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Bad Strut & Shock Symptoms: When to Replace

Modern four-wheelers may have superbly designed stability systems, automated braking, and traction control. However, all these will be for naught if they have poor struts or shocks. These suspension components infallibly support these other systems, keeping you safe and in control on the road.

Being savvy about symptoms of bad shocks and struts — as well as when to replace these parts — is critical to owning a vehicle.

Signs of bad shocks and struts include increased stopping distances, transmission problems, unusual noises, swaying or body roll, and uneven tire wear. Note that some of these indicators are not exclusive to strut/shock failure and require further examination of relevant components.

For a more detailed breakdown, here are the most prevalent symptoms of bad shocks and struts:

  1. Random or Unusual Tire Wear
  2. Compromised Transmission
  3. Fluid Leakage
  4. Cracked or Off-center Shock Covers
  5. Steering Wheel Vibrations
  6. Performance Issues
  7. Braking Problems
  8. Swaying or Floating Front End
  9. Instability at Faster Speeds
  10. Poor Steering Control
  11. Odd Noises
  12. Resultant Wear on Other Components

Undeniably, shock absorbers and struts are two of the most difficult-to-inspect parts of any motorized vehicle. And unlike most car components, they have no set time or mileage indicative of a need for repair or replacement.

It’s no wonder that legitimate signs of bad struts or shocks are easy to overlook. Luckily for you, your adeptness in telling whether or not something is wrong with these parts is bound to improve with the help of this article.

Jeep Wrangler Off-Roading on Rocky Surface

Struts vs Shocks Symptoms

For starters, here’s a fun fact about shocks and struts, according to Les Schwab.

Suspension components move up and down “up to 1,900 times” each mile. By 50,000 miles, the shocks and struts (alongside braking and steering components and other suspension shenanigans) would have repeated their designated task about 75 million times.

That is a considerable amount of repetition for any given component and would be an unsurprising contributor to these hardworking parts showing signs of wear or malfunction at that stage.

However, an accurate self-diagnostic system of vehicle suspension parts has yet to come to fruition and be introduced as a stock feature in modern vehicles. It is due to the lack of these aids that familiarity with bad strut and shock symptoms is becoming more and more crucial:

1. Random or Unusual Tire Wear

Misalignment, cupping, and other unusual tire wear signs are typically associated with issues related to shocks (view on Amazon) or struts.

Of course, these indicators can mean other vehicular problems (for instance, wheel misalignment can signify bad wheel bearings). But if tire wear persists after a wheel rotation or installing a fresh set of knobbies, you would know it’s best to inspect these two suspension components.

2. Compromised Transmission

While not specific to bad struts or shocks, a flawed transmission could indicate that the components are damaged or worn out. However, this occurrence is uncommon and happens only when faulty struts or bad shock symptoms are left unaddressed for too long.

What happens is that the defective components exacerbate tire wear, which then leads to added strain on the transmission and vehicle axle (view on Amazon).

3. Fluid Leakage

Visible fluid on the outside of your vehicle’s shocks or struts could indicate worn-out parts or a defective seal. You will need to examine both to determine the problem source. If the latter, immediate replacement would be essential in keeping hydraulic fluids in.

Struts and shocks have a variety of seals, including O-rings, rebound rubbers, bladders, and oil seals (to name a few) — so make sure to check thoroughly.

4. Cracked or Off-center Shock Covers

Though they can only be discovered through visual inspection, damaged covers are a surefire indication of faulty shock absorbers. Shock covers are found at the top and bottom of the shocks and are responsible for keeping the latter clean while keeping dirt and water from getting inside the shock body.

Some car owners do away with them since they tend to bind up the springs. But if everything is stock in your wheeler, then you should keep these covers damage-free.

5. Steering Wheel Vibrations

A little vibration in your steering wheel (view on Amazon) is natural when driving over bumps, potholes, or uneven roadways. However, the sensation should go away once your car traverses smoother surfaces.

If the shuddering persists on straightaways or when driving in city traffic, you may be dealing with a potentially serious problem with your struts or shocks (or your steering stabilizer, if you have one).

6. Performance Issues

If your car’s rear end squats when picking up speed or bounces excessively over the road or speed bumps, chances are you have bad strut symptoms (or bad shocks, for that matter).

Another telltale sign is if you consistently get a bumpy ride experience. Either way, check your strut assembly and shocks (including mounting hardware) for premature wear or damage.

To add, replace front and rear suspension components synchronously if one warrants replacement.

7. Braking Problems

Have you noticed your car taking longer to stop than normal or that it nose dives when hitting your brakes? Immediately inspect suspected components if yes, as these scenarios indicate a front-end issue pointing to bad shocks or struts symptoms.

In addition to checking your struts and shocks, replace anything worn out straight away. Failure to do so could result in on-road safety risks or increased stopping distance (at best).

8. Swaying or Floating Front End

These behaviors are typically noticeable during a turn or after changing lanes. In some instances, however, your vehicle may pull to one side on a paved road or freeway.

When your daily driver acts this way, it is okay to suspect a worn strut assembly. Again, this symptom may point to an issue with the shocks or some other relevant component. But seasoned mechanics can confirm that faulty struts are often to blame.

9. Instability at Faster Speeds

Experiencing body roll (when your vehicle shifts or moves up and down) on the highway sometimes signifies a strut or shock issue.

Increased driving speeds make this feeling of instability on the road more noticeable since it is in scenarios like this where these ride control components are supposed to perform their dampening and bump absorption duties.

10. Poor Steering Control

A crucial function of shocks and struts is helping your car grip the road while cornering. The car would be incapable of doing this seamlessly when these components are worn, resulting in heavy swaying and reduced responsiveness when making turns.

Some car owners have reportedly experienced increased understeering or oversteering in these situations — so watch out for these mannerisms and address the problem as soon as possible.

11. Odd Noises

Worn shocks or struts (view on Amazon) can fail to do their job. Different sounds are produced when this happens, with knocking, clunking, and banging being the most common (if not the most noticeable).

Of the three, knocking noises signal that the struts have bottomed out (a.k.a. metal-to-metal contact). Meanwhile, the rest may point to compromised inner shocks, bushings, or other supporting components.

12. Resultant Wear on Other Components

Unaddressed bad strut and shock symptoms often lead to excessive wheel movement, putting more stress on components such as ball joints and control arms (if not causing eventual damage).

The longer it takes for remedial actions to occur, the closer you are to observing these problems in your four-wheeler. If you do not wish this outcome to happen, it is best not to tarry on making the necessary fixes or replacements.

Shocks or Struts — Causes of Failure

Muddy Jeep Off-Roading on Rocky Terrain

Several factors can cause failing shocks and struts (your driving habits included). For your reference, however, here are the most common triggers — some of which you can avoid:

  • General wear and tear
  • Impact damage
  • Corrosion
  • Potholes, dirt roads, and mud
  • Dirt, grit, and other impurities get inside the shock body or strut assembly.
  • Worn internal oil or lack of lubrication
  • Fluid leaks between gas chambers (applies to gas-charged shocks and struts)
  • Metal fatigue of the discs and springs in shock/strut valves
  • Shocks or struts incompatible with springs and bushings (happens when one or the other is aftermarket)
  • Weakened ball joints, control arms, and bushings result in energy buildup in the springs being controlled by the shocks and struts more than the former components.
  • Subpar or deteriorated suspension parts
  • Low-quality wheels and tires
  • Excessive load on the suspension system
  • Non-adherence to OEM-recommended upkeep and servicing
  • Ignoring early signs of bad shocks and struts

How to Know If Your Shocks or Struts Are Bad

The following are ways of affirming symptoms of bad shocks and struts:

  • Keep an ear out for unusual noises described in the symptoms section of this guide.
  • Perform a visual inspection of your shocks and struts, and include relevant suspension components while at it). Scrutinize them for cracks, dirt or water accumulation, or contaminant buildup inside the shock body or strut assembly.
  • Determine if your shocks or struts are damaged. If yes, replace the affected parts in pairs. Once done, you also need a wheel alignment for your vehicle to ensure the newly installed parts are well-calibrated.

These three bullet points do not sum up everything you can do to ascertain the condition of your strut assembly and shock absorbers. Perform them still — on top of the procedures below:

Visual Inspection

It is the simplest diagnostic method that can determine if your shocks or struts are compromised. With this procedure, repair or replacement is mandatory for damaged or leaking parts.

Thoroughly examine suspension components, and keep an eye out for cracks or tears. Note that affected shock absorbers should be replaced in pairs on the same axle.

Bounce Test

This method is employed if your shocks appear in good condition despite experiencing symptoms in the preceding section. Perform this test by pushing down on the fender at each corner of your vehicle to make it bounce.

Oscillation should cease after a couple of times (approximately 1.5 cycles or as soon as you stop pushing the car down). Otherwise, it is a clear indication your shocks are out of order.

Shock Absorber Diagnostics on Test Bench

A special test bench like MS1000+ will enable you to obtain complete and accurate information on the health of your shocks. With an adapter like MS203, this test checks your vehicle’s shock absorbers.

A downside to this is the associated costs and the need to disassemble the entire suspension system and dismount the shocks. But if you ask me, that’s a fair trade-off for accurately evaluating your shocks’ overall condition.

Replacement Costs

At this point, you already know how many components are affected and need replacement. However many those components are, you will need to double your costs since you must always replace defective parts in pairs.

For shock absorbers, expect to spend between $100 and $280 (sans labor fees and wheel alignment). Conversely, struts are more expensive and will cost you between $450 and $900, on average.

Including labor costs, installing a new pair of shock absorbers costs roughly $200 to $580. For struts, the amount plays around $550 and $1,200. Add in wheel alignment, and you are looking at an additional $50 to $75 spent. Mind you, these computations are only for replacing (a pair each) of struts and shock absorbers.

You need not replace shocks and struts at the same time if only one or the other is compromised — again, replace like parts in pairs. The only time you will have to replace both components synchronously is when they are both leaking or damaged.

How Long Do Shocks and Struts Last?

Barring complications, shocks and struts generally wear out every 50,000 to 100,000 miles. However, this figure may be reduced significantly depending on the following factors:

  • Road conditions
  • Driving habits
  • Condition of stock suspension components
  • Operation of relevant systems (for instance, tire-and-wheel assembly)
  • Increasing ambient/outside temperatures paired with decreasing oil viscosity
  • Exposure of these components to the elements, road salt, and contaminants
  • Non-adherence to periodic vehicle inspection

Similar to ball joints and other load-bearing components, a car’s intended application also affects the longevity of these components.

Vehicles used for utility or hauling are guaranteed to have their shocks and struts wear out faster than passenger cars. The same goes for vehicles ridden aggressively or used in racing competitions.

Can You Drive with Bad Struts?

Vehicle Shocks

In dire circumstances, you can probably drive your rig for another 200 to 500 miles before something goes wrong with your vehicle systems. However, I strongly advise against it. Some things you risk getting into include your struts blowing out all their internal oil or you swerving uncontrollably on the freeway.

Neither is a situation you would want to be in, so only drive with bad struts when you are certain those extra miles will get you to safety.

Conclusion — Bad Strut vs Shock Symptoms & When to Replace

In summary, here are the most prevalent symptoms of bad shocks and struts:

  1. Random or Unusual Tire Wear
  2. Compromised Transmission
  3. Fluid Leakage
  4. Cracked or Off-center Shock Covers
  5. Steering Wheel Vibrations
  6. Performance Issues
  7. Braking Problems
  8. Swaying or Floating Front End
  9. Instability at Faster Speeds
  10. Poor Steering Control
  11. Odd Noises
  12. Resultant Wear on Other Components

Given everything you have learned through this guide, it would be folly to have that working knowledge and still leave signs of bad struts and shocks unattended. Familiarity with the symptoms is only half of the solution — you need to promptly resolve the issues by replacing defective components.

Also, remember that signs of bad shocks (or struts) are not as apparent as other problem indicators. There is also that boiling frog mentality that car owners have when assessing their ride experience.

These factors make issues with these ride control components all the more urgent. As such, never put off attending to these symptoms the very moment you spot them.