Roadways across America are mostly thawed out and revealing their scars and wheel busting craters. Whether you are buying a new car, about to get new tires or facing potentially big repair bills, we have some advice for you.

But first, what actually causes potholes? The breakdown of road surfaces is a result of the expansion and contraction of the asphalt from heating up in the sun and and cooling down in the cold, coupled with the stress of supporting vehicles day after day. Plus, the use of road salt plays havoc on asphalt. But, to date, we haven't found anything that works as well to make a snowy, icy road surface safe enough to drive on.

Buying A New Car

Auto companies have become quite enamored in recent years with equipping passenger cars with low-profile tires - -tires with hardly any sidewalls and therefore much less rubber between the rim and the road. They look great, especially with cool wheel covers and they can add a mile or so to your fuel economy. But on neglected roads in Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, etc. -- states in cold weather regions -- such tires can make for kidney busting rides.

Worse, the combination of potholes and low-profile tires can cost you big money. Potholes can not only bust these thin sidewalls wide open, but also bend the rim of the tire. A new rim and tire for a new Volkswagen Jetta, for example, is about $500.00. Ouch.

These low-profile tires are almost always more expensive than tires with wider sidewalls that will provide more cushion on rough roads. Indeed, if you were buying a loaded Volkswagen Jetta, you'd get these so-called performance tires as part of the premium-priced package. What to think about when you are choosing the car and finalizing a transaction? Ask the dealer to clad your new car with a tire that is more rugged for the roads where you live. You can go to a website such as www.tirerack.com, plug in your car and the site will dish out all the tire options available for your car.



Since, the dealership is going to re-sell those tires, the sales associate should be willing to give you a hefty credit toward the tires you want. They might even swap out for the less expensive, and more appropriate, tires without charge.

Be forewarned, though, that you will almost certainly need new rims to go with those tires. Still, the unused rims on the performance tires you don't want are pricier and can be resold with the tires. So, drive a hard bargain on the swap so it doesn't cost you anything. Another possibility -- ask your dealer if he has a set of "take-offs" he can put on your car, whether you are buying a new car or just looking to replace the tires you have. "Take-offs" are tires that were put on another car at the factory, but were replaced with a higher-priced set of tires at some customer's request. These are unused tires that will be cheaper than buying new.

Buying New Tires

Apply the learning in the new car buying advice above to buying a new set of tires. If your car has been riding extra hard on the moonscape that is your state highway and local roadways, see about ditching the "performance" tires for a set of all-season tires with more rubber. But you will be buying either a new set of rims or a used set of rims from ebay.com, www.craigslist.com or perhaps the local auto junkyard. If you buy used from a local retailer or junkyard, see about getting a credit for swapping your old ones.

Checking Your Car For Damage From Potholes

As many of you know, vehicles sustain damage from driving through this rough terrain. How do you know if your vehicle has been damaged by potholes and, if so, what is the cost of repair? Here are some tips to help identify any problems and the expense of repair.

Steering Wheel Shimmy

This condition is characterized by a quick back and forth motion of the steering wheel at a particular speed or all the time. If shimmy only shows up at a particular speed, chances are that a wheel weight was thrown off from the shock of going through a pothole, resulting in wheel imbalance. If the wheel is shaking at all speeds and intensifies as you go faster, most likely either a wheel is bent or the steering linkage is loose.

Wheel balancing costs about $10-$20 per wheel. Ask if the shop offers lifetime balance. If they do, it's worth having all four wheels balanced so that you can have the tires rotated and rebalanced free of charge every 6K miles or 6 months, whichever comes first. This maintenance practice promotes longer tire life.

Does Your Vehicle Wander?

Whenever you hit a bump, the vehicle either jumps left or right in an uncontrolled manner. This condition is often caused by worn ball joint/s, bad shocks or struts and/or strut mounts, or a broken swaybar or links. Repairs can run anywhere from $120 for replacement of one ball joint to $2,000 for complete suspension rebuild. The best way to determine exact pricing is to get the vehicle up on a lift and have a front-end inspection performed.

Does Your Vehicle Take Bumps Hard?

This condition is an indicator of bad shocks or struts, or broken spring/s. Approximate costs for repairs are as follows:

- Shock/strut replacement: This repair can run anywhere from $150 for four (4) shocks to $1200 if the system is equipped with an air-ride suspension (air filled struts or springs).

- Spring replacement: The cost varies depending on vehicle and system design. Because spring replacement is labor intensive and can take much longer than what the labor guide calls for (due to rust and corrosion), spring replacement is usually priced on a time and material basis. I have seen situations where the labor guide calls for a $200 per axle charge, but the actual cost runs much higher due to frame damage, rust, and other unforeseen complications.

Does Your Vehicle Pull To One Side Or Is The Steering Wheel Crooked?

The vehicle needs a wheel alignment. Most vehicles today have four-wheel alignment capability. If the fix requires only a simple mechanical adjustment of the system, the repair will usually cost $90 - $150.

If special kits have to be installed to make mechanical adjustment possible, you
can add $30 - $100 per wheel, depending on the cost of the kit and the additional
labor required to install it.

Does The Whole Vehicle Vibrate Under Acceleration?

Drivetrain vibration can usually be attributed to a bent driveshaft, a worn CV joint, or transmission damage. The fixes and their approximate costs are as follows:

- Half shaft replacement: This repair runs from $200 to $500 per side for parts and labor, which does not include wheel alignment.

- CV Joint: If a CV Joint is bad, it's usually cheaper to replace the whole shaft with a rebuilt unit than to replace the CV Joint. Why? Because the parts and labor to rebuild a shaft is higher than a rebuilt replacement, and most rebuilt shafts carry a lifetime warranty.

- Transmission replacement: The cost can run anywhere from $2500 for a standard FWD automatic to $7000 or higher for some 4WD vehicles that might have the transfer case attached to them.

On a final note regarding pothole carnage: A recent article from the Insurance Information Institute (III) stated that pothole damage might be covered under your collision or comprehensive insurance. If you have damage due to a severe pothole, check your insurance policy before paying out of pocket for the repairs because they may be covered after you satisfy the deductible (which, in most cases, is much less than the repair cost).

'Til next time...Keep Rollin'