Pickup trucks have to do many things; unfortunately, given the limitations and design characteristics of traditional leaf- and coil-spring suspensions, sometimes the rough-riding tradeoffs are too much to handle. But some companies are providing solutions that can help with the work a pickup has to do as well as provide a smoother ride, especially when empty.
We went to the people at Air Lift because it is promoting its new RideControl product for the aluminum-body F-150 as an easy way to provide more control and stability to the vehicle when towing or carrying heavy loads. Arriving at Air Lift's Lansing, Mich., headquarters we found a brand-new 2016 F-150 Lariat SuperCrew 4×4 hitched to a flatbed car-hauler loaded with a Kubota tractor, weighing about 3,500 pounds. It was outfitted with Air Lift's RideControl suspension. What better testing setup could we want?
For the next few hours we towed that tractor over city streets, an interstate and some backcountry two-lane roads. Our overall impression? The RideControl suspension provided a stable and even, at times, comfortable ride. Although we never forgot we were towing a trailer, there was nothing unnerving or unsettling about pulling this trailer using the Air Lift suspension. We were in complete control.
Air Lift product specialist Andy James said, "You don't have to have airbags — you just need to." In other words, any factory pickup can pull trailers or haul payloads that meet manufacturer ratings. But if you want more control and stability, you might want airbags. And that's exactly what this test drive proved.
From Lansing we drove south to Marshall via Interstate 69, which has been rutted, scarred and grooved by thousands of semi-trucks arriving and departing the GM Lansing Delta Township Assembly plant where the GMC Acadia, Buick Enclave and Chevrolet Traverse are built. During this leg of our drive we felt little feedback from the trailer. Other than slower acceleration, the truck responded as if it had a few hundred pounds in the bed, not the load we guessed was about 3,500 pounds.
We felt little vertical or horizontal motion feeding back through the trailer or the bed of the F-150. We did experience some slight "pushing" on tight, slow turns on local roads, although that felt more like what we'd typically expect from a trailer of this size and weight. But then things got interesting. We pulled off I-69, stopped the rig and didn't just air down the RideControl sleeve-style airbags, we pulled the airlines for a complete and total deflation.
What a difference. Unless you've done back-to-back tow testing with and without the supplemental airbags, it's difficult to describe the differences in how a stock half-ton pulls a trailer when compared to one with an aftermarket air-assist system like this one from Air Lift.
We've seen other new F-150s sag a bit when the bed is loaded near maximum payload or dealing with an excessive amount of trailer tongue weight, and that's exactly what we had here. (In the name of full disclosure, we probably had a little too much weight on the back bumper and should have adjusted the load but we were pressed for time. Since we wanted to keep the comparison apples to apples, we did not attempt to make any adjustments.)
The results were, to say the least, dramatic: The rear end dropped almost 6 inches and the ride comfort went into the crapper without the bags. Had it been nighttime our headlights would have pointed to the treetops. Our ride back was a literal pain in the back and neck. Had we not done back-to-back testing, this type of towing would have felt like what we're used to.
Every input was magnified; our head was tossed a little from those annoying porpoise-like motions caused by the trailer tongue pushing and rebounding on the springs. We also experienced some side-to-side head toss with the road irregularities. In fact, every imperfection in the road was transmitted — seemingly amplified — through the seat to our lower back and into our neck. Terrible? Not on this short ride. It was, however, more fatiguing. We can only imagine what a long-distance tow would be like.
Of course, just having airbags doesn't guarantee a comfortable and confident ride. The same laws of physics still apply to your truck-and-trailer combination, and you still must adhere to all of the manufacturer's capacity and weight limits. But if you do, we're confident you'll arrive at your journey's end more comfortable, less weary, and less anxious or irritable. And with your pickup riding more level, it's likely to last longer, provide more predictable braking and acceleration, and make your rig just plain safer.
Although not complicated and well within the capabilities of a do-it-yourself driveway warrior, there are some things you'll want to know before you install an air suspension. Here's how the install process worked for our new Ford F-150.
Air Lift puts everything you'll need into the box, from nuts and bolts to zip ties. It's up to you to bring the wrenches and recommended Loctite.
Remove the stock jounce bumper, placing it aside for reinstallation later in the process.
With great care not to pull or crush any brake lines, install two large U bolts facing outward.
Using the U bolts, install the top platform bracket from the kit and reinstall the stock jounce bumper.
Build up the airbag (sleeve style) and bolt it to the bottom bracket. Observe torque ratings closely.
Collapse the airbag, drop the bottom bracket over your leaf-spring pack, and pop the top of the airbag through the hole in the top bracket. Install the airline fitting as shown.
Make sure both brackets are as level and parallel to each other as possible, then push the U bolts up into the bottom bracket.
Secure the lock nuts to the bracket bolts and torque properly. Be sure to use the washers that come with the kit.
Run airlines from each individual airbag back to a place on the bumper of your choice. Many hide the valves behind the license plate. Last note: When cutting the airlines be sure to cut them as squarely as possible as they pop into the fittings without tools. No air compressors or pumps are needed in this installation as the bags are externally inflated via the supplied valve stem, just like a normal tire; however, if you want a self-contained air supply, an air compressor is optional.
Source: Air Lift, 800-248-0892
Cars.com photos by Thom Cannell