Safe to drive with front suspension noises?
April 17, 2013 4:10 PM   Subscribe

I suspect that my driver-side upper ball joint is the culprit. There have been groaning noises when going over bumps, and a sort of clattering noise when hitting potholes. This has been going on for several years, and has gotten worse in the past month. I took it to four different mechanics, two for this specifically, and two for general inspection purposes (the most recent, non-specific inspection took place about 5 months ago.) None of the mechanics found anything they considered to be a real problem (i.e. hazardous to my/others' safety/the car's safe operation.) The noise has intensified in volume and frequency in the past week or so, along with (new) weird vibration when traveling at certain speeds (usually over 40 mph), but only sometimes, and it continues as I slow to a stop, slowing along with the car (but doesn't start showing up until I reach a higher speed.) Today I noticed that the boot on the upper ball joint is cracked and the grease is leaking out. The passenger side ball joint is similarly worn, but no grease is in evidence yet.

Is the car safe to drive? I'm hesitant to drive it until I take it to a mechanic, and I can possibly get a ride to work for the rest of the week, but it would be nice if I could drive myself. It would be about a total of 70 miles over the next two days, mostly on the highway (generally going 50-60 mph.)

Also, any idea what the issue could be if not the ball joint/upper control arm? This is a 1997 Honda Civic, automatic transmission, 176k+ miles. I will be taking it to (yet another, fifth) mechanic this weekend.

Any other insight would be appreciated! The car is older and I'm considering replacing it, but I like it and aside from this issue I've been happy with it.
posted by i. shishkin to Grab Bag (5 answers total)
Leaky ball joint boots don't mean the same as unsafe ball joints yet, but the mileage says you will get renewed happiness from the car if you check out the tie rods, anti-roll (sway) bar bushings and mounts, and the shock absorbers (they are really shock absorbers and not struts). Me, I'm betting on the tie rods.

On this car you replace the control arms in toto rather than the ball joints. These are not very expensive but you do have to have it done unless you have a pickle fork, a spring compressor, a jack, time and patience - and after that you must have the car aligned.
posted by jet_silver at 5:50 PM on April 17, 2013

I had a CRX of an older vintage that rattled like that and was driving me crazy-i replaced shift linkage and several bushing trying to track it down. Turned out it was loose brake pads. Whenever the last pads had been installed they didn't put in the shims that hold the pad securely in the caliper and it rattled. It didn't really pose any danger and the brakes worked just fine but the rattling was unsettling.

The vibration is a little worrisome in cunjuction with the noise. That type of vibration doesn't sound a tire problem as that usually is pretty reliable to show up at a certain speed and then disappear as you slow down but will disappear well before you roll to a stop, but it never hurts to check the tires while it is up in the air at the shop. I would also check the upper strut mount, control arm bushings and the rack and pinion mounts, as all of them could be source of the problem(s). It is also possible the two aren't related at all.

BTW to test for bad ball joints you lift the front tires off the ground-if using a jack you need to do it by jacking up on a part of the car that isn't the suspension-and then grabbing the top and bottom of the tire and trying to rock the wheel back and forth, if it moves it can be either bad wheel bearings (really bad to move BTW) or bad ball joints. To know the difference you get a friend to rock it and put your hand on the ball joint to feel (or even see if really bad) the movement.
posted by bartonlong at 6:02 PM on April 17, 2013

I don't think this is all symptoms of the same fault. Also there isn't enough information here to be able to accurately conclude if the car is safe or not.

I suspect the rattling over bumps and the clattering is either brake pads (as noted) or I am leaning more towards top mount or spring issues (seating issues or a broken spring). However, you are assuming it is all the same thing and that the change in noise is a change, rather than a new noise. I'm not sure this is necessarily the case.

I'd get the car checked out. The vibration is concerning, especially as it starts when something hits resonance and only stops when the car stops. That's not a good sign and suggests a decent amount of free play in ... something. If you can avoid driving it, I would. Personally, I'd drive it, but I am dumb like that. A more sensible person would get it to a shop, share your concerns and then share that you are just guessing and they are to diagnose it themselves. It's the safer option, for sure.
posted by Brockles at 7:03 PM on April 17, 2013

Just take it to a front-end/alignment place. They have this stuff down to a science.

If you don't, you'll eventually have steering and braking problems resulting from having a loose front-end suspension and you'll also wear out your front tires prematurely.

The cost of having this fixed is very likely to be much less than replacing prematurely worn tires.
posted by snsranch at 7:09 PM on April 17, 2013

If it was a ball joint making the noise, your wheel would have fallen off a year ago. Not to say that your ball joints may not be bad (but I assume the mechanics who looked at it would have noticed). Probably a bad sway bar bushing (the video shows the part, and the sound when driving).
posted by 445supermag at 7:21 PM on April 17, 2013

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