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Top 7 Steering Rack Problems you can Identify [with Videos!]

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"If it ain't broken, don't fix it." Here's a list for you to find out if you need to repair your steering rack!
“If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.”
Here’s some tips and tricks for you to find out if you need to repair your steering rack!

I don’t know about you, but in life, I always try my best to steer (pun intended) away from problems. But hey, sometimes our steering rack just love doing the exact opposite. As much as we don’t like it, steering rack problem are without a doubt, one of the more critical failure because it’s responsible for changing our car’s direction.

A worn steering rack can cause you to lose partial or complete control over your car steering wheel, which can lead to fatal accident.

That goes without saying that steering rack is a major car maintenance procedure and is expensive. It’s definitely not something that you want to “buka first la, then see how it goes”. So the million dollar question is, how can we tell if we need a steering rack repair without removing it from our car?

The good news is, it’s not that hard if you know what to look for. In fact, here are the top 7 most common steering rack problems that you can identify yourself:-

  • Steering fluid leak
  • Unresponsive steering
  • Steering wheel vibration
  • Clunking noise when turning
  • Tight steering wheel
  • Steering wheel not returning
  • Death Wobble

But before we dive into the details, we will need some basic knowledge on the subject itself. In this article, you will learn about:

What is a steering rack?

Steering rack is a set of rack and pinion gear enclosed in a metal casing. They’re kind of a big deal because we can’t change car direction without them.

A high definition picture of a electric power steering rack used in car steering system. You can also see the electric motor attached to it.
Electric power steering rack

Imagine this.

When we want to make a U-turn, we rotate our steering wheel clockwise in a circular motion. The steering rack’s job is to convert this rotational motion into a lateral movement through the rack and pinion gear. Because the steering rack is connected to the car wheels, when it moves left or right, so will the car wheels. Here’s a great video that sums it all up beautifully.

MSPhysics giving us a 360 degrees glimpse at the inner workings of a steering rack.

As you can see, our steering wheel connects to a set of shafts and u-joints down your floor rest, where it will finally meet the steering rack. If you want to know more about how it works, I strongly recommend checking out How Car Steering Works.

Throughout the years, we have seen huge improvements on steering rack designs for better comfort. Generally speaking, we have evolved from using non-power assist steering rack, to hydraulic power assist steering rack and finally to electric power assist steering rack.

Non-Power AssistHydraulic Power AssistElectric Power Assist
Driver’s EffortYESYESYES
Gear ReductionYESYESYES
Extra Support
(Pump / Motor)
NOYESYES
ProgrammabilityNONOYES

Fundamentally, all these steering rack works the same. But, there is a twist! Hydraulic power steering racks and electric power steering racks comes with additional components to give us that extra turning power. One uses hydraulic steering fluid while the other uses sensors and electric motor to give you that extra boost of power to steer your car.

Now why am I telling you all these? Why is that important?

Well, because the issue with the steering rack WILL be different depending on the type of steering rack. Different parts will lead to different kind of failure, and that means that the way you diagnose it will be different. For example, you can get a fluid leak issue in a hydraulic power steering rack, but not on an electric power steering rack. It’s imperative that we first find out what kind of steering rack our car is using before we move forward.


Lastly, it’s important to understand that statement, because diagnosing a car can be very tricky business. Sometimes you may encounter a very rare fault that you will ONLY find in a certain car model. Sometimes a faulty steering rack can exhibit symptoms that are extremely similar to symptom of another faulty part. Over time, you learn to distinguish the tiny differences that separates one fault from the other. It boils down to experience, really. So when in doubt, consult your local mechanic shop.

Without further ado, let’s go right into the top indicators of a steering rack problem.

What are the top 7 steering rack problems?

Steering rack do not have a definitive lifespan. It depends largely on the steering rack design, car model, driving behavior, and road condition. To put in perspective, we have seen steering racks that have failed within a year, but also steering racks that are in perfect working condition even after ten years. But generally, most drivers will have to replace them once or twice throughout their ownership of the car.

If you are wondering whether you need a steering rack repair, we have compiled the top 7 steering rack problems just for you. When you notice any of the symptoms below, it is a good idea to get it checked or replaced.

  • Steering fluid leak
  • Unresponsive steering
  • Steering wheel vibration
  • Clunking noise when turning
  • Tight steering wheel
  • Steering wheel not returning
  • Death wobble

Problem #1: Steering Fluid Leaks

Fluid leak is one of steering rack most common and easily detected symptoms.
Fluid leak is one of steering rack most common and easily detected symptoms.

Source

Image courtesy of Nhohavan

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Let’s start with the easiest steering rack problems to identify – a steering fluid leak.

This steering rack problem is only exclusive to hydraulic power steering racks because non-power assisted steering rack and electric power steering racks do not use any power steering fluid.

So, how do you know if you have a steering fluid leak?

Well, if you find some oil stain in your car park, you know something’s up! But hold your horses, the first thing that you have to do, is to make sure that it is indeed steering fluid. There are plenty of automotive fluid (engine oil, brake fluid, transmission fluid, etc etc) in your car and maybe it’s not your steering fluid that is leaking. Although yes, you still have a leak somewhere and you need to get that fixed.

Anyway, the easiest way to know for sure, is to take a peek at your steering fluid reservoir. Is it within the optimal fluid level as specified by the car manufacturer? If it’s not within the “MIN” and “MAX” level indicator on the reservoir, ask yourself this… “When was the last time I top it up?” Steering fluid is not something that you have to top up every other months. If it’s running low, you can start to suspect that you have a steering fluid leak.

As a rule of thumb, if you constantly have to top up your steering fluid every month or more frequent than that, you know have a leak somewhere.

Now, huge emphasis on the word “somewhere”. Because a steering fluid leak doesn’t automatically mean that you need a new steering rack. The leak can be coming from many parts. The most common steering fluid leaks will come from…

  • Steering rack
  • Steering pump
  • Rubber hose and tubings

To check for a leak, all you need is just a pair of good eyes and know where to look. If you can find the source, you know what needs to be fixed.

  • Let the car cool for at least an hour. It’s very important to avoid burning yourself.
  • Check the floor and see if you can spot any fluid drips.
  • Open up the hood and see if you can spot any wet components.
  • Try to inspect the parts close to the wet components to see if it’s leaking from the part itself, or dripping from above.
  • Otherwise, jack your car up. Place a rock at the rear wheel to prevent it from rolling. Remember, safety first.
  • Bring a torchlight and crawl under the car.
  • Again, try to find any wet components.
  • You can also wear a glove and press onto the rubber hoses and see if they are hard and flaky. Rubber lose their elasticity over time and that could cause leaks. If they are, get it changed.

Problem #2: Unresponsive Steering

Can you notice the difference with and without steering play?

Source

All credit goes to fiero880 for making this amazing video about Steering Wheel Play

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When you are driving on the road, try to feel if your car is responding to your steering wheel. If you turn the steering wheel (slightly), but your car still cruises straight ahead without changing direction, you have what we call – an unresponsive steering.

In Malaysia, we call it “free play”.

If you suspect you have this steering rack problem, try the following steps to diagnose your steering rack.

  • Park your car in a safe place.
  • After that, make sure that your car wheels are straight. Do this by returning your steering wheel to the original 12 o’clock position.
  • Switch on the ignition engine.
  • Make sure your handbrake is activated.
  • Then, you can rock your steering wheel back and forth between 10 and 2 o’clock position.
  • Try to feel whether your steering wheel. Does it feel too light at certain spot?
  • Also, with your car stationary, I find it helpful to be looking at your car wheels while rocking your steering wheel too. See if the car wheels move when you turn your steering wheel.

Some people find it easier to diagnose when your car is moving. But again, remember to prioritise safety.

  • First, get to a safe road to test it out. Ideally, the road is straight, wide and has plenty of space.
  • After that, make sure that your car wheels are straight. Do this by returning your steering wheel to the original 12 o’clock position.
  • Initiate into “D” gear and drive slowly.
  • You can then rock your steering wheel back and forth between 9 to 3 o’clock position.
  • Try to feel whether your steering wheel changes your car trajectory.

If you have an unresponsive steering, the steering wheel will feel very light. It is as if the steering wheel is disconnected from the car. Also, your car will not (or barely) change direction.

This is annoying and dangerous to drive because you cannot make proper changes to the car trajectory as you desire. An unresponsive steering is usually a result of wear and tear on the steering rack. It will require some special tools and technical know-how to repair. Speak to a steering rack repair specialist near you if you have this problem.

Problem #3: Steering Wheel Vibration

The video shows steering wheel shaking at 65 mph, which is believed to be a hub centric ring issue, not steering rack. But, it’s useful to give you an idea of how steering wheel vibration looks like.

Source

Thank you, 987waves for sharing this video on Steering Wheel Vibration

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If you feel that your steering wheel is shaking, it could potentially be a worn steering rack problem.

The vibration is especially noticeable when you are driving on uneven roads, like on a construction road. You don’t have to speed for the vibration to manifest itself, just regular driving speed would do.

A quick tip.

You should feel most of the shake coming from the steering wheel itself. Remember to pay very close attention when diagnosing this because the road is also uneven, and it can cause the car to shake as well. People will often confuse it between the two.

So what signs should you look for?

What we always try to look out for, is the severity of the shake. Some vibration are just minor steering wheel shake that you can barely feel, some are so strong that you almost have to grab the steering wheel tightly so that it doesn’t move. Also, we try to listen for any accompanying noise.

Problem #4: Clunking Noise when Turning

A clunking noise is not a life threatening issue, but it’s always a good idea to get it resolved.

Source

Video credit goes to Heris Yovani Mendez for demonstrating Steering Wheel Clunking Noise in a clear and concise manner.

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A clunking or knocking sound is another sign of a steering rack problem.

The clunking noise will sound like someone knocking on your door but from below your car – “kok!”. I guess it sounds a little creepy when I put it that way, but I hope you get the idea! When you turn your steering wheel, try to listen for this knocking or clunking noise. It normally can be heard close to where your foot rest.

This is not to be confused by a rapid clicking noise caused by drive shaft when you turn your car. The clunking noise should knock once and then have pauses before another knock! On some cases, you can hear it again when you return the steering wheel to the original position. If you do, you can start to suspect that you have a worn steering rack.

However, it is worth point out that diagnosing based on noise alone can be a very tricky business. This is because there are so many different type of noise and where they could come from, which indicate a bad strut, mounting, and etc. It also depends on your car model and the types of steering rack it uses.

If you also notice any of the symptoms above, it helps to make a good guess whether your steering rack is faulty. This clunking noise is a good indication of a worn steering rack. But, we do recommend that you seek professional opinion before concluding the diagnosis.

Problem #5: Tight Steering Wheel

A tight steering wheel can come in many form. This one demonstrates a tight steering wheel, specifically in one direction.

Source

All credit goes to Dayan for the video about Tight Steering Wheel.

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Power steering rack is meant to make steering easier and comfortable. It should feel effortless when you steer your car even though cars weighs over 1000 kilograms! If you have to wrestle to turn the steering wheel, it is very likely that you are in a very tight(pun intended) situation – like a steering rack problem.

A tight steering wheel failure mode can be found on both hydraulic and electric power steering system. It’s worth point out that steering rack may not be the culprit here. It could also be caused by steering pumps, motor, electronics failure, and etc.

Here’s an interesting fact.

There are different type of tightness. Which means you may feel different severity of tightness, and at different circumstances. Just to name a few, the video above describes tightness only in one direction; Some tightness can be felt on and off; Some tightness feels a lot heavier than others.

Different type of steering wheel tightness could indicate failures on different component. The sucker punch is that sometimes the differences are small and it’s difficult to convey a feeling into words. But, that’s exactly why we have steering rack specialist to help you on this. Although you should still try to identify the tightness and convey it to your local mechanic because it is always helpful to hear the car owner’s input. You are the most familiar with the car after-all!

Anyway, here’s how you can test for the stiffness.

  • First, switch on your car engine.
  • Let the engine idle for a minute to warm up.
  • Then, move the steering wheel from lock to lock position for 10 times to warm up the power steering system.
  • Feel the steering effort. Take a mental note of it.
  • Keep your handbrake on and your gear in “P”.
  • Raise the engine RPM to 3000 ~ 4000 rpm.
  • Move the steering wheel from lock to lock.
  • Feel the steering effort again. Take another mental note of it.

Well, the good news is that a tight steering will not stall the wheel completely. You can still drive your car although it will require a lot more effort. However, it can become dangerous depending on how severe it is and how strong you are.

But either way, you should get it fixed as soon as possible. I do recommend that you do not go on long distance drive until you get it fixed because of something we call “steer fatigue”. Imagine lifting and holding a cup of water, it is so easy! But try holding it up for more than an hour, it gets very heavy even though it is the exact same weight as before.

Fatigue accumulate exponentially over time.

Driving long distance is very tiring. Adding steer fatigue into the equation is just a risky business. So again, get it changed before making that trip down to Penang!

Problem #6: Steering Wheel Not Returning

Steering wheel not returning can be tiring (not to mention dangerous!) if you constantly have to pull it back manually.

Source

A huge shout out to JF Vids for sharing how a Sticky Steering looks and feel like.

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Upon turning our steering wheel, it should return back to the original 12 o’clock position.

Again, it can vary in severity. For example, some steering wheel don’t return at all; Some will return, but only back to 9 or 3 o’clock position; Some returns, but very jaggedly and it doesn’t feel smooth.

You will see this more in hydraulic power steering system. This steering rack problem could be caused by a clogged up power steering system, or maybe even a car mis-alignment issue. Based on past experiences, you will be surprised to learn that control arm could also be causing this issue (although rarely).

If you want to reproduce the symptom, you can try the following steps:

  • First, get to a spacious road to test it out.
  • Start your engine.
  • Initiate into “D” gear and drive slowly, don’t accelerate.
  • Make sure that you have plenty of space to maneuver your car.
  • Turn your steering wheel.
  • Let go, but be ready to grab it again (remember that your steering wheel does not return).
  • As you let go, notice how your steering wheel returns (if any).
  • Grab hold of your steering wheel and adjust your car trajectory.
  • Repeat until you are certain.

Problem #7: Death Wobble

Do not attempt to drive if your car have this issue.

Source

This video by dot choi showcases a rather interesting power steering problem.

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Oh boy… It’s either your steering wheel is possessed, or you have a serious steering rack problem. Doesn’t matter possessed or not, I think it’s smart that we DO NOT drive under this condition and call your car mechanic immediately (not an exorcist).

This issue is more commonly found in electric power steering system and would usually require a replacement instead of a repair. Needlessly to say, it’s going to cost quite a bit.

How long does a steering rack repair takes?

I would recommend that you allocate a day (or two) for steering rack replacement. Dismantling and installing steering rack can be very labor intensive. Some car model do take more time than the other because every car configuration is set up differently. This all depends on the car brand, model and year.

Furthermore, you have to consider if your mechanics are available and whether they can source the steering rack parts. 

Changing a steering rack can either be hard or crazy hard.

Source

A big shoutout to EricTheCarGuy for letting us use his Toyota 4 Runner Steering Rack Replacement video.

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If you love to be in the know-how, you can always check out the Toyota 4 Runner Steering Rack Replacement video above by EricTheCarGuy. That helps to give you a good idea of what needs to be done. Again, this video is not absolute and should not be used as a manual.

Getting a steering rack repair and replaced is definitely quite a task to conquer. As much of a D-I-Y person I am, I don’t recommend doing it yourself because A LOT could go wrong if you don’t know what you’re doing.

What to check after the repair?

There are a few things that you absolutely cannot miss out on after you change your steering rack. Otherwise, your car won’t run properly!

First of all, remember to check your steering fluid level and make sure they are between the manufacturer recommended level. This is because steering fluid leaks out during steering rack replacement. Without the fluid, the steering rack cannot function properly.

In addition to that, make sure that you get a car alignment after changing your steering rack. Otherwise, your car will not drive straight. Imagine needing to turn your steering wheel to 3 o’clock position in order to have your car move straight. Absolutely bonkers and definitely unsafe!

Also, I recommend staying away from DIY manual alignment at home unless you know what you are doing. Car alignment are relatively cheap anyway in comparison to the benefits that it can bring! You can get it at a modest price of +-RM 50.

Steering rack repair and installation is labor intensive and can take some time.
“Your car is ready.” Steering rack is one of the more expensive, but also more rewarding car repair experience. You can feel HUGE differences before and after the repair.

The Bottom Line

Steering rack allows your car to steer and changes direction. A bad steering rack will compromise your steering control. This endangers the safety of yourself and others on the road. On some cases, it can lead to a fatal accident.

If you are still not sure if you have a steering rack problem, feel free to speak to D S Auto to get a reliable diagnostic for your car steering system. Established in 1991, we are a repair specialist that have more than two decades of experience dealing with virtually all car models in Malaysia!

Anyway, enough about us. We’d love to hear from you. Have you had your steering rack replaced before? What was the issue and how did you find out that you have a steering rack problem? Leave a comment down below and we’ll get back to you.

Until then, drive safe and drive smart!

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Hai, replace steering rack for my exora 3 time in 3 month. All same problem, leaks at the same place, boot. Why this happen? Is that steering rack (new) is the problem or, cause from other parts.. thanks

    1. Hi Mr. Ahmad, sorry that you have to go through that. To answer your question, yes. The leaking issue is most likely caused by the new steering rack that you’ve just installed.

      Here’s what we would do in a situation like that. The first thing we would do is make sure it’s leaking from the steering rack. Sometimes, the leak might come from above and drips down onto the steering rack. Which means that the steering rack is wet, but it might be a faulty steering pump (for example).

      If you know it’s the steering rack, then I would pay great attention to the grade and brand of the steering rack that you’re using, especially if it’s OEM or reconditioned. The quality of raw material and the technique for repair plays a huge part in the longevity of your steering rack. For example, we know for a fact that you can get a part for $1 OR $10. The price difference can be huge, but there’s a reason for that.

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