Piston Slap: Better Steering Without the Better Car?

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta
piston slap better steering without the better car

Oliver writes:


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.

Sajeev answers:

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.com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

Join the conversation
4 of 65 comments
  • APaGttH APaGttH on Jun 05, 2013

    I have no love for the 2007 Malibu or that platform offering. It was a God awful car, but, I can't resist when I see this... ...it is saddled with the miserly 4-banger engine...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)... Tell you what, I will GLADLY trade you for your 2007 Malibu and in exchange I'll give you a powerful, and *snicker* reliable V6 2005 Honda Accord, complete with 5 speed automatic with 80K miles on the odometer. Oh, one condition, the transmission on the Accord is still the original one from the factory. Oh it still works as part of the deal...for now. I find the last bit of your first paragraph even more entertaining when you write: ...only positive attributes of this car are its cheap cost to own and excellent fuel economy for its size... So it's a serviceable, reliable, cheap to operate, appliance. Yup, sounds horrible.* * that was more of a backhanded complement, for me driving an appliance vehicle (e.g. Prius, Corolla, Cruze, Focus) would be a horrible experience

  • Chicagoland Chicagoland on Jun 05, 2013

    Some have assumed the 2007 is the same as the P-Body 1997-2005 version.* But this is the 'Vectra-bu' aka Epsilon platform. It also has Ecotec 4 cylinder, not the ancient Cavalier motor. Go to Euro site for the Opel Vectra and see if there are parts from Opel fans. * The 2004-05 Classic was old 'bu for fleets, again nothing to do with Epsilons.

    • See 1 previous
    • Geozinger Geozinger on Jun 06, 2013

      @chicagoland: The 97-05 Malibu is actually an extended N body. The P body was most famously the Fiero, although the Isuzu based cars from the mid 80's to early 90's and the EV-1 were P bodies also.

  • MrIcky I would like to compare the answers here against the answers in the recent civil forfeiture article- but I won't because research is hard. It's true though that currently a ticket has no punitive value on those with means and maybe an outsized punitive value on those without. That's not communism, that's just the way it is. Speeding tickets are too arbitrary anyway though: officer discretion, speed trap towns, excessively low speed zones in areas to increase ticket revenue instead of safety, etc. I could clearly see a case where expensive cars are selectively enforced over cheap cars because you only have so much time in a day to up the revenue. It's a gray rainy crap morning and I'm sure the government will do it wrong.
  • 28-Cars-Later Feels a bit high but then again... forget it Jake, its Clown World.In 2021 someone in Sewickley had an MY01 soft top in a manual with 54K otc which I am fairly certain was a 996 and not a Boxster - $20K. I already had my C70 at the shop being reborn and could have done the $20K but it would have been tight and just didn't make sense. Still...
  • SCE to AUX Q: Should Speeding Fines Be Based on Income?A: Yes. Rich people (the guy with $1 more than you) should pay less, because giving his income to the government means he has to lay off a worker at his business.Laws are for poor people./s
  • SCE to AUX "Volvo has suggested it’s capable of yielding 275 miles of range"Every non-US car's range estimate is based on WLTP - worth mentioning.EPA range never 'backs up' WLTP; it's always about 15% lower - so figure maybe 234 miles. Not great, except as a commuter.As for the interior - it's obviously a Model 3 clone, but the screen is substantially smaller. Incidentally, I suspect Tesla made the Model 3/Y interior so minimalist to save money - not just to be different. When you're trying to become profitable on EVs, every dollar counts.
  • SCE to AUX "there haven’t been a lot of good examples hitting the market recently. Most models are aimed at the affluent, resulting in 9,000-pound behemoths with six-figure price tags"I hope you were joking, because that is blatantly false.