At some point in just about every car’s life, you will feel a vibration in your steering wheel. Most of the time it starts out subtle and then gets more and more pronounced until becomes a genuine “shake”. When it gets to that point, it’s probably becoming unsafe and you should see a mechanic to diagnose and fix the issue but you may be interested in just what is causing the problem.
First, tires are perhaps the number one source of steering wheel vibration. Tires often wear asymmetrically and when they rotate fast, they can shake and wobble in very unsubtle ways. A good garage can balance your tires to eliminate vibration and this often cures the problem. In many cases, however, it’s probably just time for new tires. You might also have bad CV joints.
Constant Velocity Joints (CV Joints) wear out over time. One of the main reasons they wear is that CV joints are usually covered by “boots” — rubber, accordion-like coverings around the ends of the axles – that seal out junk like road salt and sand. The problem is that the boots often tear open when they get old and the CV joint, now operating with lots of gritty stuff inside, will soon fail. When this happens, you can actually hear it “crunching” when turning corners and usually feel it in the steering wheel.
Front wheel bearings can wear over time and become loose. When this happens you can usually feel it in the steering wheel and it can make a nasty grinding sound when driving, usually when turning corners. Tie-rod ends and ball joints can be at fault also. These are the mechanical parts in the front-end that move around when you steer and because they are moving parts, they wear out. At driving speeds, this translates to annoying vibrations that are often felt in the steering wheel. Sometimes it just feels like your steering wheel is loose and sloppy. Fortunately these worn out parts are easy to spot by a good mechanic and aren’t difficult to repair.
Do those bad vibrations appear or intensify when you step on the brakes? If so, there’s a strong possibility that your car has a warped brake rotor, or rotors. Rotors are the shiny disc-shaped components that you can see through your wheel rims. They can get bent out of shape due to heavy wear and tear — basically, overheating from excessive use. Instead of being uniformly flat all the way across, a deformed rotor is “lumpy” and the calipers and brake pads can’t get an even grip and hence vibrate. Often very noticeably.
Note that these reasons aren’t the only possible culprits that can make a steering wheel vibrate. When in doubt, it’s always a good idea to see an automotive service professional if you have it going on. They diagnose this sort of thing all day long and can usually spot the source of a steering wheel vibration quickly.