to the huge and growing popularity of soft-roader vehicles, with their long travel soft suspension and tall tyres.”

    Lots I think – you’ve just pinched one of my main points from an upcoming ‘opinion piece’ AutoSpeed article!

  16. Steve said,

    on August 15th, 2012 at 9:49 pm

    European car manufacturers have used stiff suspension with tyres that have super soft sidewalls since the late 70’s to retain the handling while still keeping the vibration and road noise down. The result is sidewall pinching and tyre fractures on our rural Aussie roads, when that happens, a bent rim is guaranteed. I feel you have been a more than a little unfair on the Skoda Superb in “choices Part 1”. Ronal oem rims are good wheels, they just need to be fitted with suitable rubber for trouble free country motoring.

  17. Ben said,

    on August 16th, 2012 at 5:18 am

    So what do you think it will take for non-sports cars to become non-sporty again? You have drawn a valid point in that some people simply don’t know what is possible. Hell, I’ve owned and driven a lot of cars in my 8 years of driving and taken mental notes on them all. And if it wasn’t for that old mercedes I, too, wouldn’t know what is possible in terms of comfort.

    It must be said though, the mercedes was also one of least fun cars (in good repair anyway) to drive quickly through corners…