Paul Brand: When steering wheel gets the shakes, it's scary

  • Article by: PAUL BRAND
  • Star Tribune
  • March 18, 2011 - 9:39 PM

Q I have a 2000 Mitsubishi Galant with about 140,000 miles on it. While my nephew was driving at normal highway speed about a month ago, the steering wheel started shaking violently. He stopped the car but could find nothing wrong. When he started driving again, the shaking had disappeared.

Three weeks later, my son drove it from central Wisconsin to Minneapolis. When he slowed for the exit ramp the steering wheel again started shaking violently and the car pulled to the left. The shaking lasted about two minutes and then everything went back to normal.

Our trusted mechanic checked everything and drove it more than 140 miles but could find nothing wrong. A tire shop discovered the front wheels were bent. We bought two new wheels, put the new wheels on the back with the old tires and put the rear wheels on the front with new tires.

This morning, two hours into a long drive, the car started shaking. They drove it about two miles and then exited, filled up with gas and drove away -- again all is well. Something is wrong, and we are not even sure what to look for.

A Because the shaking is felt in the steering wheel rather than the seat, focus on the front suspension and steering. Common causes for serious front-end vibrations are worn components, bent or damaged parts, tired shocks or struts, damaged tires, worn brake rotors -- or a combination of any or all of the above. My Alldata automotive database pulled up a Mitsubishi technical service bulletin, TSB-00-33A-001 dated November 2000, that addresses steering wheel shimmy at road speed. It suggests replacing the front lower control arms. Wear in the lower ball joint or control arm bushings can allow undampened vibrations like you describe, as can wear/play in the upper strut bearing assembly.

Mitsubishi issued recall SR-00-004REV to inspect for a loose pinion shaft lock nut on the steering gear, which could create a vibration or very stiff steering.

I'd suggest having the vehicle checked carefully by a competent auto-body shop or front-end specialist. There has to be excess wear/play somewhere in the front suspension or steering gear, or the rotors are worn enough that the brake pads do not always seat against the rotor surface properly.

Q I have a 2004 Mercury Marquis. The left rear axle seal blew out at 40,000 miles. It was replaced under warranty. At 80,000, it went again. This time, the cost was $600. Now, 30,000 miles later, it failed again. A double-lip rear seal was installed by the dealer. But now it's happened again. What gives?

A This time, replace the entire axle assembly -- axle, bearing and seal. Possible causes for repeated axle failure are a bent axle housing, bent axle shaft, worn axle bearing, or a groove in the axle shaft where seal lip rides.

Q When I take my car in for service, the garage typically does a safety check and reports the amount of brake pad remaining. At what thickness or percentage of pad remaining would you recommend that I have the pads replaced? Does it matter what kind of vehicle I drive -- or do brake pads increase in area, but not in thickness, the bigger the vehicle?

A Brake pads can be larger in contact surface and thicker as well, depending on the weight and performance of the vehicle. Since the thickness is directly proportional to the pad's ability to dissipate heat, I tend to replace pads or shoes worn down to the last 10 to 20 percent of their original thickness. If the brake rotors/drums are still in good shape -- no serious wear/run-out/out-of-round - I just lightly scuff the surfaces with a sanding disc and install new friction material.

Just like tires, better safe than sorry.


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