In December of 2011, through an unfortunate chain of events, I became the not-so-proud owner of a 2007 Malibu. True to its origin as an ex-fleet car, it is saddled with the miserly 4-banger engine rather than the still-slow-but-adequate V6. The only positive attributes of this car are its cheap cost to own and excellent fuel economy for its size. It presently has about 80,000 miles on it – I expect to get another 40K out of it before the transmission implodes (domestic automatic – you get what you pay for).
Currently, my wife is driving it (poor woman deserves a medal) – despite the obvious untenability of this situation; her only complaint is that the steering feels “loose.” We recently took a trip on a highway and I verified that the steering wheel feels like a cheap arcade wheel from the ‘90’s, to the point where it almost seems to turn itself (much like the platter on an Ouija board).
Our mechanic took a look at the steering system and found nothing amiss. Since I don’t believe a car this boring could possibly be home to a poltergeist, and since the system is “functioning as designed” (that’s corporate-speak for “stinks like crap because it IS crap”), I am at a loss for what to do.
I don’t want to invest a lot in this car – it’s an appliance – however, we live in NJ (land of a thousand potholes) and I am worried that the loosey-goosey steering combined with the abysmal condition of the roads here represents a safety concern. My wife has to maintain an iron grip on the wheel to keep from swerving into the other lane on her back-road-heavy commute.
It is worth noting that I have replaced all four struts, brake pads (incl. grinding the rotors), and tires on the car in the time I’ve owned it, and the mechanic found nothing amiss with suspension when he was looking at the steering. The thing drives pin straight until a mosquito farts near the steering wheel.
Is there a reasonably inexpensive (say, sub-$500) way to tighten up the steering? We’re not looking for euro-spec here; just a little more feedback.
Selling the car is not an option – we are not in a position to pay the transaction cost (and there’s ALWAYS a transaction cost to buying a new car), and it fits our needs nicely except for this one issue.
Awesome letter: very TTAC-snarky, to the point that Farago would be proud. Now is tighter steering possible to an extent that people–those who can’t measure mosquito farts–would actually notice?
Subjective matters are just that, but KUDOS to you for already replacing the shocks: an often ignored element in old car ownership. Yet there are a handful of steering parameters you can check/adjust to improve steering response on any vehicle, especially used ones. In no particular order, and for ANY vehicle:
1. Replace used steering box/rack and pinion assembly. Why? Because these are wear items, even if they don’t show an external leak or excessive play measured by your trusty mechanic. And they wear out so slowly that you will never know until its reached this point. We are literally splitting hairs when we discuss tighter steering, so 80,000 miles of wear easily fits into that gray area you must consider.
2. Do a performance wheel alignment, tweaking the factory specs. Read this and discuss with an alignment tech that tunes race cars. If needed and if available, get a set of aftermarket caster-camber plates.
3. Get higher quality tires, use summer tires when possible and play with tire pressures in +1 PSI intervals, front to back. (Don’t go crazy here, more than 5-10PSI increases probably isn’t a bright idea.) You already have new tires, but remember, you sometimes get what you pay for.
4. For older vehicles with conventional power steering pumps attached to the front of the motor, check out that pulley at the end of the pump. Underdrive dat pump! With a fair bit of analysis of other GM products, I suspect you can find a “better” power steering pulley to firm up the steering a bit FOR CHEAP…but perhaps a slower spinning pump won’t change your particular problem. I’d bet on this being the best bang for the buck, however.
5. Get wider wheels/tires! Not cheap, but these can be sold separately from the car when the time is right. And if you can find a wider OEM wheel that interchanges, that just makes the conversion cheaper and a touch more stealthy.
Good luck, whatever you may do.
Send your queries to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.