The 'highs and lows' of driving with air ride suspension

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1993 Mercedes-Benz 190E
1993 Mercedes-Benz 190E
Robin Classen

 • Air ride suspension can cost anywhere from R20 000 to more than R100 000.      
 • There are a couple of 'niggles' that come with having the system fitted.      
 • Installers are available in abundance all over the country.

Petrolheads are often divided into two factions. One has a penchant for speed, while the other is more geared (no pun intended) towards stance and in search of 'more lows.' A balance can be struck between the two, but having the best of both worlds can be an expensive exercise.

Having purchased my 1993 Mercedes-Benz 190E at the beginning of 2021, I decided to have an air ride suspension system installed. Starlin Karsten of SK Airworx carried out the work in Paarl, and more than a year later, I'm pleased to have opted for air ride instead of going 'static' with the fitment of a Coilover kit – which is considerably cheaper.

READ | What is air ride suspension and why are motorists fitting it to their vehicles? 

There are two ways to go about the air ride route. One is to buy the individual parts yourself, while the other is to have an installer source the parts and do it for you. The latter is often preferred. And depending on who does the work, the make, model and the type of system being fitted, pricing can range from R20 000 to as much as R150 000. Of course, it also helps if you are mechanically inclined and can do the work yourself. 

Mercedes-Benz 190E
Mercedes-Benz 190E

Before having the air ride system installed, Cape Town's local wheel guru Shabeer 'Shaba' Motala noted that there would be minor niggles with the air ride system along the way. With that being said, and if you have aspirations of having air ride suspension installed, here's what you can expect. 

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The good 

There's nothing more satisfying than being able to adjust your ride height at the touch of a button. This can be used to avoid high speedbumps or better navigate sketchy road sections or ones strewn with potholes. The controls in my car are located next to the gear lever for easy access. A lowered car looks much better than one that is at standard height. Your wheel fitment options are plentiful; smaller wheels often look bigger the lower a car is. Owners often go for the tuck (where all four body arches cover the wheel when the vehicle is aired out) or poke (where the body arches rest on the lip of the wheel) look. 

The (not so) bad 

One of my biggest fears was that I'd be far from home, and the car wouldn't air up. I found my heart pounding faster when that scenario came to pass one morning (fortunately, it happened in the driveway). Before contacting Starlin for advice and help, the car was jacked up to assess the 'damage', and after a quick inspection, it was found that a steel clamp on the air supply line was loose and could be replaced quickly. 

Mercedes Benz 190E
Image: Robin Classen

I opted for a basic system which comes with an air-controlled gauge. My gauge is currently located in the cubbyhole, and because I wanted to change its position slightly (on my own), one of the fittings that connect the lines to the gauge became loose (and needs replacing). So air escapes – albeit very slowly. Unless you really know what you're doing, let the installer do their thing. Upon contacting Starlin, he explained that fitting digital gauges completely eliminates that problem. 

OPINION | Why driving a lowered car is safer than you might think

The really bad

A downside or possible worst-case scenario with air rides is that a stone could penetrate either the airline piping or the bag itself. If it nips the bag, there is nothing you can do, and you won't be able to drive any further. If it does nip the airline, it will still be possible to operate the vehicle even though air will be escaping (depending on how big the hole is) by holding down the button used for airing up while driving.

Piping is largely inexpensive to repair, but the bag's damage is irreparable and must be replaced. If you do find yourself in the worst situation, you'd need to call a towing company with a flatbed to get your car back home.

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