Ok, get out the
for this post....pictures are at the bottom.
On Friday, October 21st, I received my car back from Bilstein, with the new struts installed. Since then, I have been doing my own version of ride reviews in all conditions imaginable in Los Angeles. This will be a long review, as promised, so I will try and break things up so you can try and follow me here:
Before I get into the 2 week review, where I test the suspension with all types of roads and two different tire/wheel combinations, I have a few people that need thanking. A big thanks to Myles W of RaceComp Engineering / GTWORX for even making these for us! While we were delayed about a month (which is nothing really) in ride testing, Myles made everything very easy for me and kept me informed about the progress the entire time Bilstein had my car the week of Oct 17th – 21st. Bilstein West is located in Poway, CA (San Diego area), and Myles both accommodated and help coordinate a rental car for me to use during the week (I live and work in West LA). My car was finished on schedule, and I was able to do several hours of ride testing with Lou at Bilstein (which was by no means necessary, but a welcomed donation of his time). Lou, and his intern Brandon, also gave me a tour of the Bilstein facility, and showed me everything about the role of each part inside their dampers (very educational). Any question I had about how something worked, they were eager and happy to discuss, I learned a lot about suspensions that day!
Vehicle and Personal Background:
A little bit about my car, my goals for it, and my background. I am an ex-motorcycle racer (that’s me on the track in the avatar), and have been a car buff well before I even got my license. I’ve rebuilt motorcycles, both race bikes and cruisers, and have modified my fair share of cars. I also have been a big mountain biker all my life, from cross country single track, to full scale motocross gear-wearing downhiling. I am by NO MEANS a suspension expert, nor do I claim to be. While I know a fair amount about the parts involved, proper suspension tuning and overall ride dynamics has always been a bit of a mystery to me. On the race track, you pay the “suspension guy”, and he adjusts all the settings (ride height, compression, rebound, preload) just by reading your rear tire after a few hot laps around the track. Beyond adjusting a bit of preload myself, I don't screw with any other settings, as their cumulative effect on handling would be a mystery to me.
My goal for this car, even before purchasing it, was to find an adequately powerful sports sedan, that handled well yet was still comfortable, and equipped with enough amenities to make a long road trip nice, all while keeping the price reasonable. When I went to Subaru, I had only planned on test driving the STI. While it seemed the STI would be great in the Malibu canyons I drive up nearly every weekend, there were countless reasons I would never own it as a daily driver. For $35,000 and only 300hp, it didn’t feel like I was getting very much for my money. The transmission was great, sure, but the car had no amenities (not even power seats!), and the extra dough spent for the 3 differentials and enormous brakes did not seem necessary at all for street driving (track, yes, but this was to be my daily driver, not my track car.....if I even had a track car). The fact that the engine doesn’t make any power until it’s screaming from 4,000rpm to 7,000rpm was not appealing either for a daily driver in LA traffic, having no low end torque, and alerting every cop for 5 blocks that you’re speeding. It became obvious to me that the STI was a great car for turning fast laps, but probably not so great driving around LA.
After the test drive, I spotted the one LGT they had on the lot (had never heard of the car before), test drove it, and was immediately impressed. Here was a much more practical, safer (by virtue of size if anything), more comfortable sports sedan, with the same philosophy as the WRX/STI, but obviously different priorities, producing positive boost at 1,000rpm until about 5,000rpm, much more useful in traffic, not so much on the race track (I have tracked my LGT once at willow springs though). The car was also $10,000 less than the STI I drove (at least that's what I ended up getting the car for). The decision was obvious; get the LGT.
When I started modifying the LGT, I decided to stick with a basic philosophy for any modification: “Performance without Penalty”. I have had cars in the past which had brain rattling loud exhausts and suspensions so stiff and low that they became uncomfortable and sometimes impractical or just plain unreliable (nitrous is like crack for motors)!
With the exception of a simple OTS tune from Cobb’s AP, my engine is absolutely stock, from the intake, to the muffler tips, and I intend on keeping it that way. This car has more than enough power to have plenty of fun (and get into plenty of trouble). Before the Bilstein struts were installed, here was my car’s setup. I’ve listed only the relevant suspension mods (I don’t think anyone cares that I have an aftermarket shift knob or whatnot):
-19mm RSB from 2010 STI (stock end links)
-GT Spec Front Strut Tower Bar
-RCE Blacks “Functional Lowering Springs”
-Pirelli PZero Nero A/S tires running 36f/34r; 1,000mi old when sent to Bilstein
-Alignment set by Stokes Tires in Santa Monica for max handling
The RSB and springs made a very noticeable difference in the car’s handling to begin with. Body roll was lessened (not to any drastic degree), dive and squat reduced, ride quality actually improved, and some control was gained over the otherwise sloppy stock handling of the LGT. This was the biggest issue I had with the LGT, a lack of control and confidence in the suspension, which can be attributed almost entirely to the crap stock dampers, especially the rears. While flying through twisty, bumpy canyon roads in Malibu, the thing holding the car back was really how much it bounced and swayed after any steering input or bump in the road (especially mid-corner).
When I picked the car up from Bilstein, I was immediately stunned at the major transformation my car seemed to have gone through! The ride was much firmer and far more responsive, truly a night and day difference. Body roll was practically eliminated, along with almost all brake dive or squat upon acceleration. During gear shifts, especially hard ones, the car didn’t buck back and forth at all like it did before. I was blown away also by the ability of the dampers to soak up a high speed bump in the road and just SHOVE the car back down to the ground and keep it there with no bouncing. A HUGE amount of confidence was gained, as the car became much more predictable. You could hold the car at the limit of a corner, pick a line to follow through it, and the car would actually hold said line through the corner (tires permitting, I’ll get to that in a minute).
Not only did I drive the car around some twisty roads in Poway (they have some VERY cool back roads), I also insisted on being driven in my car by Lou, the Bilstein engineer, who seemed a more skilled driver than I am, being much older and having many more years of experience under his belt. He drove even faster, having known the limits of the car from the previously finished ride testing. Here I was really blown away. At no time, either as driver or passenger, did the car feel out of control, at speeds I won't mention. It felt so confident at the limit of traction, and you could just hold it there as the car scrambled out of the corner. There was even a “skid pad” we could use at a local business park, where the car would just stay flat through the 360 degree turnaround at 50mph. At this point, it became painfully obvious that the real parts holding back the handling of the car were now the UHP All Season tires.
I drove the car 130mi up the highway back to LA, which was a good way to test the ride quality. Obviously the car is firmer now (don’t expect it to graciously float up and down over bumps like the stock, boat like handling), but it is not so firm to a degree where it is uncomfortable for long drives (I have 27,000mi on my car in one year, and my commute is 10mi round trip, so I go on lots of road trips). So in this sense, retaining a smooth ride was also very important to me. In terms of what I could best compare it to, the ride quality was about on par with the 2006 Audi S4 my dad had leased (and let me borrow, a lot), and a shade stiffer than my dad’s current 2009 BMW 528i with the sport suspension package.
Say you hit a “jump up” on the highway (i.e., an overpass)….instead of the car being thrown up in the air upon impact and bouncing down on the other side, you can actually feel the wheels come up in response to the road, and the car comes up onto the overpass section and settles immediately (instead of bobbing up and down like stock). The only drawback I noticed is that on irregular highway portions (i.e. one that has rhythmic lips/bumps/dips that make any car bounce) can cause the car to become a little rough as it actually absorbs each and every impact instead of clumsily floating up and down. This was pretty rare issue, but something worth noting if you want to keep an uber plush ride. Other good items to note on the drive home: increased road feel through the steering wheel, and a slightly heavier, and almost quicker feeling steering ratio.
So until the time of writing this, I had 2 weeks to review the new struts. I wanted to make this as thorough as a test as possible, not a got-it-back-today-and-it’s-awesome type of test. Each week consisted of a full weekend of intense canyon driving in Malibu on roads such as Latigo Canyon Rd (I highly suggest you google that one and take a look), Encinal, Decker, Mullholland, Stunt, and Tuna Canyon. I have been driving/riding/biking these roads regularly for about 10 years now, so I have essentially memorized nearly every portion of each. Some of these roads are smoothly paved, some are in need of serious repair, some were paved perfectly just months ago to race track smooth.
Overall the car’s handling became much more responsive and confidence inspiring. Of note were the really bumpy roads (parts of Latigo Cyn) where you’re still carrying tremendous speed through corners that have all sorts of bumps, potholes, and other road irregularities. In the past, I had to compensate in advance for the car to hit these bumps, settle, and then apply the correct steering input necessary to get the car back on line. This is where I was most impressed. While driving hard, mid-corner impacts DID NOT DO ANYTHING TO UNSETTLE THE CAR. You can feel the damper soak up the bump, and the car itself is not jostled around. No matter what, the car held its line through the corner. In fact, after finishing testing Sunday, I dropped by my local Subaru dealership in Santa Monica to test drive the 2011 STI, again, having just come back from the canyons and having that fresh in my mind. The handling qualities of the STI felt very, very similar to my car now. Both felt nimble and stiffly sprung, yet the LGT felt less flighty and more secure, probably due to the added weight. Overall, I definitely preferred my new suspension to the STI’s, and was very satisfied.
In addition to this type of performance testing, I also had a week’s worth of LA commuting to mix in. The car is much more nimble through traffic and feels so much more in control under hard maneuvers (i.e. swerving to avoid hitting something). Again, the brakes felt so much more responsive in the sense that there was just no dive at all under normal braking. I could actually take dips in intersections and driveways FASTER than before, as the Bilsteins kept the car from diving downward. Drainage dips in intersections I previously took at 20mph and bounced hard over, could now be taken at 30-40mph with MORE comfort at a faster speed. I was baffled at how my new “lowered, performance suspension” was actually allowing me more clearance over dips, ruts, driveways, what have you. However, in the way of performance, as noted above, my new awesome suspension was really highlighting the improperly matched wheels and tires for the job. It was time to upgrade to a wider wheel with a more performance oriented tire.
On Wednesday, October 26th, my Drag DR-31 wheels (18x9 +38, about 2lbs lighter than the stock wheels) and Nitto Invo tires (245/40/18) arrived, and I bolted them on that night and took the car out for a spin (same 36f/34r pressures). Another night and day difference! The wider wheel and much grippier tire fully complemented the new suspension. What little body roll was remaining from the old tires in the form of tire/tread squirm was quashed, including brake dive, which was now almost imperceptible. The car felt much, much more planted and stable with its new tires and wider stance, and a tire that wasn’t ballooning over the rim, but rather sitting with the sidewall flush to the rim, with a flatter surface and contact patch. The other thing I noticed, that I didn’t expect, was the ride quality actually improved slightly (I assumed it would become stiffer due to the stiffer sidewalls on the Nitto’s compared to the Pirelli’s, but I was very wrong). There were zero fitment issues and no rubbing at all. The trouble with all of this, is the car feels just as comfortable and confident as before going 20-30mph faster, so I’m really amazed I haven’t gotten any speeding tickets yet, as my “perceived 35mph” had now become 55 mph when I looked down at the speedo. Whoops! Sorry officer, it’s the suspension!
Needless to say I was beyond excited to get the car back out to the canyons this past weekend to fully test out the new setup. Again, a night and day difference. I had so much grip, and there was so little flex in the suspension that the car became even more nimble and flickable. Simply put, there was no slop in the car’s suspension anymore. The steering became so direct and deliciously heavy, it really felt great! Again, less steering input was required to get the same end result in cornering. It should go without saying that the same canyon roads I had been driving on for a decade, I was now taking faster than I ever thought possible, with far more control and confidence. At this point, I have no more suspension modifications planned, as I feel I have attained that goal of performance without penalty.
Despite the already enormous length of this review (and bravo if you have read this far), there are still a number of things I’m not pointing out, simply because I don’t want to bore you more than I probably already have! I’m sure those of you ordering these struts will be convinced by this review, but please, if you have anything you’d like to ask about the car and how it handles now, ASK! I’m happy to answer any questions! I will be posting up my alignment spec sheet, along with a picture or two of the new wheels for those that are interested within the new few days.
Thanks for reading,
Pictures as promised.......
ALIGNMENT SPECS BEFORE INSTALL (CHECK ONLY, NO ADJUSTMENTS MADE):
ALIGNMENT AFTER INSTALL (ONLY ADJUSTED FRONT WHEELS, REARS OK):
PHOTOS OF NEW WHEELS AND TIRES: