What is adaptive suspension?

  • How does adaptive suspension work?
  • Should I consider paying extra for it?
  • Parkers explains the tech

While many drivers would love a sporty, sharp-handling car for weekend B-road blasts, the optimum type of suspension for that type of machine can be too firm and frantic for weekday commuting.

Adaptive suspension, however, allows the driver, at the flick of a switch, to choose between a firm ride tuned for handling or a softer one suited to everyday driving over bumpy, potholed roads.

How does adaptive suspension work?

There are three main types of adaptive suspension, and they all work differently. All three are fitted with dampers (also known as shock absorbers) to make sure the car doesn’t hop about all over the road on their springs when they encounter a bump. Dampers generally consist of a cylinder containing thick oil and a piston; holes in the piston allow it to move up and down inside the oil-filled cylinder cushioning the car’s ride as it goes over bumps. Most adaptive suspension systems operate along some variation of that principle.

The ease with which the piston moves through the oil determines the ride quality — the harder it is for the piston to move, the firmer the car’s ride. In simple terms, the bigger those holes in the piston, the easier it moves and, thus, the softer the ride.

Valve-actuated adaptive suspension 

Some manufacturers’ adaptive suspension systems work using a series of valves to control the rate at which the piston moves inside the damper cylinder. Depending on the driver’s preference, they can control whether the ride is soft or hard by using a switch in the cabin. Manufacturers including Volkswagen with its Dynamic Chassis Control system use a set-up along these lines.

Magnetorheological damping

Another variation on this is magnetorheological damping, which, instead of using the same complex line-up of valves, uses a fluid inside the damper containing metallic particles. The fluid’s characteristics change if a magnetic charge is applied and so, if a magnetic field is applied, the viscosity increases and the ride gets harder; if not, the ride remains soft and more comfortable. Again, this is controlled by a switch in the cabin. Audi’s Magnetic Ride Control system, among others, works on this principle.

Adaptive air suspension

Another entirely different type of system is adaptive air suspension, which sees steel coil springs replaced by rubber or polyurethane airbags. Conventional dampers are used in conjunction with these, and they are usually adaptive items, as described above. A compressor and series of valves allows the airbags to be filled or bled of air, depending on the driver’s preference.

Generally the more air in the airbags, the firmer the ride will be. One key benefit of adaptive air suspension is that the driver can alter the ride height, meaning that it can be useful for 4x4s where extra ground clearance might be desirable. For less extreme driving, the air suspension can be lowered for greater aerodynamic efficiency on motorways or to compensate for a heavy load in the back, keeping the car level. Land Rover, Bentley and Mercedes are among the manufacturers to use different adaptive air suspension systems.

Adaptive air suspension

Do I need it?

You don’t need it. But if being able to significantly alter your car’s handling characteristics depending on its role is important to you, then adaptive suspension can be a useful alternative to keeping a Lotus in the garage for the weekend, as it allows drivers to have their cake and eat it.

For those who take their vehicles off road, regularly carry heavy loads in the rear or who tow a trailer or caravan, adaptive air suspension can also be useful to keep the car level and poised.

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Every manufacturer that uses an adaptive suspension system has a different name for it. VW has Dynamic Chassis Control, Mercedes uses Active Suspension, Ford’s is Continuously Controlled Damping… The list goes on.

Looking for more jargon-busting motoring meanings? Head over to our Parkers Car Glossary page and take a look at our other definitions