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Why Coilovers Are More Complex Than Shocks and Springs

I spent the last week installing a set of Fortune Auto 500 Series coilovers on my project Civic and the job went smoothly. It took that long because instead of trying to get it all done in one sleepless night, I spread it over a few wrenching sessions between business hours and dinner.

Manage your time and suddenly a project becomes much less stressful—go figure.

This project was pretty straightforward: I’d changed the shocks and springs on this Honda about 18 months ago, I had already gone through most of the motions. And this time, I had far less rust to contend with. I just had to learn the quirks of coilovers. I know, a pro mechanic would have had this banged out in an afternoon working leisurely. Well, at my shop, you get what you pay for.

Project Car Diaries photo

In the middle of April, I returned to my New York garage where my Honda was hibernating and a set of coilovers was boxed up waiting for me. I wanted to compete in a hillclimb race in Vermont on the first weekend in May.

That created a finish-by deadline, which I made a little more aggressive by booking an alignment. The car would need to be laser-aligned after changing its suspension because the angles of everything would be out of wack. I set that for three days before I was meant to leave for the race—giving me just enough time for a panic fix if the alignment guy found anything scary that needed immediate attention while the car was on the rack.

Then I simply planned my calendar backward from there—one evening to clean the car and prep it for surgery, then one corner per evening, then a night for double-checking torques and measurements, then alignment day.

If you do buy coilovers, make sure to take a lot of pictures when they come right out of the box ... they'll never be that clean again! <em>Andrew P. Collins</em>

If you do buy coilovers, make sure to take a lot of pictures when they come right out of the box … they’ll never be that clean again! Andrew P. Collins

Now that I’m typing this with a race-ready Civic in my driveway, I can tell you about how the coilover installation process differs from a simple shock and spring change, share how I ended up with a set of Fortune Auto’s suspension for this demonstration, and provide some user insight that isn’t in the instruction manual.

Why Coilovers Are Harder To Pick and Install Than Shocks

If you’ve installed shocks, you can do coilovers. If you’re comfortable doing oil changes and brakes, shocks are (generally) only slightly more complicated. What kills you here is the same thing that can make any under-car project a pain: rust. If you’re changing out shocks that have been riding around the northeast for over a decade, get a blowtorch or a lot of penetrating fluid and patience. I took Option C, all the above, when I did shocks on this car last year. We can’t all be lucky enough to drive exclusively in arid climates.

The skinner profile of the Fortune Auto coilover lets you fit a wider wheel, and it's lighter. That Koni/Tein combo in the middle there weighed 16.7 pounds. The stock shock and Eibach spring weighed 15.7 pounds. The Fortune Auto 500 only weighed 12.6 pounds.

The skinner profile of the Fortune Auto coilover lets you fit a wider wheel, and it’s lighter. That Koni/Tein combo in the middle there weighed 16.7 pounds. The stock shock and Eibach spring weighed 15.7 pounds. The Fortune Auto 500 only weighed 12.6 pounds.

The factors that make coilovers specifically more work to deal with are unavoidable byproducts of their upsides. Namely, coilovers are more customizable and adjustable. You need to invest time and energy into optimizing those settings to fully benefit from having them. They’re typically lighter and more internally complicated than off-the-rack shocks, too. You can expect better performance in optimal conditions, but potentially less durability, and definitely less versatility than a shock and spring. A serious coilover will need to be rebuilt eventually, a process that will probably cost more than a basic OEM shock for many cars. And as I’m learning, even a compliant coilover is going to make for a stiffer ride than a good shock and spring setup.

I need to spend more time driving with my new coilovers to be able to articulate who they’ll be “worth it” for, but I can help you understand what’s involved in picking, installing, and maintaining them already.

Before you get to blowtorching barnacles of your undercarriage, the first step to installing coilovers is picking a set. This is immediately more involved than buying shocks because they’re more customizable and a bigger investment … if you’re looking at coilovers that are cheaper than shocks for your car, triple-check that you’re looking at a decent brand because I doubt it.

There’s one other factor you need to consider before committing to coilovers: Are they permitted in the type of racing you like to do or want to do? Some motorsports events (even including autocross, time trials, rally-x, and other amateur-accessible stuff) restrict what classes you can enter if you have coilovers, and you’ll want to be aware of that as you build up your car.

Personally, I do not care about my own race classing at all—I’m much too interested in experimenting with various parts and setups to commit to a single class. But if you’re the competitive type and think you might want to try racing, do yourself a favor and consider familiarizing yourself with various race class rules before you start sinking money into parts.

Why I’m Running Fortune Auto

Fortune Auto is a big brand name in today’s car modding and track scenes with a deep catalog of applications, though it ended up on my radar in a very old-school kind of way. I was installing a short shifter at somebody’s personal garage and they had a Fortune Auto banner hanging on the wall. Turned out he had them on his BMW track car. When I looked the name up later, I learned that it’s a U.S.-based brand with hand-made coilovers that seemed pretty well-regarded by the car community.

I mentally bookmarked the fact that this company looked good and makes coilovers for the eighth-gen Civic like I have. Months later, I found myself at the SEMA show and got to check out some of Fortune Auto’s hardware in person. I kept in touch with one of the company’s reps and later asked if he’d be interested in providing parts and expertise for me to share product impressions with all of you. He was into it, and here we are! So as far as disclosure goes: I sought these guys out, it sent me some free coils, but I bought the Swift springs which we’ll discuss later.

Having been satisfied (impressed, even) with my Koni STR.T shocks and Tein High Tech springs, I was not in a huge rush to take the plunge on coilovers. But I’d always been curious about them. Facebook and forums are filled with single-sentence reviews that may or may not be credible, but I really wanted to understand the appreciable differences between a quality coilover setup and a quality shock and spring combo so I could articulate that here on our site.

Customizing Your Coilover Specs

No matter what brand of coilovers you choose, you’re going to want to be deliberate about the intended use listed by the manufacturer, not to mention understanding the spring rates and settings you’ll be getting.

<a href="" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer noopener nofollow">This page</a> breaks down Fortune Auto's current coilover offerings. <em>Fortune Auto</em>

This page breaks down Fortune Auto’s current coilover offerings. Fortune Auto

I knew immediately that the 500 Series was going to be the move for this car based on a quick scan of the brand’s base offerings. The Pro 3-Way is the top of the range, and Fortune Auto even makes that model for the eighth-gen Civic … listing at over $9,000. That unit offers an extreme range of adjustment on multiple levels, far greater performance than my humble Honda would know what to do with. And let’s be real, nobody spending that kind of coin on coilovers is going to care how well they perform on my cheap track toy.

At the other end, the 500 Series, intended for street duty and light track use, has 24 levels of rebound settings. This basically controls the car’s feeling of firmness. The 500 is meant to be more compliant over imperfect roads than other offerings, and it’s the most modestly priced: The set of 500 Series coilovers I’m demoing on my car retails for $1,849 and the Swift springs cost $320. I think this model is going to suit the needs of most amateur auto enthusiasts looking for bang-for-buck results.

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But even using the 500 model, Fortune Auto still made my shocks to order. Part of the ordering process is using an online form to tell the company about your vehicle specs and driving style, and from that, they recommend spring rates. This is a much better way to get spring rates and setting recommendations than asking randos on Facebook. You can still do your own research, but the people manufacturing coilovers will want to help you make the right call for your car—the better your experience, the more likely you are to re-buy and recommend. Right? Broadly explained in a single sentence: A higher spring rate means a stiffer spring and harsher ride, a lower spring rate is softer.

After I filled out the questionnaire, describing my slow car and bumpy driving conditions, the company’s Motorsports Coordinator Devin Herndon emailed me suggesting 8 kg front and 10 kg rear springs. He also told me “…we can increase the front shock stroke (shock travel) and add either a longer main spring or an assist spring with a normal main spring” for my bumpy roads.

How did I choose? Here’s the elaboration I got: “If ride height is not a concern, then the longer spring would be better (you will still be able to lower the vehicle by about 1.5-2 inches). To go with the longer main spring, you will need to upgrade to the Swift Springs (this will add $400.00 to the overall price). If you rather option the helper, we have our own branded helper/assist spring which would only add $120.00.”

I have zero interest in lowering the car more than two inches (I don’t like riding low—there’s too much crap to hit where I drive) so that was a no-brainer for me.

Measuring Twice (at Least)

The hard part of coilover assembly, the valving, was done when my Fortune Auto 500s arrived. That’s the actual assembly that happens at the factory. Setting up these coilovers in my car specifically required me to set the spring preload at the front, so that’s one measurement I had to do, then I had to set ride height at the front, then do both at the back in a slightly different way.

An eighth-gen Civic has what’s called a divorced rear suspension—the coil and shock are separated. That meant I had to set the car’s ride height by adjusting the spring perch, then adjust preload by twisting the shock (more on that later). Fortune Auto has a super-clear video about this that I watched on my iPad as I had the car up on jacks:

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For me, there was a lot of “am I doing this right” second-guessing. The instructions didn’t mention this, but on the phone with Fortune Auto I learned that the highest setting on these coils is still about three-quarters of an inch lower than stock. So, I started near the top, and worked my way down until I found a fitment that provided plenty of ground clearance without looking like a monster truck.

Point is, that’s a few more steps than slapping in a new shock and strut. And if you’re particular like me, you’re probably going to set the ride height, want to look at the car outside, then take the wheels off all over again, adjust, and repeat until you’re satisfied.

Yeah, I'm riding pretty high. I like it that way for now. <em>Andrew P. Collins</em>

Yeah, I’m riding pretty high. I like it that way for now. Andrew P. Collins

Now, if that sounds like fun to you, that might be a strong indicator that coilovers will be a good investment. I had an absolute ball. I mean, it was work, but it was so cool to be able to change the car’s ride height at will. It’s Gran Turismo in real life. I’m really looking forward to playing with the rebound settings for the same reason.

I ended up going with a pretty tall ride height for a few reasons. The main one is practicality, I don’t want to be scraping my belly on bumps, sticks, or undulations in the parking lots I autocross at. Secondly, and I don’t mean to offend my Honda-driving brethren but, at 30 or 40 years old, I’d feel a little weird driving a super-low Civic. It’s, like, the same reason I wouldn’t wear a cap with a propellor on top of it, get me?

I also really like 16-inch wheels, and I’m running some old OEM Honda Enkeis (taken from the corpse of a fifth-gen Prelude) with a pretty high offset right now. That means the inside of the wheels is really close to the shocks, and going super low would cause them to collide. But another great thing about this suspension, if and when I change wheels, I can alter the ride height again to suit them.

Atypical Installation Practices

I had to do a couple of mechanic’s moves putting these coilovers on that weirded me out a little. The first was setting the locking collar on the shocks themselves. You do this by threading a ring down to the bottom of its threads, and then smacking it with a mallet and screwdriver, chisel style. The instructions said to wrap a microfiber cloth around the tip of the screwdriver, which I did, but I still marred the heck out of the coilover’s collar. I was careful, too! Oh well, that’ll be covered in road grime for the rest of its life starting tomorrow. It doesn’t need to be faultless. But I was still a little sad about nicking the beautiful green coating before I even left the garage.

Guess I should have wrapped that screwdriver it a little thicker. <em>Andrew P. Collins</em>

Guess I should have wrapped that screwdriver it a little thicker. Andrew P. Collins

The other procedure I found strange was torquing the top of the rear shocks. Typically, rear shock rods have a hex key imprint, which allows you to put an Allen wrench in it and secure it while you spin the nut with a special socket. With the Fortune Auto setup, I had to grip the shock rod with a Vise grip, again, wrapped in a microfiber cloth.

I was super paranoid about this because while the collar I scuffed didn’t need to be perfect, the shock rods kind of do. If they get marred or chipped, like by the teeth of Vise grips, for example, they could leak or introduce air into the shock as they pump up and down. And that can totally compromise your shock’s performance. Luckily, I was able to do it without incident.

How did I know to do the Vise grip thing? Fortune Auto’s tech support talked me through it over the phone! That brings us to the last bullet in my review of the configuration and installation process of these coilovers: The customer service was excellent.

Of course, you’d imagine the company would want to be nice to the guy reviewing the product. But when I called Fortune Auto’s phone number and dialed through to tech support, I wasn’t about to introduce myself all over again (yes, I called a few times with installation questions—measure at least twice. Right?) so I got the standard customer experience. And it was great.

The instructions are reasonably clear, and Fortune Auto also has good videos on its YouTube channel explaining things like preload and ride height setting. But sometimes I get nervous that I’ll make a mistake with a mechanical project. I often look up procedures multiple times before doing something. Being able to call up the very company that makes them and confirm the steps as they apply to my car was much appreciated. They were totally patient and clear with me as I demanded clarification and guidance on the job.

Now that these coils are on the car, I’m excited to compete in my first hillclimb at Mt. Philo this weekend. After that and a few weeks of street driving, I’ll share more about what these are like and if the performance gain seems worth the time and cost.