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Tie rod ends are simple parts that connect the steering rack to the steering knuckle on each front wheel. An adjusting sleeve sits between the inner and outer tire rod ends. When you turn the steering wheel, it transmits that movement through various steering components until the tie rod ends push or pull the wheel and make the wheels turn. Having the ability to turn corners is pretty important, so tie rod ends play a large role in any vehicle's safety. Deceptively simple looking, the outer tie rod end hides some internal parts.

Here's a breakdown of the different pieces:

  • The long shaft body passes steering movement to the ball stud
  • The rounded part houses several bearings that give you proper steering movement even while compensating for bumpy roads.
  • There's usually a grease fitting on the back allowing the bearings to spin freely inside the housing.
  • The bushing is there to keep road grit out of sensitive internal parts.
  • The threaded bolt end goes into the steering knuckle.
  • The inner tie rod end straight body connects to a bearing housing. It's all covered by a rubber protective dust boot.

Fortunately, it's simple to check if the tie rods are bad. Jack up the front of vehicle, using an appropriate weight jack and rated jack stands. Once the wheel is entirely off the ground, check for play by placing your hands at nine o'clock and three o'clock positions (the midpoint of the left and right sides of the tire). Press with left, then right, alternating a push/pull movement on each side. If there is play or slop, it's worth investigating further. The front is already jacked up, so take off the wheel and have a look underneath. Right behind the brake rotor and hub, you should be able to see the tie rod end. Inspect it for any damage. If the bushing is torn, odds are road grit has accumulated inside and destroyed it, so you will need to replace the tie rod. If the bushing is solid, reach up and grasp the outer tie rod firmly, and give it a good shake. If it easily moves from side to side, it's time for replacement. There isn’t a car part in existence that doesn’t decline naturally through years of use. As such, even tie rod ends can go bad. Knowing the signs of when this part is on its way out means that you can tackle the problem early before it becomes too dangerous, or before its failure causes damage to other parts.

Symptoms of bad or failing tie rod ends include the following:

  • Alignment. There are many reasons why your front end could be out of alignment. However, if there’s a persistent problem maintaining a good alignment on the front wheels, the source could well lie with bad tie rod ends. The tie rods are adjusted during an alignment, so if they’re not in good condition this will have an impact and the vehicle won’t be able to keep its proper alignment.
  • Tire Wear. When the vehicle is out of alignment, one of the telltale signs is uneven tire wear. There will be a tendency toward excessive wear on the outside or inside of the tire, often to an excessive degree. If this happens you should have the tie rod ends checked to be certain they’re in good condition.
  • Sagging Tires. Bad tie rod ends can’t give proper support to the wheels and tires either. As a result there will be a tendency for the tires to sag. It’s a very common sign of bad tie rod ends.
  • Loose Tie Rods. As the tie rods ends go bad, the entire tie rod will become loose, leading to excessive play. A physical check of the amount of play in the tie rods will be able to tell you if there’s a problem you need to deal with.
  • Shaking Steering Wheel. With bad tie rod ends, the steering wheel will have problems maintaining proper control or communication with the wheels. As a result, the steering wheel can shake or vibrate as you drive. This will be most noticeable when you’re turning the wheel to round a corner.
  • Vibrating Car. When the tie rods are really bad, close to failing completely, the car itself will start to vibrate. If the damage has progressed this far, the steering wheel is close to losing control of the wheels and the vibration is being caused by the tires shaking on their own. You may not feel this as much when you’re maintaining speed, but usually turning the wheel or accelerating and decelerating will make the problem more obvious.
If you’ve gotten to this stage of wear, take your car in for repair immediately. Driving a vehicle in this condition is dangerous.