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.

Toyota Celica GT steering wheel.
We found this vintage Nardi steering wheel in a classic Toyota Celica GT. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

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.

How to Diagnose a Hard-Turning Steering Wheel

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.

Why Does My Steering Wheel Seem Loose?

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.

What is Steering Wander and How Do I Fix It?

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.

Why Does My Vehicle Pull 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.

What Makes My Vehicle Pull 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.

How to Get Rid of 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.

What is 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.

Steering Kickback: What it Is and How to Fix it

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.

How to Diagnose Poor Steering 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.

Why Do My Tires 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.
Author: David Fuller

David Fuller is OnAllCylinders' managing editor. During his 20-year career in the auto industry, he has covered a variety of races, shows, and industry events and has authored articles for multiple magazines. He has also partnered with mainstream and trade publications on a wide range of editorial projects. In 2012, he helped establish OnAllCylinders, where he enjoys covering all facets of hot rodding and racing.