Steering problem 2001 Oldsmobile Alero 6 cyl Front Wheel Drive Automatic 98,000 miles

Tiny
FATABOO
  • 2002 OLDSMOBILE ALERO
  • 98,000 MILES


Recently I heard a pop, or crack noise, and my steering wheel no longer made my wheels turn. After having a friend, who is a mechanic look at it, he tells me the rack and pinion completely busted off the subframe, which is something that should NEVER happen. What would cause this to break? He said he saw some rotting or rusting, but this just seems a little extreme to me.

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Sunday, June 3rd, 2012 AT 12:07 AM

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Tiny
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Most rack and pinion assemblies are bolted to the heavy steel cross members but I can't remember if yours is like that or if it's bolted to the firewall. While the firewall is part of the structure of the car, it's just thin sheet metal so it wouldn't take much rust to allow the mounts to break out.

If the rack bolts to the cross member, that can be replaced. I wouldn't trust myself to weld in a patch because the rack absolutely must sit perfectly parallel to the ground and be oriented properly between the wheels for the car to steer and handle properly. When the cross member is replaced, there is one thing to watch that only affects GM front-wheel-drive cars. That cross member can be shifted around a little before the bolts are tightened. That will change the front end alignment angles but an alignment alone will not resolve the miserable handling. Most experienced alignment mechanics know how to measure "steering axis inclination", (which is not normally done or needed), and how to shift the cross member to make it right, THEN the alignment will give satisfactory handling.

If your rack and pinion is bolted to the firewall, a body shop will be able to weld in a patch and they will typically use more substantial metal that will hold up longer.

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Sunday, June 3rd, 2012 AT 12:37 AM
Tiny
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Sorry but I have no idea what most of this answer is if it's alright can I show you a picture of what snapped here. I an a novice and the answer was rocket science to me but here's a picture so you can tell me how something like this could happen. My mechanic tells me I must have hit something for this to happen but when it happened I was pooling into my driveway and hasn't even reached the driveway yet it snapped in the middle of my turn therefore speed in the middle of the road. Please help.

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Sunday, June 3rd, 2012 AT 1:27 AM
Tiny
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It looks like the housing cracked in half at the red arrow. That is uncommon, even after hitting something. Had you slid into a curb, generally one of the outer tie rod ends would bend LONG before the housing would break. (One outer tie rod end is touching the floor).

I suppose this could be due to a stress fracture but I've never seen that before either, and I've replaced a lot of rack and pinion assemblies. There had to have been a power steering fluid leak leading up to this. Also, the assembly is attached on both ends of the housing but one end is often able to slide through it's rubber insert so the body can flex a little and the housing can change length when it warms up and cools down.

I suppose we could guess all day long how that happened but there are no pattern failures that would point to a manufacturing defect or design problem. Rebuilt assemblies are real inexpensive today and most have had modifications to a different area that DID give GM a real lot of trouble in the '80s, so you're better off with a rebuilt unit from Moog, Federal Mogul, or one of the other national rebuilders vs. An original GM part. Unfortunately rack and pinion assemblies have a "core" charge and work the same as pop bottles. You take the old one back to be reused. Yours can't be reused with a broken housing so you'll have to pay the core charge. That's like not returning any old pop bottles when you buy new ones.

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Sunday, June 3rd, 2012 AT 1:58 AM
Tiny
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Thank you do much for input and help it's much appreciated, at this point it's a toss up to what could have happened correct? What I am most concerned with is whether this is my fault as the driver of the vehicle or was this something that happened on it's own? It's become a matter if debate here and I'd like a professional's opinion on the matter. If it is my fault as a driver how could I avoid this in the future. Thank you for all your help again its much appreciated.

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Sunday, June 3rd, 2012 AT 2:07 AM
Tiny
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Lets state it a different way. Suppose you wanted to cause that damage. I can't think of anything you could do to accomplish the task. If you walk through any larger salvage yard where they buy insurance wrecks, you'll find all kinds of severe crash damage, but you won't find a rack and pinion assembly broken like yours. You will find those outer tie rods bent on some because those are by far the weak link in the chain. They can be replaced too with the right (inexpensive) tools but for a crash of any kind to break that housing, you can be sure there will be a bent wheel and probably a bent lower control arm too. I would never even think about accusing a driver of causing that damage, and if your mechanic did imply you caused it, ask him where all the other related damage is.

I tried to think of anything else that could remotely cause that and the only thing I came up with is if someone had to lower the engine cross member to repair the engine or transmission, (only GMs come apart that way), they might have attached a chain to the rack and pinion housing to hold something up. That's really grasping at straws but it's the best I can come up with.

The only other thought I had was if the housing is bolted to the sheet metal firewall. I DO know Pontiac Grand Ams are built that way but they use a different style of housing. I suppose it's possible for the car to be rusted so badly that the firewall could flex and put repeated stresses on the housing, but I live in Wisconsin, the road salt capital of the world, and rust is a big problem here, yet we never see those housings break.

I was the suspension and alignment specialist at a very nice family-owned Chrysler dealership for nine years, I did similar work at a mass merchandiser before that, and I taught suspension and alignment at a community college for nine years. In all that time I never saw or heard about a housing breaking, and I've been involved with some really stupid stuff people have done. We also have a front-wheel-drive class at our local racetrack, and those cars are getting banged up and running into walls all the time. Even there you will not find this type of failure, so if anyone is trying to blame you, ask them to show you any example of that happening to someone else.

One last thing you might want to think about is if there is or was something rubbing against the housing in the area it broke. They are always made from aluminum which is soft and lightweight. One of the characteristics of aluminum is it oxidizes REAL fast, as in right before your eyes. That's one reason welding it is so hard. You have to scrub it clean, then weld within seconds before it oxidizes again. The neat thing is though, that aluminum oxide that forms is a great insulator that prevents further corrosion. That's the dull haze you see on aluminum engine parts. If you scratch an engine part deep enough, you'll see how shiny it is but it will be just as dull as everything else in a few minutes. Many manufacturers paint aluminum parts to prevent that corrosion, but regardless, if something was rubbing on the housing, it would wear away the protective layer of aluminum oxide and allow further corrosion to take place. That would work sort of like a saw. What you would see is the housing cracked apart and each half mates together nicely, but you'll also see the rubbed area that started weakening the housing that led to it breaking.

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Sunday, June 3rd, 2012 AT 2:55 AM
Tiny
JEROMYASTRIKER
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The aleros drain for the ac drains onto the bracket for the rack and pinion. Causing the bracket to rust off the sub frame were it is mounted. The popping noise heard is the bracket breaking free from the sub frame. I had this happen to a 2001 alero with a v6 the only fix was a new sub frame.

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Monday, October 15th, 2012 AT 1:32 AM
Tiny
AMYBOOTH1
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I have an 04 alero it only has 95000 miles on it and I had same problem and thankfully it broke on our dirt road not while I was going 60 on highway my husband has also come to the conclusion that this is all caused by rust on the unibody now grant it we live in a dirt road the car has no visible rust on the body but the sun frame on front and back are both rusted so badly that theirs no where to even Jack it up at safely it looks ok then I touch it and it just crumbles ppl need to report this my car is in excellent condition and has been very well taken care of and has no mechanical issues at all never has runs as good as day I bought it need a 5 speed car to swap motor to bc it has a good 200000 miles of life left in it my uncle had one and drove it till it has 350000 miles on it

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Monday, February 6th, 2017 AT 8:48 PM
Tiny
AMYBOOTH1
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And where do you buy a sun frame at this car has too much life left to just scrap it

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Monday, February 6th, 2017 AT 8:49 PM
Tiny
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Visit any salvage yard for a replacement sub frame. Given the common history that has been shared here, (thank you to all), it is a good bet the people will use their resources to contact a different salvage yard in the southern states and order a rust-free replacement. You can also ask at a local body shop how they would handle this type of problem. If only a section is rusted out, a patch can be welded in, but it is important to understand the results of the repair must keep the rack assembly sitting at exactly the proper height in relation to the other steering and suspension parts. If a 1/8"-thick piece of metal is welded on top of the sub frame, for example, that will raise that end of the rack and change the geometric relationship of the steering system. That will seriously adversely affect handling.

Also be aware that GM front-wheel-drive cars are the only ones that have no provisions built in to locate the cross member when it is reinstalled after a repair. If it is reinstalled off-center as little as 1/16", it will create a very unstable and unpredictable car to drive. This can be found with an alignment computer, but it is always ignored unless the mechanic is told or knows it needs to be measured and adjusted. The angle is called "steering axis inclination", (SAI). There is never a spec given. All that is critical is it must be the same on both sides.

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Tuesday, February 7th, 2017 AT 3:17 PM
Tiny
AMYBOOTH1
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So sounds like pain and should just sell it for parts bc I'm pretty sure body is just as rusted the back bumper support beam is completely hollowed out and rusted gone too wld feel bad selling it and something bad happening but it still has so much life left how do you know what other vehicles the engine and transmission wld fit in

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Tuesday, February 7th, 2017 AT 7:37 PM
Tiny
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Let me go off in an entirely different direction for a moment to add another dimension to this sad story. A 2002 model is considerably newer than anything I would trust to be a daily driver, but for the average person, it's an old car. Most people look at the car's current value when deciding if a high-cost repair should be pursued. Since I keep my Grand Caravans until the carpet is the only thing holding the front and rear together, I look at how many more miles I can expect it to last when deciding if it pays to put on new wiper blades, or some other equally-horrendous repair. But that is not my point of interest in this story.

The dealership I used to work at had the county's impound yard for any cars that were involved in crashes with fatalities. I got to see them, and by a huge margin the most were front-wheel-drive GM cars from the 1990s to mid 2000s. Before I go any further, it's important to understand that GM sells more cars than any other manufacturer, so it stands to reason there will be a higher percentage in the salvage yards. But in this case, where fatalities were involved, it was easily 19 GM products out of 20 smashed cars. It got to the point that it made news around the shop when a fatal crash was NOT a GM product.

A friend who used to have a body shop, had an early '90s Dodge Shadow. Those cars were built like ostrich eggs and were really tough. His girlfriend pulled into traffic from a parking lot and got hit in the driver's door by a heavy rear-wheel-drive car going 35 mph. The interior trim panel never got touched, thanks to the steel beams in the doors. Her only injury was a bump to the head. Unfortunately that model was replaced by the plastic Neon tin can that no self-respecting mechanic would want to own. Today we need all kinds of side air bags to protect occupants as well as the older cars did.

In contrast, one day in the late '90s, my mother got stuck in traffic that was waiting for a crash to be cleared on my highway. Later, I found out from a former coworker / friend who was by then a county deputy, that another deputy was following a car on the ice-covered road, and witnessed the crash. Both cars were going 45 mph in a 55 mph zone, and the drivers were doing nothing wrong. The car he was following began sliding sideways and was hit in the passenger door by the oncoming car. All four people, two in each car, were killed instantly. Both were GM front-wheel-drive cars. I've been hit by regular street cars going well over 70 mph on the race track, and the damage never stopped me from being able to drive home. There is no reason anyone should be killed in such a relatively low-speed crash, but it was so common.

Look at this as an opportunity to find something newer, safer, prettier, or with more "toys" inside. Fill in the adjective you value the most. "Prettier" is subjective because all the car designers seem to only be able to copy the Nissan Murano and make unbelievably-ugly "frog cars".

Also be aware that since the mid '70s, the engineers at Ford have come up with all kinds of steering system parts that save them a lot of money, but fall apart way too soon, leading to loss of control and crashes. Ask anyone who ever owned a Tempo or '80s Escort about how many tie rod ends and tires they went through. It was common knowledge that tires rarely lasted 15,000 miles due to the horribly messed-up alignment that they eliminated adjustments for. The intent was the cars rode much smoother than any from the competition, so they sold a pile of them. There was no concern about customer satisfaction after the sale. A friend who worked at a Ford dealership as their suspension and alignment specialist shared all the tricks they came up with to solve pulling problems, but there was nothing they could do to alleviate the terrible tire wear and life problems. Those cars were real cheap to buy, and real expensive to keep on the road, so Ford made a lot more money on repairs after the sale. Based on what I've seen on two friends' late-model Ford products, it appears the "sell at all cost, and to heck with our reputation later" mentality is still there. The attitude seems to be there are always potential new customers to replace those who will never come back. The same is true of GM, but more so for their extremely customer-unfriendly business practices, and less for safety issues. I could elaborate a lot on these business practices, but that is not what this forum is for.

Chrysler is not immune from some of these problems, but as a company, they are very concerned with retaining repeat customers, and they have to do things that keep owners happy to do that. As far as those customer-friendly business practices, some national-level trainers in the aftermarket field rate the best manufacturers as Hyundai, Toyota, and Chrysler, in that order, as the top three. (GM is near the bottom of the list along with VW, Audi, and BMW). That list has nothing to do with fit and finish, comfort, or "initial customer satisfaction", (which means sitting in the dealer's parking lot when they hand you the keys, and nothing more, and things like that. It means the rules and regulations the dealers force you to follow to resolve an issue are designed to benefit the dealer or manufacturer, usually financially, at the expense of the customer who already spent a lot of money to buy the product. Repeat buyers will accept a car can feel like a lemon and that will not translate to the next one they buy of the same brand, but they understand that when they're treated badly in the service department or are forced to spend an unreasonable amount for a repair, that WILL be the same next time. They're going to shop around and think long and hard before going back to that brand. That's why some manufacturers have to constantly advertise for new customers, and some brands sell just fine with almost no advertising other than word-of-mouth.

This might give you more to consider when deciding what you'll be driving in the near future. Some people will stick with one brand no matter what. Some people can be swayed by one negative story while overlooking dozens of positive experiences for the same brand. As I used to tell my students, "you're welcome to prefer any brand of car you want to, just don't tell me yours is better than mine unless you can tell me why". The discussion continued that every manufacturer has strong points and bad points. It's a matter of deciding which of them are most important to you.

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Wednesday, February 8th, 2017 AT 5:47 PM

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