Choosing aftermarket suspension for your car doesn’t have to be difficult. Despite the wide range of options out there, most of us can narrow down our choices by asking one question:
Are coilovers, or springs and shocks better for my application?
The catch is, this initial choice before looking at the individual products, isn’t so easy to make.
Many people will say to use ‘lowering springs for street, coilovers for track’, but that can be a misguided opinion.
In this article, we’ll review the true differences between coilovers and shocks using lowering springs, and why one may be better than another for your unique scenario.
Typically the cheaper option, lowering springs are mostly considered the easiest way to lower a car.
Best for those on a tight budget and are considering a DIY install, lowering springs can be quicker to install than coilovers, however many coilover manufacturers are shipping their setups pre-assembled and with great guides nowadays, so this isn’t always the case.
There are however, some things that you should consider when comparing lowering springs with coilovers.
When using a lowering spring on your car, the spring has a shorter length, while the weight of your car remains the same.
This may be obvious, but what isn’t obvious is that your new spring has less room to support the same amount of weight.
Your new springs need to work harder, meaning they need to use a higher ‘spring rate‘. This is what people are referring to when they say how ‘firm’ a spring will be – lowering springs need to be firmer and the result can be a harsher ride quality.
This isn’t always a negative, some people prefer to ‘feel more of the road’ through their car, but it’s an important consideration when considering how to lower your car – especially if you have family members to keep happy.
Lowering springs are typically sold in 0.25″/~6.5mm increments, meaning you won’t be able to get the height of your car as perfect you could with a coilover.
But while each brand may offer the same amount of drop, in the real world each brand can be different. We’ve seen cases where a coilover is a full quarter inch higher than the claimed drop provided, so it’s worth doing research specific to your car and spring-type before buying.
This is one area where most coilovers are a clear winner against lowering springs – you can adjust your drop down to the millimetre.
The exception to this rule is the newly released H&R VTF lowering springs, which do offer height adjustment.
The good news is, by lowering the center of mass of your car, it’s likely to feel much more stable on the road, and you’ll experience better handling. Your car will be less likely to ‘body roll‘ through the corners, giving you more control as it stays flat through each turn.
Due to a lack of adjustability and perfectly matched springs with dampers however, you will be hard pressed to get the same sort of handling performance as coilovers.
Pros and Cons of Lowering Springs
Whether you’re looking for coilovers or lowering springs for daily driving, or to compare them for the track, the pros and cons of lowering springs are fairly consistent.
- Looks more OEM/factory standard
- less likely to cause trouble with the authorities
- can be better for daily driving
- less likely to void a warranty, outside of the shocks and struts
- Lack of adjustability
- Spring rate not always matched to damper
- Stiffer springs can cause a rougher ride
- Can cause faster wear of shocks and struts
- If you also need to buy a strut spring compressor tool, you can almost afford an entry level set of coilovers
Quality for quality, coilovers are more expensive than a simple set of lowering springs. This makes sense, as a set of coilovers is essentially a shock and spring which is integrated and matched together. It’s unrealistic to expect a set of coilovers, which comes with springs, to be the same price as a set of lowering springs.
Of course, if you’re comparing lowering springs vs cheap coilovers, you’ll likely find a set that match your budget in each category – but it’s worth asking; why is this set of coilovers the same price as a set of lowering springs?
Chances are you’ll have a better experience with a high quality set of lowering springs than the cheapest set of coilovers you can find.
But if you’re willing to spend a few extra bucks, coilovers can provide a much better outcome. One of the biggest difference between coilovers and shocks with lowering springs is adjustability. Coilovers typically give you far more options to adjust your suspension geometry and other settings, including:
One of the less-talked about benefits of coilovers vs lowering springs is the fact that the spring and shock are a perfect match. When adding a lowering spring to a standard shock or strut, the spring rate, shock length and shock valving often doesn’t match.
It’s not a concern for everyone, but this can affect the general ride of your car including how it handles and corners.
In extreme cases, lowering springs can come loose if there is too much travel in the shock – not something you want to happen out on the streets!
Almost all models of coilovers allow for very specific height adjustment (to the millimetre) by using an adjustable collar on the threaded coilover body.
So while a lowering spring may offer a 1.25in/31.75mm drop, a coilover may give you range of 0.8-2.3in/20-60mm in drop.
This means you are able to get your car riding at your absolute desired height – necessary for making sure tire to guard gap is perfect, and eliminates the problem of springs that ride slightly too high in the front and too low in the rear.
Rebound Damping Adjustment
Rebound is the force that is experienced when a shock returns from its compressed state to its original state. Think about hitting a bump, hard – your wheel will lift up into the guard of your car.
Rebound adjustment controls how quickly, or slowly, your wheel is pushed back to the ground.
Sometimes this feels bouncy or stiff because of spring rate and/or damping force settings don’t match each other – one is either too stiff or too soft. This is one of the major difference between coilovers and shocks with lowering springs. Often the lowering springs aren’t matched to the shock, and therefore the rebound isn’t set up correctly.
By using a coilover with adjustable damping force you can control this experience, greatly improving performance, comfort and safety at the same time, by keeping your wheels on the road for more of the time.
Compression (Bump) Adjustment
Though the least common of all coilover adjustment features, compression, or bump adjustment features on higher-end units and allows for finer tuning, especially important for those heading to the track.
When hitting a bump, the coilovers absorb the upward movement of the car, then the dampers go into rebound.
In an under-damped car, this continues until the car returns to the original position, causing a bouncing motion to the car.
If there is too much damping, it’s similar to having little to no suspension in your car – any upward motion from bumps will be sent to the chassis. Your tyres and other suspension components will work harder, as will you at the wheel! Expect lack of traction in high-power cars.
While higher damping is suited to the track, it creates an uncomfortable and difficult to drive car on the streets – not the best for daily driving.
The highest-end coilovers will feature both low-speed and high-speed compression adjustment. As it sounds, these features allow you to adjust compression for bumps at high-speed, and for low-speed such as cornering and braking.
Adjustable Upper Mounts (Caster & Camber Plates)
Coilover top hats go by so many names due to their wide range of variations and adjustability, though most people tend to call them “camber plates”.
Essentially an upper mount or top hat refers to the plate that bolts the top of your coilover to the chassis. It’s most common for them to only be used in the front of the car, but it depends on your make and model of both car and coilover.
Many top mounts are not adjustable, and some brands require you to use your OEM strut top hats, as supplied from factory.
Higher-end coilovers however, offer adjustable upper mounts, which can give you far greater range of adjustment for aligning your suspension.
Nearly all adjustable upper mounts allow for camber adjustment, which is why many people refer to them as “camber plates”. This allows for you to dial in far more camber than is possible using your car’s standard range of adjustment.
Negative camber is commonly used by people before heading to the track, as it allows for more grip during cornering. It’s also popular for those running low or negative offset wheels, by those looking for the “stanced” or “flush” look, as it allows for fine tuning the wheel gap between the tire and your guard.
Less common than camber-only plates, coilover top hats with caster adjustment tend to be paired with race-specific coilovers.
Adjusting caster angle allows you to move your wheel hub forwards or backwards from a vertical position. Most cars come from factory with a degree of caster already used, as it makes the car more stable and allows the steering wheel return to center more easily.
More caster can be confidence inspiring for enthusiasts, as straight-line stability improves and during cornering the caster also increases camber, however this comes with heavier steering which can make your car less responsive.
Coilovers vs Lowering Springs: It Depends
There’s no simple answer in this debate, but if you’re still unsure, know that coilovers are much more complex units than lowering springs. If you are limited to a low budget, say $300, you’re going to get a better product by purchasing a set of lowering springs rather than a budget set of coilovers.
But if you’re looking for true adjustability, performance and the best possible outcome, a set of quality coilovers that is well set up is going to be very difficult to beat, even with a well matched shock and spring combination.
It’s almost always best to install coilovers before upgrading your wheels, but even if you’re going with lowering springs it’s still safest to do your suspension upgrades first.