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Loaded Struts: What’s In A Name?

Quick struts, loaded struts, strut plus – there are many names on the market for a complete strut assembly, with different brands assigning their own catchy term to their version of the product. I don’t have a preference, although any time I hear the term “loaded,” I immediately think of a baked potato. I picture a piping-hot spud, covered in melted cheese, bacon bits, sour cream and chives, so maybe that’s my favorite one. Did I grow up in the fast-food generation or what?

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So, what’s in a name? Loaded – in baked-potato terms – meant you were getting it all, and in the case of struts, it means the same thing. In the June 2022 issue of Counterman, I dug into the difference between shocks and struts. If you read the article, you’ll remember that terminology was a big part of it, and it’s always been one of the more challenging facets of selling parts. The same thing can have multiple different names, depending on the manufacturer, or the technician working on the car.

The term strut is a reference to the main component in a MacPherson-strut suspension design. The strut itself is the suspension spring and shock absorber assembled together as a unit, which also includes mounting bushings, spring insulators and turn bearings. Replacing a bad component in a strut assembly requires a special coil-spring compressor, so the unit can be safely disassembled.

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By definition, the individual parts only made a strut when they were all assembled, but over time, just the shock absorber itself came to be known as the strut. I speculate this was primarily to provide an accurate description of what we were looking for – to differentiate the fact we were working on a strut suspension as opposed to a “traditional” upper-lower A-arm design. So, you could argue that a “loaded” strut is a contradiction of terms, but it really doesn’t matter. Who cares what we call things, right! As long as we get our customers the right stuff!

Emergence of the Assembled Strut

Before the common availability of a complete strut assembly, replacing a bad component in a strut required a coil-spring compressor so the unit could be safely disassembled. It was far more labor-intensive, and you always had to use caution working with the coil spring. Typically, a bad shock absorber was the component that was being replaced. But, technicians often discovered that one of the other components such as a bushing or bearing would show considerable wear upon disassembly. Nobody wants to reassemble something with worn parts, but since many of the components weren’t considered “normal” service items, we’d often have to wait a day or two to
get them.

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This, of course, made for an inefficient repair, but it’s not the ultimate reason that assembled struts became popular. When strut suspension systems first became popular, they were used on small, lightweight front-wheel-drive vehicles. As a result, the coil springs rarely wore out or broke, and the only component that went bad a lot was the shock absorber itself, so it was common to disassemble the strut just to replace the shock.

As the strut-suspension design became more popular and the many advantages of it became clear, it quickly found its way onto full-size sedans and trucks. All of a sudden, the struts were no longer holding up meager economy cars, and we began to see broken coil springs, worn bearings and strut mounts and worn spring insulators, on top of worn shocks. Almost every time you disassembled a strut, you found that all the components needed to be replaced.

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Stocking all the different strut components for every make and model was unrealistic on one hand, but necessary on the other, and the idea of offering a completely assembled strut was a welcome revelation. Limited at first to a few of the most common models, the idea took off quickly, and now there’s an impressive list of coverage.

The Assembled-Strut Advantage

The advantages for a counter professional, a technician or a DIYer can be summed up the same way for all of us: It’s simply easier. Technicians prefer them, and almost always ask for them first. DIYers may not be familiar with them, so as a counter professional, you may have to explain the advantages.

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Safety might be No. 1. There’s no danger involved when you don’t have to compress and remove the coil spring, and it saves on the tool too, which a DIYer will either need to borrow or buy. Even though it’s possible that purchasing a single component such as a shock absorber or coil spring may be less expensive, the process of building or assembling the strut is where the biggest hurdle can arise.

Overall, there aren’t too many different pieces involved, but there are almost always some types of spacers and washers. Placement is critical, and it’s easy to make mistakes or lose one of the small components without realizing it. You can end up with a strut that rattles excessively or, in the case of a front strut, binds up during turns. Purchasing an assembled strut eliminates the possibility of any of these problems.

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As a technician or service advisor, we can represent the advantage of time savings, which translates to less labor charged to the customer. In addition, the advantage of all-new components allows us to guarantee proper performance, no noise or rattles, and a longer-term repair. If you replace only one component in the interest of saving money, perhaps another one of the strut components goes bad a few months down the road. You’re no longer saving money at this point.

Drawbacks?

I’d like to say no, but instead I’ll say no … with exceptions. Overall, assembled struts make sense. But it’s a good idea to consider what they’re going on. As with many components, there are economy versions and top-of-the-line versions. It’s an undeniable fact that the economy versions won’t last the same amount of time as the original OE strut on any vehicle. Of course, you won’t represent them as a poor-quality part to your customer, but you can represent your top-of-the-line as higher-quality, longer-lasting and better-performing, then let your customer make the decision.

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On older vehicles where cost and a safe level of operation are the primary concerns, economy struts may make the most sense. The flip side is vehicles that still have many years left on the road, and it’s always a good idea to recommend the highest quality in these situations.

The fact of the matter is that struts affect the safety, handling and braking of a vehicle. It’s a difference that can be easily noticeable, and the more performance-oriented the vehicle, the easier it will be to notice the difference between high- and low-quality struts.

I mentioned that technicians prefer assembled struts, and we know the advantages they offer. But, we also know that we can make more money on our labor installing them. It’s quick and easy for us, so we’ll end up ahead of the flat-rate time. Even though we get more time for rebuilding a strut, it usually takes us all the allotted time, so we lose our flat-rate advantage.

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This can be a sticky point for some technicians, but an assembled strut isn’t always the best choice. A perfect example would be a high-end European vehicle. These are cars that handle very well, and the owners expect this type of performance. I’ve seen cases where assembled struts are available, but the performance just isn’t up to par with the OE equipment.

Regardless of make, when it’s a performance-oriented vehicle, it’s important to ask questions to determine your customers’ expectation. Though there are times when these cars can be just as old and beat-up as any other, and maybe the owner is just looking for an economical repair, if you suspect they’re looking for a high level of performance, recommend that they use OE parts, which in most cases means getting each piece individually from the dealer.

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As a counter professional, you don’t want to lose sales and refer someone away from buying what you offer. But, in a situation like this, it’s the trust and rapport that you build with the customer that’s important. The same customer with a high-end vehicle may have multiple other vehicles they’re responsible for maintaining – for example, their children’s cars – and if you always point them in the right direction, a lost sale one day can mean multiple sales the next.

A Few More Details

Struts always should be replaced in pairs. Do you have to? Technically, no, and I’m sure you’ve already had customers who only buy one. But it’s the same theory with brakes. Only replacing one side means you’ll have unequal performance side-to-side, and as we all know, if one side wears out, the other isn’t too far behind.

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An alignment always should be checked anytime the struts are replaced. Whenever the suspension, front or rear, is disassembled in any manner, the possibility of affecting the alignment exists, and in the case of struts, ride height could change slightly when going from worn coil springs to new ones.

When the strut is a bolt-on design, it’s a good idea to advise your customer to pay attention to the bolts, especially if they’re camber bolts. Marking their location gives you a good reference for installing the new strut, keeping the alignment as close as possible. That makes the alignment easier, and is much better if the vehicle needs to be driven to an alignment shop.

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Upsells

My favorite add-ons for strut work are caliper hangers, bungee cords, nylon wire ties and penetrating oil. During removal, you’ll often run across brake hoses and ABS harnesses that are secured to the strut via a small bracket. The bolts are usually small, and penetrating oil usually is the trick to keep them from breaking. After detaching any hoses or brackets, it’s a good idea to secure them out of the way. The struts are heavy and awkward, and this helps you avoid snagging them as you wrestle the strut out of the fender well.

When the strut is disconnected from the steering knuckle, the suspension naturally will want to drop. In some cases, it doesn’t or doesn’t drop much, but you should be aware of the possibility, and securing it up with a caliper hanger or bungee cords will prevent it from pulling down on the brake hoses and ABS wiring.

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Finally, when you have the strut out, it’s a good time to look closely at CV boots. Many cars require separating the strut from the knuckle to remove a CV shaft, and if you’re in there already, it’s the perfect time to do it.

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