Most regular Joe’s know that your shocks affect how the car handles, perhaps understand that it isn’t just down to the shocks, that tires also affect ride quality, and of course, passenger comfort of all the occupants of the vehicle.
But worn shocks (also known as dampers – there is a technical difference) will also have an impact on how well your car brakes. They can dramatically increase stopping distances, even make driving in the wet weather more dangerous – they aren’t just about cornering and comfort.
Spotting a worn out shock absorber or damper should be easy. You’ll instantly feel how ‘floaty’ the car is, … and it’s a very big but … if you’re driving the same one car over a period of years, the degradation won’t necessarily be noticed because it happens slowly and you just get used to it – it’ll feel normal until you drive a similar model and finally realize.
Occasional a mechanic might pick up the fact that the shocks are worn, quite often you’ll see fluid leaking from them, but that’s not always the case either.
If you’ve noticed that one of your shock absorbers is failing, you may just be tempted to replace that one single shock, but in my experience, and in every professional mechanics experience, that’s really not a smart move – you should replace a pair as a minimum.
The reason being is that a new shock will act vastly different to an older and worn shock, which will lead to a handling imbalance, which could be even more dangerous than having two worn shocks. Personally speaking, I don’t know why retailers sell shock absorbers as single units, I believe it to be dangerous practice, as will most mechanics.
Before deciding on what shocks or dampers you need, it’s important to understand the differences, and some of the terminology – adjustable ride height, remote reservoir, coil over … unless of course you’re just looking to replace a standard OEM item for another, equally standard item.
Do you want to upgrade your shock absorbers, or just fit the simplest (which is usually the cheapest) option to get you back on the road? Personally, I feel that if I’m going to the time and expense of fitting new dampers, I may as well combine that with fitting something that will be better for what I want personally.
Perhaps you drive an SUV that does a lot of towing or load lugging, or drive a sporty little European two-seater that you’re looking to modify, or have a big fast sedan that feels a bit loose when you light it up … all of these are considerations for you.
Do you want to be able to adjust how firm the ride is? Something a little softer for everyday driving, but being able to stiffen it up for some performance driving, maybe you have a thing about being the next big drift king (or queen) … whatever the reason, it’s important to understand your needs before purchasing.
And don’t just assume that ‘performance’ will make you any faster on the road. I’ve driven some cars with performance shocks where the owner was adamant that it would be quick because “it’s stiff” – too stiff in fact, and therefore much slower because it couldn’t get the power down and wouldn’t soak up the bumps properly – kinda hopping and skipping over the road.
Finally, I’ve seen people fit shocks because they’re the same length (both physically and stroke size – how much the piston compresses), so therefore ‘they fit’. What they didn’t realise is that the damping rate (think of it like spring rate) was way off. Yes, it physically fitted the car, but was undriveable thanks to it being too stiff.
Shocks VS Dampers
Technically there is a difference between a shock absorber and a damper, but to all intents and purposes, most people believe that the terminology is the same.
Other differences to know are whether something is a ‘coil over’ or non-coil over. A coil over shock means that it has a coiled steel spring wrapped around the shock absorber, which just gives an extra degree of control and car setup – it’s possible to replace the spring with a heavier gauge, making the damping stiffer. Non-coil overs are just the single damper on its own.
Sticking with coil overs and springs … the springs typically come in two different forms – single rate or progressive. A single rate spring is just that … no matter what level of compression is used, the deflection rate is the same (until you hit coil bind – where the coils of the springs are rubbing against each other). And a progressive rate spring will gradually deflect more, the further it’s compressed.
The Best Shock Absorbers
Now that we’ve covered some of the basics, let’s look at some of the options; I’ve chosen 8 different shock absorbers, some are sold individually, some in pairs and one complete kit for all four corners. While these examples here are vehicle specific, most of the shocks are available for a wide range of different vehicles, I’ve just chosen some examples purely for review – depending on what it is that you need, you’re going to find something suitable within this list for your vehicle.
1. Bilstein (24-186742) 5100 Series Rear Shock Absorber
When I was ‘hands on’ in the automotive trade, my last real job was as a manager for a large sports car manufacturer, the vehicles themselves were fitted with ‘Billys’ as standard fitment – they were a great compromise of life, ride quality and price, more importantly, they couldn’t be fiddled with, which meant customers couldn’t do themselves harm by playing with them.
I mention this because while these seem pretty plain, they offer exactly the same qualities – excellent life, good ride comfort, and a reputation for delivering what you’d expect, and as an OE replacement, that is exactly what you want.
Sure, they don’t offer adjustments, there’s no complications and the monotube design doesn’t look fancy-schmancy, but that’s exactly the point of these shocks – fit them to your standard car and forget them. They’ll work exactly the same as your standard shocks, so there’s no need to swap out the fronts to match (unless they’ve worn) and they’re a great substitute for the originals, and priced well enough to compete with OEM stuff.
2. Monroe 58640 Load Adjusting Shock Absorber
The Monroe shocks do a great job of balancing carrying extra weight (and keeping the same standard ride height) with not being too stiff for every day use. A pair of these bad boys fitted will keep your vehicle correctly positioned with up to 1,100lbs of extra load added.
They use what they call ‘all weather fluid’ with special modifiers to lessen friction and promote a smoother reaction when under load, which is helped by full displaced valving, specific to each vehicle line. They adjust rapidly to changing road or weight conditions, and won’t feel as though the bump rate is too slow.
These coil over shocks come with a heavy gauge spring for an added dimension of control and stability, which is how they manage to up the load without making the ride to firm or choppy without that extra load. They also use a Fluon brand piston for precise control and lengthened life span – simply put, these things virtually never fail.
If a bit of extra hauling capacity is your regular game, whether that’s towing or load in the bed, then the Monroe load adjusting shocks are the ones you need - #1 choice for heavy loads.
3. KYB 554384 Gas-a-Just Gas Shock
This particular model is a monotube design, but you can buy a twin-tube upgrade in its place. It’s been designed as a standard replacement for all OEM applications, and KYB say that it restores handling and control to exactly what it should be, not only that, but it will outperform all other standard shock absorbers on the market.
That’s a big claim.
The KYB 554384 Gas Shock uses a high gas pressure design to keep everything in check, and it allows for an instant (but not over-reactive) control of bumps and road conditions. The design itself is unique, and totally air-free, which should also eliminate any fade from hard use, which is quite common on lower end or non-performance shock absorbers.
KYB have a great name in the industry, and if I was looking for standard replacement, it would be a choice between these and the Bilsteins, depending on the model of vehicle – definitely worth checking to see if they list your vehicle for standard fitment.
4. Gabriel 43162 Rear Spring Assist Load Carrier Shocks
Something that I didn’t know until this article, but it’s very definitely worth pointing out – Gabriel have been around for well over 100 years. It’s thanks to them that we had the original shock absorber, and the hydraulic shock, and the adjustable shock and the air adjustable shock … what I’m saying is that these guys know a thing or two about building shock absorbers.
Gabriel state that this is their go at combining a shock absorber and spring technology in an economical product, and given the price, you’d have to say they’ve done it. Keeping on that theme for a moment – they recommend changing out the shocks every 50,000 miles, which sounds pretty low to be honest, but then I believe Gabriel have priced these well enough to do just that.
The rear shocks use a variable rate spring to help control loads of up to 500lbs extra, and if you choose the front shocks, the spring rate is set and constant. Once again, with these sort of products, it’s about finding that butter zone where you’ve got increased load capacity without having a detrimental effect on the handling, and Gabriel seem to have found it.
A very similar product to the Monroe kit, so check out both before deciding. For me, the fact that Gabriel have been around for so long, and that the prices are just that little more competitive, I’m tempted.
5. Fox Racing 98024677 Shock Absorber
Straight from the FOX 2.0 Performance series, and while it’s not quite as cost effective as some of the others here, there’s good reason for that; FOX have been building race components and shocks for a while now, and they’ve a pretty good reputation for building solid equipment that performs well, so if you’re in the market for something more performance orientated, then these may be for you.
The whole performance thing comes about in a few different ways. The body of the shock is made from seamless aluminum to help it dissipate heat faster and more efficiently. They use what FOX calls an IFP – Internal Floating Piston to maximize damping efficiency and the dampers are completely tuneable and 100% serviceable – which a lot of the lower end shock absorbers aren’t – once they’re done, they’re DONE.
There are hundreds of performance brands out there, and FOX are highly regarded amongst them, so they totally deserve the place on this list of best shock absorbers. Check them out if you’re looking for sporty dampers.
6. Skyjacker B8517 MAX Shock Absorber
This is a twin tube construction that uses ‘foam cell’ technology. Essentially, the Skyjacker dampers have an increased fluid capacity over standard items, to help with the cooling, or as Skyjacker put it … for MAX heat dissipation, the foam cell thing is incorporated to help control the expansion of the oil when it’s heated through use.
The other benefits of the foam cell insert is that performance of the shock absorber is fairly consistent (thanks to controlling the expansion), and it helps to eliminate air from the inside of the damper unit, which allows the MAX shocker to be mounted in any direction – even upside down if needed (and that’s quite a common modification for some cars).
The shocks also have vehicle specific multi-stage valving, so they’re setup perfectly for a standard vehicle line, whichever vehicle that may be. I would describe these as a performance shock absorber, not because of higher damping rates, but purely through the fact that they can be used hard (thanks to better heat dissipation) and mounted at any angle – maybe not such a useful feature for a standard car, but if you’re looking at heavy modification, these shocks should be looked at.
7. ACDelco 580-435 GM Original Equipment Front Shock Absorber
AC Delco are the official GM supplier for parts manufacturing, so what you’re getting here is official dealer parts, but without the dealer prices.
These particular shocks are for the GM cars fitted with the Magnetic Ride Control option, they aren’t just a standard oil filled shock using traditional valving to control the suspension – they’re a bit more technical.
Of course, these front shock absorbers are only great value and useful if you have the MRC on your vehicle, they won’t fit or work on any other vehicles. While they’re worthy of being in this list, that’s only if you’re looking for direct OEM parts.
8. Belltech 9145 Nitro Drop 2 Shock Absorber Set
The parent company of Belltech is KW Automotive, a well known and well respected automotive suspension company, so what you’re getting here is a product designed and built with input from KW Automotive, making them extremely good value. This price is for a set of four dampers, in fact, Belltech label them as ‘value orientated’, and that’s exactly what they are.
Despite the VFM angle, Belltech have developed a great set of shocks for standard road cars. They have some nice features which may be missed on other shock absorbers – the cavitation free valving ensures that air can’t decrease the effectiveness through fade, and the valves are specific to each model range that provide a proper fitment, in actual fact, the fitment itself is fully guaranteed.
These shock absorbers offer a level of original ride quality, but with an added eye towards improved control, performance and comfort, and have been designed for standard cars that have been lowered – regaining original ride quality is difficult when you start playing with geometry and ride heights, so these shocks are the perfect answer to keeping it feeling standard.
If you’ve got a lowered ride, then these shocks are a must. You can’t use standard shocks effectively once it’s been lowered because they’re designed to work within a specific range – these will bring back that quality ride feeling.
Finally, fitting shock absorbers is relatively straight forward, but it’s worth knowing that you made need specialist tools (like a spring compressor), and that if the shock is fully extended before fitting, it’s likely that you’re going to need to lever it in to compress it to make it fit. Don’t expect to be able to compress it by hand – this isn’t some sort of ‘Bull Worker’ exerciser thing – it’s been designed to hold up thousands of pounds in weight in the form of a car – I guarantee that even if you’re regular gym bunny, you won’t compress it.