By on June 19, 2009

In a previous Piston Slap, David Holzman and I discussed:

DH: Are old car reviews doomed to vastly underrate the cars relative to how they drove when new—unless they’ve recently been overhauled?

SM: Yes. I talked to the owner of the 1996 Explorer I reviewed, mentioning the correlation between a terrible ride and 13-year-old shocks. He’s less than thrilled with the idea, even though he hates the ride. So who in their right mind proactively replaces shocks on an old car?

And now, an update:

This Explorer got an upgrade from original Motorcraft shocks to a set of five (yes, five) new dampers from Bilstein. So what changed since the original review?

Everything. The narrow-body SUV got a serious boost in cornering confidence and ride comfort. There’s less lateral head bobbing and body roll, near elimination of suspension crashing, axle tramping and a far smoother ride. Credit some change to Bilstein’s well-known performance improvements over OEM parts, but most from the addition of a fresh set of shocks. Any shocks.

Now the $5000 Explorer rides 70 percent-ish as well as a $30,000 CUV. Maybe better, as it still feels like a beefy body-on-frame, V8 powered towing machine with some balls, not an uninspiring station wagon on stilts that does nothing especially well.

So yes, your old ride wants a new set of shocks, even if you think you can do without.

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42 Comments on “Piston Slap: A Somewhat Shocking Update...”

  • avatar

    at the time, i did disagree with you. there’s is never anything wrong with changing shocks, especially if you upgrade over the OEM shocks. workst case scenario you get a much better handling ride. and i don’t think it costs much anyway, if you have the tools or borrow them, you could do it yourself, as i did once.

  • avatar

    wow…..small world, I just changed the shocks a couple months ago on my……wait for it…….1996 explorer 4wd. Just weird. But yeah I’d say it makes a difference. Unless something else is wrong (ball joints in my case) but that is another day.

  • avatar
    johnny ro

    This phenomena of maintaining a vehicle’s suspension is oddly applicable to a narrow minority of drivers.

    Those who lease, well, they are out of scope. They don’t do repairs, and their cars are not old enough to need new suspension.

    Those who don’t know any better, out of scope. This is narrowing it down pretty fast.

    Those who truly care about the older car they drive, now we are down to a few % of driver.

    Next cut, the car really should be worth more than the repair job. This takes it down lower.

    OK, in 2005 I had a B13 1.6 Nissan Sentra. (1991-1994) Super clean, low miles. Either ultimate penalty box (wrong) or really nice small cheap nimble reliable fun japanese fwd 3 box coupe (correct). The cost of headers, plus cat back, plus quote for 4 struts (the struts professionally sold and installed) and alignment was $1400. The car was worth about $2000 regardless of condition, before or after the job. I did it myself for about half that, and yes it was a much better car afterwards. Cutting out the professional suspension work saved a lot. I got my moneys worth drivingfor another year and liking the car.

    Side note- Nissan japanese senior drivetrain engineer, riding shotgun in Ford Expedition around Magna Syracuse plant, “huh? why?” when told the B13 was a Nissan high water mark.

  • avatar

    Every vehicle I changed out the stock factory shocks with heavy duty gas units made a tremendous difference in ride/handling and even noise. Well worth the little it costs to do. Plus it doubles the life of your springs.

  • avatar

    I did it myself for about half that, and yes it was a much better car afterwards.

    Where did you get the spring compressor?

  • avatar

    Is there a way to test your shocks to see if they could use replacing?

  • avatar
    Eric Bryant

    Many vehicles, especially those from a decade or more ago, came with dampers that were garbage when new and quickly got worse from there. Even the handful of vehicles that got decent shocks from the factory (GM went through a phase in the 90s where a lot of vehicles got nice DeCarbon or Bilstein dampers) can benefit from new parts after 50,000 miles or so.

    Suspension parts are wear items, especially for vehicles that get used hard or are exposed to Midwestern roads on a daily basis. Most of the folks who complain that their vehicle feels “worn out” just need to replace a handful of relatively inexpensive components to restore that almost-new feeling. Hell, swap out the correct parts (like the dampers), and it might even feel better than new!

  • avatar

    The last time I had shocks replaced – in an old Volvo – I asked about springs, and was told that they basically will last for longer than the ususal life of the car. I always wondered if that was true, or if it was more related to the cost of the job to the minimal benefit.

  • avatar

    I’ve been shocked by how little time it takes to wear out OEM suspension bits nowadays. A friend of mine went through the struts on his Mazda3 in 65000 kms (40 000 miles). My father’s G35 fared better, with the bushings and struts toast at 200 000 kms, while my mom’s Acura EL (Civic) still has the original suspension at 190 000kms.

    My car has a set of lifetime-guaranteed Tokico Blue struts. They are great, the handling is sharp and body control is excellent, and I know they won’t wear out anytime soon. And they cost something around 400$ for a set of four.

    What car? A 91 Q45. Yes, a two ton boat that actually handles, at least with the Tokicos anyway.

    PS for DIY: Here in Canerduh you can rent spring compressors at Canadian Tire for a small refundable deposit.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    “Where did you get the spring compressor?”

    Napa, Autozone, etc. Advance will “rent” you one for the day (you buy it, then get most of your money back when you return it unbroken).

    Springs themselves basically last forever as long as they don’t rust or ride around on blown shocks for too long. The best way to test the struts is to drive around on rough roads, although you can also do the “jump on the bumper” thing for older cars that have actual bumpers.

    This post reminds me that I need to get new Koni bumpstops so I can put the adjustable struts and progressive rate springs on my ’92 SE-R (B13 for the win: last of the IRS Sentras).

  • avatar

    After I changed the shocks on my 1998 Ford Ranger, I kicked myself pretty hard for not doing it earlier. Replacing the original shocks in 2005 with 150k miles with a set of Sensatracks made a world of difference.

    I kicked myself especially hard for not doing this earlier, since I’d just returned from a road-trip from Virginia to Colorado where I towed a trailer and had the bed filled with stuff. I’m pretty sure that if I’d put the shocks on before the trip, it would have taken a lot less work to keep the overloaded compact pickup truck under control.

    The job wasn’t hard, either. I did it an apartment-building’s parking lot with the spare tire jack, a set of jackstands, a set of wrenches, some zip-ties, and a little muscle. I didn’t even have to jack up the rear of the vehicle to change the back pair of shocks. It was more work than changing the brake pads/shoes but, seriously, if you can change a pair of brake pads, you can change the shocks on a Ranger/Explorer.

    Ever since this, it’s seemed to me that changing the shocks every time I change the tires would be reasonable (I get pretty good life out of tires, since I don’t autocross). In real life, it’s worked out so far that I actually change shocks with every other set of tires.

    And, yes, it did make my truck ride like a totally new vehicle!

  • avatar

    Now just think how much better it would’ve felt if the guy replaced all the bushings and strut bearings while he was at it.

  • avatar
    John Holt

    Bilsteins work wonders on that vintage Explorer, and they last twice as long as other aftermarket alternatives. Another worthwhile suspension upgrade is a solid front stabilizer bar (the 95-97s have hollow bars). A little added mass, but the roll control improvement is amazing.

  • avatar

    We had a 1992 Corolla for awhile that we acquired from my mother-in-law; she’d bought it new. The struts were terrible (for some reason the local Toyota dealership had changed two struts, diagonally apart, two years before; I always thought you were supposed to change them by axle).

    The car handled like crap so I decided to grin and bear it and got a brand new set of Monroes installed on all four wheels.

    It didn’t exactly add soul to the car, but it was massively better afterward. It made a world of difference.

    Expensive, perhaps, but money well spent. Also, we’re talking safety here – a good suspension makes the car so much easier to drive under duress.

  • avatar

    I sell parts for a living. Shocks are a tough sale. We have all kinds or promotions and that still really doesn’t seem to help.

    I had a 1996 Explorer V8 2wd. I put KYB mono max on it (very similar to Bilstein HD in ride but about 2/3 the cost) and lowered it about an inch. Suddenly I could toss it sideways and nail the gas creating a wonderful drift without feeling I was about to go over.

    The comment about suspension wearing out above is true. I sell tons of control arms for almost all makes especially BMW though. The rubber nowadays is shit.

    Upgrade to urethane bushings and some new shocks and you will love your car again.

  • avatar

    Should the car be worth more than the repair? I’ve always thought so, but I’m changing my mind – maybe another way of looking at it is the repair should cost less than the car you’d replace the older one with.

    I dislked the ride and handling (bottoming out on small bumps) of my ’98 Exporer and replaced the shocks myself – there are web sites that give you step by step instructions and pics. That and clean injectors made the car easier to live with and I felt a lot less pressure to sell it. Partly it was an improved engine and suspension feel, and partly it was due to “sweat equity” – basically I was proud of my work and decided to keep it. Looked at that way, the shocks saved me the price of a newer car.

  • avatar

    Replaced the original shocks n struts on my 1997 Escort Wagon at about 70,000 miles. The rear suspension was starting to make creaking noises over parking stops n the like. It made a world of difference in the ride and handling. Smoother ride and it could take corners like a tiny front wheel drive car should be able to! BTW I did use Monroe Sensatrac as replacements.

  • avatar

    I could have predicted new shocks would make a big dif in an old car. that’s a no-brainer. I was thinking more about the the kinds of components that are not normal maintenance items–as shocks are–when I emailed Sajeev. Springs, for example, or even the body. Will, say, a 40 year old body have metal fatigue that will noticeably worsen driving dynamics?

  • avatar


    I am not an engineer but I assume it would. I remember reading in Car and Driver (I believe it was Patrick Beard in one of his columns about a decade ago) a disertation about how back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s anyway that suspension engineers took into account body flex and springy-ness of the seats when calibrating spring rates and shock valving. I would guess that a 40 year old frame or unibody would have radically different torsional stiffness than it did when new.

  • avatar

    Where can I learn about suspensions?

    I have bmw x5 with a bit of play in the steering wheel (would like to fix it).

    How can I figure out what is wrong without going to a mechanic?


  • avatar

    @werewolf34 – there are a ton of bmw forums you can ask a question like that on. An alignment specialist should be able to tell you. I don’t know bmw’s but my first response would be, check out your steering rack bushings. But an x5 can’t be that old, so your bushings should be good. Could be as simple as tightening some bolts that weren’t torqued properly at some point. Anyhow take it to an alignment place first. If they can’t tell you exactly what’s wrong and say “it might be this” then they are just guessing and you should take it somewhere else and/or do your own research.

  • avatar

    I got eibach springs and kyb adjustable shocks on my car and love them, but what made an even bigger difference in the ride and handling was on the recommendation of my mechanic, for $100, he put on a set of polyurethane sub-frame bushings. Those made a HUGE difference. My car was low to begin with and with the eibach shocks almost an inch lower than stock. With the new bushings the ride went from hard and crashy over potholes, so smooth and tight. I would do that upgrade on any car that had a hard ride. I couldn’t believe what a difference it made.

  • avatar

    @Vash – Simple field test is to get on your back bumper, rock it until there’s a lot of up and down, jump off. If it keeps going up and down, time for new shocks.

    I used to have small fleets of Landcruiser 75/76 and 78/79s when I worked in Africa. Used to replace the shocks on a schedule. Very noticable improvements on new shocks.

  • avatar

    I wanted to install KYB’s on my 99 Grand Am, and, in fact, the KYB’s are in a box in my garage awaiting installation. Since I am not a masochist, they need to be installed by a technician with the proper tools. But even after 200,000 miles the originals are still going strong and the KYB’s are still in the box. Anyone want to make me an offer?

  • avatar

    Does this mean my Buick’s not supposed to feel this crappy? It only has 37,000 miles on it. I’ve been telling myself it was the “Buick ride”. Also I had a series of Hondas before it.

  • avatar

    do springs need to be changed at the same time as the shocks? car in question has 175k miles. thanks in advance.

  • avatar
    Kevin Kluttz

    johnny ro:

    Main reason for the B13 Nissan line being the high water mark? Three letters and a hyphen; S, E, and -R. (The Sentra SE-R, of course.) Bought one new in 1991. No problems for 83000 miles and endless fun.

    Then in 1993 came the really high water mark, the Altima. That was Nissan’s salvation. Had two of those, a 1997.5 and a 2000. 97.5 was flawless, and the 2000 was a POS. Go figure.

    Just to stay on subject, they all had good struts and I never had them replaced.

  • avatar

    I recently upgraded my 88 Mustang LX 5.0 Convertible with KYB’s all around. What a difference!! That, along with the sub-frame connectors to give the chassis needed rigidity, turned the old ‘Stang from a rattletrap to a near modern road car.

  • avatar

    97 T100 4×4 with about 106,000 miles. My primary vehicle is a motorcycle, so the T100 has not been driven much in the past many years. I am getting it sorted out for my wife to drive. Her car was totaled in a bad multiple car accident on an interstate a couple of months ago (she walked away from it – 2004 Focus ftw!).

    Anyhow, I had the tires replaced on the T100 about a month ago. A couple of weeks ago, I had the front shocks replaced with a pair of Monroes. The new front shocks improved the ride quality tremendously. It was a long overdue swap.

  • avatar


    Leaf or coil springs?

  • avatar

    Signal11: coil springs. 94 toyota corolla

  • avatar

    @ Holzman:

    Your question about body stiffness depends on two factors. Corrosion and prior use.
    A rust free car that ran on chuckhole free roads (think Northern California) might well have a body/frame structure nearly as good as new.
    A Michigan/Cleveland/Buffalo car can be a flexible-flyer after 5 yrs.

  • avatar

    There is little you can do to make your old ride feel (near) new again that is more effective than a new set of skins AND shocks at the same time. Every penny well spent.

    And have some mercy on that old iron…worn shocks just beat the hell out of the chassis. Replace ’em before they’re completely worn out. You might think it expen$ive, but you add years to the life of the vehicle. Makes the difference many times between being able to complete an emergency swerve & just crashing into whatever is downstream of you.

  • avatar

    I replace the shocks on my ’95 Sploder every 60-80,000 miles, they still seem pretty good at that interval, now my ’76 Chevelle would chew through a set of shocks every 30-40,000 miles due to it’s soft spring rate and my rather indifferent treatment of it in my younger days.

    I worked parts and it was rare that we sold shocks, even with the lure of free installation on a set of 4.

  • avatar

    But even after 200,000 miles the originals are still going strong and the KYB’s are still in the box. Anyone want to make me an offer?..

    No, they are not “going strong.” Put those KYB’s in and you will not believe you are in the same car.

    What’s wrong with proactive, scheduled replacement of struts? Even my station car got a set of Koni cartridges. Cutting the old strut apart to fit the new cartridge in was a bit of work, but wow. Stay away from cheap struts. Buy the best; save the coin by DIY. The Konis were for a Taurus SHO; the fit my old Sable as well. Six hundred bucks on a car that was then 15 years old might seem nuts, but with these struts, a set of SHO swaybars, new front springs (cake to do when you are doing the struts) and a set of performance Michelins, I can glue myself to the bumper of most cars on the entrance/exit ramp. Since I spend more time in my commuter car than any of the others, it was a good investment, at least for me.

    My wife’s father owned an auto repair shop. It never ceased to amaze him that people would spend 45K on a car without blinking, but when the car hits 80K miles and the struts are shot, their wallets slam shut.

  • avatar

    Any ideas on shocks for light trucks? Are Monroes alright? It’s mostly used as a car, although I ocasionally haul a load of gravel or pull a trailer. I have a four year old Dakota that I think needs them I can do this one. Shouldn’t be as hard as crawling under that old Nissan truck I had before.

  • avatar


    Sorry man, don’t know enough about your car/setup to comment with any authority. Didn’t mean to lead you on.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    On my truck and SUV I replaced the OEMs within a year. The vehicles always drove much better (I use Monroe, but would love to try a set of Bilsteins someday), even with the lower mileage (15-20k) on them. Plus, with the lifetime warranty, you can replace again in 80-100k.

  • avatar

    My Accord is 10 years old and has 160k. I got it when it was 4.5 years old and 67k. I doubt that the shocks have ever been replaced, although I don’t know that, but the thing feels solid over bumps, in hard corners, etc, and if I try to bounce the back of the car, I can’t. I will say that probably at least 2/3 of the driving has been on smooth highways or smooth country roads, but it does get its share of bad Boston area roads. Could the shocks really be in such good shape after all this time? Or would I be shocked at the wonder of it all if I replaced them?

  • avatar

    David Holzman : if I try to bounce the back of the car, I can’t.

    That means the shocks are toast. Just like the Explorer. It’s supposed to bounce once, not zero times.

  • avatar

    David Holtzman: dump ’em…Yes, you will be amazed at the difference. At 160K, they are long gone…Good news for you is that Accords have very good aftermarket choices…If you are more a comfort guy than handling, Monroe Quick struts are a fast and easy way to go. No need to use a spring compressor; the whole unit, spring and all, is changed out. At 160K, your springs are probably tired. If you are into dynamics in your ride, go for performance struts. With them, you probably could get away with reusing the springs – they are not your weak link at this point. If I recall correctly, the Honda spring is rather compact coil, diameter wise. Compressing them can be a bit of work with garden variety spring compressors.

  • avatar

    I change shocks on all my family cars every 60k miles regardless of their condition. By 60k they are ALL worn out. Worn shocks affect other suspension components, so by ensuring I always have well functioning dampers I reduce my overall maintenance costs in the long term.

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