Have you ever experienced the frustration of your steering wheel not returning to center after making a turn? It’s a common issue that can not only be annoying but also dangerous.
You may find yourself constantly having to adjust the wheel or overcompensating for the lack of response, which could lead to accidents. This problem can occur in any type of vehicle, from cars to trucks to SUVs. However, if the steering wheel fails to return to center, it could indicate a problem with the steering system.
In this article, we’ll explore the different reasons why your steering wheel may not be returning to center and what you can do to fix it.
So, why is the steering wheel not returning to center after turn? Sticking or binding components like ball joints or kingpin can prevent the steering wheel from returning to the center after taking a turn. Another possibility is that there’s an issue with the alignment of your wheels. If your wheels aren’t properly aligned, it can cause the steering wheel to pull to one side and not return to the center after a turn. The alignment will disturb the caster angle which will cause the steering wheel not to return to the center. Another possible cause could be a malfunctioning steering column or coupler. This component connects the steering wheel to the steering gear or rack-and-pinion, allowing the driver to control the direction of the vehicle. If it is damaged or not working correctly, it can cause the steering wheel to fail to return to the center, making it difficult to steer the vehicle accurately. Lastly, bad inner and outer tie rods, that connect the steering rack with the front wheel, can also cause the steering wheel not to return to center after turning.
Also Read: Car makes clicking noise when turning
Table of Contents
How Does Steering Wheel Return To Center After Turn?
One of the key elements that affect the steering wheel return to its center is the steering axis inclination (SAI) and caster angle. This is the angle between the centerline of the steering axis and a vertical line from the center of the contact patch of the tire (as viewed from the front).
The steering axis is the imaginary line that connects the upper and lower pivot points of the steering knuckle, which is the part that holds the wheel hub and spindle. The SAI is usually positive, meaning that it tilts inward (away from the wheel) at the top. This steering axis inclination is called the “Caster angle“.
As we initiate a turn, the wheels on one side of the vehicle experience increased resistance due to friction with the road surface. Meanwhile, the wheels on the other side encounter reduced resistance. This difference in resistance creates an imbalance in torque, which causes the pivot point to move slightly off-center.
Now, here’s where the brilliance of the steering system comes into play. The steering geometry is designed in such a way that the pivot point is positioned slightly ahead of the tire contact patch area.
This intentional offset allows the torque generated by the patch area to act upon the pivot point and restore it to its center position. As the torque diminishes, the steering system ensures that the wheels gradually straighten out, bringing the steering wheel back to its original position.
It’s important to note that various factors can affect the return-to-center ability of a vehicle’s steering system. Factors such as tire pressure, suspension components, and alignment can all impact the smoothness and effectiveness of this process.
To further facilitate this self-centering action, the steering system incorporates various components, including the steering column, steering gear, and tie rods.
Bonus Read: Steering wheel turns by itself
Causes Of Steering Wheel Not Returning To Center After Turn
Here are the causes of steering wheel not returning to center after turn:
1. Play In Tie Rods
The tie rod is a crucial component that connects the steering mechanism to the steering knuckles, which are responsible for turning the wheels. Its purpose is to transmit the movement of the steering wheel to the wheels, allowing the driver to control the direction of the vehicle.
However, over time, the tie rod can wear out or become loose, resulting in play or slack. When there is play in the tie rod, it means that there is an excessive amount of movement or free play between the steering gearbox and the front wheels.
As a result, when the driver turns the steering wheel, the excess play in the tie rod prevents the wheels from returning to the center position smoothly. Instead, they may remain slightly turned or off-center after completing a turn.
This lack of centering can make it more challenging to maintain control of the vehicle and can require constant steering input to keep the vehicle on the desired path. This is because the play in the tie rod creates a delay in the steering wheel’s return to center, affecting the overall stability and control of the vehicle.
Bonus Read: How far can you drive on bad tie rod
What can be the causes of tie rod play?
Several factors can contribute to play in the tie rod. Let’s explore some common causes:
- Wear and Tear: Over time, the tie rod ends can wear out due to constant movement and exposure to various road conditions. This wear can lead to excess play and affect steering wheel centering.
- Lack of Lubrication: Proper lubrication is essential for smooth movement and reduced friction in the tie rod ball joints. If lubrication is neglected or insufficient, it can accelerate wear and contribute to play.
- Damaged or Bent Components: Road hazards, such as potholes or curbs, can cause damage or bend to the tie rod or its associated components. This can result in play within the system and affect steering wheel centering.
2. Binding In Ball Joints
Ball joints are critical components that serve as a pivot point by connecting the steering knuckle to the control arms, allowing for smooth and controlled movement of the wheels. Ball joints consist of a spherical bearing enclosed in a housing, allowing for multidirectional movement.
However, over time, these ball joints can wear out or become damaged, leading to binding. Binding occurs when there is excessive friction or resistance within the ball joint, causing it to stick or seize up. This can prevent the steering system from properly aligning the wheels and returning them to the center position.
Why do ball joints of suspension system become bound?
- Lack of Lubrication: Over time, the lubrication in the ball joints can dry out, leading to increased friction between the moving parts. This lack of lubrication can cause the ball joints to bind, making it difficult for the steering wheel to return to the center position.
- Dirt and Contaminants: The presence of dirt, dust, and other contaminants can also contribute to binding in ball joints. These particles can accumulate within the joint, hindering its smooth movement and causing it to become stiff and less responsive.
- Corrosion and Rust: Exposure to moisture and road salt can lead to the development of corrosion and rust on the ball joint surfaces. This can further contribute to binding issues, as the roughened surfaces create more friction and resistance to movement.
How to fix?
To address the problem, the mechanic may need to clean and lubricate the ball joints to remove any accumulated dirt and debris. In more severe cases of wear or damage, the ball joints may need to be replaced entirely to restore smooth movement and proper steering wheel functionality.
3. Worn Caster Bushing
Caster bushings are small rubber or polyurethane components that fit inside the control arm or spindle assembly of a vehicle’s suspension system. They provide a pivot point for the steering knuckle, allowing it to rotate smoothly during steering maneuvers.
Caster bushing is also called control arm bushing, which you will see around the ball joint.
Over time, these bushings can become worn or damaged due to regular wear and tear, road conditions, or even improper alignment. When the caster bushings wear out, they can cause the steering wheel to feel loose or not return to the center properly.
This is because the worn bushings can no longer provide the necessary support and stability to keep the wheels aligned correctly.
As a result, the steering system may feel sluggish or require more effort to turn, and the steering wheel may not automatically return to its neutral position after completing a turn.
4. Insufficient Tire Pressure and Uneven Tire Wear
Having insufficient tire pressure and uneven tire wear can lead to issues with the steering wheel not returning to the center position. When the tire pressure is low, it affects the overall stability and performance of the vehicle.
The tires become underinflated, causing them to flatten out and have a larger contact patch with the road surface. This increased surface area causes more friction, making it harder for your tires to turn smoothly.
As a result, when you make a turn, the tires may not grip the road as effectively, causing the steering wheel to resist returning to its centered position.
Moreover, low tire pressure can alter the suspension geometry of your vehicle. It puts extra stress on certain components, such as the control arms and tie rods, which play a crucial role in maintaining the steering alignment. When these components are strained, it can affect the steering wheel’s ability to return to the center.
Uneven tire wear is another factor that can contribute to this problem. Uneven tire wear can cause tread block distortion, where certain parts of the tire tread wear down more quickly than others. This distortion can lead to an imbalanced contact patch, affecting the tire’s ability to grip the road evenly during turns. Consequently, the steering wheel may not be able to center itself properly.
When the tires wear unevenly, it creates an imbalance in the vehicle’s alignment. This imbalance can cause the steering wheel to pull to one side or not return to the center position. It can also result in a vibrating or shaky steering wheel while driving.
You can read my tire wear pattern guide to learn more.
How to fix?
Here are some possible solutions:
- Regularly check tire pressure: Make it a habit to check your tire pressure at least once a month, or before embarking on a long journey. Refer to your vehicle’s manual or the tire manufacturer’s recommendations to determine the correct tire pressure. Use a reliable tire pressure gauge to measure the pressure accurately, and add or release air as needed.
- Rotate and align your tires: To prevent uneven tire wear, it is important to regularly rotate your tires according to the recommended intervals. Additionally, have your tires aligned by a professional if you notice any signs of misalignment, such as the vehicle pulling to one side or uneven tire wear patterns.
- Replace worn-out tires: If your tires have worn out unevenly and cannot be corrected through alignment, it may be necessary to replace them. Worn-out tires not only affect the steering wheel’s behavior but also compromise your vehicle’s overall safety and performance.
- Get Professional Wheel Alignment: If you notice persistent issues with your steering wheel not returning to center, despite maintaining proper tire pressure, it may be time to get a professional wheel alignment. An alignment can help correct any misalignment caused by uneven tire wear, ensuring your steering system functions optimally.
5. Bad Strut Bearing
A strut bearing, also known as a strut mount or a strut top bearing, is a component of the suspension system in your vehicle. It is located at the top of the strut assembly and connects the strut to the vehicle’s body.
The purpose of the strut bearing is to allow the strut to rotate and pivot smoothly as the wheels turn and to absorb any vibrations or shocks from the road.
The strut bearing consists of several parts, including a metal bearing, a rubber insulator, and a mounting plate. The metal bearing is designed to rotate smoothly, while the rubber insulator helps to reduce noise and vibrations. The mounting plate attaches the strut bearing to the vehicle’s body.
In addition to affecting the steering wheel’s return to center, a bad strut bearing can also contribute to suspension noise and vibrations. As the bearing wears out, it may start to produce squeaking, creaking, or knocking sounds when the vehicle is in motion. These noises can be especially noticeable when turning the steering wheel or driving over bumps or uneven surfaces.
6. Play In Sector Shaft
In a recirculating ball steering system, the sector shaft is a crucial component. It connects the steering gearbox to the pitman arm, which ultimately controls the movement of the wheels.
The sector shaft converts the rotational motion of the steering wheel into linear motion, allowing you to turn the vehicle. However, when play or excessive movement occurs in the sector shaft, it can lead to steering issues, such as the steering wheel not returning to center.
You can also watch the following video to understand the working of recirculating ball steering system:
When there’s play in the sector shaft, the gears inside the gearbox may not fully engage with each other. This lack of engagement results in a delay in transmitting the steering input to the wheels, making it difficult for the steering wheel to return to the center position after a turn.
Furthermore, with play in the sector shaft, the steering system loses its ability to provide consistent and even steering effort. As a result, you might notice that the steering wheel feels lighter or heavier on one side when turning, making it harder for the wheel to naturally find its way back to the center position.
Lastly, play in the sector shaft can also lead to misalignment of the steering system components. This misalignment causes the wheels to steer slightly off-center, resulting in the steering wheel not returning to its proper position after a turn. It’s like your car has a mind of its own, and we definitely don’t want that!
How to fix?
If you have play in sector shaft, you should get it fixed as soon as possible by a professional mechanic. Depending on the severity and cause of the problem, you may need to replace some parts or adjust some settings. Some of the possible solutions are:
- Replacing or repairing the worn or damaged parts, such as the worm gear, the sector gear, the recirculating balls, the bearings or the seals.
- Adjusting or tightening the sector shaft preload, which is usually done by turning a screw or nut on top of the steering box until there is no play in sector shaft.
- Flushing or changing the power steering fluid, which can improve its lubrication and performance.
7. Worn Steering Rack Bushing
The steering rack is a metal bar that connects the steering wheel to the front wheels of your car. The steering rack converts the rotational motion of the steering wheel into the linear motion required to turn the vehicle’s wheels. It is connected to the steering wheel through a shaft and is responsible for transmitting the driver’s input to the wheels.
The steering rack is mounted on the vehicle frame by metal, rubber or polyurethane bushings, which are designed to absorb impact, provide stability and reduce vibration and noise.
The steering rack bushings are located at the ends of the rack, where it attaches to the frame. They act as cushions that prevent metal-to-metal contact between the rack and the frame, which could cause damage and wear. They also help keep the rack aligned and centered, which ensures smooth and precise steering.
When the steering rack bushings are in good condition, they allow the rack to move smoothly and freely within a certain range of motion. This means that when you turn the steering wheel, the rack moves accordingly and then returns to its original position when you release the wheel. This also causes the steering wheel to return to the center automatically after a turn.
However, when the steering rack bushings are worn out, they create an excessive play or free play in the steering column. This means that the rack can move beyond its normal range of motion and become misaligned or twisted.
This also affects the alignment of the front wheels, which can cause them to point in different directions or not straighten up after a turn. As a result, the steering wheel does not return to the center by itself and you have to manually correct it.
How do steering rack bushings become bad?
Like any rubber or polyurethane component, steering rack bushings are subject to deterioration over time and use. They can crack, tear, deform or lose their elasticity due to factors such as:
- Age: Rubber and polyurethane tend to degrade over time due to exposure to heat, cold, moisture and oxygen.
- Driving conditions: Driving on rough roads, over bumps or potholes, or in extreme weather can put more stress on the bushings and cause them to wear faster.
- Driving habits: Aggressive driving, such as frequent or hard turns, braking or acceleration, can also increase the pressure on the bushings and accelerate their wear.
- Fluid leaks: Leaking power steering fluid or engine oil can contaminate the bushings and make them swell or soften, which reduces their effectiveness.
In summary, a steering wheel that fails to return to center is not just an annoyance, but a serious safety concern.
As outlined, worn components like tie rods, ball joints, and bushings are often the culprits.
They introduce play and friction into the steering system, preventing smooth wheel centering. Uneven tire wear also distorts stability.
Ultimately, catching and resolving these issues promptly is critical, as a loose steering wheel can compromise control and lead to accidents.
Regular maintenance plus attentiveness to any emerging steering problems are key to staying safe on the road.
This highlights how crucial a properly functioning steering system is for driving confidence and security.