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What is a Camber arm, and why is it so $@*#%$& expensive?

I have a 2005 Mazda3i standard trans. I bought it used with about 115K miles on it, and it has been a very solid little car in the 18 months or so I have owned it. I go to college about 2 hours from my parents, and while I was home recently I took it in to have the oil changed, tires rotated, alignment done, etc. To my surprise the shop told me that they could not align the back right tire because the camber was broken, and they did not have the means to fix it. I have repaired a few things on cars, but a camber is completely new to me. I was glad the shop admitted that they weren’t qualified to fix it (it was a tube & lube place), but it got me to wondering what was so special about it.
I took it back to my trusted shop back in my college town, and they told me the same thing, but gave me the frightening news: It’s the camber ARM that’s broken, it is a special-order part, and it runs about $250. Just for the part. It’s also a 2-3 hour job, and at $75 an hour labor, I’m looking at around a $500 repair bill not counting shop fees, and taxes. Now, I have been very happy with this shop (they know me by name and are very competitively priced in-town), but did I mention I’m in college? I haven’t had more than $100 in my bank account at any time in a few years (I’m also graduating in December, so my income after graduation is… questionable).
The shop managed to force the tire back into alignment and told me that I won’t be able to re-align it in the back it if I don’t fix the camber arm next time. And at the rate I put miles on my car (in 18 months I have put 25,000 miles on it), it will be due for another alignment in about 6 months.
So, what exactly is a camber arm, and what is so special about it that it warrants a $250 price tag? Is it gold-plated or something? How does one go about breaking it? And last but not least, do I really have to spend $500+ to fix it, or can I give the strapping football player I always see working on his car a 30-pack of beer and tell him to jack it up and have at it?

There is no part in the 3i catalog named a “camber arm.” I suspect based on the price they’re talking about the trailing arm, which does effect camber, and lists at $248 MSRP, though can be found for around 50 bucks less online. I’m not entirely sure how to explain what it does in layman’s terms, but suffice to say it’s a component of the suspension that is required in order to make the suspension hold the wheel at the proper angle as the wheel goes over bumps and through turns. It’s not gold plated, but it’s also going to be a relatively low-volume part. It’s really not all that expensive, compared to other parts of the vehicle.

As to whether the football player can fix it - I have no idea. It depends on his technical ability and what tools he has available… .And of course, also whether or not he’s willing.

You’ll still have to get it aligned after you get the part in, though, and I doubt the football player is set up to do that.

$500 repair is dreadful in college. My cars cost that much back in the 1990’s driving old rusty Subaru’s.

That is normal for a repair shop. There are many parts in car that cost far more than $250 lurking. Cars are beyond expensive for someone with a college budget. I don’t think you will get around the 3 hours of labor. The part price maybe but remember you supply it then you pay for all labor associated if defective to then remove/install.

I simply drove my $500 cars (now likely $2000+ ones) till they were unsafe or broken and got another.

I’m unable to determine from your terminology exactly what’s broken, but the attached sketch should resemble your Mazda3 rear suspension and give you an idea of what camber is. I just posted it as an FYI.

I doubt that the shop sent you on your way with a broken suspension part on your car. I think that the rear camber angle might be out of specification. The rear camber is not adjustable on this car but aftermarket adjustable lower control arms are available so that the camber angle can be adjusted.

If there is nothing worn or broken and the rear toe setting is correct I wouldn’t be concerned about the rear camber angle (unless it looked like a demon camber car).

My guess is that the arm in question is not broken. They may be referring to the rear upper control arm, lateral link, etc. and the bushing, or plural, may be beaten out of it which is then allowing the camber to get out of whack.
Damaged bushings or bent components are caused by aged rubber, curb strikes, potholes, collisions, or weak struts; or a combination of any or all of those.

You’re still a student but in the future you are going to find that almost all car repairs are expensive. The later model the car is and/or the more high tech it is the higher the repair costs will be; and it’s not going to get any cheaper.
A control arm with a fixed ball joint for a late model car can easily run 3-400 dollars or more for the part alone. A lowly ball joint for an 80s era Chevy can be had for 10 bucks or so.

Sometimes workarounds can be done on damaged bushings but the problem is finding someone willing to do a workaround. Even then the sum total could make this a wash and make you wish that you had just bought the correct part and been done with it.

There are some unanswered questions here.

What is broken regarding the camber arm? Some more precise descriptive words would be good. Is the part actually fractured? Are there damaged fasteners integral with the part? Is something corroded to damage any adjustability of the part?

Can you find the part that you need in a scrapyard?

If you are wearing out a tire due to misalignment, can you live with that to soften the financial impact by just buying a new tire when needed?

If the “Tube and Lube” shop was able to “force” the alignment back into specification, can you go with that? An alignment every 25,000 is not at all appropriate. I have driven cars to over 100,000 miles without wheel alignments. Except for getting started with dirty work, it is not at all difficult to do that for me. I do my own alignments so if that is needed, it gets done with no financial agonizing. Forcing the wheel back into alignment may be code words for " We tried to take this guy for some money but when we saw that he was a college student with truly little spare money we backed off". The second opinion from another shop does retract somewhat from my suspicions but they might have smelled money too.

Camber out of specification will have a slower effect on tire wearout than the other alignment specifications but if handling is not affected to make you feel that the car is unsafe, then you can monitor your tire wear and deal with it as needed.

If there is a risk of the part failing while driving to cause a crash, then you must repair it but that does not seem to be what you are being told by the people who you are dealing with according to your post. Put that bug in their ears and they just might take it and run with it to get you to spend the money in spite of the financial impact.

“Camber arm” is a slang term for a replacement control arm that is adjustable to correct camber settings on vehicles that didn’t come with adjustable camber.

Why do you think you need an alignment every 25k miles. If Mazda’s require an alignment this often, I will never buy one. Once aligned, a vehicle should hold that alignment for its lifetime unless it suffers a serious curb strike or accident. I have even had some pretty hard curb strikes, deep and large pothole strikes and even a concrete block strike at high speed and not knocked the alignment out.