Chances are you’ve attempted to stuff a few heavy items into the car at one time or another. Heavy might include bags of fertilizer, products for a home improvement project or your Aunt Gertrude from Des Moines.
The sluggish, top heavy feeling from a heavy load can lead to more than an unpleasant feeling. As your vehicle accepts more weight (especially rear-biased weight), the chassis can become unbalanced, which in turn can lead to any number of performance issues. Headlight misalignment can lead to complications at night, braking systems can become overwhelmed, vehicle control can become greatly impaired and general stability can suffer.
Traditional suspension systems aren’t designed to accommodate significant increases in load, especially when biased to one portion of the chassis. Thankfully, ZF Sachs has developed an uber high-tech shock absorber that it calls “Nivomat,” which offers the only self-leveling suspension system that doesn’t require external energy.
Nivomat is lightweight, maintenance free, easy to install, retrofitable and economical, which is why many OEMs are beginning to show interest in the system. GM and Daimler-Chrysler have embraced the Nivomat system and include it as an option on many of their vehicles. We were lucky enough to experience the benefits firsthand at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
ZF Sachs hosted a ride-and-drive event and provided select journalists with a slew of paired vehicles to compare. By “paired” we mean to say that two identical vehicles were supplied – one with Nivomat, one without. This allowed us to realize the benefits of the Nivomat system on a direct, one-to-one comparison.
Just to make things interesting, ZF Sachs also outfitted every vehicle with more than 1,000-lbs of ballast. And if that wasn’t enough, they set-up a rigorous test track, complete with simulated railroad crossings, emergency lane changes, “whoop-de-doos” (our term), and braking zones.
We were paired with an engineer from ZF Sachs and invited to push each vehicle through the course. The ballast became immediately obvious as we tried to manuever the non-Nivomat vehicles through the slaloms, over railroad tracks and across the miniature “jumps.” The non-Nivomat controlled vehicles wallowed and bounced, zigged and zagged and left us with a very uneasy feeling. Speaking generally, the non-Nivomat vehicles were quite a handful.
Once we calmed our sea-legs, we climbed into vehicles that were equipped with the Nivomat system and immediately noticed a dramatic improvement. How dramatic? While testing a 2003 Chevrolet Suburban equipped with Nivomat, I had to get out of the vehicle, walk to the back and visually inspect the ballast pack – I thought they had tried to pull a fast one… but the ballast was there, in all of its hefty glory. The engineer had a smile on his face as he gave me the “I told you so” routine.
A full-sized Suburban isn’t exactly light on its feet, and it’s generally less nimble when loaded with an extra 1500-lbs of heavily rear-biased ballast. But the Nivomat system completely masked the added cargo, and in fact, helped the vehicle feel almost Lotus-like. It shredded the slaloms with nary a tire squeal, it glided gracefully over the railroad tracks with barely a thump, and handled the irregular pavement with grace. It stopped and accelerated with complete control – no body roll, no slinky-like suspension wallow – just sure-footed, stable and safe response.
So if you’re contemplating a new vehicle purchase, don’t overlook the Nivomat option. And if it’s not offered on a particular model, ask the manufacturer why. The benefits are tremendous, and you’ll immediately notice the improvement in ride comfort and handling. And while ZF Sachs won’t officially confirm it, we believe tire wear may actually improve as a result.
No matter how you slice it, the Nivomat system can’t be beat. Check it out for yourself at: .