Tuning: In a nutshell, uprated suspension

Ask most people the best way to get from point A to point B quicker than the manufacturer could manage, and it's likely they'll tell you thatyou can't go wrong with a good-sized shove of extra power. But it's not always that simple. Big power in a chassis that can't handle it can actually slow you down.

Volkswagen

Spend the same money on a good quality suspension setup, and it's a different story. Shaving an inch or so off your ride height tucks your wheels a little closer to the arches for a concept car stance. It also brings your centre of gravity lower to the ground, reducing body roll and helping you corner better.

As an added benefit, if you care about it, the lower your car the more aerodynamic it becomes, which means you might actually start seeing more miles to the ever more expensive gallon of fuel. Those ultra-efficient versions most manufacturers have on sale almost all use shorter springs.

So where should you start? There are plenty of ways to change the way your car looks and handles, here's a basic guide to what's what in the world of chassis upgrades.

Springs (£100-£200)
The most affordable way to bring your ride height down a notch is a set of lowering springs. These are shorter and slightly stiffer than the factory-fitted coils, reducing arch gap a little and making your car corner a little flatter than it did out of the box.

It's a cost-effective route to better looks, but there are drawbacks. There's no adjustment available so if you're not happy with the ride height or quality then you're a bit stuck. Using springs with old standard shocks can also shorten their life, particularly if you're greedy with how low you go, but for a new-ish car, it shouldn't be a problem. Different springs tends to be the way the manufacturers change their ride height anyway.

Shocks and Springs (£150-£500)

Level two replaces everything. Shorter springs with a set of brand new, uprated shock absorbers to match. Spend a little more and you'll move up to shocks which also allow ride quality to be adjusted with a couple of twists of a screwdriver or knob.

Changing the whole lot has its advantages. You'll no longer be reliant on tired shock absorbers, instead running units matched to a low ride height. And if you go for adjustable rate shocks, there's scope for firming up the ride for track days. The only disadvantage is being unable to tweak the ride height without changing the springs again.

Coilovers (£300-£4,500)
Unless you've got a Caterham or similar, chances are your car will have fixed cup-shaped platforms on each shock absorber holding the spring in place. Coilover suspension removes this, replacing it with a threaded tube and movable spring platform, in turn allowing the ride height to be set independently at each corner without removing anything except the wheels.

Basic coilover suspension kits are kind of a one-trick pony though, just allowing ride height adjustment and tending to be popular with those wanting to wind the platforms down as low as possible. Spend a little more and you'll add adjustable bump and rebound into the mix, plus a whole lot of extra time tweaking everything to make the car handle and ride as you want it to.

Hydraulics (£1,000+)
The star of many rap videos, hydraulic suspension is what allows you to bounce your car around like Snoop Dogg and was born out of the American lowrider scene. It's a simple idea, replacing shock absorbers with hydraulic rams powered by pumps in the boot. Early setups scavenged aeroplane parts, but newer kits are bespoke and complicated setups often so neatly installed that they're chromed or airbrushed and left on show.

Entry-level "hydros" are ideal if you want to rest the lowest parts of your car on the ground while it's on show, but still drive over speed bumps on the way home. They're fairly slow. The more you spend, the more powerful the kit becomes and the faster you'll be able to raise and lower the body. Good fun, but not for the handling purist or a those who don't like welding cracked bodywork.

Air Suspension (£1,000+)
Usually found on high-end luxury cars, it's now possible to fit air suspension kits to everything from supercars to superminis. These use inflatable bags made of heavy duty rubber instead of springs, which can be pumped up to raise the car when needed. In short, it's most of the benefits of hydraulic suspension, but without the bone-breaking ride quality.

Extra cash means extra toys. There are air suspension kits which can be controlled using an iPad, for example. Performance enthusiasts can buy fully adjustable kits which don't take a wrecking ball to the car's handling. The only potential pitfall is a puncture, because that'll knock your car down to its lowest ride height setting and probably result in a trip home on a low-loader.

Next steps
To get the most out of uprated suspension, it's as important to get the car set up properly afterwards as it is to spend good money on a quality kit. At the very minimum, budget for getting the car four-wheel laser aligned, re-setting the tyre contact patches, to avoid rapid and uneven wear. If you've got an older car, it may also be worth refreshing tired rubber suspension mounts while the car is in bits.

Further adjustments depends on your car and the kit you've got fitted. Fine-tuning the suspension alignment can completely change the way a car handles based on your tastes. Some high performance cars allow you to do this out of the box, but it's also possible to upgrade to adjustable suspension and steering arms if you want a extra potential from something more pedestrian.

If you're fitting coilovers, make the most out of the performance upgrade by getting your car corner-weighted. This involves setting the ride height at each corner to "suspend" the car's weight evenly over its tyres, evening up the handling between left and right-hand bends. Compared to the initial outlay for parts, getting them fitted and set up properly is a small and entirely worthwhile investment.

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Car Tech
About the author

    Alex is a B2B motoring journalist and technology geek, based on the doorstep of the car magazine's playground that is South Wales. Incapable of owning anything electronic or mechanical without finding ways to "improve" it, a lifelong interest in cars progressed naturally into modifying. His bank balance has never looked back.

     

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