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October 29, 2010

Car Talk

Shaking steering wheel is serious and must be fixed, pronto

Syndicated columnists

Dear Tom and Ray:

I have a 1999 BMW 323i that I love. My husband wants to trade it in because it has 207,100 miles on it. He's afraid of racking up big repair bills. I say if we keep up with maintenance and repairs, who knows how long we can go? And we should think of any repair bills as car payments. At least it's paid off. So far, I've managed to "hide" the last three repairs from him. Now I'm hearing a clicking noise, and the steering wheel is shuddering when I drive. The longer I drive, the worse the shaking gets. It is similar to the feeling of a tire going flat. In fact, last night I thought maybe it was that, and I pulled over to look. The tires are fine. Have any ideas? Is this going to be a pricey fix that I'm going to have trouble hiding from my spousal unit?
-- Arleen

Tom: Well, let's deal with your issues one at a time, Arleen. First, and most importantly, you have to take care of that front-end shaking immediately. Seriously, right now.

Ray: It sounds like a ball joint is failing. When it breaks, the wheel's going to fall off. And then there won't be any more questions about whether to repair this car -- it'll be wrapped around a tree. The question will be about how to repair Arleen -- if you're lucky.

Tom: So that's Step 1. And it's urgent.

Ray: Then, while the car is in the shop, ask your mechanic to look it over from stem to stern. Have him inspect it as if you were thinking of buying it from someone as a used car. Tell him you want to know everything that's wrong with it. Ask him what he thinks needs to be fixed now, and what'll need to be fixed in the next six months.

Tom: If it gets a relatively clean bill of health, I think you can make a good case for keeping it.

Ray: Here's the case you make to your husband. He's afraid of big repair bills. So let's look at a bad-case scenario. Let's say the car costs you an average of $300 a month to repair from now on. That's $3,600 a year.

Tom: If you replace the car with the most bare-bones new 3 Series BMW (and you're a good negotiator), that'll run you about $31,000. Add in the taxes, destination charges, dealer prep and fuzzy dice, subtract $4,000 for your trade-in, and if you were to take a four-year car loan at 6.5 percent interest, you'd be paying $775 a month, or $8,100 a year!

Ray: Maybe your husband would rather spend that extra $4,500 a year on something else? A Hawaiian vacation? A home-theater system? A love nest for his secretary?

Tom: On the other hand, you have to realize that at 200,000-plus miles, you're on the far end of the bell curve. One of these days, you're going to have to let go -- if that wheel doesn't let go first, Arleen.

(Car Talk is a nationally syndicated column by automotive experts (and brothers) Tom and Ray Magliozzi. Write to them at the Car Talk Web site.)

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