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Why is My Car Shaking?

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Why is My Car Shaking?
Paul Hamilton/Flickr

 If your car is shaking it can drive you nuts. Discover the cause of that shaking and you are more than halfway to a repaired vehicle and smooth driving once again. We all want our vehicles to travel smoothly down the road, just like they did when they were brand new. Now your car has lots of miles under its belt and may be starting to show its age. Your vehicle wants to show you how excited it is to be taking you across town by giving you a nice, shaky show. 

First, we need to figure out what type of shaking you are experiencing. 

1. Steering wheel shaking at speed. A common form of the shakes is a vibration that can be felt mainly through the steering wheel. This type of shaking usually comes on as your vehicle increases in speed. The steering wheel starts to vibrate a bit, and if things are really off kilter it starts to vibrate a lot. This type of condition can be dangerous. It creates an unstable condition that can cause loss of control of your vehicle, especially if you have to make a sudden turn or stop to avoid a collision. In the long term, there are side effects to this shaking that will cause premature wear on many of your car's systems, from tires to transmissions. The following things should be checked, they are listed in order of severity (and repair cost!). 

  • Check your wheel balance. Have a tire shop check and rebalance your wheels. An off balance wheel can cause lots of vibration. This is a cheap fix if it's your problem. 
  • Replace your shock absorbers or struts. Worn struts or shocks can cause an uneven driving condition and can result in shaking, porpoising or bouncy ride. 
  • Check and replace your upper strut bearings. These are at the top of your front (and sometimes rear) shock towers and are accessed from under the hood. Most full service tire shops can also check and replace these parts. Another vibration culprit. 
  • Check and replace your ball joints. Ball joints keep both your suspension tight while still allowing things to up and town and turn from side to side. When they wear, shaking is definite. 
  • Check and replace your tie rod ends. Tie rods connect your steering rack to the wheels (basically). The tie rod ends must pivot up, down and side to side. They keep both wheels tracking in exactly the same direction at all times. If your wheels are trying to go in different directions, you can get serious vibrations. 

2. Vehicle shakes while sitting at idle. If your car feels like some sort of weight loss device from the 1950s when you're sitting at a red light, you've most likely got something broken. Check for the following:

  • Broken or worn motor mounts. A broken or tired motor mount will cause your engine to move around too much. At low RPM, it can really get bouncy under the hood. This can be a minor or major repair depending on the vehicle. 
  • Fuel system issues. If the engine RPM seems erratic or drops suddenly, this can cause a shake or vibration. Troubleshoot your fuel system to see if this is a problem. 

3. Vehicle shakes while accelerating. Vibration on acceleration can be a little scary. You step on the gas to make a left turn across approaching traffic and all of a sudden things feel like they are going to break apart. Unless your name is Han and your hairy friend is working on the warp drive, you're not happy. Check these things first:

  • Low transmission fluid. Believe it or not a low transmission fluid level can cause all sorts of bucking and jerking on acceleration. 
  • Clogged transmission filter. Same as above, but different solution.
  • Worn universal joint. The U-joint at your driveshaft can become worn and develop excessive play. This is especially apparent on acceleration and needs to be repaired before you find yourself stranded. 
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