Common culprits behind horrible handling
If you’re in the land of shaky steering and can’t figure out why, we are here to help. Making your 4x4 drive straight and true doesn’t have to be a feat of black magic. More often than not, there is a simple solution for your handling woes. Gathered here are some of the most common trouble spots to check when your 4x4 is giving you the shakes.
Standard Steering Check Procedure
There is one basic method that we use to get the gist of what’s loose or wrong with our steering. With the vehicle running, set in Park, and the parking brake engaged, lay a couple of feet in front of the front axle. Next, have a friend sit inside of the rig and saw the steering wheel back and forth repeatedly. Scan each steering component closely. You are looking for play in the rod ends and ball joints, along with loose hardware. If everything appears to be tight, move on to the next step.
Following the initial steering saw session, take a floor jack, along with a set of jack stands and raise the front end off of the ground. With the tires still on the vehicle, but suspended in the air, place a pry bar under the bottom of the tire and check for excessive play. Major changes in camber could be the result of a bad wheel bearing, ball joint, kingpin, or A-arm bushing.
A bent steering link, even one that’s just slightly bowed, can create death wobble and/or poor handling. Pulling the bend out or straightening the bar, is fine for a trail fix, but you should always replace a bent link. If you find that you are bending your steering links more frequently, there are vehicle-specific heavy-duty link kits, such as those from CST Suspension (www.cstsuspension.com) and Synergy Manufacturing (www.synergymfg.com). Can’t find an aftermarket upgrade? Try sleeving your steering links with DOM tubing. This will require some fab tools and a little knowhow, but will be an overall inexpensive safety and strength upgrade.
Regardless if you drive a rig equipped with an independent front suspension or a solid axle, your rigs tie-rod ends are common wear items. As a matter of fact, it’s one of the most commonly replaced steering components across the board. A torn boot or dry joint will accelerate wear and lead to an unusable part. Tie-rod ends can also come loose. If your vehicle has castle nuts, make sure the cotter pins are in place. This will keep the nut from backing off of the stud.
A good alignment can make all the difference. We’ve had the best luck using shops that are familiar with aligning modified vehicles as sometimes they don’t fit perfectly into the manufacturer’s suggested alignment specs. This is especially important on vehicles with linked suspensions, where four-corner adjustments are often needed.
Have an annoying clunk or rattle that you can feel at your feet and in the steering wheel? There’s a good chance that your steering or intermediate shaft that leads to your steering gearbox has worn. Chevy pickups and SUVs, Ram trucks, and even the Jeep Wrangler JKs are all known to have steering shaft problems and there are a few upgrades and tricks to prevent and repair the issue. Adding a grease fitting has been known to help those dealing with a slight rattle, but for a complete parts replacement, Borgeson (www.borgeson.com) offers a host of OE and above quality steering components.
Most late-model 4x4s use non-serviceable unit bearings. Since the stock unit bearings were designed around factory parameters, fitting larger tires, along with harsh off-road conditions can cause them to fail or wear rapidly. The Jeep Wrangler, Cherokee XJ, and ’99-current Ford Super Duty are vehicles we’ve seen unit bearing failure the most prevalent. Luckily, replacing a unit bearing is an easy fix. If you are looking to upgrade from the unit bearing, companies such as Dynatrac (www.dynatrac.com) offer conversions that replace the stock unit bearings with a more traditional spindle and bearing setup. The Dynatrac setup not only spreads the bearing load out more evenly, but allows you to service the bearings.
Going off-road takes its toll on your suspension system. A bent coil or leaf spring, control arm, or worn bushing can contribute to wonky handling. A blown or broken shock will also make a difference, but typically won’t be the sole culprit in a vehicle that is wobbling or difficult to steer. It might not be as obvious when a suspension component is loose, so be prepared to break out the tools for a bolt check. We like to go over our suspension system after every wheeling trip and oil change. Paint marking your bolts after tightening them down will also save you some time under your 4x4.
A steering stabilizer is not the cure for a wobbling front end. Yes, they help, but more times than not, people use them to cover up a larger issue with the steering system. Don’t go overboard with steering stabilizers. In fact, if your truck is driving poorly, we would do our best to dial it in without a stabilizer at first. Adding one after you dial in the system will help you reap the most benefits.
Gearbox and Arms
Your pitman arm and idler arm (if equipped) are two major steering components constantly under stress. While it is easy to inspect for a worn rod-end in both, be sure to make certain that the arms attachment points are tight. Also, check that the pitman arm nut is tight, and that the steering gearbox mounting bolts are secure as well. If you are feeling left to right slop in the steering wheel, this could be a sign that the steering gearbox is worn internally. There are ways to tighten the steering gearbox to eliminate some of the slop, but a remanufactured or new unit might be the only way to regain a tight-feel at the wheel.
On a solid axle vehicle, we have seen again and again the front track bar as the sole culprit for poor handling and death wobble. Too often it is due to a loose bolt. If the bolt has been loose for some time it will oblong the mounting hole. If this is the case you will need to fix/replace the mount. In some cases, you can drill out the mounting hole, which will allow you to move to a larger bolt and start over with a perfectly round hole. Drilling out the bracket will also require modification to the track bar mounting hole or a new track bar altogether. Of course, a worn joint on one or both ends of the track bar can be the trouble spot as well.
There is a perception among some that it’s not worth balancing your tires if you are going off-road frequently. This is not true. An unbalanced set of wheels can create major handling problems and death wobble in extreme cases. Tires that have worn uneven or become excessively chopped can also be a factor in a wobbly front end.
Jam nuts, adjuster sleeves, and an assortment of hardware run throughout your front end. Something as small as a loose nut on your rig’s drag link’s adjustment collar can create a clunk and sloppy feel in the steering system.