You're not going to get very far if the lower control arms of your vehicle have gone bad or failed in some way. The lower control arm is what connects the suspension of your car to the actual vehicle frame itself. If you need to have the lower control arm replaced in your car the average repair cost tends to be somewhere between $500 and $700. In some cases, this could cost you as much as $1,000.
A control arm itself is not an overly expensive part of your vehicle. You can head to AutoZone and buy a new control arm for $100 to $200 depending on what kind you need. As with any car parts, the make, model, and year of your vehicle will have an impact on what kind of part you need. As you can imagine, the lower control arm on an old VW Bug is not going to be exactly the same as the lower control arm for a Cadillac Escalade.
Labor costs when it comes to replacing lower control arms make up more than half the price of the repair. This is not to be unexpected. Labor costs are generally always higher than the cost of the part you're having installed or replaced in your vehicle. The cost of this repair in Los Angeles is probably very different from the cost in Boise, Idaho. If you've gone in for a number of repairs in the past, you're probably aware that the prices can vary greatly even within your own town. What the mechanic near your house charges might be far different than what a mechanic on the other side of town charges.
What is a Lower Control Arm?
A lower control arm is often called an A-arm because of its shape. Your car may have two to form control arms in it, the upper control arm and the lower control arm, though many vehicles only have the lower control arm because of how they are constructed these days. Older vehicles would have an upper and lower, and some even had front and rear control arms. Without the control arms in your car, you would not have a smooth ride when you hit the road. It would be much more like being in the back of a U-Haul truck or a trailer towed behind a vehicle. The road would be very bumpy and uncomfortable.
The wheels on your car are connected to the vehicle itself thanks to the control arms which are attached to the frame. As you go over bumps, the lower control arm is what moves up and down to keep your wheels evenly on the road. They essentially absorb any inconsistencies over the course of the road so that you don't have to feel every small up and down that you experience.
Symptoms of a Bad Lower Control Arm
Like any part of your vehicle, a lower control arm can fail over time due to general wear and tear. There are some tell tale signs that you need to be on the lookout for to let you know that you're having a problem with your lower control arm.
Because there are a number of problems that have similar symptoms, there's no guarantee that if you are experiencing any of these issues that it is 100% caused by a problem with your lower control arm. That said, this would be a good place to look if any of these problems are manifesting in your vehicle.
- Bad Steering: Because the lower control arm is a part of your car's suspension, if the ball joints are bushings that hold it in place wear down it can affect the alignment of your steering. That means that as you're driving your steering can start to wander off in one direction or another. The only way to maintain a straight line is to constantly steer back in the opposite direction even though you're not trying to go either left or right. As you can imagine this can be incredibly dangerous when you're driving as wandering to the left or to the right at the wrong moment can lead to a serious accident. If something happens all of a sudden, like a child running on the road ahead of you or a car running a stop sign then your misaligned steering could spell disaster.
- Vibrations: If you're feeling the steering wheel shaking your grip while you're driving that is an early indicator that there could be a problem with your lower control arms. This is a result of the bushings or ball joints that secure the control arm wearing down and coming loose. That in turn shakes up the steering column and we'll give you a noticeable vibration in your hands. Very often this will occur only while you're accelerating and then seem to go away again once you've achieved a steady speed.
- Noises: When the ball joints or bushings that hold your control arm in place become too loose then your control arms can start to knock around as you're driving, especially over uneven ground. You will hear a clank sound like metal smacking against metal and it will become louder the longer you allow this to continue. At some point this will lead to the control arm breaking away completely.
- Worn Tires: This symptom is often harder to notice but if you are aware of what you're looking for then it's something to keep an eye on. All tires get worn out eventually, but if there's a problem with your lower control arm then you may be seeing uneven wear on your tires. When this is occurring it's clear that one or two tires is experiencing a lot more tread wear than the other ones. This is caused by misalignment.
- Bad Braking: Even though the control arms are not connected to the braking system on your vehicle, since they control the suspension there is some crossover and how the two systems work together. When there's a problem with the control arm it's possible that as you break you might experience some shaking at the front end of the car. This is especially prevalent if you're braking suddenly. You will end up feeling the front end of the car almost vibrating back and forth as it comes to a stop.
- Wobbling Wheels: This is not something you're likely to notice at a glance from the outside or necessarily feel while you're driving. However, if you get your car up on jacks enough that one side is off the ground you can test the wheels. Just give them a spin with your hands to see if the wheels are wobbling or they seem straight and properly aligned. If there's a noticeable wobble, there's definitely a chance your lower control arm is not working properly.
- Wobbling Steering Wheel: This is different from the vibrations that you'll feel in your steering wheel. With vibrations, the wheel remains where it's supposed to. With the wobbling steering wheel, it physically shifts back and forth slightly in your hands when you're driving at a high rate of speed. Typically, you won't notice this unless you're going at least 50 miles per hour. There are other things that could cause this to happen, but a bad control arm is definitely one of them.
- Time: Most every part in your car lives on borrowed time. No parts of a vehicle are designed to last forever, and the lower control arm is no different. Lower control arms typically have around 100,000 miles worth of life in them. If you crossed that point already, then there is a good chance you should get your lower control arm looked at to make sure nothing is at risk of breaking any time soon.
What if I Don't Replace My Lower Control Arm?
If your lower control arm fails, you're in a very bad position in your vehicle. Without suspension, you no longer have control of your vehicle. Luckily, when your lower control arm starts to go bad it tends to fail slowly so you have some warning to get this looked at.
The symptoms we listed above tend to take place over a period of time to let you know something is wrong. If you were to let these go to the point where the control arm breaks off the frame of your vehicle entirely you will not be able to control your car any longer. If this happens at speed on the highway then you would veer off in whatever direction the wheels happened to be leaving at that moment. You would be unable to properly steer any longer. You don't need us to tell you how dangerous that could be to yourself and others on the road.
Can I Replace My Own Lower Control Arm?
As with any car repair you can technically replace the lower control arm of your vehicle on your own. You need to get your car up on jacks to be able to get underneath it and access the control arm, and even then, it's an in-depth procedure to pull off. If you are not 100% confident with car repairs this is definitely not the one you want to start on. As DIY car repair goes this is intermediate to advanced in nature. If you haven't done a lot of work on your car already, it is best to leave this one to the professionals.
Even if you are able to pull this off on your own you'd still need to get the alignment properly checked afterwards by a professional. For that reason it would take a lot of the hassle out of this repair job to Simply take it to a mechanic to start with and allow them to get the job done completely so you don't need to worry about your alignment after the fact.
The Bottom Line
The lower control arm as well as the ball joints and bushings that connect it to your vehicle and keep it aligned properly are very important to the overall functioning of your vehicle. You can't play games with your suspension as losing control of that means losing control of the car as a whole. You're putting your own life at risk and the lives of others if you allow a bad lower control arm to go too long without getting it repaired.
The cost of the repair may seem steep now, but the difference in price for repairs that you might have to pay if your alignment goes off so badly that you veer off the road and crash into a tree is something else altogether. And that's not to mention the potential damage that you could cause yourself or someone else if the unthinkable happens.
We always recommended doing research before paying for any significant repairs on your car. If you don't already have a mechanic, you know and trust then it's in your best interest to do some research. Luckily, we live in an age where researching mechanics is not that hard anymore. Once upon a time the only way to really find a new mechanic was to either go by word of mouth from friends and family or try your luck with the Yellow Pages.
These days, thanks to Google and sites like Yelp, it's much easier to research local mechanics. You could check out the reviews and feedback that I mechanic has and use that as a gauge to determine whether you should take your business to someone you've never dealt with before. You should always go with your gut when it comes to any kind of repairs, and it's always best to comparison-shop as well. Get a few estimates before you agree to anything. That said, it never hurts to trust the experiences of other people have had in helping to determine if you want to go to a certain mechanic. If you see that someone has a lot of satisfied customers who have had their lower control arm repaired at a certain shop for a good price, then it's a safe bet that they may be worth your business.