How much play should there be in the steering?

  • 165,000 MILES
The rack & pinion assembly, power steering pressure and return line assembly, lower ball joints were just replaced on my wife's 2000 Toyota 4Runner and a front end alignment performed.
The steering now seems a little stiff and there is more steering wheel travel before an effect is noticed.
Is there a way to tell if the amount of travel(play)is within specifications?
Do you
have the same problem?
Saturday, April 7th, 2012 AT 8:52 PM

1 Reply

"Play" in the steering can mean different things to different people. The most troublesome is when the wheels take too long to start turning when the steering wheel is turned. That is due to loose or worn parts or a steering gear box is out-of-adjustment. Those things should have been checked by the mechanic prior to aligning the truck.

A different problem has to do with steering that is too easy but it does respond properly to changes in steering wheel position. That is a result of insufficient "caster". That is an alignment angle that has very little to do with tire wear but a lot to do with steering wheel returnability after cornering, and it affects how hard it is to turn the steering wheel. Higher caster makes a vehicle more stable at high speeds but it makes it much harder to turn the steering wheel. Higher caster came about mostly in the 1960s, and we added power steering to make up for the harder steering. When caster is too low, the steering will feel easy, or "light" as some people put it, and the vehicle will wander on the highway requiring constant steering correction, which is tiring.

Caster has to be nearly equal on both sides of the truck to prevent a pull to one side. It is hard to adjust precisely on many vehicles so most mechanics just pick one side that's close to specs, then adjust only the other side to match it. If I had a customer with your complaint, I would gladly recheck my alignment and if there was any question about my caster settings, I would increase it on both sides and let YOU test drive it.

As for "stiffness", that implies a lack of power assist. First, there could still be some air in the system. Air compresses and won't push on the piston in the rack and pinion assembly. It will work itself out in a few days. That caster could also be adjusted too high causing hard steering. That should be much less noticeable on the highway and most noticeable when parking. Caster that is much too high can also cause a severe steering wheel shimmy after hitting bumps on the highway, particularly after front end parts start to wear again. Ford truck owners call that the "death shake".

In a few vehicles tight steering can be caused by improper installation procedures when installing new ball joints. This mostly affects large trucks and is caused by not tightening the ball joint nuts to the correct torque or in the wrong sequence. That's not a common problem.
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Saturday, April 7th, 2012 AT 9:19 PM

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