The tie rods are an important part of your car’s steering system. Bad tie rods will make a car feel clunky to drive. And even worse, it’s potentially dangerous to drive with them. We’ll discuss the bad tie rod symptoms you need to know in this post and everything else you need to know about them.
Here’s our table of contents to help you navigate to the sections that may be relevant for you:
What Are Tie Rods?
Just in case you don’t already know, let’s discuss what a tie rod is and how it works. This will help to make sense of how they go bad and why you need to replace them. As mentioned, tie rods are a part of your steering system.
It’s a small rod that connects the steering rack to the steering arm. There are two tie rods in a car, one for each side on the front wheels. When you turn the steering wheel, the steering rack will move to the corresponding side.
The tie rods will then either push or pull the wheel’s steering arm depending on the direction. For example, if you turn right, then the steering rack will move to the right. The tie rod on the right side will push the right wheel. Meanwhile, the tie rod on the left side will pull the left wheel inwards to turn right and vice versa.
The tie rods have two ends: the inner end which connects to the steering rack. And the outer end that connects to the steering arm. These ends have a ball bearing, stud, and a nut that connects to the steering rack and arm. They’re covered in grease and are sealed by a rubber boot. Here’s a video from MOOG illustrating the construction:
In addition to steering, tie rods serve a secondary purpose which is to stabilize the car. While this isn’t their primary purpose, the tie rods provide resistance to wheel movement and help the wheels to remain stable. Especially when driving over rough surfaces and when cornering.
Are They The Same As Ball Joints?
No, tie rods and ball joints are not the same. Tie rods are a rod with ball connectors on both ends and they control the steering. Meanwhile, ball joints are also ball connectors (or bearings to be more precise), but they connect several suspension components. This includes connecting the control arm to the car’s frame or chassis.
So, while they’re both ball-shaped joints in a lubricated casing, they are different parts that serve different purposes. The tie rods’ primary purpose is to control steering, while the ball joints’ purpose is to connect the suspension components to the car’s frame. The car needs ball joints to allow wheel movement while keeping the car stable.
The control arm itself is the component that connects the steering arm and other suspension components to the car’s chassis or frame. So, the control arm and steering arm are different components. But they work together to keep the car on the road.
Bad Tie Rod Symptoms: How Does A Tie Rod Go Bad?
When tie rods go bad, it’s usually because of their tie rod ends or connectors. The rods themselves are not moving parts, so they don’t go bad unless the car gets into a bad accident that damages the rods. However, the tie rod ends have to move side by side as well as up and down to accommodate the wheels’ movement, hence why they’re greased.
Over time, the tie rod ends will wear out. While the tie rod ends provide movement and allow the wheels to pivot, as mentioned, they also provide resistance to help the wheels remain stable. If they no longer have resistance, then they’ve gone bad. This brings us to the symptoms:
Bad Tie Rod Symptoms
Since the tie rod is a critical piece of the car’s steering system, you’re bound to experience some uncomfortable symptoms while driving when they go bad. Here are the bad tie rod symptoms:
1. Clunking Noise
The symptom you’re most likely to experience is a clunking noise from the front end of the car while driving. In my experience, this noise is most likely to appear when the car goes through a side-to-side motion, such as when going over a speed bump at an angle.
However, this noise can also appear when you’re going over bumps normally or when driving through rough roads. It’ll sound like a small metal ball is shaken inside of a cup, but it’s not quite a metal-clanging sound.
This sound happens when the ball connectors in the tie rod ends have too much play. As mentioned, they’re supposed to provide resistance when the wheel moves. When they wear out, or when they’re not properly greased (usually due to a leak in the rubber boot), they’ll move around more freely resulting in this noise.
If you can’t quite wrap your head around how the tie rod ends go bad, the video below will give you a good idea of what happens when the tie rod is bad:
Note that other things may also cause a clunking noise from the wheel. Most commonly a bad ball joint or wheel bearings. However, in the case of the wheel bearings, you’re more likely to hear a humming noise instead.
It can be difficult to tell whether you have a bad tie rod or a bad ball joint, and we’ll get into diagnosis in a bit. For now, let’s take a look at other bad tie rod symptoms:
2. Play In The Front Wheels
The next symptom you might experience is a play on the front wheels. Play refers to when the wheels are loose and you can shake the wheel, which is not supposed to happen. Ideally, the wheels should sit firmly with very little to no play at all when you shake them.
To find out, you’ll need to jack the front end of your car so that the front wheels are in the air. Afterward, rock the wheels in a front and back motion. If the wheel is firm, then you’re fine. If the wheel moves easily, you might have a bad tie rod.
Again, this is because the tie rods provide resistance to the wheel’s movements, hence why it helps with stability. Since a bad tie rod end will allow for more movement, your wheels will move more (in other words, play) when you rock them. Note that bad wheel bearings and ball joints can also cause this.
3. Loose-Feeling Steering
Since the tie rod is an integral part of the steering system, you’re bound to find steering issues when you have a bad tie rod. This steering issue can manifest in several ways, but loose-feeling steering is the most likely. It’ll feel like there’s a bit of play in the steering, and the steering might feel light at certain points.
I have to mention that in my experience it more often felt like the handling was unstable at times. The steering feels fine, but the car would momentarily feel go out of balance when going through a corner, especially on rough and uneven surfaces.
Again, this can manifest in different ways. And it may be hard to spot sometimes, especially if you’re not a keen driver. But if you have steering issues coupled with a clunking noise from the front, it’s safe to assume you have bad tie rods.
4. Poor Wheel Alignment
If your car’s steering doesn’t feel right, take it to a tire shop and ask them to do a wheel alignment. A wheel alignment is a process of, well, aligning your wheels to make sure they’re at the optimum angle. There are several aspects:
- Camber is the inward and outward angle of the tire when viewed from the front of the car. If the bottom of the tires comes out more, then the car has negative camber which is what most cars usually have.
- Toe angle is the extent to which the tires turn inward or outward when you view them from above. If the tire faces outwards, then the car has a negative toe, which is the case for most front-wheel drive cars. While rear-wheel drive cars usually use positive toe.
- Caster is the angle that identifies the forward or backward slope of a line that is drawn through the upper and lower steering pivot point.
Each car has its ideal angle for those three aspects. A wheel alignment is necessary around every 2 to 3 years, as the angle will change over time due to driving. If it turns out the angle is far off the manufacturer’s specification, or when one wheel sits at a significantly different angle, a bad tie rod may be causing this problem.
Again, this has to do with the resistance the tie rod provides. With less resistance from a bad tie rod, the wheel’s angle is more likely to change significantly, which affects the steering negatively. So, check that wheel alignment first, and while you’re at it, you can inspect the wheels for play. A wheel alignment is usually around $75 – $150 at most tire shops.
5. Uneven Tire Wear
Uneven tire wear occurs when your car has an excessive wheel angle, which can occur due to bad tie rods. This can happen in a couple of ways: first, the tire with the bad tie rod is wearing more than the other one. While the other one is in perfect condition.
A more likely scenario is for the inner side of the tire to wear down significantly. So, the inner side is worn down, but the outer side still has plenty of treads. This is usually because the wheel has too much negative camber due to the bad tie rod.
Most cars have negative camber as it usually improves handling. However, too much negative camber means the inner side of the tire is constantly touching the road, while the outer side is rarely in contact with the road. Your car is essentially not using the outer side of the tires.
As mentioned, most cars have negative camber to a certain degree. But usually not enough for uneven tire wear to occur. If you have uneven tire wear, check the tie rods. Other causes include poor alignment (remember, you need to do this every 2 – 3 years), improper tire inflation, and worn-out suspension components.
Bad Tie Rod Symptoms: Causes & Diagnosis
So, what causes tie rods to go bad? Well, most tie rod ends go bad simply due to age. As mentioned, the rods themselves don’t go bad, but the ends will. In some cars, they wear out as early as five years, in other cars they can last anywhere from 10 to 15 years.
In my experience, they usually go bad after 10 years. But this varies depending on the car’s make and model, as well as the road conditions. If you regularly drive through roads that are less than ideal, it’s likely your tie rods will go bad sooner than later.
Additionally, a torn rubber boot can decrease the tie rod ends’ lifespan. When the boot tears, it will leak out the grease and allow dust to enter, significantly reducing the tie rod ends’ lifespan.
Bad Tie Rod End Symptoms
We mentioned earlier that the tie rod has two ends; the inner and outer end. So, there are three parts to the tie rods: the rod itself, the inner connector, and the outer connector. One thing you should note is that the symptoms will be the same regardless of which part has gone bad.
So, whether you have a bad inner tie rod end or a bad outer tie rod end, the symptoms are the same. Of course, when one end goes bad, you don’t have to replace the entire thing. You can just replace the end that has gone bad.
All this is a complicated way of saying that when a tie rod goes bad, we’re really talking about the tie rod ends, not the rod itself. Here’s how to find out if your tie rod is bad:
Bad Tie Rod Symptoms: How To Diagnose
The symptoms of a bad tie rod can also mean you have other bad suspension components, namely the wheel bearings and ball joints. Thankfully, it’s quite easy to diagnose a bad tie rod, although you’ll have to jack up the car and undo a few nuts and bolts:
- You’ll need to remove the wheels. Loosen the lug nuts on the front wheels, but don’t remove them yet.
- Jack up the front of the car, and put the car on the jack stands. Don’t forget to chock the rear wheels to prevent the car from rolling.
- Remove the lug nuts, then remove the wheels.
- Locate the tie rods and inspect them for visual damage to the rubber boot. There are two rubber boots, one for each tie rod end.
- If either of them is torn, then that’s the cause of the bad tie rod. Inspect the tie rod, if it’s not dirty then the tear is relatively recent and you can probably just replace the rubber boot and regrease the tie rod.
- If there is no damage to the boot, try rocking the tie rod. A play in the tie rod means it’s gone bad and you’ll need to replace it.
- Sometimes you’ll need to disconnect the outer end to inspect for play. Remove the nut at the bottom, then disconnect the tie rod and inspect for play.
- Move it around to inspect for play in the inner tie rod. You should feel a strong resistance if the inner tie rod is still good.
As always, ChrisFix provides an excellent video on how to diagnose mechanical issues. We recommend watching the video above if you want to diagnose your car’s tie rods.
Bad Tie Rod Replacement Cost
So, how much will it cost to replace a tie rod? Well, this depends on which end you need to replace. The highest estimate to replace tie rods on both sides of the car is between $300 and $400 including labor. Here’s the breakdown:
- Tie rod ends are $30 – $50 each, with the inner tie rod usually costing more. Note that sometimes they only come in one assembly, so you can’t just replace one end; you’ll have to replace the entire rod. This can cost up to $120 each.
- The labor is usually between $45 and $85, and replacing the inner tie rod is usually more expensive since it’s harder to access.
So, if you’re just replacing the outer ends on both sides, it’s likely you’ll pay no more than $200. But if you have to replace the inner ends or the entire rod, then expect it to cost as much as $400 including labor. Of course, this varies depending on your car’s make and model.
Note that this doesn’t include the cost of wheel alignment, which you should do after replacing the tie rods. It’s likely your wheel’s angle has changed, so a wheel alignment is necessary to return your car to its manufacturer-specified wheel angle. Expect this to cost an extra $75 – $150 depending on your car’s make and model.
Can I Replace Bad Tie Rods Myself?
Yes, you can. With the correct hand tools and a little bit of guidance, you can replace them yourself. However, this is a moderate-difficulty job, so we don’t recommend it if you’re not sure about your mechanical skills.
Additionally, you’ll still need to go to a tire shop to do the alignment afterward. A wheel alignment requires special machinery that you probably don’t have access to.
We won’t list down the steps here as it’s quite long. Instead, watch the video above from ChrisFix to guide you. It’s an excellent guide and will help you greatly in the process.
Bad Tie Rod Symptoms FAQ
Still, got more questions about tie rods? Here are some answers you might find helpful:
What Are The Symptoms Of A Bad Tie Rod
Bad tie rod symptoms include clunking noise from the front wheels, loose-feeling steering, play in the front wheels when you rock them, poor wheel alignment, and uneven or excessive tire wear.
What Are The Symptoms Of A Bad Inner Tie Rod
Whether it’s your inner or outer tie rod end that’s bad, they will produce the following symptoms when driving: clunking or unusual noises from the front wheels, and a loose or a weird feel to the steering wheel. Other symptoms include a play in the wheels when your rock them, poor wheel alignment, and uneven tire wear.
Can You Drive On A Bad Tie Rod
You shouldn’t. A bad tie rod can affect a car’s handling and stability negatively, so your safety may be compromised if you drive with a bad tie rod. They can also cause poor wheel alignment, which makes it even more dangerous. And this will also cause uneven tire wear, which will shorten your tires’ lifespan.
How Do I Know If My Inner Or Outer Tie Rod Is Bad
You’ll need to jack up your car and inspect them. Visually inspect the rubber boots for any signs of tear. If there aren’t any, remove your wheels, and disconnect the outer end from the steering arm. If the connection moves easily without resistance, then you have a bad outer tie rod. Then move the rod around, and feel if it has resistance. If there’s no resistance, then the inner tie rod is also bad.
Bad Tie Rod Symptoms: Wrap Up
To summarize, the tie rod is a rod that connects the car’s steering rack to the steering arm and is integral to the steering system. A car has two tie rods, one for each side of the car. And each tie rod has two ends; an inner end that connects to the steering rack, and an outer end that connects to the arm.
At each end, there’s a spherical bearing that connects the components. They’re covered in grease and are encased by a rubber boot. When talking about bad tie rods, it’s usually referring to these ends. The rods themselves don’t go bad and are usually damaged only in severe accidents.
As with any parts that experience friction and movement, they will wear out over time. In most cases, they’ll wear out after around 10 years. Additionally, sometimes the rubber boot can tear which will leak out the grease and let dust and debris in, compromising the spherical bearing.
These tie rod ends have a little resistance. It allows the steering arm to pivot while remaining stiff enough to stabilize the car. Hence why a bad tie rod can affect the steering feel and handling of the car. It’s best to replace them as soon as possible to avoid accidents. Hopefully, this has been a helpful article for you and good luck!
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