Air suspension provides drivers and their passengers with luxurious ride quality, increased safety and load-leveling capabilities. But the high-tech components in an air-suspension system come with high-tech replacement costs.
Chip Lofton, founder of Strutmasters, learned this the hard way.
In 1999, Lofton purchased a 1989 Lincoln Continental. While on vacation, the car’s suspension system failed. Lofton took his beloved Lincoln to a dealership, only to find out that it would cost several thousand dollars to repair the suspension.
Determined to find a more affordable strategy to repair the vehicle, he called salvage yards in hopes of tracking down used air struts, without any luck. To his surprise, however, Lofton found a wrecked Lincoln with a regular set of struts on it. After figuring out where to drill holes in the body and make adjustments to the height, he was up and running – at a fraction of the dealership’s estimated cost. The air-to-coil conversion was complete, and Strutmasters was born.
From the early days of making conversion kits in Lofton’s goat barn and selling them on eBay, Strutmasters has grown into a nationwide provider of affordable suspension solutions, headquartered in Roxboro, North Carolina.
While the Strutmasters portfolio today includes control arms, sway bars, shocks, trailer hitches and other replacement parts, the company’s bread and butter continues to be conversion kits – and with good reason. Citing RepairPal, Strutmasters estimates that the average cost of a replacement air spring is $1,200, while the average cost of an air compressor is $875. Suspension-control modules average $685, while ride-height sensors average $450. And that’s just for the parts.
According to Strutmasters, one OE-replacement front air strut for the Lexus GX 470 costs just under $1,500 for the part alone. A four-wheel conversion kit for the 2003-2009 Lexus GX 470 costs about $800. That’s the entire suspension replaced for less than the cost of one OE air strut.
“Air suspension is extremely expensive, especially for OE-quality parts,” says Scott Beaddles, director of operations for Strutmasters. “If you go back to the dealership with a Mercedes and you want to get your suspension replaced, it’s going to cost you about nine grand. We sell a kit for a fraction of that cost that replaces it all, and it’s not going to fail either.”
A conversion kit enables the customer to remove their vehicle’s air springs, ride-height sensors, compressor and air lines, and replace them with coil springs, hardware, mounts and passive struts. The kits are designed to bolt onto the vehicle, so no welding, cutting or modifications are necessary.
For Strutmasters, a typical customer might be the second or third owner of an air-equipped luxury vehicle.
“When you get that second or third Mercedes owner who bought a $10,000 car and now they need $12,000 worth of suspension parts – they’re not willing to do it,” Beaddles says. “That’s where we come in.”
Air suspension used to be the exclusive realm of luxury sedans. However, more and more OEMs are using air suspension to provide a luxury feel for SUVs and pickups. In parallel with this trend, conversion kits for models such as the 2011-2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee and 2013-2018 Ram 1500 have become top sellers.
While conversion kits are a cost-effective alternative to air-ride replacement, the original air-ride quality can’t be duplicated with conventional springs and hydraulic dampening. Still, for a customer with a long-dead system, the improvements will be noticeable.
“The people who are coming to us, their suspension has been screwed up for a while,” Beaddles adds. “They’ve been riding on just nothing, basically. By the time they switch over, the ride is much better because it’s actually functioning properly, and they’re not bouncing on the bump stops anymore, so the strut isn’t locked up or whatever the case may be.”
Beaddles notes that Strutmasters offers conversion kits for several types of active suspension systems – not just air. For example, a number of GM vehicles dating back to the 2002 model year feature MagneRide suspension technology. MagneRide systems utilize monotube dampers filled with magneto-rheological fluid, which contains soft iron particles that become magnetized when electromagnetic coils in the damper pistons are energized by the ECU. Strutmasters offers four-corner OE replacement kits for the 2007-2014 GMC Suburban 1500 and other GM models with magnetic suspension systems.
One final point: Beaddles emphasizes that an affordable price shouldn’t be mistaken for a cheap fix. Strutmasters’ conversion kits are assembled in the United States and are made with durable, high-quality materials such as cold-wound steel springs.
“We also have an ASE-certified staff here,” he says. “If you’re having a problem with your install, call us up, we’ll walk you through the entire install, step by step. If you’re having a problem getting your module installed, or a light’s still on, give us a call. We walk people through it all day long.”