When I turned the key in my old blue Viper at 7:45am, it was a beautiful morning to hit the highway. I got a ring the day before from my buddy saying that Koni Shock Absorbers had a bunch of identical cars with different shocks on them to test over at Summit Racing Equipment in Tallmadge, Ohio. I checked out Koni on Facebook and the tour is going on through August. I was intrigued and was on my way to check it out.
On the road, with tunes blasting, I thought this was kind of funny. It was probably a safe bet to say that I was the only goofball driving a V10 stick-shift daily driver. I actually took the time to corner-weight the suspension so it would be fingertip precise when I’m making up for America’s woeful lane discipline. No driver aides or cruise-control on my way to go have fun testing cars with parts that most people never think about. Nerd alert!
After that moment of eccentric self realization, I began to think about shocks. Having been a sports car lover and racing nut since the days of racing slot cars, I already knew about Koni. When I was a kid, those triangular Koni logos were on every insanely cool European sports and exotic car that I always dreamed of owning or racing. That logo was almost mythological to a young American car guy.
As I got older, my cars became full scale. I would be doing restoration work and see Koni shocks came on everything from Ferraris to Lamborghinis. Even the Dodge Viper GTS I was currently driving came with Koni as an OE part. Other than seeing them on fancy cars though, I never really experienced them. Hence, my interest in this ACTIVATE the Nation Tour.
As a racing driver, I know the insane importance of suspension being right, or at least better than the next guy. I thought back to 3 years ago when I was driving in a race at Indy on the F1 track. I was driving a 2,600 pound, tube-frame Corvette GT1 car with 700 hp, and was on the front row of a 45-car field.
To my extreme frustration, we had a mysterious electrical gremlin that was causing a weird ignition miss and the car was down about 200 hp. It was horrible to get the better start, but watch car after car walk by me on the straight. I was mad! “No way I’m getting knocked of the podium!” I fought tooth and nail the whole race and scrapped for every inch of tarmac, curb, or grass and wrangled 3rd place overall in both races that weekend.
I drove the proverbial “wheels off the car” to do that, but there is no way it could have happened without having the suspension setup perfect. As a racer, I was not happy . . . there are pictures of me sitting on the podium looking like the “sad Keanu Reeves” and “not impressed McKayla Maroney” memes after she won silver at the Olympics a few years ago.
Truthfully though, that weekend was a great lesson. Our horsepower let us down and the grumpy guy behind the wheel merely did his job. The lesson learned: our suspension set up was the star of those races.
Interested to check out the Koni Shock Absorbers’ ACTIVATE the Nation Tour, I arrived at Summit Racing Equipment to see brand new identical Ford Mustangs and BMW 3 Series cars, all in white. Each Koni equipped car had graphics to represent the shocks it had been fitted with — ACTIVE in red, or SPORT in yellow. The OE cars were plain white as the control group in this scientific experiment that I was about to take part in.
I was greeted by Lee Grimes who is the company’s Automotive Product Manager. Notice that I said “Automotive.” That’s because Koni is a big company that has product lines for Consumer Automotive, Railway, Defense, Recreational Vehicles, Bus, Truck and Trailer, as well as Motorsports and Racing. Fascinating, but is the automotive part of the company still as cool as what I expected as a child dreaming of the exotic cars that sported their decals?
Lee was clearly super knowledgeable, having been around motorsports for over 30 years. Much of that time was spent with Koni Shock Absorbers. Who is Koni? What is their personality? Lee replied quickly, “Koni is an old-school technical company that has evolved to stay on the leading edge.”
Lee went on to explain that “the company has been making hydraulic adjustable shocks since the 1940s.” I’m thinking ok, that’s great, but . . . Lee happily pointed out that “Koni Shock Absorbers has equipped 14 Formula 1 World Championships and over 250 Formula 1 wins since 1958.”
Let me trip him up with this question: How about vintage and older sports cars? Lee immediately told me, “We have a Koni Classic line, and as long as there is a need, we will produce shocks for cars like vintage Jaguar XKEs, Alfa Romeos, Ferraris, and so on.” Koni Shock Absorbers is a company with pedigree, knows how to win at the top level of motorsports, and even cares about the car people who love driving their vintage cars.
Brass tacks. What do you have for me (a car guy from the Midwest) to test drive today? Lee tossed me the key to a brand new, stock Mustang, equipped only with the Red Active Technology shocks. We chose a route that had a huge variety of pavement, bumps, ratty railroad tracks, fast sweepers, and highway.
It was a nice drive — confident, comfortable, and even a bit of fun for a jaded racer like me. I couldn’t say more at that time, because I had no basis of comparison. However, I was about to learn there was no comparison. The OE-equipped car was a mess. It wallowed on compression and rebound over bumps, and it tracked laterally, as though its suspension geometry was from the 1950s. The OE car had a much worse ride in terms of comfort, and had teeth clenching moments over bumps. The OE car was not fun.
Forget the OE car right now. The Koni Active Technology Red Shock equipped car was amazing. I know first-hand how important shocks are on the race track, but never realized they could make a “Meh” Mustang street car something so good, just like that. The ride was suddenly nicer than my wife’s Mercedes, but the car was appropriately sporty too.
How? Koni’s Active Technology Red Shocks are genius, and for that matter, patented. First of all, there are no silly electronics that car guys like me expect will break. Remember my gremlin at Indy? Active Technology is all done mechanically through a sophisticated valve system.
Lee Grimes explained it to me “Ya know what blow-off valves on a turbo are, right? It works a bit like that. There are tiny valves that release pressure spikes and high frequency inputs that ruin ride quality, but they still allow the shock to dampen correctly otherwise.” Sweet! These things work like a fine Swiss mechanical watch for your handling. I’m into that kind of thing.
Do they break? How long will the party last? “They carry a lifetime warranty as long as your car is registered for street use only. They are designed for 100,000-plus miles.” A modern company that makes products to last? That’s different.
On to the BMWs, it was the same big difference between the Active Technology shocks and the OE. However, I discovered a cool phenomenon. I purposefully drove the cars over every nasty thing I normally try to avoid, including the rumble strips on the side of the highway. Typical for the rumble strips, I felt harsh vibrations that focused in my lower back and through the vibrating panels in the OE-equipped cars. In the Koni Active Equipped cars, the rumble strips were totally neutralized. I am not kidding. Neutralized — with no vibration at all! I could only hear the sound from the tires outside and the subtle sound waves through my fingertips on the steering wheel.
That is precisely what these babies were made for, and they worked. Suddenly, the Mustang and the little 3-Series Bimmer had a ride quality that reminded me of a Bentley Continental GT, but these are still sporty cars. This is really something going on here.
Now, on to the adjustable Sport-Equipped BMW with the yellow shocks, set at approximately 30-percent stiffness to be just right for the day. It was great, with all the precise qualities I personally want for hoonigan street, track, or autocross use. Frankly though, the ride quality still had better characteristics over things like railroad tracks than the OE did.
Koni Shock Absorbers actually lived up to my childhood hero status. Let’s be honest, they are smarter than us cocky drivers. Let them do what they do and do it well. They can give you a ride that your grandmother will love and one that will keep you on the podium, even if your engine is having a bad day. Repeat after me “Shut up and take my money.”
I need to mention that Koni also makes their Orange Street line. They come in at approximately 60 percent of the cost of their top-end yellow adjustable shocks. The Active Technology Shocks are priced in the middle. Something for everyone, and lasting quality that makes it an easy decision.
As a parting gift, Koni gave me some swag. I personally hate t-shirts, but they won again and charmed me with a nice fitting shirt with their Active Technology logo in UV color changing pigment with a picture of their Chameleon lizard mascot. This is spooky! How did they know my office companion is the same species of Chameleon?? Evolution over a zillion years and so sophisticated that I wonder if little Charlie MacGyver is an alien. I see the parallel… Well done Koni.
Koni’s ACTIVATE the Nation tour is hitting the streets across the U.S. in 20 different cities over the next month or so. Visit their Facebook page to see if they will be near you and try it out for yourself. I was thoroughly impressed.