Many Jeep owners experience Jeep “Death Wobble” at some point. It usually happens like this . . . you are driving at about 40-60 miles per hour and hit a bump in the road and suddenly you Jeep convulses like it is about to fall apart. Sound familiar? That’s what is called Jeep Death Wobble in action. The good news it can be diagnosed and fixed. I have found that a quick way to make Jeep Death Wobble stop and restore your nerves is to slow your Jeep down below 45 miles per hour.
Jeep Death Wobble is the result of loose, failing, or failed Jeep front suspension and steering parts. Diagnosis starts with inspection of various Jeep front steering and suspension parts. Fixing Jeep Death Wobble involves replacing or tightening up those parts. The usual culprit is the bolt on the passenger side of the Jeep’s front axle that holds the Jeep’s track bar to that axle. That bolt can become loose and/or expand its hole which creates “play” in the bar and that leads directly to Jeep Death Wobble. There are other possible causes and we will review them all.
What is Jeep Death Wobble?
Jeep Death Wobble is an unsettling result of loose or failing Jeep steering and suspension parts. The front-end suspension and steering systems of a Jeep are beefy and reliable, especially for light off-roading (Extreme off-roading usually requires upgrades). However, the system is a delicate balance of many components working in harmony that make the entire system work properly.
When one or more of the components goes out of specifications, problems in the system can and will ultimately appear. The thing is that you can’t miss Jeep Death Wobble when it happens—it is a rather unforgettable incident. The good news is that if this the first time Jeep Death Wobble has happened to your Jeep, you can recover while driving and you can identify and fix Jeep Death Wobble.
How to Deal with Jeep Death Wobble While Driving?
As I have already mentioned, Jeep Death Wobble is scary and jarring when you experience it, especially the very first time. When you are driving at speed-40-60 miles per hour, it can be resolved rather quickly. The secret is to quickly and safely slow down to below 45 miles per hour. By slowing down, you are giving the front-end steering and suspension systems to recover and get back into sync.
Once you recover control, keep the Jeep below 45 miles per hour if you can and get home or to a safe place to check your Jeep out. You may be able to continue driving your Jeep without any further Jeep Death Wobble occurrence, but once it happens, you need to be prepared for it to happen again.
Jeep Death Wobble usually acts up on bumps or jolts while driving. If you see rough road ahead, be prepared with two hands on the steering wheel and your foot ready to brake.
When driving and experiencing Jeep Death Wobble, remember to stay calm and slow down to regain control.
What Jeeps Are Likely to Get Jeep Death Wobble?
Almost any older Jeep is susceptible to Jeep Death Wobble, especially if it’s front suspension hasn’t been worked on recently. I have personally experienced it in my 1996 Jeep Cherokee (XJ) and in my 1998 Jeep Wrangler Sahara (TJ). My Jeep Grand Cherokees (ZJ) have basically the same suspension. As do Jeep Wrangler (YJ)’s and older Jeep CJ’s. I would imagine that Jeep Grand Cherokee (WJ)’s and Jeep Wrangler (JK)’s would be candidates as well. The steering and suspension systems on Jeeps are relatively similar and when age and use catches up to the respective components, then Jeep Death Wobble usually follows.
I have personally rebuilt the front-end suspensions of my entire Jeep “Fleet”. That fleet includes a 1996 Jeep Cherokee (XJ), 1998 Jeep Wrangler Sahara (TJ), and 1997 and 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee (ZJ)’s. The full job usually takes a full day, but it is worth it as the Jeep drives tight as a drum afterwards, or at least as tight as one can expect a Jeep to drive. Frankly, we aren’t talking ultra-luxury smooth rides here—we are talking about Jeeps.
Some people also believe Jeep Death Wobble is ONLY a lifted Jeep problem. Not true. Jeep Death Wobble can and does happen to stock Jeeps as well as to lifted Jeeps.
Why Does Jeep Death Wobble Happen?
Jeep Death Wobble happens because some thing or some things in your Jeep’s steering and suspension systems is throwing the system out of balance. When driving your Jeep, the front end is in constant movement and vibration. Effectively the steering and suspension systems are trying to control a floating solid axle.
Your Jeep is equipped with a part called a steering stabilizer or dampener. This part is effectively a shock absorber for your steering system. Many people mistakenly believe this is the cause of Jeep Death Wobble—it isn’t. The Jeep’s steering stabilizer helps to avoid sloppy steering and minor vibration. While it may contribute to Jeep Death Wobble, it is seldom the root cause of the problem.
When it comes to why Jeep Death Wobble happens, the problem is one or more suspension and steering components not doing their respective jobs.
What are the Specific Possible Causes of Jeep Death Wobble?
The possible causes of Jeep Death Wobble are many. Personally, I have found that more than one component is faulty, failing, or failed. There are many possible reasons for Jeep Death Wobble and it requires fixing or replacing the bad parts. The possible problem components that cause Jeep
Death Wobble include:
- Track bar – Bolt hole can become enlarged or bushings weakened
- Tie rod ends – The movable joint can be worn down from dirt and grit and develop too much “play”. Furthermore, they can break or become disconnected
- Ball joints – Like tie rod ends, the movable joint can be worn down from dirt and grit and develop too much “play”. Furthermore, they can also break or become disconnected
- Drag link – Bolts, bushings, and connections can become loose and fail
- Wheel hubs – Bearings inside can fail and create excess play
- Pitman arm – This component can become loose
- Steering stabilizer – While not usually a key culprit, this component can be a contributor. The steering stabilizer should be stiff, not loose
- Bushings – Many of these steering and suspension components contain rubber bushings that can crack or even disintegrate. Once this happens, excess play appears and causes instability in the steering and suspension systems
- Control arms – Loose bolts and bad bushings can create play
- Sway bar links – Bad bushings, loose nuts and bolts, and broken sway bar links can contribute to instability
Unfortunately, one bad component can create other bad components. Each incident of Jeep Death Wobble stresses and weakens all the components in the steering and suspension systems. This is why I say, it is probably a mix of components causing the Jeep Death Wobble. You might want to think of it like dominoes falling, Jeep Death Wobble cascades and creates other problems with all of the parts.
While not necessarily Jeep Death Wobble causes, there are a few other things to check when your Jeep is not performing optimally. They include:
- Tire tread wear – Do your Jeep’s tires show signs of uneven wear? Any damage? Cracks?
- Wheel balancing – Are all the little lead weights still there? Those are put on when new tires are installed and balanced. Sometimes they fall off and throw the wheel out of balance.
- Shock absorbers – Does your Jeep bob up and down like a boat on the water? It should be relatively stiff if you apply downward pressure to the front corners of your Jeep.
- Power steering pump assembly and fluid – How is your power steering pump assembly? Does the pulley wobble when the Jeep is running? Does the belt slip? Is the power steering fluid in the optimal operating zone?
Again, many things can cause steering and suspension problems. If those problems are also present it can make Jeep Death Wobble experience feel even worse.
How Do I Diagnose Jeep Death Wobble?
Jeeps have rather complex front suspensions, and everything needs to be up to standard for the system to work right. To diagnose your Jeep for causes of Death Wobble, start by doing a simple visual inspection of steering and suspension components. Anything look broken, missing, or out of place?
Now proceed to a more comprehensive inspection by getting under the front of your Jeep with gloves on, then grab and shake the track bar up and down and back and forth. If it moves, you may have found part or all the problem causing Jeep Death Wobble. However, don’t stop there.
Next, grab and shake other parts such as the tie rods ends—there are several of them. Inspect the rubber boots on the tie rod ends they should be filled with grease—if the rubber boots are ripped or flat, that is a potential problem that could lead to Jeep Death Wobble. You should also inspect the sway bar links on both sides as well. These sometimes break on Jeeps, while need may play a limited role in Jeep Death wobble, it is also good to check them at this time. Sway bars and their links keep your Jeep from rolling over in turns at speed.
Finally, safely raise the front end of your Jeep with a proper jack and support it with jack stands and placing wheel chocks behind the rear tires of your Jeep. With the wheels slightly off the ground put your hands at the 9:00 and 3:00 positions on the tires and wiggle them back and forth push in and out at the two positions simultaneously. They shouldn’t move, if they do, you may have another potential cause of Jeep Death Wobble—bad tie rod ends. At this point, put a pipe or jack handle under the tire, and try to raise it up and down. It should shouldn’t really move, if it does have play, you guessed it, another potential cause of Jeep Death Wobble—bad ball joints.
What Can I Do If I Can’t Fix My Jeep’s Death Wobble Right Away?
If you have experienced Jeep Death Wobble and even diagnosed it, but can’t fix it right away, there are some things you can do:
- First, try tightening your Jeep’s suspension bolts up a little. Not a permanent solution by any means, but it might help in the short run.
- Next, I would try greasing up the tie rod ends and ball joints if they are serviceable. That means if they have little Zerk grease fittings that you can attach a grease gun to. This should be a regular check during oil changes and prior to long road trips or off-roading adventures.
- Finally, drive your Jeep slower and be prepared for a Jeep Death Wobble episode. Again, I have found slowing down below 45 miles per hour lets the suspension component readjust (at least temporarily).
An additional thought I would add here is to think of these bits of advice as you would with donut spare tires. Those little spare tires are designed to get your Jeep home until you can make the necessary repairs to your Jeep. You should have the same mindset—avoid unnecessary travel in your Jeep until the Jeep Death Wobble has been addressed and properly repaired.
How Can I Fix Jeep Death Wobble?
When it comes to fixing Jeep Death Wobble, you usually need to replace the problem part or parts. The approach to diagnosing Jeep Death Wobble as outlined above can usually point you in the right direction, but you may discover other issues that escaped detection in the Jeep Death Wobble diagnosis phase.
Furthermore, my personal approach to Jeep repairs is to first, be ready for the unexpected surprise problems that can arise. Secondly, I will sometimes take a proactive maintenance approach. That means I will sometimes replace older, but not failed, parts that are difficult to get to, but are exposed in the process of replacing another bad part. I truly hate doing the same job effectively twice because I was being cheap or lazy in the first place.
With that, start by safely raising the front end of your Jeep with a proper jack and support it with jack stands and placing wheel chocks behind the rear tires of your Jeep. Also, disconnect the black or negative battery wire. You should do this because if you don’t, there may be impacts on the front end of your Jeep that could trigger the airbags to deploy. Don’t create more problems and expense.
You will need the replacement parts for your specific Jeep, which might include some or all of the following parts:
- Track bar – If you have a lifted Jeep, or are considering lifting your Jeep in the near future, you may want to replace the track bar with an adjustable track bar that compensates for angle differences caused by the lift. This is a relatively easy replacement and can be done in under a half hour if things go smoothly
- Upper and lower ball joints (one of each on each side) – Ball joints last a long time, but when they go bad you know it. This is probably the most advanced job on the list because many parts need to be removed to make the removal and replacement of the ball joints. It also requires a ball joint press to do the job. It will take two to three hours, less if you have done it before and things go smoothly
- Tie rod ends – There are several tie rod ends on your Jeep. The tie rod ends are all a little different in size, so be sure to get the right one for the position. Some are left threaded and some are right threaded (This is because an alignment involves simultaneously turning them to make adjustments). This is an intermediate to advanced job that will usually require pullers or a pickle fork and a hammer. Some tie rod ends can be removed and replaced in 15-20 minutes and some might require an hour
- Drag link – The drag link can be removed and replaced in under an hour and is an easy to intermediate job. It will require hand tools and a puller
- Pitman arm – While not usually the cause of Jeep Death Wobble, if the pitman arm is loose or damaged, it should be replaced. An intermediate job, it should take 30-60 minutes and require a pitman arm puller. If you are planning a lift above 3.5 inches, you should consider replacing it with a longer pitman arm
- Steering stabilizer (looks like a shock absorber) – While it can contribute to, it is usually not the cause of Jeep Death Wobble. It will require a puller or a pickle fork and a hammer to remove. An easy job that requires under 20 minutes or so
- Wheel hubs – Jeep wheel hub removal and replacement is an intermediate to advanced job that will require at least an hour on each side. You will probably need cold chisels and a hammer to get them out
Rest assured, all of these jobs can be done by DIY Jeep owners. Having the right tools and some basics skills goes a long way. If you are totally new to this kind of work, consider recruiting a friend with some skills to guide you. You can save several hundred or even $1,000 or more tackling these tasks by yourself.
You will also need tools and supplies that might include:
- Impact wrench and socket sets – Not required, but extremely helpful on these tough components. Power wrench, along with 13mm-19mm impact sockets
- Wrench and socket sets – Basic tool set with at least 12mm-19mm sockets and wrenches
- Torque wrench – When replacing these parts, most have specific torque specs that need to be used
- Breaker bar – A must for leverage on these tough stuck on nuts and bolts
- Cheater pipe – A 2-3 foot long black steel plumbing pipe for even more leverage. Must fit over breaker bars and ratcheting wrench handles
- Small 3-pound sledge hammer – Critical in applying impact to jar corroded and rusty components loose
- Needle nose pliers – Many of these parts use castle nuts with cotter pins that needle nose pliers can pull out
- Cold chisels set – For removing front wheel hub assemblies
- Pitman arm puller – Not just for pitman arms, these pullers can help with tie rod ends. Very helpful if not replacing a tie rod end as it doesn’t usually cause damage
- Pickle fork – If you definitely plan on changing out a tie rod end, and don’t care if you damage the old part, a pickle fork and small sledge hammer, can work wonders freeing stuck parts
- Ball joint press set – A must to remove and install ball joints
- Ball joint adapter set – Provides extra cups and adapters needed for 4×4 applications
- Assorted hardened washers – These are helpful in adjusting the angles (back to 90 degrees) of the ball joint press against the steering knuckle that the ball joints are mounted into (this a very helpful trick for both removal and more importantly reinstallation).
- PB Blaster penetrating oil spray – I use a full can when replacing a front-end steering and suspension removal and replacement job. This stuff works and will make your life easier
- Mapp gas torch – Sometimes pressure isn’t enough, a Mapp Gas torch can heat and expand the metal around a part make it possible to free the part
- Grease gun and grease – For proper installation and ongoing maintenance of these components if they are serviceable with Zerk grease fittings
- Anti-seize dressing – Not for removal this time around, but it will make any future removal and replacement much easier for you. I suggest globbing this stuff on thick—after you fight to remove these parts, you will agree and know exactly where to apply it
- Shop towels and rags – Clean and wipe things down as you go
- Disposable gloves – These are messy jobs– keep your hands clean
- Impact gloves – Avoid knuckle busting with a better grip and protection
- Eye protection – Safety is a must. Rust, dirt, and grim will fall on you as you do these jobs. Also, things could go flying—don’t take chances
- Ear Protection – Between impact wrenches and mini sledge hammers, it will get noisy
As for the actual step-by-step tasks to fix your Jeep’s Death Wobble, please refer to my specific individual articles that explain the removal and replacement of these various suspension and steering parts in much greater detail. The following links are provided to help you navigate to the specific articles:
- Track bar
- Upper and lower ball joints
- Drag link
- Tie rod ends
- Pitman arm
- Steering stabilizer
- Wheel hub assembly
- Changing Jeep Front Brakes (Not a Jeep Death Wobble cause, but you will need to disassemble and then reassemble the front brakes to get to most of the aforementioned parts that do cause Jeep Death Wobble)
Do I Need to Get an Alignment After Working on my Jeep’s Front Suspension?
So, you had Jeep Death Wobble and replaced some or all front-end steering and suspension parts, do I need to get an alignment? Yes. Without question or hesitation.
Pretty much any time you do front-end suspension and steering work on your Jeep, or any vehicle for that matter, you should get an alignment. You should do this for the sake of your Jeep’s tires (decent tires run around $150 each). Still not convinced about getting an alignment? Then consider doing it for general road safety for you and your family.
Again, since you will need to get an alignment, consider preventative maintenance and replacing most or all suspension and steering parts at once.
How Do to Maintain Your Jeep to Avoid Jeep Death Wobble?
One of the first bits of general maintenance for your Jeep’s steering and suspension parts, is to confirm components are tight. Simply confirming that nuts and bolts are tight can save your heart ache down the road.
The other general advice is to be sure to service the serviceable components. That means using a grease gun and lubing them through the Zerk grease fittings. This will protect and prolong the life of these serviceable components.
The other advice is to practice preventative maintenance. When you do front end steering and suspension work, you need to remove several parts and you must get an alignment. With that in mind, I recommend replacing several components at once. Since you need to remove so many parts, especially for ball joints, you may as well only open it up once and get just one alignment.
Suggested Parts Lists for Certain Jeep Models
Here is a listing of parts to deal with Jeep Death Wobble for some of the most common Jeep models (I will add other parts as I identify them). Please be sure to confirm your specific year, make, and model for proper fitment.