CarTalk.com Best of Deals Car Reviews Repair Shops Cars A-Z Radio Show

How dangerous is it to drive with a broken strut?

I had some work done on my car today and the mechanic told me I have a broken right strut. (I do trust the mechanic to be honest.) The quote to fix both was $715+tax. It’s a 1997 Toyota RAV4 with 227K+ miles. Putting $800 into (after I just put $300 into it today) makes my stomach hurt. Especially, since I have a $1900 daycare bill every month!

I don’t mind putting $600-ish into her every year or so, but this is $1100, which is more than a third of what I paid for her 7 years ago! I cannot afford a new car right now (see daycare payment above), so my question is, how dangerous is it to drive with a broken strut? Is it something like I’ll just need a tow to the shop when it finally goes, or could it cause an accident? Thanks!

That seems to be about the going rate now for front struts, but if the quote was from a dealer you can probably get the struts done cheaper at any independent shop.

“Broken” could mean an unsafe condition or simply worn out, or even a cracking bushing. Without more definition it’s impossible to say it’s safe, but the shop should be able to give you that definition. And with any expensive repair, a second opinion is prudent.

You didn’t ask, but you absolutely should replace both sides. Struts and shocks should always be done in pairs or the suspension won’t be balanced.

Look at it this way, they probably should have been replaced 100,000 miles ago. It depends on whether they he said they were “broken” or worn. Worn would be normal, and can still be ok for a while but will affect handling. Broken is something else again. If something snapped off, or the bearing came apart, it would be very dangerous to drive. I suspect he said they were bad, or worn, or shot, or something of that nature so it wouldn’t be something that would have to be done today, but might want to get a clarification. IMHO anyway.

It’s a matter of how it performs. If one side does not recover as well as the other and there is off balanced handling, you definitely need them replaced. If one is “leaking” bit performs well in driving, you can put it off indefinitely. Often, if driven on narrower roads with the right wheels hitting the shoulders, it’s not unusual for one side to wear faster. If the strut is actually broken from it’s mount, you will know it immediately and it is unsafe. The driver is often the first to know when a strut fails and does not perform well.

You’re trying to keep a 17-year-old car running. You need to expect that sometimes things will break that cost more than $600.

When I hear a broken strut, I think of a broken strut spring.

If this is the case, you want to get this fixed. I’ve seen cases where the broken coil of the spring has slashed the back-side of the tire. So not only do the struts require replacing, but also the tire(s).

Tester

To start, the difference between and strut and a shock absorber is simply this; If you remove the shock, the car will bounce a lot more at that corner but can be driven. If you remove a strut, that corner will fall over and the car will be undriveable. That said, “broken strut” can mean many things, leaking, cracked, bent or others. Yes, you should replace it. It is a safety item that should not be ignored.

Please also keep in mind that 227,000 miles is quite a lot for any car. As the miles increase the cost of service will increase as well. $600 a year might be fine for a 125,000 mile car but it is short for a 227,000 mile car. You are close to some very large repair bills (transmission, CV joints, ball joints) and need to plan for this. I don’t mean to be depressing, just realistic.

I remember well how hard it was for me back in the 90s when I was a single dad and had to pay 25% of my income for daycare for my son. I know understanding doesn t help you, but maybe my prayers will…

ask the mechanic about the safety risks associated with your particular problem. since you trust him to be honest he may have some insight into how to stay safe and save you some money.

it also may depend on where you drive. if you just drive slowly around a small town it may not be as dangerous as if you are on the expressway .

find out exactly what is broken, and the risks to you, your kids and the car, then go from there.
let us know exactly what is “broken” and the people here will give you more detailed advice

1 Like

The OP can count this as one more person who says to replace both front struts, as it is a safety issue. Whether it is a moderate safety issue, or a major one, nobody can say from afar, but the fact remains that it is a safety issue.

Even if it was not a safety issue, let’s try to put this in human terms.
Imagine that one of your shoes lost its heel.
Walking would be tiring and uncomfortable.
Running would be downright dangerous.
Now, translate that type of imbalance to a vehicle moving at highway speed with equally unbalanced support.
Imagine what can–and eventually will–happen if you need to take sudden evasive action with a bad strut on the vehicle.

Wow, thank you so much for all the replies! I’m pretty sure it’s broken and not just worn. Like I said, I trust the mechanic and they wouldn’t say something as a scare tactic. I asked her if it was dangerous and she said if it ‘came out’ any number of things could happen, depending on how it happened. She acted like it was not a super common thing, so I’m pretty sure something is cracked. It’s not a dealer, but I don’t know that they are the cheapest mechanic in town. I will definitely get a second (and third and fourth) quote.

I know it’s a lot of miles on the car. I just cannot afford to buy anything else right now with the daycare payments. I had my daughter on my own so there is only one income. I pay 43% of my take home pay to daycare, and another 14% to student loans. To do this repair I will have to take it out of savings, which is greatly diminished because of unpaid maternity leave. It sounds like I need to do it because it is a safety issue, but it’s just really hard to stomach. UGH!

Thanks again for all your comments and help!

with your daycare bill I had assumed you had more than 1 child. if you don t mind me asking, where do you live that it costs so much for one kid. I know infant care is more expensive but the price still seems outlandishly high to me.

Since you’ve brought up the financial details here, I’m afraid that I have to say that I’m very concerned for your financial situation here. This car is nearing the end of its life. If doing this repair is a hardship, you’re really going to be stuck if this car dies soon and you have to buy a replacement somehow without having put money away already for that. I wish you luck here.

Just for clarification, the difference between a strut and a shock absorber is that a strut is a part of the suspension geometry, being mounted to the steering knuckle and controlling the movement path of the wheel as it responds to the road. A shock absorber only dampens shock and spring recoil, but is not an active part of the suspension geometry.

In many modern cars the work to change either is almost the same. In my car, they used a “coil over” arrangement, and to change the rear shocks requires removal of the spring/shock assembly and changing the shock in the assembly exactly like a strut. The only differences are that the wheel travel is controlled by upper and lower control arms and realignment isn’t necessary and that the bottom end of the assembly is only attached by a single bolt with a bushing. In the struts, the lower end is mounted solidly to the steering knuckle by two large bolts at 178lbs/ft.

Shocks used to be so easy to change in the old days. I miss the old days. Sigh.
The reason that “dampers” (shocks) in modern cars are so difficult (read: expensive) to change is that transversely mounted engines with transaxles in smaller spaces need tighter “packaging”. Struts take up a lot less space than dual A-frames with separate springs & dampers. Struts are cheaper to manufacture, too. The whole corner of the suspension is one bolt-in sub assembly.

You need more than additional quotes, you need additional opinions. A cheaper quote can end up costing more in the long run so you need to be careful.

If this is a truly trustworthy mechanic, then I think you need to have another discussion with her(?). Explain your financial situation and find out exactly what is broken. A strut is made up of several components. If some of them brake, it can be very dangerous very quick where other parts have little to no affect.

The thing that bothers me is that the parts that would be dangerous if they broke would have very serious drivability issues right now. You would notice them and it would not take a mechanic to tell you that you have a problem. You would hardly be able to control the vehicle.

If the vehicle is driving OK, then you need to find out exactly what part on the strut is actually broken. If its a bellows or something like that, I’d let it go, its not a problem.

BTW, the main part of the strut is pretty rugged, I have never seen one break unless it was due to an accident. They get worn internally but they don’t break.

I live in Seattle. The price of infant care is ridiculous! Even at those prices there are waitlists that are sometimes one to two years long. It will go down some when she turns one in November, but not enough to swing a car payment.

BUT… there is good news! I got a second opinion on the strut and he said it’s just the strut mount that’s broken. He jacked it up and showed me that it moves around when the tire is off the ground, but when the weight of the car is on it, it’s really ok. He said the tire would have to come way off the ground for the strut to come out.

He said his mother had the exact same car and had the exact same issue, and she drove it like that for years. He said of course as a professional he can’t tell me it’s safe, but he said he would have no issue driving his children with it like that. So YAY!

At least this guy actually showed you the problem

Anyways, after you get the strut mounts replaced, it would be a good idea to get an alignment

I would at least get that one broken strut mount replaced. Your mechanic may not have a problem driving like that, but I would. True, the weight of the car will keep everything together, but one good pothole or turning too sharp out of a driveway could be enough to separate it.

As for living in Seattle, yeah prices for some things are sky high. Others here may be shocked to learn that a 2 bedroom apartment will rent for $2000/month, and it wasn’t that long ago that I was paying $1600/month for child care.

I second Ase’s suggestion. I’d rather see you driving around with an imbalance in damping side-to-side than with a broken strut mount. Option A isn’t as good as changing both sides, but it’s certainly safer than doing nothing.

You have an infant to care for. If that thing comes apart on one of those potholes you mentioned, and there’s a truck coming the other way, you just might lose control and leave that infant with one parent dead.

I don t know any thing about strut mounts because I ve never had to fix one…, yet. but could the mount be welded back together? if so that would be fairly cheap. and how hard is it to just replace the mount? would that be cheap? I m really asking the other responders for you…

@wesw, the upper strut mount only runs about $20-45. Not worth the hassle of taking everything apart just to try to weld-repair the old one. And, if you have it that far, be a shame not to go ahead and replace the strut, since everything is apart and spring is out.