Picture Mater, the tow truck from “Cars,” bouncing down some dusty road to rescue a stranded car. That’s a smooth move on his part, but the ride is far from it.
Unless you are driving on a newly built road by a reluctant race car, you really shouldn’t be dealing with that much bouncing as you drive. While Mater the tow truck has extra bolts and parts that can bounce around as he goes, you probably don’t want to do the same.
If your car feels “off,” whether that is bouncing, shaking, or pulling, the problem might be with your suspension. This can be repaired in the car you are driving, but if you are on the market for a car, suspension problems are best to spot before you take the plunge.
Before identifying the symptoms of a suspension problem, let’s take a look at the components of a car suspension. That helps make sense of what happens when things go wrong.
Chassis (pronounced CHA-see)
This is the biggest part of your vehicle. It is the frame of the car on which everything sits or is attached to. It doesn’t look like much on its own, but the chassis is the skeleton of the car, and just like our skeletons, is a pretty important part!
Unlike the springs on a pogo stick, the purpose of the springs in your car’s suspension system is to eliminate bounce, not encourage it. These steel coils are designed to absorb the shocks of potholes, cracks, bumps, or curbs as you drive. Without springs, the ride would be much more uncomfortable.
Shocks and Struts
These two components of the suspension system are often used interchangeably, but they are slightly different. While the springs help absorb the shock of the road, shocks and struts are designed to help keep the tires in contact with the road.
The shocks have a piston and hydraulic fluid and move with the bounce of the road. They release fluid to put pressure on the tires as needed to keep them in contact with the road. Without that pressure, the tires would pull a “Mater” and fly and bounce all over the road as you go.
Struts are usually in the front of a car and deal with more than just the bouncing. They also also use coil springs and steering mechanisms to make sure that not only is the ride smooth, but you can maintain control on the bumpier roads.
The bigger the vehicle, the more you’ll want a strong sway bar. The sway bar is designed to avoid sway. As you make turns, the weight of the car will get out of balance. This can not only make for an uncomfortable lean, especially if you are in the back of an RV, but it also means uneven wear and tear on your tires.
The sway distributes the weight of the car, putting pressure on whichever side needs it to keep the tires on the ground in equal measure. It is designed to resist the natural twisting that a vehicle will want to do when turning and maneuvering.
Signs of Suspension Problems
Now that you have a better idea of what makes up a suspension system, let’s take a look at five common indicators that there might be problems with one (or more!) of these components. If you notice any of these issues with your car, check in with a mechanic. If you notice any of these symptoms on a test drive at a used car dealership, at least ask some more questions about maintenance records. Or, just let it go and keep looking for the right fit!
1. Too Many Bumps
If you are driving on a smooth road but your coffee is spilling over the edge of the cup, you might want to take a look at the suspension. Perhaps a spring is shot or your shocks need replacement. Your tires aren’t maintaining contact with the road and giving you a more exciting ride than you might like.
2. Steering Trouble
If the car isn’t responding as well as it usually does and your power steering fluid is at the right level, the next thing to check might be the suspension system. It isn’t all about bouncing. The struts and sway bar are designed to help you control the car easily. If that isn’t happening, they might need a look.
3. Pulling to One Side
Again, the suspension system is designed to make it easy to control your car. If you let go of the steering wheel for just a second and notice that it immediately pulls to one side or the other, then something might be off in your suspension system. You could also have a tire that is low on air, so check that first. But, if all your tires are equal, the next stop could be those struts and sway bars.
4. Uneven Tire Wear
Part of the suspension system’s job is to keep your tires rolling along with equal pressure and weight. If your tires are wearing down unevenly, then it might have something to do with the suspension. One side of the car might be absorbing shock better than the other, and your tires (and your wallet) are paying the price.
5. Wet Shocks or Struts
If you do a visual check on your shocks and struts and they seem coated or wet, that might be hydraulic fluid and could be a red flag of trouble. The hydraulic fluid is what helps put pressure on the tires so they maintain contact with the road. If that fluid is leaking, the shocks and struts won’t be able to do their job correctly. If any of the other symptoms pop up, doing a visual check for a leak might be a good first step.
A suspension system is rather like an appendix. . . we don’t really know what it does until it has a problem. And then it really can give us a ride! Once you know some of the key components of a suspension system and what they do, you can feel more confident taking it to the mechanic and asking them to take a look at those shocks, struts, or springs. Then, it will be smooth sailing ahead, or at least smoother driving.
It seems fun to watch a car bounce up and down on television, but when it is happening to you in real life, you shouldn’t enjoy the ride but have a professional mechanic check the suspension system of your car. The bouncing, shaking, and pulling are telltale signs of suspension issues. Learn about its part and the signs to look out for. We have everything in this infographic.