mary's columns: shocks and struts

what are your shocks and struts looking like these days? no, no, it's not a personal question... but it is a question that could affect your safety and your wallet.

first, let's talk about what shocks (shock absorbers) and struts are. they're part of your car's suspension system, which controls the up-and-down and side-to-side motion. without the suspension system, every time you drove over a bump, the car would bounce and bounce and bounce. you'd need to have a good supply of dramamine on hand every time you headed off to work or the grocery store.

shocks, struts, and springs — springs are also part of the suspension system — not only make the ride more comfortable, they make the ride safer. that's because they help keep the tires in constant contact with the road, and that affects steering, stability, and braking. if the suspension isn't working like it should, your car won't hold the road like it needs to. that can be dangerous.

even if you don't know a lot about cars, you may have heard the term "macpherson struts." they're named after the engineer who designed them and they're found on most front wheel drive cars. they combine the spring and the shock absorber into one unit. a more compact unit is beneficial because so many of today's vehicles are smaller and lighter and have precious little extra space in the front of the car.

shocks and struts — in fact, all "front end work" (that includes all suspension and steering components) — have traditionally been an area of high consumer rip-off. some mechanics will tell you that you need new shocks and struts when you don't and, since you might not know better (and the mechanic has that very serious mechanic look on his face), you may buy new ones when you don't need to.

the truth is, it's not easy for you to tell when your shocks and struts need to be replaced. here's one test: step down firmly on the bumper at each corner of your vehicle. then take your foot of the bumper. there should be little or no bounce. this isn't a very accurate test, though, as some shocks that are worn, pass the step-on-the-bumper test.

another way to determine whether you need new shocks is to look at the tread on your tires. if the tread is worn erratically, that indicates the tires are bouncing up and down. (the technical term for this pattern is "cupping" or "scalloping.")

you can also look at the shocks to see if there's any dark fluid coming out of them (there shouldn't be), and to see if there's any damage to the outside of the shock absorber.

and pay attention to how your vehicle handles. has the ride gotten rougher or bouncier over time? does the front of the car dip sharply when you brake? does it "bottom out" when you hit a pothole? lean severely when you go around corners? these are all signs that you should have your car's suspension checked out.

one of the best ways to keep worn shocks from becoming a problem is to have your suspension inspected regularly — first at 25,000 miles then every 15,000 miles after that. shocks and struts generally last about 25,000 miles, but that will vary depending on the type of shocks your car has and the kind of roads you drive on. springs usually last the life of the car.

you can have shocks and struts replaced at a car dealership, at an independent garage, or a large repair chain. it'll probably cost you the most at a car dealership because the replacement parts they'll use will be identical to what was in your car or truck when it was manufactured. whatever brand you go with, try to stick with the same brand in both the front and the rear. (shocks and struts are always replaced in pairs, either front or rear or both.)

even if you're no expert on shocks and struts, here's a way to look like you might be: to determine if you need shocks consider using a diagnostic center not connected with a repair facility. don't ask for shocks; instead, tell the mechanic what the symptom is (bouncing, swaying, dipping etc.) and let him determine what is needed. have the symptom written on the repair order (the authorization to do the work).

when you have shocks or struts replaced, always ask for the old parts back in advance. just asking that sends a signal that you're car-savvy. and if you aren't, well, we'll just keep that our secret.

other columns:
  faqs
  tires
  hybrid cars

 

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