Today: learn the signs and symptoms of worn out shocks and struts.

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Aug 01, 2007

Dear Tom and Ray:

I recently bought for my daughter a 1997 Ford T-bird from an acquaintance who bought it new, kept it in great shape and only put 60,000 miles on it. When taking it for an oil change and "inspection," the shop suggested new front and rear shocks/struts, at a cost of more than $300. I didn't have it done, because I've done this on several of my cars in the past and always wondered if it was really necessary, since the car was already running fine. What's the story on replacement of these items? Thanks. -- Phyllis

RAY: A 10-year-old car easily could need shocks and struts, Phyllis. And if it does need them, that's a pretty good price.

TOM: By the way, this particular car has struts in front and shocks in the rear. A strut is just a single part that combines a shock absorber with a coil spring to save space.

RAY: But how do you know if you need these things? As you say, the car is "running fine."

TOM: Well, the driver of the car often can't tell, because the ride and handling degrade slowly, over several years. It's like getting fat. You gain a couple of ounces a week, and you don't really notice. And then, like my brother, someone takes your picture one day and you look at it and say, "Hey, who's the fat slob with his arm around my wife?"

RAY: So YOU might not be able to tell if you need shocks, Phyllis, but your mechanic can. First of all, he may have seen one of the shocks leaking when the car was up on the lift. That's a sure sign it's a goner.

TOM: The other sign of worn-out shocks is unusual tire wear. If your tires are cupping or scalloping -- that is, they have high and low spots on the tread surface -- that's often a sign of bad shocks.

RAY: And then there's the standard "shock test": You push down hard on one corner of the bumper and the car should come back up once and stop, and not bounce. If it goes up and down even a little bit, your shocks are worn out.

TOM: So the question is, Do you trust this particular mechanic? Or is he, like most of us, just trying to sell more shocks?

RAY: Well, if you don't have a relationship with this mechanic and aren't sure you trust him, get a second opinion. Go to our Web site,, and put your ZIP code in the "Mechanics Files" (under Actual Car Information). It'll show you a list of mechanics personally recommended by other readers and radio listeners of ours.

TOM: But if a mechanic you trust tells you that you need shocks, then you do need to get it done. Shocks are safety components. Many people think they only affect ride comfort, but their job actually is to keep the tires firmly planted on the road, so the tires don't bounce up and "leave the road" whenever you go over bumps.

RAY: Because if your tires do bounce, and happen to be in the air at the same moment you need to stop or turn, you might be in deep doo-doo. Even if the car is running fine otherwise!

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