Designed to reduce chassis flex and improve cornering, many modern cars are being released standard with strut braces and sway bars to increase the performance on the road. By reducing chassis flex and body roll the vehicle can hit the apex of the corners more precisely on the track with less chance of losing control of the car.
This needs to be explained technically for it to make sense as to why it has the effect on the car.
It is our belief that a strut bar definitely does help. And during the explanation that follows we will try to provide a convincing argument for this
Figure 1 shows the forces of interest in a strut bar analysis. For this calculation only horizontal forces need to be considered. There are of course vertical forces, but since the sum of forces must independently equal zero in both the horizontal and vertical directions, we can concentrate on just the horizontal forces in this analysis.
We must begin by making some assumptions. First, consider an M3 cornering such that it experiences 100% weight transfer at the front wheels. This is not at all unusual on a modified M3. We have probably all seen pictures of an M3 in a turn with its inside front wheel in the air. That is a sure sign of 100% weight transfer.
Second, let us assume that our M3 is cornering at 1G. Again, on a modified M3 with R-series tires, this is very plausible. If an M3 weighs 2700 lbs and has close to a 50/50 weight distribution, then the outside front tire must generate a lateral force of 1350 lbs under the circumstances just outlined.
Thus F1 = 1350 lbs as depicted in the figure above. The figure is really a "free body diagram" which considers the forces that act ON the strut/wheel assembly (the blue link in Figure 1). These forces must sum to zero in the horizontal direction. Also, the sum of the torque's acting on the strut/wheel assembly must cancel out. Our goal is to determine the force F3 which is the force that the strut tower exerts on the strut assembly. There is an equal and opposite force exerted on the strut tower BY the strut assembly.
We can solve for F3 if we do a balance of torque's around the outer ball joint (where the control arm attaches to the strut). What we get is:
F1(L2) = F3(L1) or, F3 = F1(L2/L1)
Now, we already know F1 = 1350 lbs. And we can determine L1 and L2 from a quick measurement of an M3 (L1 = 24.3" and L2 =6.0"). Thus F3 = 333lbs.
So the conclusion is that when an M3 corners at 1G with 100% weight transfer at the front wheels, there is a 333 lb force pulling OUT on the outer strut tower. Since the inside wheel is un-loaded there is no corresponding force generated at the inside strut tower. Therefore a strut tower bar tends to be in tension, not compression as is often believed.
Now we ask ourselves: How critical is a force of 333 lbs pulling on the outer strut tower?
This 333 lb load amounts to about 12% of the car's total weight. Even though the strut tower is designed mainly to manage vertical forces , 333 lbs in the horizontal direction is not going to permanently deform the chassis. But the problem is that this force is repeatedly applied over many cycles during the life of the car. The more you drive it hard the more cycles you generate. This can lead to fatigue failure of the material that forms the strut tower (or where the strut tower attaches to the inner fender well).
What a strut bar does is tie the two strut towers together so that they share the load applied at the outer tower. This gives you twice as much material to deal with the same cornering force and helps reduce fatigue stress in this area.
Another point to consider is that if your outer strut tower is deflected outwards 0.20" by this 333 lb force, then you just lost 0.5° of negative camber! If it deflects 0.42" you have lost a full degree of negative camber.
This demonstration has hopefully illustrated how a strut tower bar can be beneficial. But what about the possibility of a strut tower bar being under compression?
Contrary to the simplified analysis on the previous page, many people believe that a strut tower bar is predominantly under compression, not tension. This assertion is partially born out in some cars where the strut towers gradually move closer together over time. And I have heard of incidents where the strut tower bar was instrumented with strain gauges as the car was driven around. These tests show the strut tower bar is under compression as well as tension, depending on what the car is doing. One test showed that the highest loads recorded on the strut bar were in compression as the car was pulling out of a garage (sideways down an inclined driveway - we have all heard a stiff car twist under this condition).
So what is this all about? Is a strut tower bar under tension or compression? One likely theory is that it experiences both. It just depends on the driving conditions. Cornering on smooth asphalt induces tension. Driving in a straight line over bumps induces compression. A force diagram illustrating how compression forces result from driving in a straight line (over a bump) is shown in Figure 2:
The left side of the figure shows the resultant forces acting ON the strut tower assembly. Force 1 is the road holding the car up, and force 2 is the weight of the car. Forces 3 and 4 result to stop the strut from spinning (they counter the moment produced by forces 1 & 2). Force 4 of course has an opposite and equal reaction force which is Force 5. This is shown on the right (in green) and is the resulting compression force on the strut tower.
Bear in mind that when the car encounters a sharp bump or dip in the pavement that the chassis may momentarily experience 3 or 4 G's. This means that F1 and F2 in Figure 2 could equal about 2800 lbs! F3 and F4 (and therefore F5) are much smaller, but could still be quite significant. To calculate F5 more precisely requires some measurements. I will get to this eventually.
In conclusion, some cars spend most of their lives driving in a straight line. Such cars might experience the strut towers moving together over time. Track cars spend a lot of their time cornering at over 1G. Thus a track car might see it's strut towers spread apart over the years. Thus a strut tower bar can be under tension OR compression depending on the environment that the car is operated in.