How Electronic Suspensions Work and Why They Fail

Scott Beaddles
5 minute read

Car enthusiasts in the United States got their first taste of electronically controlled shocks and struts in the early 1980s when Japanese automakers used the technology on select vehicles to deliver a sportier ride. Since then, just about every major vehicle manufacturer has dabbled at some point in the business of offering vehicles with a form of electronic suspension. AirSuspensionReplacementPartsThese electronic suspension systems have evolved to the point where computers in today’s vehicles are capable of making dozens of changes to suspension dampening and handling characteristics in a fraction of a second. The latest technology delivers an amazing driving experience, but it comes with a price. Vehicles equipped with electronically controlled suspensions cost thousands more. And there’s the high cost of maintenance to deal with down the road. In many cases, the vehicle’s unsuspecting second or third owners are left to clean up an expensive mess when these systems wear out and need to be replaced. Repairs or the replacement of higher-end electronic suspension systems can reach $8,000 with original equipment parts and labor costs. Despite a wide variety of names and marketing campaigns, all of these systems can be separated into two major categories: adaptive and fully active. Adaptive or semi-active systems are the most basic and economical type of electronic suspension. An electronic connection to the strut or shock tells a solenoid valve inside the unit to open or close, altering the flow of its hydraulic fluid. This operation controls the rebound and compression rate of the shock or strut, delivering a softer or firmer ride on demand. Fully active systems are vastly more complicated and more expensive to replace. These systems use more advanced computers and vehicle sensors, incorporating the use of magnetically charged metal particles inside the struts or shocks. When an electric current controlled by the computer system is sent through the strut at a higher rate, it causes the metal particles to increase the viscosity of the hydraulic fluid inside the strut or shock, thus producing a firmer or stiffer ride. When the electric current subsides, the metal particles dissipate inside the shock or strut, thus making the fluid flow easier and ride softer.

What Causes These Systems to Fail?

Normal wear and tear: The rubber seals on the struts or shocks eventually wear out, allowing the hydraulic fluid to leak out. Little to no fluid renders the shocks or struts with no ability to dampen or control the bumps in the road. Your bouncy ride slowly gets worse as you are essentially riding on the 1-inch rubber bump stop inside the shocks or struts. Electronics fail: Heat from the engine compartment and exposure to the elements eventually kill the electronic devices that manipulate the solenoid valves or magnetic particles inside the struts and shocks. Often, the shocks or struts lock into the firmest settings. Drivers slowly get used to the harsh ride quality, and the only sure sign of failure in this case may be a suspension warning light.

So What Are Your Choices?

Suspension Replacement OptionsOption 1: You can get rid of the vehicle. But with a harsh ride quality and a suspension warning light, don’t expect to get what the vehicle is truly worth. Check your budget carefully to determine if you can really afford to take on another monthly vehicle payment. Unless the vehicle has other major repairs needed, this may not be your best option. Option 2: You can attempt to repair the electronic suspension system. Be wary of any technician who promises a quick and easy fix. The repair shop is the only winner if you have to systematically work your way around the vehicle replacing parts and gadgets at an average of several hundred dollars per visit. Keep in mind that the cheaper aftermarket parts aren’t as good as the original equipment. How valuable is your time? Do you want to deal with multiple trips to the repair shop? Option 3: You can install a suspension conversion system, which replaces the failing electronically controlled shocks or struts with a passive suspension that most vehicles have anyway. A passive suspension relies solely on conventional shocks and struts and doesn’t use complicated and expensive electronics. This is a permanent solution that costs about 20% of the price of a complete repair or replacement with original equipment from the dealer. Since the conversion kit is a slight step back in ride quality, it’s important to use the best possible product. Strutmasters was first to market with a complete conversion kit in 1999, and they offer a solution to the suspension warning light on the majority of their products. In summary: Electronic suspension systems are becoming more prevalent in new vehicles. All of these systems have a 100% failure rate. They’re very expensive to repair or replace with original equipment parts. It’s wise to consider all of your options carefully when dealing with this type of suspension repair. Contact us today for more information!

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