Fatal flaws: five dangerous car problems you should repair immediately

Let's face it: you've probably put off some car repairs. Small problems can be easy to...

Let's face it: you've probably put off some car repairs. Small problems can be easy to ignore. But while a broken stereo or a wobbling arm rest is an inconvenience, certain car problems can be downright dangerous if ignored. If you experience any of these problems, find a mechanic immediately.

Ball Joints: The ball joints are the pivots that let your front wheels steer. These joints support the weight of the car and keep the front wheels attached. A bad ball joint makes clicking, snapping or popping noises when you turn the steering wheel, or creaking, squeaking or thudding noises as you come to a stop. When ball joints fail, your wheels may fall off, which is why most mechanics won't let a car with bad ball joints leave the shop.

Wheel Bearings: All four of your car's wheels spin on greased bearings. A worn-out bearing makes a grinding or howling sound that grows louder and higher-pitched with speed, and is loudest on curves -- a bad left-side bearing will be loudest on right hand turns and vice-versa. Bearings fail when they run out of grease or get contaminated with debris. The increased friction burns up the bearing, bringing the affected wheel to a sudden stop -- shocking at 15 miles per hour, disastrous at 65. Halt this problem before it halts you.

CV Joints: In a front-wheel-drive car, the "Continuous Velocity" (CV) joints send power from the engine to the wheels. Like wheel bearings, CV joints fail when they run out of lubricant or get contaminated. Listen for popping or clicking noises during tight parking lot turns, or low-pitched humming at highway speeds. If ignored, the joint can lock up, bringing the wheels to a sudden stop, or break apart, flinging metal pieces into the engine or brakes and causing major damage. Either way, a broken CV joint can't transmit engine power to the wheels, leaving you stranded.

Brake Problems: It's obvious why you should keep your brakes in top working order. Among dangerous car problems, bad brakes top the list. Any time you hear or feel something unusual with your brakes, you should have them checked, but a few symptoms are especially urgent. If your brakes start making loud metal-on-metal noises, if the brake pedal suddenly gets very hard or very soft, or if the "BRAKE" warning light on your dashboard comes on, get to a mechanic immediately.

Oil Light: The red oil light on your dash doesn't mean it's time for an oil change -- it means your car is low on oil. Driving for more than a few miles like this can permanently destroy your engine, so as soon as the light comes on find a garage or gas station and add a quart of oil. If the light comes on frequently, you're either burning oil or leaking it. You can keep up with slow leaks by checking the oil frequently and adding as needed, but see your mechanic if you're losing oil fast.

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