In a ground vehicle with a suspension, the unsprung weight (or, more properly, the unsprung mass) is the mass of the suspension, wheels or tracks (as applicable), and other components directly connected to them, rather than supported by the suspension. (The mass of the body and other components supported by the suspension is the sprung mass.) Unsprung weight includes the mass of components such as the wheel spindles, wheel bearings, tires, and a portion of the weight of driveshafts, springs, shock absorbers, and suspension links. If the vehicle's brakes are mounted outboard (i.e., within the wheel), their weight is also part of the unsprung weight.
Effects of Unsprung Weight
The unsprung weight of a wheel controls a trade-off between a wheel's bump-following ability and its vibration isolation. Bumps and surface imperfections in the road cause tire compression--which induces a force on the unsprung weight. In time, the unsprung weight then responds to this force with movement of its own. The amount of movement is inversely proportional to the weight - a lighter wheel which readily moves in response to road bumps will have more grip when tracking over an imperfect road. For this reason, lighter wheels are often sought for high-performance applications. In contrast, a heavier wheel which moves less will not absorb as much vibration; the irregularities of the road surface will transfer to the cabin through the geometry of the suspension and hence ride quality is deteriorated.
Pneumatic or elastic tires (tyres) help by providing some springing for most of the (otherwise) unsprung mass, but the damping that can be included in the tires is limited by considerations of fuel economy and overheating. The shock absorbers, if any, damp the spring motion also and must be less stiff than would optimally damp the wheel bounce. So the wheels execute some vibrations after each bump before coming to rest. On dirt roads and perhaps on some softly paved roads, these motions form small bumps, known as "corduroy" because they resemble smaller versions of the bumps in roads made of logs. These cause sustained wheel bounce in subsequent vehicles, enlarging the bumps.
High unsprung weight also exacerbates wheel control under hard acceleration or braking. If the vehicle does not have adequate wheel location in the vertical plane (such as a rear-wheel drive car with Hotchkiss drive, a live axle supported by simple leaf springs), vertical forces exerted by acceleration or hard braking combined with high unsprung mass can lead to severe wheel hop, compromising traction and steering control.
Though this is usually not considered important, at least in the popular literature, there is a positive effect. High frequency road irregularities, such as the gravel in an asphalt or concrete road surface, are isolated from the body more completely because the tires and springs act as separate filter stages, with the unsprung weight tending to uncouple them. This can improve overall safety.
Unsprung Weight and Vehicle Design
Unsprung weight is largely a function of the design of a vehicle's suspension and the materials used in the construction of suspension components. Beam axle suspensions, in which wheels on opposite sides are connected as a rigid unit, generally have greater unsprung weight than independent suspension systems, in which the wheels are suspended and allowed to move separately. Heavy components such as the differential can be made part of the sprung weight by connecting them directly to the body (as in a de Dion tube rear suspension). Lightweight materials, such as aluminum, plastic, carbon fiber, and/or hollow components can provide further weight reductions at the expense of greater cost and/or fragility.
Inboard brakes make a big difference, but put more load on half axles and (constant velocity) universal joints and require space that may not be easily accommodated.