Front suspension evolution

Manufacturers, review sites and people in general say that today’s cars handle better than cars did in the past. My 1990 Mazda MX-6, my 2006 Subaru Legacy GT and the 2012 Kia Optima that I’m considering buying, all have MacPherson strut configurations for their front suspension. As far as I’ve seen from working on my cars, the MacPherson setup is a strut/spring mounted to the body of the car at the top, to the steering knuckle/hub at the bottom of the strut, which in turn is mounted to the lower control arm/ball joint. Since this basic MacPherson design doesn’t appear to have changed much, at least in the last 22 years worth of cars that I’ve owned, what else do manufacturers do to the suspensions that justify the claim that today’s cars handle better than in years past? For reference, the Mazda MX-6 uses an independent, strut/twin-trapezoidal link as its rear suspension and the Legacy uses an independent, strut/multilink suspension in the rear. Those terms sure do sound very similar to me. The Kia Optima appears to use a separate strut and spring configuration in the rear, with mulitlink suspension.

Thanks in advance.

I have owned a few cars and trucks in 40 years of driving, and have not been unhappy about any vehicles handling.

Drive the Optima and decide for yourself whether or not it “handles better” than your previous cars.

The suspension design doesn’t matter. How the car feels to you, when you drive it, is what matters.

You’re over-analyzing this.

BMWs used the same McPherson front suspension, and they have been considered some of the best-handling cars out there (I’m not so sure now, they’re going soft it seems). But that shows the secret is in the details, not the basic design. Spring rates, precise suspension geometry, bushing design, and (most importantly) shock/strut design and valving. Also important are the high-performance tires now commonplace.

I am of the opinion that front suspension has a more profound effect on handling than does rear suspenion. The car that I consider to be the best driving car that I have owned was a German Opel with a solid rear axle like all rear drive US cars used to have. The Opel had a double “A” frame type front suspension, also like most US cars used to have.

Struts are relatively new in my book. Before that were front springs and shocks just like on the rear or torsion bars with Chrysler. I suppose the handling is better but the ride was sure smoother with springs and shocks and shocks could be replaced for about $15 instead of $150. Disc brakes, now that’s something I wouldn’t part with.

Macpherson strut suspension can be made dirt cheap with components that look like they belong in a retractable ball-point pen (BIC Suspension) or if the manufacturer so desires, they can be made to deliver long life and exceptional handling…Perfectly suited to unibody cars, they have a low parts count and low unsprung weight. What is important is the quality of the suspension dampers (shock absorbers) contained in the strut tubes…“Your car needs new struts” are not words car-owners like to hear…

Bear in mind that most basic automotive technology like suspension and steering haven’t really altered that much in decades. All the important discoveries and inventions were made early on. The only exception to these would probably be variable stiffness shocks that use computer control to change the viscosity of the fluid inside, electric power steering (which I think usually makes things worse), and variable-rate steering. And of course stability control. It’s been possible to build a very nice handling car for a long time now, though admittedly it took some time for the major manufacturers to learn lessons from the ‘exotics’.

So cars handling better these days could be mostly attributed to:
-Less weight than older cars.
-Better aerodynamics
-Better tires

I think it’s really about the manufacturer’s priority. If it’s a performance brand, or a car that’s meant to be ‘sporty’, it will naturally use a setup that results in better handling, possibly at the expense of ride quality, ground clearance, etc. Compare a Porsche’s handling to a Buick for example. One of the worst handling cars I ever drove was a Buick Regal that I had as a rental. I took an on ramp in the Regal at a speed that wouldn’t even elicit a peep from my daily driver, and in the Buick it was a body-leaning, tire-howling, startling experience. Bear in mind that my car at the time was actually a larger car than the Buick, and likely weighed the same or more.

Of course how much you’re willing to pay is also a factor in the design.

“all have MacPherson strut configurations for their front suspension”

It’s like playing the same old song, but with improved instruments.

The Ford cars until the 1949 model was introduced had a transverse leaf spring suspension both in the front and rear. In the 1966 Mechanix Illustrated, for his 20th anniversary of writing for MI, Tom McCahill compared a 1966 Ford Galaxie with a 1946 Ford which was the first vehicle he tested and reported for MI. Even though the 1966 Ford had the 390 V-8 engine with over 250 horsepower as compared to the 1946 Ford with its 85 horsepower V-8 and the 1966 Ford had much better acceleration and a far higher top speed, the 1946 Ford ran away from the 1966 Ford on the test track. Now I am certain that the handling of Ford products has improved over the last 45 years, but I have often wondered how a 1946 Ford with its “horse and buggy” suspension would compare in handling with a Ford Fusion or Taurus of today.

You want a real thrill?? Drive a car equipped with 78 series bias-ply tires…Todays cars can usually manage .75-.8G side load (cornering ability). With those old rag tires, you were lucky to get .4-.5 G in a turn before the car just slipped out from under you…

I believe (as others have also pointed out) that it’s the ratio of how things are set up and put together that makes the difference. I think it’s Whitey (may be wrong) who also owns a 4Runner out there. Does yours have the “X-REAS” suspension system? It’s a really simple system, using hydraulics to cross-link the corners of the truck, and the handling has been greatly improved, while body roll has been significantly reduced. Still mcpherson style shocks on all 4 corners. I can’t drive it like my wife’s small car, but I can really throw it around if I need to.

If you don’t believe the difference a tiny bit of hydraulics can make, test drive them both yourself. It’s truly more of a sports car drive than a truck. Having said that, with this suspension setup, you’re almost done if you want to try and lift it or anything else. Just take the system off and toss it if that’s your goal.

I have often wondered how a 1946 Ford with its “horse and buggy” suspension would compare in handling with a Ford Fusion or Taurus of today.

Poorly. Remember that today, minivans are out performing (both acceleration and handling) yesteryear’s race cars.

The '66 Ford probably had pillow-like spring rates.

I once drove a Chevy Biscayne from that era.
At speed you could rapidly turn the steering wheel a 1/4 turn each way and it would rock side to side like a small airplane, almost no change in direction.

My Aunt and Uncle had a 1940 Ford convertible when I was a teen age driver. The car had quicker steering than many cars of the 1950s. Their 1958 Ford Fairlane had particularly slow steering. These were the days when power steering was an option and many cars didn’t have that option. To make the car easier to drive, the steering ratio was rather high on non-power steering cars. The 1940 Ford had quick steering, but it was rather heavy. At that time, rack and pinion steering was only on some imported cars. The first car I owned with rack and pinion steering was a 1975 AMC Pacer. It had the best handling of any car I had owned up to that point.

Its the tires, period. The purpose of the suspension is to keep the tires on the road, preferably with the tread as flat as possible to the surface of the road. But ultimately, its the tires where the rubber meets the road.

According to CR, the suspension components on the VW diesel have been degraded and the car handles worse then before. So it proves that some things do evolve, for the worse.
BTW, it’s a testament to how good suspension components have become in general when fwd cars actually handle decently and deliver much less torque steer then before.

@keith - tires, yes, but I don’t think a '74 Caprice with blown out shocks and great tires would handle just like a Corvette.

unless you read/hear reviews on the Mazdaspeed 3. It’s about all they talk about when reviewing the car.

I seem to see 3 types of front suspensions nowadays.

The traditional SLA (short & long control arm), with a coil spring between the lower arm & the frame. Or a torsion bar instead of a coil spring. A lot more GM trucks have torsion bars nowadays

The “normal” Macpherson strut described by pjsemmer, with the top of the strut at the body & the bottom at the knuckle. No upper control arm.

The pivot based strut. Similar to a regular Macpherson set up, but with the bottom of the strut attached to the lower control arm. Also, there’s an upper control arm.

Rear suspensions–there’s so many different designs. Bewildering!

As far as checking load bearing (usually the lower) ball joints for wear, you’d be surprised how often mechanics oversell this part, working, as they do, under the assumption that all vehicles have zero play as the spec. (Many light trucks give more than 1/10" of play.) As a PA Safety Inspector working in a rural area, I see a lot of pickups in for state Inspection. I have a dial indicator kit that cost me $375–back in the mid '90’s. Since PA inspectors have to sign the inspection sticker they issue, (a legal document), & since that doggone gauge was so expensive, I always measure ball joint play with it if there’s any question. Then the manager or whoever freaks cause I’m taking waaaay too long on my state inspections.

“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…”