/ Motoring

Are car companies taking us for a (bumpy) ride?

Car driving past a bumpy road sign

A very bumpy drive in the new Mini Coupé has made me wonder why modern cars are so uncomfortable. Is it the car designers’ fault – or the public’s for buying them?

Back in my younger, spottier days I owned an Mk1 VW Golf GTI that had been ‘slammed’ – i.e. the suspension lowered so much that the car’s underside was almost skimming the tarmac.

My GTI looked pretty cool – or at least I thought so at the time – but every time I went over a pothole I would wince as the rock-hard springs sent judders up my spine.

I had the same feeling the other day driving the new Mini Coupé, the latest, sportiest addition to the Mini range. In order to make the two-seat Coupé even more agile than the regular Mini hatchback, maker BMW has firmed up the dampers and anti-roll bars – with predictable detriment to ride quality.

In fact, the Mini Coupé is so teeth-rattlingly uncomfortable that I found myself tackling country lanes more slowly than in the – objectively much slower – Ford Fiesta I drove last week.

It’s unfair to single out the Mini Coupé, however. Plenty of the cars I’ve tried recently have been unnecessarily hard-riding: the BMW X1, Citroën DS4 and Honda Civic, to for example. At a time when our road network is in a chronic state of disrepair, chiropractors must be rubbing their hands with glee.

Who’s to blame for poor ride quality?

I think motoring journalists are at least partly to blame. My Which? Car colleagues and I try to provide balanced, down-to-earth reviews of cars in realistic conditions. But many car magazines and websites base their verdicts primarily on lap times where cars are driven to their limits. And while a car with very stiff suspension will excel on a circuit, it will be a pig to live with day-to-day.

Car designers must also bear some responsibility for the decline in ride comfort. It’s a fact that cars look better with big wheels; that’s why showroom cars always sport glitzy, oversized rims. So it’s hardly surprising that the men in black polo necks fit the largest rolling stock they can get away with – and that gives us worse comfort.

It’s also true that we, the car-buying public, have brought this upon ourselves. If firmer suspension is available as an option, we’ll usually choose it – witness how many Audis and BMWs leave showrooms in S line and M Sport specifications. It’s difficult to fault the car manufacturers for giving the public what they want, especially when most are prepared to pay extra for it.

Don’t go for the sporty option

The problem with all this perceived ‘sportiness’ is that it doesn’t make cars any faster or more enjoyable to drive on real roads. Softer suspension, coupled with smaller wheels and taller, higher-profile tyres, lends a car a suppleness that allows it to ‘flow’ along winding roads, rather than bouncing and crashing from one corner to the next.

So next time a car dealer presents you with an options list, stick with standard-size wheels and think twice before ticking the box marked ‘sports suspension’. You will make your car a lot more comfortable and probably more fun as a result. Even if it doesn’t look as good.

DifferentOutlook says:
18 April 2014

I found this thread when trying to find a car with a very firm suspension!
We prefer cars with suspensions like bricks, as we get *very* car sick in squishy, roll-y, sofas on wheels!

So please spare a thought for people like us before persuading manufacturers to leave us with no choices at all. (.. [up to] .nearly 80 percent of the general population experiences motion sickness [at some time], and to quote Clarkson, “Comfortable cars have always wobbled like a slapped fat [person] ) !

Less than 5 mins on an ordinary road in a Toyota / Renault / Citroen / Freelander / Vauxhall / Honda / Nissan / Mitsubishi / Peugeot has us turning varying shades of green through to sickly white. And we’ve tried them all.

The only manufacturers which seem to be ok (and even they have to be the ‘sports’ version) are VW, BMW, Fiat (Multipla was brilliant), possibly some Audis, and, um, that may be about it. The 2 person Smart was ok but not brilliant.

Maybe I should test drive a Mini, or a Saab now!

dave says:
9 June 2014

Perhaps Which? should find a track.. like top gear did, but a real world track, with speed bumps, pot holes, rough surface and so on.

Then test the cars for speed and ride quality and road noise. These days it would be simple to measure ride quality with little more than an iphone app.

Handing back a few cars to the manufacturers with broken suspension and the associated write up slating the car might make a dent on the current situation.

Oh and for everyone else commenting hard ride. Low profile tyes allow for larger brake disks so better brake performance and reduced lap times. Higher pressure tyres REALLY help with CO2 figures. Which all the manufactures are now trying to reduce.

Finally weight is also a major issue with CO2 figures , perhaps some manufactures have done away with subframes.. which give lower noise and to some extent a better ride too at the expense of weight.

My merc does have sub frames.

There’s no need to find a track like that – a good proportion of our roads are already like that, so test cars simply need to be driven along the same stretch of road for comparison purposes to assess ride comfort, road noise etc. I’m not suggesting that public roads should be used for performance testing, or handling assessment, where other road users could become endangered, but our pot-holed, bumpy and coarse surfaced roads provide all the traits necessary to evaluate how effectively different manufacturers deal with them. After all, these will be the very roads we will be using once we buy the cars. We already suffer the effects of artificial testing conditions with “laboratory” set-ups for measuring fuel economy and CO2 emissions, which are never achieved in real life driving – so lets not introduce any more to mislead the public.

Wish Which? would adopt this as a campaign, as more intelligent way of testing cars, including on issues such as safety and pollution.

In the UK our public roads are in a dreadful state, both in physical condition and congestion.
We need to know the performance figures, comfort level and pollution figures in real driving conditions on our crumbling and heavily congested roads.

Hi Moudi – thanks for your suggestion 🙂 I will raise this with the relevant teams and get their opinions on it.

We are looking for a soft suspension car to drive in bumpy, pot-holed circumstances. The net only suggests cars that are either too expensive or not reliable. Can you suggest any suitable, comfortable car available in North America for less than $45,000, please? We are now driving a 2007 Avalon but the 2014 is much bumpier.

29 January 2015

How come a Renault 4 of the 1960’s is a more comfortable car to drive than the harsh cars of today? 50 years of developement and we still can’t get a car which is reasonably priced and comfortable. OK the R4 can’t hold a candle to modern cars almost every department — that’s
obvious– but in terms of smoothness and comfort , modern cars are a failure.

Robert Afia says:
22 August 2015

I reckon part of the problem of ride comfort is due to the manufacturers focus on speed, with the need for stiffer suspension and tyres to remain safe at speed.
I’ve been searching for a comfortable and quiet ride in cars for a long time. The best I’ve found (at reasonable cost) is my 2006 Jaguar XJ6, but its not that good. Worse in fact than my previous older Series 3 XJ6. I reckon that’s because air suspension is not as good as conventional suspension, and the lighter aluminium body, while good for fuel consumption, is more easily jerked around by road bumps. The light aluminium body is also less good for noise insulation, so that its particularly noisy in tunnels, and tyre noise is very present except on the newer quieter porous tarmac.
Maybe the fabled comfort of the Range Rover is partly due to its great weight?
There’s not much help around if you want to get comfort. I changed to 17inch wheels from the fitted 18inch. I couldn’t get any information on anything smaller. I changed the tyres to the Which? best buy (for quietness) Dunlop SP Sport 01. They are a bit better than most. I researched alternative shock absorbers. Koni make a shock absorber which they claim is softer at low speed and stiffens up at higher speed. They don’t make one for the Jaguar unfortunately, but do they work? Maybe Which? could investigate this and other factors? A lot of Which? readers are older and are probably the people who value comfort!

Robert, the style trend towards big wheels (the alloy bit) and “thin” tyres has, I think, a lot to do with loss of a comfortable ride (plus more alloy wheel damage on kerbs and in potholes). Made worse by run flat tyres because of stiff walls. Changing the wheels and suspension on a car may detract from the handling characteristics.

Nicole says:
15 January 2016

I agree so much with this original post. I live in San Francisco where it is pothole-central. Most new cars make you suffer with a very bumpy ride. Take all of the Toyota and Lexus models, and I do mean all. You feel every bump in your back, and the cars vibrate in all directions when traveling. How many people’s backs are killing them because of these cars? We, the public, must demand smoother cars. Bring back the classic Lincoln Town Car. That was the smoothest car of all!

Adrian says:
29 November 2020

I have been searching for a Nicely riding car to replace my 1989 Mercedes w126 S Class , which is now at 360000 klms and getting quite old. I have yet to find anything that comes close to the old Mercedes ride , The handling also , while not sporty has always been safe and predictable. Of course back in the day when engineering excellence was more important than cutting corners the results were nothing short of excellent , having said that, in their day they were also a very expensive vehicle. While some modern vehicles handle unilateral undulations well, When the road is uneven across the track they buck from side to side and the small potholes just come right through the Chassis into your seat .Plus I am getting older and probably the lack of muscle tone supporting my frame dosn’t help things much,
Anyway 1st world problem I know, but thought I would add to the debate, If you have this same problem, one answer would be a Mercedes w126 chassis or w124 or a w140 if you are game, they all have springs long enough to cut up and fill four McPherson struts and along with bilstein shocks make for a excellent ride., but this is not the practical answer I know, not really a everyday driver for most people because of their age. Earlier Citreon c5s with hydro pneumatic suspension are quite good also, but also getting old. Tried Toyota Aurion ,Lexus ES300, Avalon, Mercedes ml320, Mercedes c200, Toyota Landcruiser with adjustable suspension all around 2006 model year, Maybe a newer S Class ? but in my price range could be a concern? Still Searching .