Dear Tom and Ray:
Hi! My husband and I now live in the Dominican Republic. We have a secondhand 1998 Toyota Corolla LE. We live in the mountains, which we access on some paved, some nonpaved and some terribly potholed roads for 17 miles after we leave the nice highways along the south of the island. The problem: When the car gets up to 55-70 mph on a regular road, the steering wheel shakes. My hubby, Jim, said, "Tires need balancing and alignment," which we got done, and guess what? It still shakes. I was thinking that because of the condition of the roads to get home, the front end is getting shaken to high heaven and something else is loose. What do you guys think?
-- Donna and Jim
Tom: Well, the first thing I'd do is stop driving at 55-70 mph until you figure it out. When the steering wheel is shaking at high speed, it could be a sign of impending doom. It might not be, but do you really want to find out the hard way?
Ray: The first thing I'd check for is a bad tire. A tire with tread separation, particularly if it's a front tire, can cause your wheel to shake.
Tom: You usually can feel a bad tire at low speeds. So find a smooth road somewhere, and try driving at 5 or 10 mph with your hands very lightly on the wheel. If you have a front tire with tread separation, you'll usually feel the steering wheel tug a little bit to one side every time that spot in the tire comes around.
Ray: If you feel that, you can figure out which tire it is by swapping one of the front tires with a rear tire and seeing if the shaking goes away or diminishes. If it does, you've found the bad tire, and you can replace it before you have a blowout.
Tom: If you don't feel any shaking in the wheel at low speed, then it's more likely to be a bad ball joint or a bad tire rod end. There are two ways to figure that out. One is to find a mechanic who knows enough about front ends to be able to get under the car and really inspect it for you.
Ray: The other option is to drive it, and if it's one of those two things, it'll eventually break while you're driving, and you'll end up in the Caribbean Sea -- assuming you make it past all the palm trees and rocks on the way down the mountainside.
Tom: Then when you hit the water, you can look at each other and say, "I guess it was a bad ball joint, hon."
Ray: Needless to say, we recommend the first approach -- soon. Good luck, Donna.
(Car Talk is a nationally syndicated column by automotive experts (and brothers) Tom and Ray Magliozzi. Write to them at the Car Talk website.)