How to Center a Steering Wheel

How to center a steering wheel.

While driving in a straight line, have you noticed that a steering wheel in your car is leaning to one side? Sometimes, the car may seem to drive fine, and you might think it is not something you should worry about. However, a misaligned steering wheel is a telltale sign of issues with suspension or steering systems, so you should never ignore it. Any excessive wear or bents within these components can seriously affect the handling capabilities of your car and make it unstable. 

Both steering and suspension systems in your car are more complex than they may appear at first sight. And even the smallest issues here can make your car dangerous and less controllable, especially at higher speeds. In this article, you will learn how these systems work, what can go wrong, and how to recognize them. 

What Components Does a Car Suspension Have?

Back in the day, cars had simple suspension systems, with solid axles and leaf springs being the most common setup. These axles were not much more than a steel beam with wheels attached at each side. Although this simple solution is reliable and rugged, cars that use it are uncomfortable and suffer from poor handling. That is why you will rarely see it on cars today, as pickup trucks are the only ones that still use it. 

To ensure a smoother ride and improved driving characteristics, car manufacturers have developed something we call an independent suspension. It uses a combination of arms and rods to attach the wheel to the body of the car. This solution ensures that when going over bumps, the movement of one wheel doesn’t affect one on the opposite side. The downside of this setup is within added complexity, which not only increases production costs but also requires more maintenance. 

As the last parts of this suspension puzzle, there are springs and shock absorbers, which work together to support the weight of your car. They also allow the car to move up and down when going over bumps or turning into corners, in a controlled manner.   

How Does a Steering System Work?

When you turn the steering wheel, the front wheels go left or right and turn the car in the desired direction. That is possible thanks to an elaborate combination of mechanisms, rods, and shafts that we know as the steering system. Because of the nature of the task it performs, the steering system has to be both precise and dependable. Besides these primary requirements, it also must ensure effortless and straightforward usage.  

Unlike other parts and components, all car manufacturers use steering systems that operate on an identical principle. The heart of every steering system is a steering rack or, sometimes, a steering box with a recirculating ball mechanism. Despite their differences, both systems do the same thing. Their prime task is to transform the rotary motion of your steering wheel into a linear motion that turns the wheels. 

The steering rack or box connects to the wheel assembly using a part called tie-rod. This is a simple part, which has a ball joint on one side and a threaded rod on another. Besides serving as a link between the steering and suspension, this part also allows front wheel adjustment. We call this a wheel alignment, and although it also depends on other components, tie-rods are the most important here.     

What Are the Symptoms of Steering or Suspension Issues?

Just like any other part, both steering and suspension system components suffer from wear and fatigue and other damages. Remember that they have to cope with pot-holes, curbs, and other road hazards on a daily basis. Most parts of suspension or steering systems have ball joints and bushings, which allow them to rotate and isolate vibrations. While this makes driving smoother and absorbs road impacts, it also creates weak points that are subjected to wear.  

If any of these components wears out or gets bent out of shape, the wheel on that corner will become misaligned. Imagine this as three wheels on your car facing forward, while the fourth is slightly turned to one side. As a result, the car will pull to the side, and you will have to counter-steer to drive in a straight line. You should never ignore if your steering wheel is crooked, as this is a definite sign of suspension or steering issues. 

Tracking down the cause of the problem can be hard, as both steering and suspension are complex. Still, you can always try narrowing down the problem by using a systematic approach combined with patience and diligence. Start by listening if there are any knocks or bangs when going over bumps or while turning the steering wheel. As this is a sign of a worn joint or bushing, isolating the source of the sound will reveal the cause. 

Even when there are no suspicious sounds, you can still look for things like bent or damaged rods or control arms. Checking all tires for signs of uneven tread wear is another option, as it will lead you to the affected wheel. When you track down the damaged part, it is always best to replace its pair on the other side. After doing so, it is time to take your car for a wheel alignment. 

Why Is a Wheel Alignment so Important?

At first glance, the wheels on your car look as if they are perfectly straight and vertical, which seems like a logical arrangement. You may be surprised by the fact that, in order to improve performance, each manufacturer specifies some pre-defined wheel angles. Any wear or damage to the suspension or steering system will upset these angles, and your car will become misaligned. Not only does this affect handling and braking capabilities, but it can also cause excessive tire wear and increased fuel consumption.  

To understand the physics behind the wheel alignment, you must know that three different angles define each wheel. The toe-angle is the most important, and in most cases, it is the one you will adjust during the wheel alignment. As the front wheels of any car are not parallel, the toe angle defines how they relate between themselves. The main reason for front wheels not being parallel is to reduce sensitivity on small, unintentional steering inputs. This makes driving in the straight easier and relaxed, as your car is not as twitchy as it could be.  

Another important angle is called camber, which defines the angle between the wheel and an imaginary vertical plane. Most cars today have negative camber, meaning that the top of the wheel sits more inwards than the bottom. This ensures better cornering capabilities, as it increases the contact surface between the tire and the road, which provides more frictional force. The downside of excessive camber comes in the form of poor straight-line performance and excessive tire wear. 

The last in this series is the caster, which is the angle that describes the inclination of the steering axis. This is a correlation between the center of the wheel and the strut mount, which is a center of the rotation. The importance of this angle is that it creates a steering wheel return-ability. You may have noticed that after taking a turn, if you release the steering wheel, it goes back to its central position.

However, these angles are very small, meaning you cannot see them or adjust without special devices and equipment. Because of this, you should find a workshop that has the equipment and trained mechanics to do the wheel alignment on your car. This is an imperative if you want to keep cornering capabilities and overall handling performance. 

Conclusion

Sometimes, the steering wheel in your car may be leaning to one side while driving in a straight line. This is called a crooked steering wheel, and you should not ignore it, as it indicates an issue with suspension or steering system. When tracking down the cause of the problem, start by listening if there are any knocks or bangs. The next step is looking for things like bent or damaged rods or control arms and checking for tire wear. After replacing all affected parts, make sure to get a proper wheel alignment, as this will ensure maximum performance of your car. 

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