The steering and suspension system on today's cars, trucks and SUV's serves multiple functions. They help us safely navigate different road conditions and work in conjunction to deliver smooth and easy to handle steering operation. Most importantly however, they help us direct the vehicle in the direction we intend to travel. One of the most critical parts of this process is the steering column.
Most of today's modern vehicles utilize a power-assisted rack and pinion steering system. The steering column is located at the top of the steering system and attaches directly to the steering wheel. The steering column then attaches to the intermediate shaft and universal joints. When the steering column goes bad, there are a few warning signs that can alert the owner to a potential minor or major mechanical issue within the steering system and leading to steering column replacement.
Here are a few signs to watch for that could mean your steering column is failing:
1. Steering tilt function does not lock
One of the most convenient parts of a steering wheel is the tilt function, which allows drivers to set an angle and location of the steering wheel for more efficient operation or comfort. When you engage this function, the steering wheel will move freely, but eventually should lock into place. This ensures that when you drive, the steering wheel is solid and is situated to the best height and angle for you. If the steering wheel does not lock, this is a critical warning sign of a problem with the steering column or one of the many components inside the column.
Nonetheless, if this symptom arrives, do not drive the vehicle under any circumstances; as an unlocked steering wheel is a potentially dangerous situation. Make sure to contact a local ASE certified mechanic to inspect and repair this issue for you.
2. Clicking or grinding sounds while turning the steering wheel
Another common warning sign of an issue with the steering column is audible. If you hear squeaking, grinding, clicking or clunking sounds when you turn the steering wheel, it's most likely coming from the internal gears or bearings inside the steering column. This problem typically occurs over a period of time, so it's quite possible that you'll hear it occasionally. If this sound happens all the time when you're steering, have a mechanic look into this problem as soon as possible as driving a vehicle with a damaged steering column is dangerous.
3. Steering wheel operating roughly
Today's power steering components are designed to operate smoothly and consistently. If you notice that the steering wheel is rough when you turn, or if you feel a "pop” in the steering wheel as you turn, the problem is typically caused by a restriction inside the steering column. There are multiple gears and gaskets that allow the steering system to work correctly inside of the steering column.
Since dirt, dust and other debris can find its way into the steering column, it's possible for items to fall inside and block these gears from smooth operation. If you notice this warning sign, have a mechanic inspect the steering column, as it might be something small that can be easily fixed.
4. Steering wheel doesn’t return to middle
Anytime you steer a vehicle, the steering wheel should automatically return to zero degree level or the center when you are finished making a turn. This is a safety feature that was introduced with power steering. If the steering wheel does not automatically go to center when the wheel is released, it's most likely caused by a blockage inside the steering column or a broken gear inside the unit. Either way this is a problem requiring immediate attention and inspection by a professional ASE certified mechanic.
Driving anywhere depends on smooth and efficient operation of our steering system. If you notice any of the above symptoms or warning signs, don't put it off – contact a certified ASE mechanic as soon as possible so they can test drive, diagnose and properly repair the problem before it gets worse or potentially causes an accident.
This article originally appeared on YourMechanic.com as Symptoms of a Bad or Failing Steering Column and was authored by Timothy Charlet.