Unsprung Weight, Part 1

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Unsprung Weight - Part 1

By: Eric Albert


Every car built today has some type of suspension on it. Whether it's a double-wishbone or a MacPherson Strut design, we, as tuners, need to know a little more about suspension that just 'dropping' the chassis down a little bit. Let's take a deeper look at what exactly the job of your car's suspension is.

Suspension on the Clock

So we all know that suspension works. It works for you, but it never gets paid. In the same way as you and I work, we probably have different jobs. Suspension is no different. There are a few different ways your suspension works.

The main job of your suspension is to suspend your car above the road. If that was the only reason for the existence of springs and shocks though, why don’t we just solidly mount the car to the axles? “That’s obvious!†you say. Of course, you’d have a lot of trouble with bumps and corners with a solid suspension. This is because a suspension is supposed to allow your wheels and tires to follow the road, irregularities and all, while the body of the vehicle travels smoothly. Turning things around, the suspension should also keep the wheels and tires in maximum contact with the road for the best performance (this is more important than ride for us driving enthusiasts). So, to continue, for a suspension to be effective, it must allow the wheels and tires to accelerate and decelerate rapidly up and down while not allowing them to make excess motions (example - axle hop). The springs prevent the wheel assembly from traveling too far, while the dampers prevent oscillation by the spring.

Sprung Weight

Sprung weight is the weight supported by the springs. For example: the vehicle's body, frame, motor, transmission, interior, fuel, and passengers would be sprung weight. A simple concept to grasp. Basically, the sprung weight of the car is the car's mass as seen to the suspension components.

Unsprung Weight

This is one of the most critical factors affecting a vehicle's road holding ability. Unsprung weight is that portion of a vehicle that is not supported by the suspension (i.e. wheels, tires and brakes) and therefore is the most susceptible to road shock and cornering forces. By reducing unsprung weight, alloy wheels provide more precise steering input and improved "turning in" characteristics. So what. SO WHAT!? This is a key concept that many people overlook. We have been telling you for a long time now to get light weight wheels and tires. Here's how it all comes together.

Every time you hit a bump, the wheel assembly is accelerated upwards, decelerates to a stop, then accelerates downward till it reaches equilibrium. If the wheel can’t accelerate fast enough, shock is transmitted to the body, which may upset the balance of the car. A s an example think of small, sharp edged speed bumps versus those gigantic, but wide, monsters in some lots. The sharp edged ones are much more annoying to traverse, aren’t they? That’s because they require the suspension to accelerate more rapidly. Now imagine going over some stutter bumps in a corner. You’ll have a very rapid series of accelerations and decelerations. If the wheel is lighter, it will accelerate upwards and downwards faster (a=F/m). This means it will follow the road better and, even more importantly, it will allow the suspension to work better. The shock and spring will have to control less unsprung weight/mass, which means they can stop and start the motion of the assembly easier and at a rapid pace.

Why Reduce Unspring Wieght?

Reducing unsprung weight minimizes the load placed on controlling the motion of the wheels and tires. This means that suspension springs and shock absorbers will have a greater reserve capacity to control body motion -- just as they were intended to! The result is better handling, which we, as tuners, are all after.

In part two of this article, we will discuss the other end of the spectrum: why it is good to have a low weight wheel/tire, but not for suspension, for acceleration.