Expert advice: how to tell if your steering isn’t working properly

steering
Vibrations through the wheel or heavy steering are just two symptoms of problems (Picture iStock/georgeclerk)

Think about your car’s controls. If the brakes fail you’ve still got the parking brake. But if there’s a fault with the steering that stops you changing direction when you want to, you could be in trouble. That’s why I believe it’s important for drivers to be able to diagnose steering problems.

How do you know if your steering is damaged?

If you’re driving along and your car is pulling to one side, the chances are there’s something wrong with the steering. Equally, you might notice your steering wheel isn’t centred when you’re driving along a straight road, or that it struggles to return to centre after a manoeuvre. You might also feel a heavy vibration through the steering wheel. In some cases, the steering wheel may feel much heavier to turn than it normally does.

Get out of the car and have a look at the tyres. You may well notice that these are unevenly worn. All are symptoms that there’s something wrong with your steering that needs professional attention.

It’s quite a common problem

Cars are built to last but there’s only so much abuse some components can take. When your front wheels hit a pothole there are various components that can be damaged. As well as ruining your tyres and maybe even denting a wheel, potholed road surfaces can bend or break suspension components and also throw your wheels out of alignment.

What is wheel alignment?

Garages usually talk about tracking in relation to wheel alignment. It refers to how straight the wheels are. If the wheels are doing what’s known as ‘toeing in’, they’re pointing towards the middle of the car. This will cause the outer edge of the tyre to wear down more quickly than the rest. If they’re ‘toeing out’, the inner edge of the tyre will wear faster.

Hitting a pothole can easily throw a wheel out of alignment. Fortunately, if you diagnose it quickly, it’s easy to put right and shouldn’t cost more than about £30 to fix.

How about other steering problems?

All cars nowadays have power steering. This is designed to make the car light and easy to manoeuvre at low speed. Increasingly, cars feature electric assistance as it draws less energy from the engine so is better for economy and emissions. But power assistance using hydraulic fluid is still very common. If there’s a problem with these systems, the steering wheel may feel heavy and be difficult to turn.

Your car’s user manual should tell you where and if you can top up your car’s power steering fluid (Picture iStock/hauged)

Leaking fluid

Look in your car’s user manual and it should tell you what kind of power steering your car has and where the reservoir is if it’s hydraulic. If you can, check this reservoir. If it’s getting low, the system won’t be able to provide as much hydraulic assistance. You may also get a noise when you turn the wheel. Depending on how low the fluid has got, this may vary from a dull moan to a shrill squeal.

Power steering is a sealed system; it shouldn’t leak fluid so if you are short, take your car to a garage to find out where the leak is. If you need to replenish the fluid in the meantime, the user manual should tell you which fluid to use. Unfortunately, they’re not all the same so make sure you use the correct manufacturer-recommended fluid for your car.

Check your power steering yourself

You can do this easily. With the car in neutral or Park, parking brake on and the engine switched off, put some light pressure on the steering wheel. Then turn the engine on. The steering wheel should move slightly as it’s now being power assisted. If it doesn’t, get it checked out by a professional. You really don’t want to suffer a failure when you’re on the road.

Scott Wilson is Green Flag’s vehicle and customer insight manager

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