Have you noticed how some cars feel floatier or bouncier than others? A lot of this variance in vehicle ride quality is due to the shock absorbers.
Shock absorbers are suspension components that regulate the springs of the vehicle so that your tires are always on the ground at all times. If it weren’t for these shock absorbers, driving would be a rather unpleasant and uncomfortable experience.
What Is a Shock Absorber?
As you drive, the springs in your suspension compress and expand. Once a spring is compressed, it may oscillate several times before it returns to its resting shape. This oscillation would bounce the whole vehicle if you didn’t have shocks. The sensation would feel a bit like jumping on a trampoline.
A shock absorber is a fluid-filled cylinder that dampens oscillations induced by imperfections in the road. Your vehicle’s suspension system has one shock absorber at each corner of the vehicle; four shocks total. Some shocks are placed inside the spring. This setup is called a coilover or a strut, depending on the suspension architecture.
See Also: 9 Symptoms of a Faulty Strut Mount
What Can Happen if a Shock Absorber Fails?
A failed or “blown” shock can upset the handling of the vehicle. If you watch a car drive with a broken shock, you may notice one tire subtly bounce up and down across the road surface like a basketball. In extreme cases, this tire may even leave the ground, leaving you without any grip on that corner of the vehicle momentarily.
Blown shocks can increase wear on other parts of the vehicle as well. You may notice strange wear patterns on the tires such as lateral striping across the tire tread.
Worn shocks are typically accompanied with excessive vibration, particularly at higher speeds. High levels of vibration could cause fasteners around the vehicle to loosen. This is very dangerous if those fasteners are the ones holding the brake calipers onto the car, for instance.
Top 5 Symptoms of a Bad Shock Absorber
The shock absorber should last for a long time but there is no guarantee that it won’t malfunction at some point down the road. When the shock absorber eventually does go bad, there will a series of symptoms that will present themselves.
You may only experience one or two symptoms in the beginning, but then more will likely present themselves if you don’t replace the shock absorber soon.
Below are the top 5 symptoms of a bad shock absorber.
Related: 5 Signs of a Bad Coil Spring
1) Steering Wheel Vibrations
There are numerous components and parts that are inside a shock absorber, such as the piston seals and valves. When these parts get worn out, fluid will come out of the valves or seals rather than maintain a steady flow.
This will result in vibration coming from the steering wheel. The shaking will become more intense if you drive over a pothole, rocky terrain, or a bump.
2) Uneven Tire Wear
Shock absorbers are all about keeping your tires even and aligned on the road. If you have bad shock absorbers, then your tires will not wear evenly and replacing with new tires will need to happen sooner than expected.
As a result, your tires will begin to show unusual wear patterns (like cupping) as you drive on them because there are different areas of each tire touching the road. This will only make your driving experience more inconvenient and it will create a bouncy ride.
Related: Common Reasons For Inside Tire Wear
It is common for a driver to apply the brakes as they’re beginning to make a turn. But if you notice your vehicle swerving as you do this, then you might have a bad shock absorber.
The reason for this is that all the vehicle’s weight pulls toward the opposite direction in which the steering wheel is being turned.
4) Leaky Fluid
As you already know, there are seals inside of the shock absorber which keep the suspension fluid contained. If these seals get worn out, the suspension fluid will leak out onto the body of the shock absorber. You probably won’t notice this leak right away until the fluid starts going onto the road.
If you still don’t notice the leaky fluid, then your vehicle will eventually malfunction after enough fluid leaks from the shock absorber. Consider the steering wheel vibrations mentioned earlier as a prewarning sign to the leak.
5) Poor Braking Performance
A very noticeable symptom of a bad shock absorber is slow braking. This is when you apply foot pressure to the brake pedal and then the braking system takes a few seconds or more to respond.
This is a clear indication that your shock absorber may be to blame. Obviously, you’ll want to address this problem immediately.
How Long Do Shock Absorbers Last?
In many cases, shock absorbers will last a very long time – somewhere between 60,000 and 110,000 miles. If you drive over many rough roads or like to go racing, shocks may out a little faster than normal.
If you notice the ride quality of your car start to worsen, it may be time to replace the shocks.
Shock Absorber Replacement Cost
A replacement set of four shocks will run anywhere from $400 to $800. Performance shocks with additional feature can cost over $2,000. Labor for this job is fairly inexpensive; it won’t take long for a professional mechanic to install a set of shocks. The labor cost is anywhere from $200 to $400.
Replacing shock absorbers can be quite dangerous if you need a spring compressor. If you don’t feel completely comfortable doing the job yourself, it’s best to let the pros handle it. If you opt to replace the entire coilover assembly (and not just the shock), you won’t need to use a spring compressor. This makes the job safer and easier for the home mechanic.
Related: 10 Best Shock Absorber Brands