by Matt Konkle
Quadratec Channel Editor
Severe steering vibration is certainly no fun when you are driving around in your Jeep Wrangler JL—especially if it seemingly comes out of nowhere and causes you to feel like you are losing control of the vehicle.
So if you are one of the ‘lucky’ ones who has experienced this issue, commonly called “death wobble”, then definitely keep an eye on your mailbox over the next few weeks.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles recently announced they have determined a ‘fix’ for the steering vibration issue plaguing some JL Wrangler drivers, and Friday began mailing out notifications to customers.
The company plans to install new, stronger, steering dampeners in affected vehicles to hopefully eliminate that excessive road vibration.
”This rarely occurring phenomenon is not peculiar to any one vehicle and is not a safety issue. FCA US strongly objects to any insinuation otherwise,” the automaker said in a statement. “There is no loss of steering or braking — two key functions that help ensure vehicle safety. The steering-system design associated with this condition affords unique capability that is greatly valued by our customers, and the market."
The remedy comes at a time when FCA is facing a lawsuit in federal court in Detroit which claims the automaker “delivered a defectively designed and/or manufactured front axle and damping system" on the Wrangler, and knowingly mislead the public about the issue. The lawsuit also states that steering dampeners are nothing more than ‘Band-Aids’ that only mask—and not solve—the issue.
FCA is seeking dismissal of the lawsuit.
Mark Chernoby, FCA’s Chief Technical Officer, told the Detroit Free Press that front end vibrations are not unique to Wrangler, and can happen to any solid front axle vehicle. He also said the complaints about "death wobble" only represented about 2% of the approximately 370,000 new Wrangler JLs built as of June. Chernoby did not dismiss the concerns, saying “any steering type vibration will make people concerned for sure.”
The Wrangler uses this type of axle primarily because it provides better articulation in off-road situations than does an independent suspension, and better protection for the drivetrain when it strikes rocks and other hard obstacles.
"Death Wobble" generally occurs in these solid-axle vehicles when a tire catches a groove, pothole, or some other bump in the road when traveling at higher speeds, and Chernoby said there are two ways to stop the vibration once it starts: Slow down or speed up.
“If you bang (the front end) with that frequency it’ll just sit there and (vibrate) forever. It won’t slow down, it won’t dissipate, and that’s essentially what we’re talking about here with the vibration in the new Wrangler,” Chernoby said. "When you hit a bump in the road, if everything is just right, this suspension can set off that resonance and what we started seeing is as soon as it got cold this past fall, early winter, we started seeing complaints."
Cherboby said FCA engineers found the issue had to do with air getting into the original damper on the front suspension of the Wrangler JL during cold temperatures, when oil becomes "thick like molasses" and air bubbles take a long time to get out of the oil.
"We were losing the damping on some of these parts," he said.
While installing a new stabilizer may improve a vehicle's ride, many in the aftermarket Jeep industry definitely recommend checking other steering components should 'death wobble' become a problem. Things like the vehicle's track bar, tie rod and tie rod ends, ball joints, upper and lower control arms, all bushings and wheel bearings should all be examined for wear, damage or missing parts.
It is also important to note that, while the term “death wobble” can certainly invoke some anxiety in drivers, there has never been a fatality attributed to the problem, nor a recall issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In fact, NHTSA last did a study on the 2005-10 model year Jeeps and found only two crashes blamed on “death wobble”, with just one listed as causing some sort of non-fatal injury. In contrast, Jeep sold 542,134 Wranglers during that time frame.
FCA says its mailing campaign to Wrangler JL owners is called a customer satisfaction note — not a safety recall. Customers should receive a letter in the mail telling them they can go to a dealership and get the new damper free of charge. FCA said Wranglers not yet sold have already been receiving the new part.