How To Choose The Right Replacement Shocks/Struts For Your Toyota Prius
Everyone has been there. We get told by the service department that we need shocks/struts on your Prius and it is going to cost $XXX dollars. Ugh. That feeling hits us and we start thinking about where we can get the (what we think is the) same service somewhere else. A shock is just a shock right? Sorry, but no. We bought a Prius to be a fuel saver not a money sucker.
We have to consider all things when it comes to how these shocks are being built. This means the quality of the steel or metal that is being used for the housings. The plastic internal valving that is to control the spring dampening. This also includes the bushings, the oil and whether the shocks are filled with nitrogen or not.
Other things to consider are mono tube, twin tube and variable shock designs as well. Believe it or not all of these things play a crucial role in how well your car will ride and how long it will keep driving well. Without getting too deep into how shocks are made, know all of these things will have an explanation as we go through this article together.
I declare that not all maintenance and parts are created equal. Even though we would like to believe they are. The real question is what are the differences between economy, OE and performance shocks/struts, and how do we know what is best for our Prius?
Economy - The “I am saving money but really did no research” option.
I would bet my last paycheck (it will for sure get you a McDonalds value meal) that if I were to ask Jane and Joe Public what they think economy means, I am sure my answer would be something as follows. “Economy means saving money”. Saving money on parts is not always a good thing.
Economy shock absorbers are built to save the consumer out-of-pocket expense while providing the minimum requirements the product (in our case shocks/struts) is intended for. So this means that cheap shocks are built with, cheap material, that will likely corrode quicker, fail sooner, and put you back at the starting point you were at just a couple years or less earlier.
Mono tube or single tube designed shocks are the simplest to build and also the least expensive. This single tube design works, but why do they fail after such a short period of time? The internal components, such as the valve and piston are made from plastic, and due to the single tube design, as the shock oscillates or goes up and down while driving, this creates heat. Heat then must get dissipated through the fluid and out of the shell. If there is less fluid and less surface area to relieve the heat, the fluid will break down sooner and the internal piston will fail causing poor ride quality, handling or both.
It is important to know also if the shock was filled with nitrogen or not. Nitrogen is an inert gas that help minimize the amount of foaming the oil gets as the shock heats up. Foam or air in the shock will quickly compromise your handling and ride quality, not to mention screw up your tires if this issue is prolonged.
The reduced cost also means that the anti corrosion coating used to keep them from rusting out is more easily penetrated as well. A rusty shock will leak sooner and fail as well. Even the bushings that are pressed in play a major factor in how well the vehicle will ride. All bushings are not the same hardness or softness for that matter. The bushings that connect the shock or strut to the car help minimize the transfer of vibrations from the road to inside the cabin.
All things considered economy shocks are for people who think they know more and feel as if they are getting a good deal, when in fact they are really going to end up spending more money over time replacing them more often, cost your more money out of your pocket over time.
Original Equipment - The “I want my car to ride like it did when it was new” option.
It is important to state right now that some cars that were made for economy use a single tube mono shock design. However, improvements can be made to that design and still provide a better ride than an economy shock. All original equipment means is that what came on the car originally.
Many aftermarket shock makers claim they have an OE or Original Equipment designed shock that will function as it did when the car was new. This can be true if you choose a manufacturer that built the OE shocks for that vehicle. Example, if KYB built the shocks for your Toyota Prius, KYB would be a solid solution getting the car back to optimal ride condition.
In a previous article 3 Tips For A Better Ride In Your Toyota Prius I discuss how shocks are only one of the 3 things you can do to improve ride quality and sound inside your Prius. My focus though here is shocks. OE shocks are the best option if you are wanting a ride that is equal to what the car was like when it was new.
Toyota has been known to do quite a lot with upgraded factory shock options right out of the gate. Including upgrading some of their vehicles to a twin tube shock design like you could find in a Bilstien shock. A twin tube design is superior to a single due to the fact it can hold more oil and dissipate heat better. The internal parts can still be plastic but the reduced stress on them can keep them living longer. Typically, with a higher quality OE design you will find better quality oil, internal parts and for sure they will be filled with nitrogen.
These things combined make the OE option best for Prius, because in all honesty how many of us are going to lower the car and put on sport suspension? Not likely. However, the OE option is less likely to wear out as quickly, giving you a better ride for a lot longer time, and even though it is more expensive (slightly) you will save more money in the long run by choosing this option.
The Premium or Aftermarket - “I want to spend a lot of money and I may or may not know what I am talking about” option
I am going to be perfectly straight with you here, in this category you either have done the research or you have not. If you are looking to put a sport or premium suspension on your Prius here is what you should look for.
1. An adjustable shock/strut with variable internal valving. This will help you “tune” your suspension to the best combination of ride vs handling you want.
2. A product with a good reputation. KYB and Bilstein are my personal favorites they have been around for quite a long time and have built factory shock options for Toyota for many years.
3. Budget. Please keep in mind upgrades cost significantly more than standard options. If you cannot afford to do it right, please do not do it at all.
All things considered, there are many options and brands that you can choose from. I have been bitten before by choosing the economy option and that sent me into a world of discovery. Lucky for you, all that research can now keep you from avoiding the same pitfalls I have and make you Prius a much more enjoyable investment.
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Peter Neilson is an automotive consultant specializing in electric cars and hybrid battery technologies. He is an automotive technology instructor at Columbia Basin College. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Automotive Service Technology from Weber State University. Peter can be reached on Linkedin and at Certified Consulting