The 10 Best Air Suspension Kits
A Brief History Of Suspension Systems
These involved attaching the cab of the carriage to the frame using either iron chains or leather straps.
From pretty much the exact moment the first human found a way to ride on a wheeled vehicle, we've been looking for a way to make that ride more comfortable.
The first known suspension systems were used on oxcarts and carriages. These involved attaching the cab of the carriage to the frame using either iron chains or leather straps. While they might have been effective at the time, leather straps are hardly durable enough to handle the weight and strain that an automobile would place on them, especially at high speeds.
Once the Industrial Revolution was in full effect, there was enough mechanical and metallurgical expertise to create better, more responsive springs. The first of these were simple leaf springs that were attached directly to the axles of horse-drawn carts.
In 1901, an American named William W. Humphreys patented a pneumatic spring for vehicles. The idea was to use two springs, running the length of the vehicle with a valve at each end, to cushion the ride using pneumatic pressure.
Five years later, the first coil springs hit the market, forming the basis of the suspension systems most cars still use to this day.
The next big breakthrough came in 1922, when the Lancia Lambda pioneered the use of independent suspension on each wheel. It would take a while for independent air suspension systems to come along, however, as they wouldn't hit the scene until 1946.
One major event happened in the middle of the century that would have a huge impact on the suspension industry (and, well, everything else): WWII. The military called on General Motors to develop effective suspension systems for heavy aircraft and troop transports, and they created self-leveling models that were capable of handling tremendous weight.
The company would take the innovations they created at this time and modify them for civilian use after the war ended, making air suspension standard on many of their luxury Cadillac cars, starting with the 1957 Eldorado Brougham.
Use of air suspension was spotty for the next few decades, with various manufacturers tinkering with the design on certain models. Most American-built cars didn't offer air suspension at all between 1960 and 1984, when Ford introduced a new design on their Lincoln Continental Mark VII.
The biggest advancement in recent years is the invention of the inerter. This is a passive suspension system, created by Malcolm C. Smith, that increases the effective inertia of a wheel system using a flywheel. This allows it to work effectively without adding significant mass to the vehicle.
Automobile manufacturers are constantly tinkering with everything that goes on a car, so it wouldn't be surprising if a new, amazing suspension system came along in the near future. However, for those of us who grew up watching The Jetsons, it will always be a little disappointing that we're not already literally riding on air.
How An Air Suspension System Works
Most suspension systems are made of shock absorbers and springs, and they serve to protect both you and the car from the jostles and bumps that you'll find on most roads.
Coil springs do this by compressing, and air springs basically do the same thing, except with durable air pillows.
With an air suspension system, your car has four plastic and rubber bags that are inflated to a certain pressure and help to absorb impact, much like metal coil springs do on other vehicles. Most systems also have an on-board air compressor to ensure that the pressure stays level over time.
Many also allow you to inflate or deflate them as desired, whether to improve comfort or achieve a desired look. You can also adjust them based on your car's weight.
The basic idea behind all of this is that when you're putting a strain on your car, whether from hitting a bump or taking a turn too fast, the suspension system will reduce the shock and impact by absorbing and dissipating the energy. Coil springs do this by compressing, and air springs basically do the same thing, except with durable air pillows.
You might not think about your suspension system as much as you do other parts of your car, but it has a huge impact on the comfort of your ride. If your car beats you up every time you go for a drive, your suspension system should be the first place you should check (and it wouldn't kill you to try to avoid at least one pothole every now and then, would it?).
Benefits Of An Air Suspension System
Like everything else in the automobile world, metal vs. air springs has been the source of an endless amount of debate. It's up to you which you prefer, but we'll quickly run down some benefits that should have you at least considering an air suspension system.
One of the biggest advantages that an air suspension has is that it puts less strain on the components. There's no metal-on-metal grinding, as all of the steel parts are coming into contact with an air bag encased in plastic.
Like everything else in the automobile world, metal vs. air springs has been the source of an endless amount of debate.
They tend to be more comfortable than their steel brethren, for similar reasons. There's less noise, vibration, and impact, giving you a smooth ride. That can help reduce fatigue as well, improving the safety of your commute.
Anyone who transports heavy loads often should consider air suspension, as it's much easier to adjust the height and level of the springs. You can also customize them based on terrain, ramping up the pressure whenever you need to clear obstacles, or reducing it when you want a more comfortable ride.
It's not all sunshine and rainbows, however. Don't expect them to last as long as metal springs, and expect to pay a little more up-front.
Ultimately, there's not really a wrong answer here, as it mostly comes down to personal preference. However, if you're fanatical about the smoothness of your ride, it may be worth it to switch to air suspension.
After all, if you trust air bags to save your family's life, shouldn't you trust them to protect something much more precious — your car?