Stiff suspension, the paradox of performance.
We may all be being suckered into a false premise.
This article was originally going to be written on the advantages of refreshing suspension in older cars but the test opened up a long-standing debate about the advantages and disadvantages of firming up the suspension. The stiffer suspension coming in many varieties, from springs rate, shock absorption and tyre wall stiffness. There are other areas at play but we will focus our attention here.
The original test was simple, a base run was done in an Audi A3 Sport model along a familiar route. Then a BMW 320 coupe (E92) approaching adolescence was run along the same roads. The BMW was an M-sport model and the suspension was original. We knew the dampers were in poor shape and the twelve-year-old springs were beginning to show signs of fatigue.
To start, the BMW had four new tyres, new shock absorbers and new springs fitted, given a day or two of driving to settle and driven again on the same test route. Both of us on test agreed that although there was a night and day difference after the suspension upgrade, it was still an uncomfortable journey, so many ruts and cracks in the road caught the car out that neither of us wanted to push on to see how good the changes really were. The Audi seemed to handle these much better, had it been an S-Line, we would probably had the same complaints. Two conclusions were drawn, refreshing the suspension of a car around a decade old should appear in the service book as a necessary change, and if you live near a poorly maintained road take a car you intend to buy for a test drive along it before handing over your money. If we had lived along that road I'm not sure either of us could have kept the BMW.
It was after the test that the topic really came alive. Usually, a softly sprung car with fat tyres and suspension travel so immense that you could have a camping trip in the wheel well is reserved for those that have no interest in cornering. Then there are those cars built at the opposite end of the spectrum, in which the car would rather lift a wheel off the tarmac than see if float away in a crevice.
This is excellent around a track where the smooth surface is comparable to a pool table, but challenging along a country lane. The track monsters can, of course, shy away from the road and return to their trailer.
Along many country lanes or even fast A-roads budget cuts and poor maintenance reveal potted, bumpy and undulating roads that quickly unsettle cars that rely on the surface to transmit feeling.
It’s the equivalent of using a tool to detect the fine sounds of undercurrent isolations and having someone with a megaphone shout at you. It’s all a bit too much and quickly spoils any chance of confidence.
This is a problem that has been growing for manufacturers for some time. It was one thing when new drivers went to their local Halfords to buy some big rims with low profile tyres and fitted lowering springs on their Vauxhall Corsa’s and Citroen Saxo’s. They rarely cared about comfort, or the ability to accelerate out of a corner with poise. To them, the sacrifice was worth it. The problem lies when factory fresh cars are delivered with ‘sporty rides’ that unsettle the car over the exact roads that they are designed to be enjoyed on. Having confidence cresting a hill, exiting a corner or just pushing on through a narrower section are the cherries to enthusiastic drivers that get their enjoyment from progressing in harmony with a twisty bit of country road. Robbing them of the confidence strips away the point of owning such a car in the first place.
A recent test of hot hatches brought about a curious result. Not only was the slowest (in 0-62 terms) the more exciting but it was also the car with the least firm ride. The sweet spot of making a car that turns in without shifting weight poorly and beginning to lean too much, and being so firm that constant and immediate corrections are needed does exist, but it’s a fine balance that is becoming harder to find. Whether the chassis department is having to make compromises for customers that want big wheels and sporty looks or the ever-increasing waistline of car's curb weight is forcing their hand is a bit of an unknown. Box are the likely culprits. Certainly the less mass you need to control the better. Drive an old hot hatch that only just tipped the scales above a 1,000kg’s and you begin to understand what a challenge dealing with mass has become. The older stuff would, of course, fold over if a driver ever ran out of tarmac and talent in sync, and anyone who has been suspended in hope waiting for the inevitable would be thankful to be in a new hot hatch over an old one.
Yet, the answer still seems a little way off. Cars are getting faster and in much of the world roads are wide, fast-moving and drivers demand speed. Going quickly is all well and good, electric cars continue to fascinate all by lining up against rarified exotics and getting the jump on them up to the triple-digit marker. A fairly useless trick when taking on some twisty lanes.
We seem stuck in a desperate 0-60 race and braking test, how quickly can you make mass go forward and then stop again is hardly the stuff of automotive dreams, it sounds more like a school science lesson. The department that designs the dampers in a modern car is stuck, damping the suspension too much results in roll around a corner but not enough leaves the driver in real doubt about how much they can really press on when the road opens.
The tyre manufacturers have even more of a challenge. Stop for a moment and think of the last normal sporty road car that had a sidewall that looked as though it could take a real shock without cracking the rim. Leave aside Ferrari’s and Bugatti’s, we’re looking at stuff that isn’t destined for a collection. AMG model Mercedes, ST Ford’s, anything with an ‘M’ badge whether lite version or full fat. They are all up to it.
Tyres must be tougher, more resilient and still try and grip the surface whilst protecting the wheel it’s wrapped around. On top of all that, a request to soak up some of the bumps is likely to get you thrown out of a committee meeting.
Springs are left to carry the burden and its a challenge they are ill-equipped to face. Offer up a sports version to customers with an arch gap more than a finger and online comments sections will fill with pictures of 90’s land rovers and jokes about travelling up the Pyrenese. Springs can’t both make a car look low and sleek and give enough flex to not disturb the steering over the short sharp bumps of a B-road that needed new tarmac a decade ago.
It is little wonder that the public has turned to soft-roaders and in turn, performance-orientated version of lifted up cars as this is about the only space that manufacturers can operate in and add in some suspension travels since they need to lift the car up two inches anyway.
This leads to a question that a future test will resolve, is it now better to have a small off-roader with performances badges than the conventional hot hatch. Can the former actually take you along a road just as quickly even with its extra mass and long travelled suspension?
Surely the answer is a better testing cycle and advertising performance as an experience, not a number. Golf GTI, Focus ST, BMW M lite models. They are all going through this process either having recently released or about to release their latest model. The Cupra brand, along with Alpine and Hyundai are jostling for position. Even Porsche find themselves in an ever-challenging market. The offer of enjoyment is one thing, the realisation and experience of speed, poise and driver connection is certainly another.