Project Car Diaries: Suspension Mods Can Teach You About Vehicle Dynamics and Beating Rust
I did a huge overhaul on the suspension setup of my eighth-generation Honda Civic Si. It took a lot of research and hard work, but improved the car a lot.
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The eighth-generation Honda Civic Si is known as a nice-handling car. But the one I bought had the sporty dynamism of a pogo stick that’d been left to rust behind a shed. I wasn’t surprised—the bushings were cashed, shocks were trashed, and the car was slammed to the ground on aggressive lowering springs. I did a big refresh of broken bits while taking a completely different approach to suspension setup than the previous owner did. Now, it’s a totally different car.
The current goal of my Civic project is simply to accentuate all the character traits that make an Si great without making it too miserable to ride in, as heavily modded tuner cars often are. In other words, create the Civic Si that Honda would have made in 2006 if the car had cost, like, 25 percent more.
Getting the suspension right is critical to achieving this. An extreme on-track performance-focused setup would be fun in the right conditions, but brutal on the rough backroads I like to run this car down. Ultra-low suspension looks cool, but again, beats you up. Still, I wanted something a little cooler-looking (read: lower) than stock and just a click or two closer to “responsive” from “comfy” without spending four figures on parts. I ended up getting pretty close, and I learned a lot about suspension installation along the way.
- WD-40 Specialist® Penetrant with EZ-REACH®
- Digital torque wrench
- Socket set
- Pass-through socket set
- Rubber mallet
- Various pry bars
- Breaker bars
- Ball joint fork
- Jack and jack stands
- Upgrade shocks, struts, and springs and add adjustable camber bolts
- Upgrade rear control arms with adjustable units
- Upgrade front control arms with ball joints and caster-adjusting front bushings
- Upgrade to adjustable, heavy-duty sway bar end links
- Upgrade to heavy-duty tierod ends
- Replace associated bushings and hardware
- Get an alignment
Picking Parts and Settings
I spent more time researching suspension parts than I did installing them. One huge advantage of building a car like a 2006 Honda Civic is that parts choices are bountiful, though that also means there’s a lot of cheap junk out there. Ask anybody who’s bought unlabeled coilovers for suspiciously short money on eBay.
Another big plus about working with a common car is that you’re never the first person to work through a problem. So when it came to finding a suspension setup that would be a little sharper than stock with a minimal comfort penalty at a reasonable price, I ended up just stalking a reputable modder and copying their homework.
Deep combing of old forum posts led me to a site called RedShift Motorsports. These guys sell coilover kits for a bunch of different cars that look impressive and are very well-reviewed, but I wasn’t quite ready to plunk down the coin—their competition offering for my car is in the $2,000 neighborhood.
But before developing proprietary coilovers, RedShift tested more traditional shock-and-spring combos. In an old post now only accessible via the Wayback Machine internet archive or Google’s cache, I found a really comprehensive post evaluating various conventional suspension setups for the 2006-2012 Civic. Right at the top, I found this nugget:
“Best Slight Drop Springs: Tein High.Tech half-inch drop. Perfect for stock or Koni STR.T (orange) shocks. A little stiffer than stock spring, but more of a comfort spring than anything.” Unfortunately, RedShift doesn’t sell those parts anymore (remember I had to dig into the internet cache to even find the comparison) but Koni shocks and Tein springs are still available from other vendors.
I copied RedShift’s alignment recommendations, too. It doesn’t necessarily make sense to run factory alignment with non-factory ride height, and I’m much more interested in performance than tire life on this car.
Meanwhile, my colleague and fellow Honda-modding enthusiast Chris Rosales introduced me to the idea of caster-adjusting bushings, which sent me down a whole other rabbit hole of reading. Caster, in this context, refers to how a car’s wheels are oriented front to back. Imagine you’re looking at a Civic from the side—adding caster means moving the front wheels forward. The idea is to provide better high-speed stability and improve steering feel. In a practical sense, the caster-increasing bushings I’ve added make the steering wheel seem to get pulled back to center more quickly as I’m driving.
The Whiteline bushings replace the big horizontal ones in the front control arms. Those A-shaped arms are basically responsible for positioning the car’s front wheels, bolting to the frame on the inside, and then connecting to where the wheel sits at the ball joint.
The caster adjustment is achieved by moving the front lower control arm mounting hole just slightly. This, of course, makes the installation a little tricky because you’re forcing the arm slightly out of stock position. It took me forever to line it up, but a lot of swearing and swinging a rubber mallet eventually got them where they needed to go.
I didn’t trust myself to be able to press them in properly so I had a shop do it for me. I asked some experts how exact the positioning had to be, and the consensus was “as long as they visually look the same, it’s fine.” That probably wouldn’t fly on a LeMans team, but it seems to be working well enough on my Civic. This is one of the coolest and most satisfying mods I’ve made to any car, and I strongly recommend you look into it if you’re interested in improving your car’s steering feel. Resistance in the helm is just right and the car feels considerably more responsive to steering inputs.
Tips for Your First Suspension Install
There are plenty of straightforward Civic suspension how-tos on the internet (I found the A1 Auto and Big Dog50001 Automotive YouTube channels helpful) so I’ll just focus on the pain points—what tripped me up, and what you’ll want to watch out for if you’re doing a similar job yourself for the first time.
Swapping suspension components is not trivial, but this is something a home mechanic can handle on most cars. Read through car-specific instructions for your vehicle, and move carefully when handling springs under pressure. Heeding these tips will pay off no matter what kind of car you’re working on.
Penetrating Fluid Is Your Best Friend
When it comes to fighting rust on your car, the exhaust can be the worst thing to work on. But if your vehicle’s spent any time on wet or salty roads, suspension can be a close second. The nuts and bolts that hold your suspension together are constantly exposed to the elements, making them more likely to fuse up over time. What’s worse, some of them can be at awkward angles or hidden behind pieces of the subframe.
This is where WD-40 Specialist Penetrant with EZ-REACH comes in clutch, on two accounts. The spray-on formula works to break up rust bonds between bolts and mounting surfaces, so when you coat your rusty bolts with this stuff, your odds of stripping the head plummet. When you need to hit a bolt that’s a little hidden, the eight-inch flexible straw is not only super-skinny but also both highly malleable and robust. You can bend the straw into almost any position, even shooting back 180 degrees, and the straw retains its shape as you spray.
If you’ve got a bigger area you need to soak, flip the flexible straw down to use the wide beam spray nozzle. Specialist Penetrant doesn’t stink and prevents corrosion from re-forming wherever it hits, so you can pretty much go hog wild with overspray if you’re so inclined.
My Honda’s been driven through 17 salty New York winters, and I was able to bust most of my suspension bolts loose after letting them soak in WD-40 Specialist Penetrant for just a few minutes. But if your project looks super rusty, I recommend hitting everything with the stuff a day before you start work, then again when you’re ready to wrench.
Basically, spray early, spray often.
Sway Bar End Links Are Evil
As you may know, a sway bar is basically a giant rod connecting both sides of a car’s suspension together. In short, it spreads load force laterally as you turn from side to side. End links are the pieces that connect the bar itself to the left and right control arms. Installing them is easy. Removing them is a royal pain in the posterior.
While penetrating fluid goes a long way to preventing them from being stripped, they are particularly difficult to work with because you need to remove a nut while holding the bolt they’re threaded on with an allen key. They’re also, often, one of the rustiest things underneath a car.
I recommend patience, a lot of penetrating fluid, and if that fails, a hacksaw. If you’re changing your car’s ride height in a significant way, you’ll want to get adjustable ones so you can set the sway bar’s position in such a way that it won’t collide with other components.
Don’t Be Scared of Spring Compressors
On many cars, including my Civic, the front struts and springs are bolted together before being installed. The springs are under tremendous pressure, and if you just unbolt them willy-nilly you’re going to have a dangerous projectile on your hands. I didn’t want to deal with that, so I gave my parts to a shop to assemble. Weeks later, I can see they made at least one mistake—they forgot to install rubber isolators meant to go on the bottom of the spring.
Now I’ve got a little creaking noise near the top, and I’m not sure if it’s because they assembled it incorrectly or just because I’ve been mercilessly beating on my car at autocross and rallycross events. Maybe both? My point is, I regret not just being brave and getting the proper tool to compress a spring myself. Now I’m probably going to have to pull it apart anyway to chase down the noise ... but that's an update for another time.
Having Multiple Jacks Helps
Everything on my Civic is pretty light-duty, but even so, the hub and brake are pretty darn heavy—very unwieldy and awkward for one person to push around. A small bottle jack can be good to have around in case you need to hold up a heavy component for whatever reason.
How to Torque Shock Top Nuts Without the Threads Spinning
Similar to sway bar end links, tightening the nut on the top of your shocks is annoying because the bolt in the middle will spin if you don’t secure it with an allen key. But how the heck are you going to hold a bolt with an allen key while also getting a socket over it?
You’ve got two easy options. One, you could get a pass-through socket set, and put that on the nut, then put your allen key into the bolt. The only downside here is it’s tough to get an actual torque spec; I don’t know of any torque wrenches made in this configuration. Two, you could get a socket with a cutout and put your allen wrench inside it. This is a little tedious because you’ll have to keep moving it, but it’s straightforward and allows you to set an actual torque spec.
Cut Your Bumpstops
Many cars, including my Civic, have a little cork-like stopper item that basically keeps the shocks from bottoming out. If you install lowering springs, you may need to cut these down.
Find out exactly where to cut them from the spring manufacturer. If they don't know or can't answer, I'd recommend looking into a different brand of springs.
Get a Proper Ball Joint Tool Fork
I twisted and writhed under my car fighting the damn ball joints with pry bars and metal rods I had laying around for way too long. After I finally caved and grabbed the correct tool for the job, a fork with graduated tines, the things were off in no time. They’re not expensive, and totally worth it.
As a bonus, I’ve found mine is great for taking the hinges off the bathroom door in my garage, which is handy because I keep accidentally locking myself out of there.
Did You Hit It Hard Enough?
The most commonly copy-pasted car forum cliche, after “no lowballers, I know what I got” is probably “hit it with your purse.” Implying, you know, you’re not being muscle-manly enough to move the metal that’s in your way. It’s a fizz-brain comment, but I have to admit, I got stuck trying to install my lower control arms for days and days. The solution in the end? I just wasn’t hitting them hard enough with my rubber mallet. Cars are tough, they can take a swing.
That said, I’ve got the build of an inflatable tube man so my “hit it hard” might be your gentle pinch. Start soft and ramp up—and be careful not to hit a shock from the side, they are pressurized.
Alignment—A Critical Last Step
If you replace any major suspension components, you need to have your car’s wheels re-aligned afterward. And if your ride height is no longer stock, and/or you’re trying to optimize a car for performance, you’ll want to run a custom alignment setting.
A high-quality professional alignment uses expensive lasers for extreme precision—I wasn’t about to buy all that let alone learn how to use it, so I hired a shop to set my alignment after my suspension mods. I sought out a spot that deals with performance suspension because I had specific non-factory alignment settings I wanted and I didn’t trust a quick lube place to do anything outside what’s in their book or computer.
Learning about how alignment affects your car and running your own tests to find settings you like is a great way to get nerdy about driving. But if you don’t have the brain space for that, just do what I did, and run a setting that’s been proven to work on a car similar to yours.
How the Car Drives After All This Work
Aside from a little low-speed creak from somewhere in the front, the Civic is riding beautifully and looks great. The Koni orange/Tein gold combination is noticeably stiffer than stock and honestly, if I drove this car daily I could see myself getting tired of it. As a late-night and track-day toy, it’s magnificent without being miserable. The pogo-stick effect I had on the previous owner’s lowering springs is gone, and the car actually behaves predictably now.
I’m running an ambitiously large tire (235 wide) which does rub a little bit at extremes (not an issue with my winter 16-inch wheels) so I might see about messing with the alignment again, changing wheels, or just seeing if I can fit smaller rubber when my exceptionally aggressive Bridgestone RE-71RSs wear out (expect more details on those in a coming post).
Beyond messing with tires and wheel positioning, I’ve got an upsized rear sway bar in my barn (Progress 22mm) that’s a popular upgrade for these cars which should theoretically reduce understeer. I’ve also got some polyurethane steering rack bushings laying around because I suspect the old ones might be the source of my suspension creak if it’s not the shocks. At least one engine mount is looking a little tired, too. The thing about bushings and mounts is—if one is toast, the others aren’t far behind.
But the car’s definitely fun to drive already, and I’m looking forward to some more autocross and even some real track time this summer.
This installment of Project Car Diaries was brought to you by WD-40® Brand.