Few modifications divide the car community like aftermarket air suspension systems. For some, this kind of setup is the best compromise, while others might insist that a car with air ride is ‘ruined’.
But how exactly do these systems work, and what are the benefits and drawbacks?
What goes into an air suspension setup?
Before we go any further, let’s take a look at the components that make up an air suspension system.
An air setup still has struts like any normal car, only here, the springs are replaced with airbags. These are typically made of a rubber and polyurethane composite and are inflated via an air tank and compressor.
A remote control - which can sometimes be replaced with a smartphone app - lets the user select the front and rear ride heights they desire. The more air pumped into the bags, the higher the ride height.
Air lines need to be fed through the car to connect the tank to the bags via an air pressure manifold, and a control module will need to be installed somewhere in the vehicle. Some kits - like those made by Air Lift Performance - feature a manifold and control module combined in one component. AirRex meanwhile manufactures a system that involves packaging most of the components - including the tank - neatly into a single box with a display window. Handily, all of the above can be run off the car’s standard 12-volt power supply.
Comfort is a big one. There’s a reason main manufacturers are increasingly turning to air suspension (albeit in a slightly different form) - doing away with conventional springs allows for a much smoother ride. After all, you are - quite literally - floating on a cushion of air. Yes, you could lower your car using coilovers, but the result will be a car with a harsher ride than one on air.
Then there’s flexibility to consider. Want to slam your car right to the ground for the next show? That’s fine, simply turn up with a more road-friendly ride height, press a few buttons, and hey presto, you’re there. Hoping to keep it relatively low on the road, but worried about speed bumps and ramps? Again, no hassle - raising the car to avoid horrible crunching sounds rattling through the cabin is fast and easy.
One of the biggest drawbacks of air ride systems used to be the difficult and invasive installation process, which sometimes involved lots of nasty cutting and drilling. Fortunately, air suspension kits that could almost be considered ‘bolt-on’ are now much more common, with no nasty cutting needed.
You will at least need to drill holes to mount the compressor, manifold and tank, however, and then there’s the problem of all that boot space you’re going to lose for said tank. You’ll be wanting a sizeable one too, if you’re hoping for fast operation that doesn’t require the noisy compressor to be kicking in all the time.
Expense is another big downside - before you’ve even thought about labour costs, you’ll be a few grand down for the kit on its own. Enough to get an extremely nice set of coilovers, in other words, and that’s another point to make - if ultimate performance is what you’re after, airbags are not for you.
Yes, there are some more sport-oriented setups out there that even allow for things like camber adjustments, but despite the gap closing in recent years, coilovers remain the best option if handling is high on your agenda.
The final problem is reliability - airbags can leak, although thankfully, this is very rare on modern, good quality systems.
Where do you stand when it comes to air suspension? Do you have a system on your own car? Comment below with your thoughts.