In this article, we will go over the symptoms of bad steering rack and pinion. What to look for in a bad steering rack and how to check a power steering rack for wear.
What is the function of a steering rack?
Many cars today use what is called steering rack and pinion setup. It is the system that connects your steering wheel to the front wheels of the car. It allows you to turn the wheels left and right. When you turn the steering wheel, it rotates a pinion gear which causes the steering rack to move.
The power steering pump helps you with the right and left movement otherwise turning your wheels will be much more difficult as it used to be in older cars without power steering. Some newer car utilizes electrical power steering instead of hydraulic power steering setup. In other words the steering rack converters the steering wheel revolutions to left and right movement of the steering rack which turns the wheel of the car.
Symptoms of bad steering rack and pinion
One of the most common symptoms of a bad power steering rack is that the steering feels loose and has excessive play. When the power steering rack and pinion wear out you may notice other symptoms such as the wheels do not straighten out after a turn.
- Loose steering
- Steering wheel shakes
- Clunking noise
- Wheel doesn't return to center
- Excess Slack
- Looseness in the steering wheel
- Steering wheel not returning to center after a turn
Excessive Steering Play / Loose Steering
If your steering rack and pinion wear out the steering will feel loose. You will also notice that the car wanders at high speed and is hard to keep it in the lane. Also, every road imperfection causes your car to easily move left to right instead of staying in a straight line.
You may also notice that steering is harder at lower speeds. On top of all these symptoms, you will also notice that the wheels don't return to straight position after making a turn.
Often you may hear the term numb spot. This refers to the play you have in your steering wheel when you move it. The steering wheel moves but the front wheel don't move.
Uneven tire wear
While uneven tire wear can be often caused by bad alignment or wear of other steering components, a bad steering rack can also be the cause for unusual tire wear. Check your tires. Do you see more wear on one side than the other?
Power Steering Leak
A bad steering rack may develop power steering fluid leaks from the O-rings and boots. Do you notice power steering leaks on the ground or have to top off with power steering fluid frequently.
It is possible that your power steering rack is bad. Note that other components can cause power steering leaks such as power steering pump, reservoir or lines.
Noise when turning
Clunking noise or thudding when taking a corner or turning the steering wheel is a common symptom of bad steering and rack system. You may also notice grinding noise when steering due to metal contact of the steering rack or lack of lubrification.
Typically you may hear a thump as you turn for example when getting out or into the driveway. As a steering rack wears out components starts to get loose. That's why you will hear clunking or thudding noise when you turn the wheel.
How to test steering rack and pinion
You may be wondering how to tell if rack and pinion is bad and needs replacing. There is an easy way to check for signs of bad steering rack. Check for play of the steering wheel.
If the steering rack is worn out you will notice the excessive play of the steering wheel. Meaning you can move the steering wheel but the wheels don't move.
If the following examples, you can see how much play should be on a good steering rack (New car with 4750 miles) vs. a bad steering rack (high mileage car).
In one case we had a bad steering rack. The amount of free steering wheel play varies by manufacturer. Call your dealer and ask how much play is allowed for your specific make and model.
Before you jump to the conclusion that the steering rack is the problem, make sure to check inner and outer tie rods for excessive play. Worn tie rods also cause similar symptoms.🔺
Misdiagnosis of a bad steering rack
Symptoms that are similar to that of a bad power steering rack can also be caused by other components:
Tie rods / Struts / Ball Joint
Tie rods may be the cause that you have an excessive play on your steering wheel. Tie rods are directly connected to the power steering rack. They actually wear quite frequently and often need to be replaced around the 75,000-100,000 mile range.
Cars have inner tie rods and outer tie rods. Check both of them for excessive wear. Often you will find that the outer tie rods have become worn. It is common for owners to think that they have a bad steering rack when in reality the tie rods are the problem.
Poor alignment can cause problems such as vehicle pulling to one side or steering not returning to center. Get an alignment done. Many auto repair shops that offer alignment service perform free alignment checks.
Power Steering Pump
If you are having problems with the steering wheel not returning to center, the problem could be a bad power steering pump.
Generally, a power steering pump is not generating enough pressure. This can get tricky to diagnose because poor alignment or worn steering components will exhibit similar symptoms.
To test if the power steering pump is the problem you can connect a pressure gauge in-line between the power steering pump and steering rack. This will allow you to check the pressure that is generated by the power steering pump.
If the pressure is within specs as recommended by your manufacturer, then the Power Steering (PS) pump is good. Power steering pump pressure can range from 200 to 1000 PSI. Replace the power steering pump if it doesn't generate the required pressure.
Other suspension components such as strut supports or worn ball joints can have similar symptoms including that feeling of loose steering.🔺
Average cost to replace a steering rack
The average cost to replace steering rack and pinion on a car range from $500-$2000.
Japanese Cars: $500-$850
European Cars: $1,300 -$2,000
If you are a DIYer you can replace the power steering rack yourself. Typical cost to replace the steering rack yourself is around $250-$400 for parts which you can buy online at a fraction of dealer prices.
Check Prices: Steering Rack and Pinion
If you suspect that the steering rack is going bad, check the steering and suspension components that we mention in this article. You want to rule out the less expensive parts first such as tie rods before you replace the steering rack.
Steering rack failure can cause catastrophic accidents. Your auto insurance company may or may not cover your car if you get in an accident because you neglected a problem.
It is important to get a second opinion from a certified auto mechanic before you start throwing new parts at the car. Even if you plan on fixing your car yourself, always get a second opinion. Stop at your local garage and have the mechanic take your car for a quick drive. A good mechanic should be able to tell you right away what is wrong with your car.