(Updated on August 17, 2021)
The steering wheel is the primary control a driver uses to direct a vehicle where it should go. Turning the wheel in one direction should make the tires turn in the same direction a proportional amount.
This needs to be a consistent and reliable property of your vehicle’s steering system. A steering wheel that doesn’t behave as it should may cause accelerated vehicle wear and even dangerous situations.
An off-center steering wheel is relatively easy to diagnose and fix. Most of the time the problem is caused by misaligned wheels, and a mechanic can straighten them out to the manufacturer’s specifications and then make sure the steering wheel is straight.
How a Steering Wheel Works
Most cars, SUVs, and lightweight trucks on the road now have a rack and pinion system for steering. This system uses physical connections to turn the rotational force of the steering wheel into lateral force that turns the vehicle’s tires side to side. The vehicle will then naturally track in the direction the front tires are pointing.
The steering wheel is connected to the steering column (sometimes known as steering shaft). This column spins as you turn the steering wheel, turning the pinion gear at the bottom.
The rack is a rod with teeth that the pinion gear fits into, and it moves right or left depending on how the gear spins. At the ends of the rack are tie rods, which connect to the steering arm (also known as control arm) on the wheel hubs.
The rack and pinion system makes it easier to turn the wheels. Vehicles come with a specific steering ratio, which is the ratio between a turn of the steering wheel and a turn of the wheels.
Vehicles that have hydraulic power steering also have power steering fluid inside the rack. This fluid provides assist using pistons located in the middle of the rack. This makes it much easier to turn the steering wheel.
Some vehicles also have four-wheel steering, which means that the rear wheels also turn in response to either the steering wheel inputs or the front wheel angle (and sometimes both).
The steering wheel affects a lot of motion on the vehicle, so if it’s crooked the effects can be quite bothersome.
What Does it Mean if My Steering Wheel is Crooked?
If the steering wheel isn’t centered while you’re driving straight, chances are the wheels on the ground are simply misaligned with the steering wheel. This can happen even if the vehicle tracks straight.
Cars are designed to drive straight with no driver input, but this doesn’t always mean that their wheels are pointed exactly straight.
Sometimes the front wheels can be pointed slightly toe-in (front parts of the wheels are pointed towards the center of the car) or toe-out (front parts are pointed away from the car). This is purposeful design by the factory to improve handling for that vehicle.
If the vehicle’s wheels are misaligned, you may experience some of the following symptoms of misalignment.
1) Vehicle Pulls to One Side
If you set the steering wheel straight while driving and your car pulls to one side, one or more of the four wheels probably aren’t aligned. The vehicle should be able to drive straight for a bit without your hands on the steering wheel after you return the wheel to center. Don’t try this in an area where you can hit someone or something!
2) Steering Wheel Vibration
3) Uneven Tire Wear
When looking at the tires, they should all be worn in about the same way. Check the inner vs outer edge wear on each tire, and compare the right and left tires to each other. If any tire has significantly less tread on one side or the other, there’s a misalignment that needs to be addressed.
Uneven tire wear can damage other systems in the car including handling, making for an unsafe ride. The tires will also need more frequent replacement.
4) Wheel Doesn’t Return to Center
After a turn, the steering wheel should pop back to a centered position by itself. Vehicles are designed to drive straight by default. If you need to force the steering wheel back to center, the alignment should be checked by a mechanic.
5) Sloppy Steering
If the vehicle is not very responsive to the driver’s steering input, the alignment could be the problem. It’s not only uncomfortable but can be dangerous if the driver needs to suddenly swerve.
Common Causes of Misalignment
Over time, little bumps in the road and mild wear on suspension components can affect the angle of the wheels. This is why it’s a good idea to have the alignment checked and fixed every year or so.
But what if the steering suddenly started behaving erratically? There can be a number of causes.
1) Collisions and Potholes
Hitting a curb, a tree, or even a large pothole can affect parts in the steering system or suspension in such a way that the wheel’s steering angle is changed.
2) Worn or Bent Steering or Suspension Components
If components of the suspension or steering system are damaged or severely worn on one side, it can alter the wheel angle on that side.
3) Modified Ride Height Without Proper Alignment
Vehicles are carefully designed from the factory to behave in a certain way with the parts they are manufactured with. If one component is changed, related parts often need modification as well so the whole system still works right.
If the vehicle is lowered or lifted, the suspension alignment needs to be modified to accommodate that difference. This can be tricky to do correctly, so either do a lot of research for your specific vehicle or get help from a professional.
Will an Alignment Fix a Crooked Steering Wheel?
Almost all the time, a crooked steering wheel is caused by misalignment. In that case, getting a complete alignment done by a mechanic should fix the problem.
Sometimes an alignment alone cannot correct the issue. This may be a result of a collision that has bent one or more suspension components, such as a tie rod or control arm.
Why is My Steering Wheel Not Centered After an Alignment?
At the end of a professional alignment, the steering wheel should be centered. If not, take the vehicle back to the shop because the alignment either wasn’t done well or the mechanic simply forgot to adjust the steering wheel after the alignment was done.
How to Center a Steering Wheel
There are technically some ways to center a steering wheel at home if the vehicle’s tires are aligned correctly, but it’s not a good idea to try it. It’s easy to mess up since there are a lot of moving parts. Small tweaks in the steering system can have dramatic results.
If you try to fix your steering wheel and don’t do it quite right, the consequences can be disastrous.
How Much Does it Cost to Center a Steering Wheel?
If the vehicle just had an alignment and the steering wheel is still off-center, it should not cost anything to take the vehicle right back to the shop and have them fix it. The shop is obligated to center the steering wheel when they do the alignment.
If the vehicle needs an alignment, most people can expect to pay between $100 and $300. Some vehicles will only need the front two wheels aligned, but most vehicles will need a four wheel alignment.
The mechanic will check the toe, camber, and caster (various angles of the wheels along different axes) of each wheel to ensure it’s within specifications for optimal handling. Some vehicles allow for more adjustment than others.
At the end of a complete alignment, the steering wheel should be straight when the front wheels are straight.
Misalignment and a crooked steering wheel can be annoying and downright dangerous, but they’re easy to take care of. If you’re in doubt, make an appointment with your local mechanic or tire shop right now.