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Steering tie rods are a part that’s pretty much universally shared by every car in existence, stretching back for nearly a century. Not much has changed in their function or design during these years, nor has much changed when one of them fails. Here's a closer look at what you need to know about tie rods, and how to address potential problems before they turn into huge safety issues.

What Are Tie Rod Ends?

A tie rod is a threaded steel or cast iron tube, with a small pivoting ball joint on the end. Its purpose is to connect the steering gear mechanism (either a gear box or rack and pinion) outward to the wheels. Tie rods are generally divided between inner tie rods, which attach directly to the rack and pinion, and outer tie rods, which attach to the steering knuckle out by the wheel. These two tie rods are usually connected with an adjusting sleeve, or the inner and outer simply connect, with the inner being the adjusting device. This allows adjustment and precise alignment of the two wheels/tires. When you turn your steering wheel either left or right, this structure is responsible for conveying that movement to the wheels and ultimately turning the car in the direction you want it to go.

Tie rod ends also contain several internal parts you should be aware of. The small ball joint mentioned earlier on the end of the tie rod contains a bearing, similar to suspension ball joints. This bearing allows this joint to flex freely up or down with suspension travel or turn in and out with the turning of the wheels/tires. This joint is protected by a rubber boot that keeps lubricating grease in, and water/dirt out. Just like suspension ball joints, tie rods historically have had grease fittings to keep them properly lubricated, although many today are not serviceable.

Identifying Potential Tie Rod Issues

As you can see, a car’s tie rod ends have a lot to do with how well you can control your car, so you’ll definitely want to learn the signs of tie rod ends that need to be serviced or replaced sooner. The following are among the most common problems to keep an eye out for.

  • Do you tires appear to be wearing unevenly or excessively? This could indicate a number of problems, and a tie rod end that’s failing could easily be one of them. Faulty tie rod ends can cause unusually heavy wear on either the inner or the outer portion of the tire, so make sure you check for both. You can read more about ball joints here.
  • One of the primary symptoms of faulty or failing tie rod ends can also cause your steering wheel to feel loose or wandering when you’re operating your vehicle. This is caused from the joint on the end of the tie rod deteriorating, creating slop. Over time, this joint can get so bad that it begins to knock going over bumps, and eventually so bad, that it can physically separate from the tie rod itself, sending the knuckle and wheel completely sideways.
  • As stated before, when tie rods get to a failure state that is dangerously serious, they will begin to pop and click, as this joint gets loose. If you hear any of these noises turning or going over bumps, keep in mind that it could be a myriad of suspension items, but doing a thorough tie rod check can rule the tie rods out.

To perform a tie rod check, it’s best to first put your vehicle on drive-up ramps as this allows you to check the tie rods under the load of vehicle weight. You can perform this with the car jacked up and on secure jack stands as well, but the ramp method is preferred. Once the car is lifted, locate both outer tie rods on the steering knuckle and follow them inward to the inner tie rods. Grab ahold of this steering rod with your hand and attempt to move it straight up and down. Listen and feel for any looseness or clicking as there should be none. Do the same by attempting to move the rod forward and back – towards the front and rear of the car. Now, grab the rod and try to twist it. A good tie rod, both inner and outer should have either no twist, or a slight twist in both directions as you will see the outer tie rod pivot back and forth allowing this twist. If this joint is extremely loose and requires no effort at all to twist, the joint is going bad.

Sometimes during the alignment process, a shop may tell you that a tie rod is bad because it is seized inside the adjusting sleeve, or the inner and outer units are seized together. This is rather common on old suspension parts and usually requires complete replacement, or a longer job and use of heat / torch and multi treatments of penetrating lubricant to break these two free. You may encounter this at some point where a shop will give you the dreaded phone call of, “We can’t align it”. If this happens, you’ll need to replace parts and get it back in for alignment again.

Taking Care of Your Tie Rod Ends

As stated before, historically, tie rods, ball joints, and even some bushings on your car have all had greaseable fittings to allow regularly greasing of these items during oil change. Within the last 15 years, many manufacturers have gone to sealed bearings that are non-serviceable. Many though, still require grease and if you have these, they should be greased on a regular basis. You should see a grease fitting directly on the head of the outer tie rod, right on the steering knuckle. Give it a quick cleaning and then use a grease gun to push new, clean lubrication through the rod. As you push new grease in, you’ll see the old grease come out along with any dirt, debris, or grit that may have become stuck in it over time. It’s just one extra step added to your oil change routine, but it can make a big difference in the lifespan of your tie rod ends.

If the job of inspecting or changing tie rods / alignment is too big for you, you can always seek out one of our Preferred Shops in your area. Or, visit your local AutoZone or shop an extensive selection of tie rod ends online instead for everyday low prices that fit easily into any budget.

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Be sure to consult your owner’s manual, a repair guide, an AutoZoner at a store near you, or a licensed, professional mechanic for vehicle-specific repair information. Refer to the service manual for specific diagnostic, repair and tool information for your particular vehicle. Always chock your wheels prior to lifting a vehicle. Always disconnect the negative battery cable before servicing an electrical application on the vehicle to protect its electrical circuits in the event that a wire is accidentally pierced or grounded. Use caution when working with automotive batteries. Sulfuric acid is caustic and can burn clothing and skin or cause blindness. Always wear gloves and safety glasses and other personal protection equipment, and work in a well-ventilated area. Should electrolyte get on your body or clothing, neutralize it immediately with a solution of baking soda and water. Do not wear ties or loose clothing when working on your vehicle.

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