Best Shock Absorbers: Smooth the Bumps, Feel the Road
Bouncing around? Time to get that ride back under control.
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BY Hank O'Hop / LAST UPDATED ON October 15, 2021
While cars and trucks certainly have made strides in design and engineering, the shock absorber is one part that really hasn't changed too much over the years. Many production cars still rely on them, and they're still a major part of a vehicle's ride quality and performance. They fail from time to time, however. Whether that means they fail to function or fail to perform as needed depends on your situation. As with any part that fails, you will eventually need replacements, and we're here to help you track them down. We'll show you some of our top picks and set you up with a buying guide. These options should serve as representations of what to consider, regardless of specific applications.
Monroe is an industry leader for a reason. The high-quality, performance gains and competitive pricing of the Reflex serves as an example of why.
- Improved performance
- Close to original ride quality
- Matches factory quality
- May lower ride height
- Stiffer nature can be a setback to some
- Quality control issues are somewhat common
These ACDelco shocks are a direct replacement for popular General Motors trucks and SUVs. They will restore factory ride quality at an affordable price.
- Direct match to factory ride quality
- Original ride quality
- Application listings are misleading
- Missing hardware is a common issue
Bilstein 5100 shocks are a big step up in virtually every way. The premier quality and balance of performance and ride quality make them a dream for many vehicle owners.
- Superior blend of performance and comfort
- Quality construction
- Covers all four shocks for the listed application
- Premium price
- Changes in performance might not be desirable
- Quality control issues are common
Why Trust Us
Our reviews are driven by a combination of hands-on testing, expert input, “wisdom of the crowd” assessments from actual buyers, and our own expertise. We always aim to offer genuine, accurate guides to help you find the best picks.
Best Shock Absorber Reviews & Recommendations
How We Selected the Best Shock Absorbers
There are a lot of great shock absorber brands on the market, but when it came time to choose the best, we made sure to try and stick to the brands we know work for most people or are the most popular. We have experience with every brand we've suggested. Ride quality and reliability aside, we also made sure to consider some custom applications to come up with a list that we feel covers the widest market.
Our product selections, rankings, and awards for this story are based on research. While we haven’t conducted real-world testing on all of these products yet, we’ve looked at consumer testimonials and data, tutorials, and general discussions on social media and in forums. We also consider price and specification in the context of the segment. And, of course, we rely on our institutional knowledge of the automotive landscape to weed out weak products.
Buying Guide/What to Look for
Not all shock absorbers are the same, not all applications demand the same characteristics, and not all vehicle owners want the same thing. This buying guide is here to help you understand the basics of shock absorbers, so you can start your hunt for the perfect set.
What to Consider When Buying Shock Absorbers
Types of Shock Absorbers
There are three basic types of shock absorbers on the market. These can each be broken into their own subcategories to really help you hone in on the characteristics you need. Still, you will need to understand the general differences to ensure you're in the right territory.
Traditional shock absorber
Traditional shock absorbers are the most basic offering, and they're nothing more than a telescoping body with valving and hydraulic fluid to control damping. You'd find these on all four corners of older vehicles but are generally reserved for the rear of modern cars.
These shocks are generally the most affordable, but that doesn't mean they're all basic. They can feature monotube or twin-tube configurations, gas charging, external reservoirs, and even adjustable damping, making for some massive improvements in control and ride quality.
Most modern cars use what's known as a strut on the front end. On older vehicles, shock absorbers were a little simpler because the springs that support the vehicle and the shock absorber were two separate components. A strut essentially combines the two together, making for major gains in overall control.
You can see the difference between a shock and a strut because a strut features a coil spring that wraps over a shock absorber. While coilovers are generally viewed as the next step up, you can still find struts that feature all of the same aftermarket upgrades a traditional shock could come with. It’s important to keep in mind that the shock absorber and coil spring can often be replaced independently of one another.
Coilovers and struts have a lot in common, and they are generally viewed as a step up. We say that because coilovers are designed to give you total control over both the spring and shock absorber within.
To keep things short, you can adjust the ride height and dampening abilities of the assembly to virtually infinite configurations. That's great for performance applications. Because it's generally not something you need on a street vehicle, we opted to save any coilover suggestions for another day.
Shock Absorber Key Features
The fact of the matter is that shock absorber selection is heavily influenced by application demands. These are application-specific parts, so unless you're going all in on a custom build, you'll need to replace the shocks with the same type of shock the factory used. Thankfully, that's made simple with year/make/model searches. In most cases, the features of the shock are what you really need to pay attention to.
Hydraulic vs. Gas Charged
Shock absorbers are filled with hydraulic fluid. That works with the internal valving to slow the motion of a shock absorber. The two work together to determine ride quality. As a shock cycles, the fluid heats up, aeration occurs, and performance dwindles. A way to reduce the issue is by charging the shock with nitrogen.
Gas-charged shocks are essentially more stable but are generally associated with performance vehicles because they stiffen up the ride, while cushy hydraulics are more of a luxury thing. The fact is that most vehicles benefit from gas-charged shocks these days because of their resistance to diminishing ride quality.
You'll find shocks declare that they're either a twin-tube or monotube design. What does this mean? The way a shock works is you have a tube filled with hydraulic fluid and a piston controls the motion with internal valving that slides up and down in that tube. A monotube shock features a wider piston in a larger tube, while a twin-tube has a smaller piston in a smaller tube with a secondary tube filled with hydraulic fluid surrounding it.
The advantage of a twin-tube design is that it creates a softer ride as it's a low-pressure system. The larger piston in a monotube stiffens things up, which improves performance. What is appropriate for your vehicle depends on what the factory calls for, but monotube shocks are generally better.
As we said before, the piston inside of the shock absorber features valving. The orientation of the valves determines how easily the piston can pass through the hydraulic fluid in either direction, which does impact overall performance and ride quality. For the most part, this isn't something most vehicle owners need to worry about.
Manufacturers come up with a combination that is intended to suit their driving style, and keywords like comfort and performance are about as much as you need to know. However, shocks with adjustable valving do exist. They are a great option for those that really want to dial in the suspension of their vehicle. However, you should be careful before buying because you will need to spend a good amount of time messing with the adjustments to get them just right for your application.
If it seems too good to be true, it usually is. If a shock is absurdly cheap but features adjustable valving and uses all the flashy keywords, it should throw up some red flags. It might have the general design down, but they are bound to fail you in short order. Take the time to read into whatever it is you're about to buy to make sure the shocks aren't prone to springing leaks or breaking and that they do fit correctly.
Tips and Tricks
If you can nail down a year/make/model search and understand the basics of shock absorbers, you're ready to nail down the perfect shocks for your car. We have a couple of tips to share with you before you get rolling.
Forums Are Your Friend
The right set of shock absorbers can make a major difference in overall ride quality. Keywords will get you in the right vicinity, but each manufacturer uses its own recipe, meaning you might not know exactly what to expect. A great way to get the information you need is through an online forum. Find a forum for your make and model, and see what others have to say about the shocks on their vehicle to help you get a better feel of what to go with.
Suspension and Steering Mods Need Matching Shocks
As you start changing things on your vehicle, different demands will be placed on the shock absorbers. For example, tightening up the steering demands something more responsive, while changing ride height changes how much travel is needed. As you start making these changes, keep shock absorbers in the back of your mind to ensure you pick the perfect match.
Don’t Forget the Springs
Springs and shocks go hand in hand. The spring supports the vehicle and keeps the body elevated, and the shock dampens the spring rate. If you're looking to overhaul the characteristics of your suspension, you may need to address both to meet your end goal.
We might not know exactly what's bouncing around in your skull, but we can try and address it by answering some of the most frequently asked questions about shock absorbers.
Q: What are the symptoms of a bad shock absorber?
Poor traction, excessive bouncing, vibrations, clunking, leaking oil, and poor ride quality are all symptoms of bad shock absorbers. If you're unsure which is bad, you can try compressing your vehicle's suspension at all four corners and keep an eye out for inconsistencies.
Q: Can you drive with bad shocks?
You can drive a vehicle with bad shock absorbers, but it's not safe. A failed shock absorber is a compromise to performance and safety and causes stress on other vital components. Make sure your vehicle has good shocks on all four corners to prevent any issues.
Q: How long should shock absorbers last?
Shock absorbers should last you about 40,000-50,000 miles under normal conditions. They can only take so much abuse, however. If you take a vehicle off-road, take corners fast, or often drive over pothole-littered roads, you can expect to replace them sooner.
Q: Are front and rear shocks the same?
Front and rear shock absorbers are not the same. They might offer the same performance characteristics but are usually different from one another. The length and mounting styles of the shocks can vary, and most modern vehicles feature a strut shock absorber on the front end.
We feel safe in saying that the Monroe Shocks & Struts Reflex Shock Absorber is a good choice for most applications. However, something like the ACDelco Professional Premium Gas-Charged Front Shock Absorber is great on a budget.
It's all open to interpretation, though. Which shocks you use is dependent on your personal tastes, driving styles, and application.