Ohlins Mechatronic: Making Suspension Smarter
By Tom Roderick, Jan. 12, 2012, Photography by Ohlins
BMW spearheaded the Electronically Controlled (EC) suspension revolution on production motorcycles by introducing its ESA system in 2005, followed by ESA II in 2008. During this period there’s been no alternative to the stock system. Öhlins is changing that with its Mechatronic EC suspension now available for any BMW R1200GS outfitted with ESA II.
And coming soon from Öhlins is the first aftermarket smart suspension for a sportbike that isn’t factory-equipped with EC suspension, the 2012 Kawasaki ZX-10R. Details, pricing and availability are vague at this juncture, but Öhlins says to expect the TTX36 Mk II EC shock absorber for the ZX sometime in the second quarter of 2012. Rear dampers for other sportbikes are sure to follow.
Öhlins offers customization of its shocks via springs with various spring rates. The shocks are also serviceable and can be rebuilt.
Since the late ’80s Öhlins has been developing electronic suspension with its Continuously Controlled Electronic Suspension (CCES) system for automotive racing. The Swedish company also developed Ducati’s Electronic Suspension (DES) system found on the Multistrada 1200. The choice among factory MotoGP teams, Öhlins is offering its unparalleled expertise in active suspension components to BMW GS owners for a relatively affordable MSRP of $3,279, less than replacement stock components.
Öhlins’ BM 670 TTX-EC shocks and ECUs replace the standard BMW equipment. A separate ECU is required because the TTX-EC dampers feature individual compression and rebound damping adjustments via two valves and two damping pistons per shock, whereas the stock BMW shocks combine the adjustments using a single valve and piston in its components.
Öhlins utilizes BMW’s stock handlebar-mounted interface and the bike’s ECU to operate its suspension components. This integration is clean and efficient, but because suspension settings are pre-programmed within BMW’s ECU for combined compression/rebound settings, the Öhlins ECUs must interpret the data and relay a modified message to its TTX-EC shocks with individual compression/rebound damping information. This isn’t the only technical advantage of the Öhlins suspension, but it’s the most significant.
BMW’s ESA II offers a choice of three different suspension damping modes; COMF, NORM and SPORT, and three different preload selections; single rider, single rider with luggage and two-up with luggage. Selecting these pre-programmed settings changes compression and rebound damping as well as spring preload for front and rear shocks. With the stock components, only input from the rider choosing one of the pre-programmed settings will initiate a change in suspension.
Conversely, Öhlins built into its ECU a “Smart EC” function that adapts the suspension to the current riding speed. When left in COMF mode the TTX shocks automatically select NORM when speeds reach 50 mph, and the SPORT mode is automatically selected when speeds reach 75 mph. As speed decreases the Smart EC automatically reverts to the previous settings. This function only operates when in the COMF mode and does not automatically increase to the SPORT setting when the NORM mode is initially selected. This safety mechanism exists because Öhlins doesn’t want GS riders crashing due to an EC suspension that wasn’t up to the task of handling higher speeds when left in the COMF setting.
Another difference between the stock and aftermarket components on the Beemer is the adjustment of spring preload. With the stock components, both the front and rear spring preload are electronically manipulated as suspension modes are selected. On the Öhlins components only the rear spring preload is electronically adjusted.
While the front’s lack of e-control is an inconvenience, Öhlins notes that front preload rarely requires adjusting after it’s initially dialed in, as loads on the front suspension don’t alter as much as the various loads placed on the rear from luggage or passengers. The omission of electronic components reduces both the weight and cost of the Öhlins front shock.
Like the stock BMW component, the Öhlins rear shock adjusts spring preload electronically.
We had the opportunity to ride a stock BMW GS back-to-back with an Öhlins-equipped model in the canyons above Malibu and it was admittedly hard to feel a difference between the two bikes on the street. This isn’t a knock to Öhlins, but a compliment to BMW’s stock components. Riding a GS with the Öhlins units on rough, off-road terrain is where the Swedish shocks will outshine the factory equipment.
So it may not be necessary to run out and spend the money to replace your stock suspension with Öhlins components, but when the time comes to replace or upgrade your shocks, the $620 savings ($3279 vs $3900) should behoove you to consider the Swedish suspension for your German bike.
The Öhlins Mechatronic EC shock the first smart suspension component available for a traditionally suspended motorcycle, in this case the 2012 Kawasaki ZX-10R. The TTX36 Mk II EC shock is so smart, in fact, it may come to market as an autonomous component.
According to Öhlins, like the shocks for the BMW GS, the TTX36 shock comes with its EC actuators attached to the shock’s own ECU. Unlike the Beemer — that has pre-programmed suspension settings in the bike’s ECU, an instrument cluster to display suspension choices and comes equipped with a handlebar-mounted selector mechanism — the Kawi isn’t equipped to adjust or display smart suspension settings.
Öhlins must either develop a component (seen in the below illustration) to address these issues or make the suspension work autonomously with the only input given via a laptop connection when the bike is at rest. The Öhlins press release regarding the EC suspension for the Ninja suggests the latter.
Öhlins will apparently supply a remote display unit to control its ZX-10R smart suspension.
“It (the TTX36 Mk II EC shock) uses signals from the bike’s original system to determine the intentions of the rider and the way the bike is driven. The suspension continuously changes the damping setting dependent on the riding style thanks to the ECU software developed by Öhlins R&D. As such this shock absorber has a smart EC function that continuously adapts to the way the bike is ridden. All adjustments are done while riding and the Öhlins system also detects if the rider chooses the Power mode button on the bike and automatically changes the suspension to sportier settings.”
For the moment, this is the most detailed information Öhlins is providing regarding the smart Ninja shock. We’ll bring you more about pricing and availability when we receive the information. Also expect a full review of the Öhlins EC shock for the Ninja as soon as we get a bike and shock with which to test its benefits.
Like traction control before it, EC suspension is a part of the electronics revolution currently infiltrating performance motorcycles. The aftermarket Öhlins components for the ZX-10R and R1200GS are only the tip of the iceberg. Like traction control before it, expect this technology to become more ubiquitous and less expensive.