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A Jumpy Jeep

Q. Ok, so I'm driving my '97 TJ Wrangler up highway 20 to do some off roading yesterday. I go over some railroad tracks and all of a sudden my steering wheel starts wobbling back and forth and stops. I thought "That was weird." I hit more bumps and it was fine for probably 10 miles. Then I just hit another little bump in the road, and it happens again, except this time at 70 mph. My steering wheel was going back and forth (probably 2 inches each way) and my front end was bouncing off of the ground. It was like driving on a washboard except at 70 mph. It was not a comforting feeling. Anyway, so my friend and I get out and tighten the tires, then all seemed well. We went off roading and drove around on highway some more. Then on the way home it happened again. Exact same thing at 70 mph. We checked all the tires and they were very very snug. So I drove the rest of the way home at 45. But driving around town I can tell something just isn't right. The steering wheel isn't firm and solid like it should be. Its like it just wants to wobble. I have done only two things to my jeep that could be the problem. I have put on a 3" Rubicon Express suspension system. The other is that my friend and I removed the front tires earlier this week and put them back on. And trust me, they're tight. My dad thinks its the suspension and other friends think it is the tire alignment. Have you heard of this problem before? What could it possibly be? Until then, I'm not driving my car for fear of damaging it further.

A. Suspension problems are very difficult to diagnose without being under the car. The obvious clue here is it started when you went over the railroad tracks. (I'm assuming you didn't cross them at a grade crossing.) The other clues are the steering wheel vibration at 70 miles an hour. This would indicate to me that a wheel weight was knocked off one of the front wheels. Rails are fairly tall and the flexing of the tire could very well have pried the wheel weight off. I would carefully look around the inside and outside of both rims and see if there is a "shadow" of where a wheel weight used to be. Now it's possible that you will not see where it was since you continued on your way after crossing the tracks. The first thing I would suggest is get the front wheels balanced by a shop that has a high-speed wheel balancer. When it's on the balancer you will know if one of the rims are bent also. While the car is up in the air, it's a good time to see if any other component suffered any damage or is broken. This is always a good idea after any off-road excursion. You may not notice a bent tie rod component, but after a while, those expensive tires will in the form of uneven wear.

What you can do at this point is move the front tires to the rear and the rear tires to the front and drive it. If the problem goes away, then you know wheel balance is the problem.

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