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Common sense about ABS


A down-the-street neighbour cornered Auto Adviser in the fresh produce department of the supermarket the other day, visibly upset.

She had found an ideal used car at a good price and had fallen in love with it only to be told by her brother, “who knows all about cars”, not to buy it because it didn’t have ABS. Until then, she had thought ABS were things you tried to tone at the gym, but apparently it was to do with the brakes and without it, her brother said, the car was unsafe. Unknowingly, she had stumbled on a car that used to have a little cult following, an early 1990s Suzuki Swift GTi that possessed lively performance and handling and had the most exquisite-looking 1.3-litre twincam motor you’ve ever seen. It should be mounted and displayed in an art gallery. The neighbour knew nothing of this; she just liked its looks, its condition and mileage - and now her hopes were being dashed.

“Put it this way,” I said. “For generations people drove cars with no ABS without mayhem on the roads, but it’s a good aid if you have to brake suddenly, perhaps to avoid a collision.” ABS is an acronym for anti-lock braking system, or more precisely the German term “antiblockiersystem”. It’s designed to stop the brakes from locking-up in panic stops. It won’t necessarily make the car stop in a shorter distance, but will allow the driver to retain steering control and possibly avoid what’s about to be hit. The drawback is the driver has to push really hard on the pedal for a modern four-wheel system to work at its best – something that might be forgotten in the heat of the moment. Today, it’s rare to find a new vehicle without ABS, but when the Swift GTi was being sold, it was far from universal, especially at the “cheaper” end of the market. There are many tens of thousands of vehicles on our roads without ABS and many more with earlier systems that are nowhere near as good as today’s.

Teachers of advanced driving techniques can show how to achieve much the same result as ABS, by applying the brakes to just before the point of lockup, backing off, and then repeating the process, rapidly and repeatedly. On a demonstration track, it works well but whether a driver facing a panic situation will have the presence of mind to apply the technique and do it successfully is another matter. ABS does little for you in normal driving. It’s like the guy riding shotgun on a stagecoach who was just deadweight unless there was an ambush. But drivers may sometimes feel it working when braking on slippery or loose-surface roads, when no accident is imminent. That’s the system being cautious and stopping the vehicle from getting into a nasty predicament. For drivers in colder climates, ABS can be very handy when braking on ice, but it can’t overcome the basic laws of physics – when there’s no grip to work with, you’re on your own. ABS will usually signal that it’s working by pulsations in the brake pedal and a “clunking” sound as it modulates pressure to each brake at speeds only computers can comprehend.

So where does this all leave my neighbour with her Swift GTi and all the others who fancy a vehicle that lacks ABS? There’s more to choosing a car than just its safety features, just its fuel economy or just its sound system. You’re buying a whole package of features and if the total tickles your fancy and falls within the budget, then go ahead. Good, defensive and alert driving will usually eliminate the need for ABS to swing into action – and that’s the kind of driving we should be doing every time we go out on the road. ABS is good. But you can leave home without it.

Gas-filled shock absorbers are often found on performance vehicles and 4WDs, it’s a shock that uses nitrogen gas, at around 25 times atmospheric pressure, to pressurise the fluid in the shock to reduce or prevent aeration or foaming. This maintains its effectiveness in extreme use.


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