Tech / Tech Articles

A Quick Guide to Diagnosing 10 Common Steering Issues

Sloppy steering giving you fits?

Before you curse your steering system, you need to pinpoint the actual cause of problem. Poor steering may actually be the result of suspension system issues, worn tires, or other non-steering system inadequacies.

Then again, maybe it is your steering system.

Bottom line is, you need to track down the root cause of the problem before you begin to fix poor steering performance. We’ve covered oversteer and understeer as separate issues, but we’ve included 10 other common steering problems and their likely causes below. By identifying possible trouble spots, you can stop cursing, and start curing, your steering woes.

Problem: Hard steering

Description: Hard steering is a condition in which you must exert excessive effort to turn the steering wheel.

  • Possible Cause #1: Friction or too little clearance in the steering gear, steering linkage or ball joints.
  • Possible Cause #2: Low or uneven tire pressure.
  • Possible Cause #3: Excessive positive caster on wheels/tires, which also causes the steering wheel to return too fast.
  • Possible Cause #4: Power steering is inoperative; however, you can eliminate power steering as the culprit by raising the front end of your vehicle off the floor and starting the engine. If the steering wheel still turns easily, the steering is not at fault.
  • Possible Cause #5: Body or frame is bent or misaligned.

Problem: Excessive Play in Steering

Excessive play occurs when there is extra movement in the steering wheel without response or movement in the front wheels. Too much play can reduce your ability to steer accurately, or even control the vehicle.

  • Possible Cause #1: Looseness in steering gear.
  • Possible Cause #2: Looseness in steering linkage.
  • Possible Cause #3: Worn ball joints or steering knuckle.
  • Possible Cause #4: Loose wheel bearing.

Problem: Steering Wander

Wander is a vehicle’s tendency to to drift from one side of the road to the other.

  • Possible Cause #1: Mismatched tires or uneven tire pressure.
  • Possible Cause #2: Linkage binding or insufficiently lubricated.
  • Possible Cause #3: Steering gear binding or insufficiently lubricated.
  • Possible Cause #4: Excessive wheel toe-out.
  • Possible Cause #5: Looseness in steering gear or linkage.
  • Possible Cause #6: Chassis/suspension issues, specifically loose ball joints or leaf springs.
  • Possible Cause #7: Uneven load in vehicle.

Problem: Vehicle Pulls to One Side

In this scenario, you’ll notice your vehicle always pulling to one side during normal driving.

  • Possible Cause #1: The most common cause is uneven tire pressure.
  • Possible Cause #2: Vehicle out of alignment, typically uneven caster or camber.
  • Possible Cause #3: Tire wheel bearing.
  • Possible Cause #4: Uneven, sagging, or broken springs.
  • Possible Cause #5: Uneven torsion bar adjustment.
  • Possible Cause #6: Brakes dragging.

Problem: Vehicle Pulls to One Side While Braking

If your vehicle swerves to one side while braking, look at one of these possible causes:

  • Possible Cause #1: Uneven tire pressure.
  • Possible Cause #2: Vehicle out of alignment, typically uneven caster or camber.
  • Possible Cause #3: Brakes grabbing.

Problem: Steering Shimmy

Shimmy is basically the wobbling of your front wheel on its steering axis, leading to a distinctive side-to-side shake at the front end of your vehicle.

  • Possible Cause #1: Uneven or low tire pressure.
  • Possible Cause #2: Loose steering gear or linkage.
  • Possible Cause #3: Loose ball joints.
  • Possible Cause #4: Front springs are too soft.
  • Possible Cause #5: Incorrect or uneven camber.
  • Possible Cause #6: Wheel imbalance.
  • Possible Cause #7: Worn tires or irregular tire tread.

Problem: Wheel Tramp

Wheel tramp is the hopping up and down of your wheel at higher speeds. In addition to any of the possible causes listed under shimmy, here are a few more possible contributing factors:

  • Possible Cause #1: Wheels out of balance.
  • Possible Cause #2: Excessive wheel runout.
  • Possible Cause #3: Defective shocks.

Problem: Steering Kickback

Kickback is a sharp or rapid movement by the steering wheel everytime the front tires hit a hole or bump in the road. Although some kickback are normal and unavoidable, excessive kickback can be caused by:

  • Possible Cause #1: Low or uneven tire pressure.
  • Possible Cause #2: Sagging springs.
  • Possible Cause #3: Defective shocks.
  • Possible Cause #4: Looseness in steering gear or linkage.

Problem: Poor Steering Wheel Returnability

The phrase “poor returnability” is used to describes a condition in which the steering wheel returns slowly to the straight-ahead position after a turn. Typically, the wheel will return to center position once the driver releases it. If return is slow, or requires you to manually move the steering wheel back to center, you should focus on these areas:

  • Possible Cause #1: Friction in your steering system — steering gear, linkage, etc.
  • Possible Cause #2: Friction in suspension system requiring lubrication or replacement of components.
  • Possible Cause #3: Excessive negative camber.
  • Possible Cause #4: Issues within power steering system.

Problem: Tire Squeal on Turns

This self-explanatory problem is usually caused by taking turns at excessively high speeds. Sound like anyone you know? Sinner.

If, for some reason, this doesn’t sound like you, here are a few more possible causes:

  • Possible Cause #1: Low or uneven tire pressure.
  • Possible Cause #2: Improper wheel alignment.
  • Possible Cause #3: Worn tires.
Source: Automotive Mechanics, Tenth Edition.
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27 Comments

  1. Mastermech48 says:

    Tire Tramp. This condition is almost an exclusive imbalance situation. In a fully balanced state the rotating action of the tire will not produce any displacement in any direction. The off center addition of weight now has the potential to induce vibration in a rotational environment. The density of the added mass and it’s distance from the center of designed rotation and rotational speed will determine the severity of the imbalance. The addition of a shock absorber will only attempt to limit the severity of the wheels’ movement. Good, bad or no shock, the imbalance must be corrected.

  2. The cause of big accidents is sometimes the rough and unpaired alignment. this is an important factor to over all balancing and well performance for your vehicle. Please don’t compromise if you feel bit uncomfortable to handle your staring and tire balancing. Visit the nearest mechanic to repair ASAP.

  3. Gail Wright says:

    I am having this problem now. Turning any corner is hard to steer and just plain driving straight is hard also. The engine has shut down too when this happens. I was lucky as I was able to complete the turn and steer on to the side of the road and out of traffic. Will take to mechanic ASAP.

  4. I have a 2013 Ford E350 Class C motorhome I have put upper and lower ball all bushings and front end parts heavy duty damper with spring lined up tires have proper air everything I know of I’ve done check steering shaft U-joint seem to be working properly someone said to drop my can you give me Caster back as far as I can get it and then someone said to just my worm gear in my gearbox which I have never worked on that before the problem is it drifts and it’s not very comfortable to drive it does Wonder a bit

    • Philip Erwin says:

      I drove 1 ton Ford’s in a fleet.
      The era of your motor home chassis.
      Quite a lot to handle in high wind and slickery.
      It was systemic and Ford made lots of repairs.
      Skip
      Cruise control for circumstances.

      • Philip Erwin says:

        Maybe change to model with heavy duty king pin suspension and lots of greased, pivots and ball joints?
        Then that’s 700 dollars a tire. Detroit and or Chalmers or New process then maybe
        Fuel vs.least bad frowns per state or province.
        I saw median strip bridge hazard of posts unzip a aluminum motor home right between the seats.
        At 75 it was a mortal toothpick explosion

  5. Rene Robinett says:

    I have a 2009 Dodge Diesel Ram 2500. When the recall work (N49) Left outer tie rod was done mileage 67,800. (a error was made) : Drag link ends were very far off being aligned to each other, they were 90+ degrees rotated away from each other, Error found at 82,500 mileage. In the interim of this, at mileage 71,054 steering complaint, result was told due to tires needing replaced, at 79,680 steering complaint, at 80,147 inner and outter drag links, outter drag link bracket, adjuster tubes & Steering gear replaced. 80,920 steering stabilizer, trac bar – mopar parts & carli ball joints installed. ( It was recommended after market ball joints would correct the issues.) 81,315 Steering gear replaced again.(82,500 error found) at 82,655 performed a new N49 recall. 83,237 left tie rod replaced from N49 recall again drag link and brackets. During this time my truck would not fall in specification on the front end alignment, so forth I took it to a shop that was equipped with the equipment that the others didn’t have for an alignment. It’s better than what it’s been, on a nice road it goes straight down the road, but on an uneven road it feels like a bouncing ball and the left front end feels weak. Prior to the recall work I had no issues.

    • Philip Erwin says:

      Drag link R and R, always needs a new pitman arm on the steering gearbox. And spot on center on the splines.

  6. Philip Erwin says:

    I remember when I was about 19y.o. in the
    Late 1970’s, there were [Bear]chassis/alignment companies.
    The machine even had a cuddly little cub
    For the logo. Some modern suspensions with transverse[side mounted]Engine/transmissions can shift offcenter from violent side deflections like large potholes or curbs causing bent steer wheels or tie rod shafts and strut rod bend of a few degrees.
    Then attempts and repeated steering and suspension parts being guessing at the problem.
    I had a former circle track chassis guy align my 60’s GM coupe after complete front end repair following icy Monday morning and no stop into a 18 wheeler at a very red light.
    Frame repair and all new after this man’s
    Help and the car handle like new on the 10am vacant interstate with the Speedo wound up around 15mph. I tell you that was eerie without new window deltas and rubber trim.
    Please be honest about those bumps that did not seem to bad, just because it still rolled to your destination.

    • Philip Erwin says:

      [Deltas?]well the 64 A body GMs
      Did have wing windows.
      She was a sweetheart that paid for my wife kids and her parents to move to Texas.
      Her buyer eliminated the freeway
      Stability she had by installing hair shocks.
      All that improved trw/moog out the [window]. : (

  7. Philip Erwin says:

    And that knowledgeable chassis guy did
    Let on that when John Delorean approached GM corporate, the 64 had been drafting board for an inline 6.
    Repairing the stress crack in common, facilitated correct geometry for my
    Reduced 9 to 1, LT1. 250 ponies is pretty snazzy at the rear, for sure.

  8. I drive an 08 GMC Sierra and when I turn the wheel either direction while driving it acts like it’s pushing a break and it gets difficult to move forward or reverse I don’t know what the problem is maybe the hub assembly?

  9. Bob Graham says:

    what about a toyota yaris 2007 that feels like it wanders or maybe more correctly “shifts” only when turning at a faster speed on large radius turns like a on ramp, most of the time when it goes over a bump like a joint in the road?

  10. brandi s nickerson says:

    hello this is brandi, im having a few problems with my 2004 chevy aveo. 1ST problem longest problem ive had- when I back up in reverse and turn at a certain angle it pops when I stop to hard it pops…. 2ND when im COASTING meaning im not touching the brakes or gas pedal there is a loud RATTILING under the front end sound like its coming from the front driver side. (could be wrong)… 3RD when im driving at high speeds of 50-70 mph I get this shimmy shake in the steering wheel itll come go come go then when I HIT THE BRAKE PEDAL TO STOP IT WILL (JERK) TO THE LEFT WHEN I LET OFF OF THE BRAKE PEDAL IT JERKS TO THE RIGHT AND ITS EVERYTIME I HIT AND COME OFF THE BRAKE PEDAL. PLEASE IM IN NEED OF SOME ANSWERS. IVE HAD MY CAR SINCE MARCH 9TH 2018 IT HAD 100,043 MILES ON IT WHEN I LEASED IT. IT HAS 133,459 MILES ON IT NOW. IVE PUT BRAND NEW INNER & OUTER TIE RODS ON BOTH SIDES BRAND NEW ROTORS BRAKES STRUTS SWAY BARS 1 NEW CONTROL ARM. YOU CAN EMAIL ME AT Flowerladie28@gmail.com please help me.

  11. Randy Pettit says:

    I have a 78 chevy k20 it currently has 38.5 x 14.5 tires. The turn radius is almost non existent. Any ideas what the culprit could be? Are the tires to big or to wide?

  12. Adam macrae says:

    I can only turn steering wheel 3 and a half turns right and two and a half turn right ???

  13. I had work done last year on my steering for a really loose steering wheel – was told it was 3 of my 4 tie rods, bearings or bushings or something like that, and my steering box. I picked it up and all was fine on Feb 6, 2019. I had to drop it off again the other day because the steering has become loose again – worse than it was last year. I was told last time due to the severity that the steering box was likely the main culprit but they weren’t sure until they worked on it and they did confirm it. If my ball joints were going, they would have likely noticed wear on them last year like they did the tie rods. Now, interestingly, the last thing they did last year was the alignment. I was told to get the truck that day only to find out they had to keep it an additional week due to getting the wrong part, discovered during the alignment. I do not remember what part it was but it was not the steering box. I’m wondering if it was damaged when they did that as again – the alignment ended up being the last thing needing done before and after discovering they had installed the wrong part. I noticed the steering issue returning a couple of months after the repair but thought I was imagining it until I noticed it was getting really bad again. Also suspiciously, the repair shop has my truck right now and I was told they’d let me know what was wrong by the end of business Wednesday… I have not heard anything and it’s now Friday. I have tried calling but there was no answer, AND their voicemail box is full. They are not answering emails either. Unfortunately, because they did the original work, they have to fix it this time due to the warranties… and it’s a very highly rated repair shop for my area.

    Does anyone have any ideas on how to handle this? Also, should the manufacturer be covering the labor for this second repair if it is a defective part as it’s something that must be done by a shop? I was told I’d likely have to cover the labor costs of the second repair myself if it is a defective part.

  14. My truck has been having a hard steering problem and I almost ran over a deer the other day so I figured it’s about time I address it. I like how there are multiple possible reasons for this kind of problem and I’ll make sure to double-check each of them, especially my tire pressure since it’s kind of tricky to make that perfectly balanced. If all else fails, there’s always truck repair services.

  15. Andrew Juras says:

    I have a 2005 Honda Element with a steering problem that has caused it to be parked because it’s too dangerous. I can’t figure it out. When driving, it will suddenly swerve drastically to one side or the other but the steering wheel doesn’t move. Only the wheels. It is bad. Where should I be looking for the cause?

  16. how to get steering wheel on? trying to put this together brand new

  17. Dale Smith says:

    I have a 1967 Chevy II have some play in the steering but when I come up and over a front tire start squealing and hill its drifting to the driver side to the center line until it settles down it won’t come back I’ve tried to steer it.It will also do it if I punch it from a rolling or dead stop

  18. Tom Newton says:

    1994 Jeep Grand Cheokee: Turning left or right sharp noise is made, resistance to turning. Replaced bad tie rod and drivers side ball joint. While driving no problem turning for lane to lane. Excessive looseness in steering. What could be cause this?

  19. Jack Perkins says:

    I have a 99 Honda Civic. My steering wheel feels like it’s not catching a gear properly when turning in low gear. Any idea of what I need to fix it?

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