On any automobile, be it a light truck or a passenger car, the steering forces are carried from the central steering gearbox or rack and pinion out to the steering arms by tie rods. An inner tie rod and an outer tie rod are present on each side, and each of these has a ball socket, allowing free movement.
On a vehicle that uses a rack and pinion steering assembly, the outer tie rod ends have a tapered pin that bolts into the steering arm. The body of the outer tie rod end is usually cast iron and machined with internal threads that the inner tie rod screws into.
The inner tie rod threads into the outer, allowing the length of the two to be adjusted for the purpose of aligning the front wheels. On the opposite end of the inner tie rod on the ball-socket side, there is another threaded end that screws into the steering rack assembly.
Tie Rod End Replacement Costs
The basic labour time for replacing an outer joint is almost always 3 to 4 tenths of an hour. There is a great deal more variety in the labour time of replacing an inner joint if the vehicle uses a rack and pinion for steering. For some examples of tie rod replacement costs on common vehicles, using £70 to £100 an hour as a labour rate:
- On a 2007 BMW 328i, the labour time for the inner tie rod replacement is around 4.0 hours (with steering rack removal). A factory inner tie rod end costs around £180, and a non-factory replacement part is about £30. The total cost to complete the job is around £460 using a factory part and around £310 using an aftermarket part. Now, to replace an outer tie rod, the labour time is 0.4 hours. A factory outer tie rod end costs around £105, and a non-OE replacement part is around £18. The total cost to complete the job is around £133 using a factory part and around £45 using an aftermarket part.
- On a 2006 Chevrolet Silverado 1500, the labour time for an inner tie rod replacement is around 0.9 hours. A non-OE tie rod price is about £30, making the total job cost about £93. The labour time for replacing an outer tie rod end is around 0.6 hours, and a non-OE part is about £30. The total cost to complete the job for an outer joint is around £70.
- On a 2010 Ford Fusion, the labour time for an inner tie rod replacement is around 3.1 hours (with steering rack removal). A factory replacement part costs around £30 and a non-OE replacement part is about £18, making the total cost to complete the job around £247 using a factory part or £235 using an aftermarket part. The labour time is around 0.4 hours to replace the outer tie rod end of this vehicle model. A factory replacement part costs about £50, and a non-factory replacement part costs about £25. The total cost to complete the job is £78 using a factory part and about £50 using an aftermarket part.
- On a 2006 Mazda 3, the labour time for an inner tie rod replacement is estimated at 3.0 hours (with steering rack removal). A factory replacement part costs around £65 and a non-factory replacement part costs around £17. The total cost to complete the job is £275 using a factory part and around £230 using an aftermarket part. To replace its outer tie rod, the labour time is approximately 0.4 hours. A factory replacement part costs around £55 and a non-OE part is around £20. The total cost to complete the job is £83 using a factory part or around £50 using an aftermarket part.
Other Cost Considerations
In addition to the parts costs for factory and factory-equivalent tie rod ends, there are “economy” replacement parts commonly available. These usually range from about £8 to £15. Opinions vary as to quality. Where a good-quality front-end part from a name-brand manufacturer will often carry a lifetime warranty, economy parts usually come with a one-year warranty.
On top of all those cost estimates, any time a tie rod is replaced, the vehicle will need to be aligned. The range of costs for a wheel alignment is around £40 to £130, depending on the vehicle and shop.
It’s usually best to have tie rod replacements done at a shop that is equipped to also do the wheel alignment so that the vehicle doesn’t need to be driven without having the alignment set.
It’s worth mentioning that the labour times for inner tie rod replacement include the removal of the steering rack, but this procedure is rarely followed. It’s much more common that the inner tie rod can be replaced without removing the steering rack using special tools that are commonly available. In many cases, a flat rate will be applied rather than booking time for the job-typically about 2 hours.
One thing that comes up frequently is that, if one tie rod is worn, sometimes a shop will recommend replacing all the tie rods at the same time.
There are some cost savings when replacing all the parts at the same time due to overlapping labour, but the main decision might be best made based on how long the vehicle is intended to be kept.
Mechanically, there is no reason to replace a part that hasn’t failed. But for a high-mileage vehicle that is intended to be kept on the road and kept reliable over the long term, it may be a sensible choice.
Tie Rod End Replacement
Replacement of the outer tie rod end is very simple — a matter of breaking the tapered pin loose from the steering arm and unscrewing the part from the inner tie rod end. Replacing the inner is often more complicated due to restricted access, and occasionally, there is a need for a special tool to turn the inner socket.
Some manufacturers require that the steering rack and pinion be removed from the vehicle for inner tie rod end replacement.
On a vehicle with a steering gearbox, the inner and outer tie rod ends are often nearly identical. While the outer has a tapered pin that bolts to the steering arm, the inner has a tapered pin that bolts to the centre link.
The inner and outer will usually be connected by an adjusting sleeve and the replacement of either is a simple matter of breaking the tapered joint and unscrewing the tie rod end from the sleeve.
On a vehicle with a solid front axle, such as some 1-ton trucks, there are often only two outer tie rod ends (no inners) with an adjusting sleeve connecting them. These run from one steering arm to the other, and steering is accomplished by a drag link that runs down from the steering gearbox and connects to another steering arm at the knuckle, or to one of the outer tie rod ends.
The advantage of this system on a vehicle designed for towing and heavy loads is that the toe and camber angles are fixed solidly and don’t change with ride height.
How Do Tie Rod Ends Fail?
The most common failure is looseness or wear in the ball and socket end of the tie rod. A small amount of wear is usually not noticeable when driving, but will show up as tyre wear.
Any play directly affects the toe angles of the wheels, which is the primary wear angle of the wheel alignment. A larger amount of looseness can be felt as loose steering. Where the vehicle wanders, the steering has to be corrected often to keep the vehicle driving in a straight line, and the steering wheel has to be turned significantly before the vehicle responds.
This is easy to diagnose with a vehicle up on a lift as the front wheels are “shaken down” in a standard suspension check. On most modern vehicles, there should be no noticeable play in the wheel, side-to-side or up and down. Various other things can cause play, but tie rod ends are the most common.
Physical damage is also possible. A curb hit, for instance, transmits a great deal of sudden force into the tie rod end and they can bend. In some cases, the tapered pin can shear off, at which point the vehicle can’t be driven any more.
In some areas where the roads are salted, sometimes, for no obvious reason, the tie rod adjusting mechanism can freeze up. If alignment adjustments need to be made at a tie rod but the part cannot be freed up to allow adjustments, it’s usually recommended that the part be replaced — often both the inner and outer joint together.
Outer tie rod ends have a small boot that protects the joint from road grime and weather. The inner tie rod ends on a steering rack have a bellows that protects the joint.
In either case, if the boot or bellows are torn, that can allow the grease to escape or dry out and the grit and water to enter, which can lead to rapid failure. In the past, it was quite normal for tie rod ends to have a grease fitting that allowed them to be regularly serviced, but this has now become increasingly rare. Name-brand aftermarket parts often provide a grease fitting, even where the OE part being replaced lacked one.