Have a helper turn the steering wheel while you watch under the hood. You have an oddball rack and pinion assembly. It's called a "center takeoff" design. The two inner tie rods are bolted to the rack assembly right in the center of the car at the front of the firewall. They are mouned with very trouble-free rubber bushings. Watch them when the helper moves the steering wheel. If you see the steering wheel turning and there is no corresponding movement in the tie rod ends, the looseness is indeed in the rack. That is not a common failure.
Also watch the rack assembly to be sure it isn't sliding back and forth on its mounts on the firewall. Loose mounting bolts will cause the free play you see, but it should also be miserable driving on the highway. A loose rack will cause excessive steering wander. You should also inspect the universal joint in the steering shaft under the dash. It is buried in a pocket in the firewall and can be very hard to see. Failure is not common but looseness there could cause your symptom.
Also look at the two outer tie rod ends. Each one has a ball and socket just inside and in front of each front tire. There must be no movement between the two parts other than the normal turning motion.
If you look under the hood right next to where the two power steering hoses go into the rack, if you have speed-sensitive steering, there will be a valve assembly screwed in just to the right, (passenger side) of the hoses, with a two-wire connector, and the computer controller will be clipped to a rubber mounting bracket on the left side. That box is about four inches long and an inch and a half wide. As with all the computers on the car, the dealer's hand-held computer, (called a scanner) can access this module to verify its proper operation. For new mechanics not familiar with it, it should be obvious the speed-sensitive steering is found under the transmission computer menu! That was sarcasm, but it's there because the transmission computer provides information to the speed-sensitive steering computer so it can decide when to turn on or off.
From what I can remember, I think you will get the same rack and pinion assembly regardless whether your car has the speed-sensitive option or not. If it does, there is a plug to remove, then you transfer the valve and module from the old rack.
Sunday, March 7th, 2010 AT 10:05 PM