The likelihood of a vehicle having an off-center steering wheel varies depending on several factors, such as wear and tear, driving conditions, repairs, mods, or maintenance and alignment. However, it is not always an aftermath of heavily-used four-wheelers.
Below is a detailed rundown of the most common reasons behind a steering wheel going off-center:
- Uneven Tire Wear
- Tie Rod Issues
- Compromised Suspension Components
- Wheel Bearing Problems
- Steering Gearbox Concerns
- Steering Column Problems
- DIY Suspension Mods
- Sticky Brake Calipers
- Drivetrain Issues
Given the many variables at play, regular upkeep and inspection, timely repairs, and proper wheel alignment have become all the more important in keeping the functionality and positioning of your car’s steering wheel in check. But to do this, understanding the causes of such a predicament and how to resolve them is imperative. And this is what this article is here for.
What Causes Steering Wheel Alignment to Be Off?
In an ideal setup (more so when done by a professional mechanic), a vehicle’s steering wheel is aligned by ensuring that the caster, camber, and toe angles are properly adjusted. The wheels should be parallel to each other and perpendicular to the ground.
When done right, an alignment should result in improved handling, optimal fuel efficiency, and even tire wear (among other benefits).
However, there are instances where steering wheel alignment may not be properly executed. Either that or something else in the vehicle is getting in the way, causing it to go off-center.
Let’s go over the most common culprits to an off-center steering wheel, as follows:
The most apparent reason for a steering wheel going off-center is improper alignment of the front wheels. When one or more of the primary angles of a vehicle is misaligned, an off-center steering wheel is bound to happen.
Misalignment can also result from improper wheel balancing, impact collision like hitting a curb or potholes, or having worn suspension components or a damaged vehicle frame.
When misalignment occurs, the steering wheel does not return to its centered position after a turn, requiring constant driver correction. This aftermath is taxing and can result in a drifting or pulling sensation, reduced stability, increased tire wear, and an overall compromised driving experience.
2. Uneven Tire Wear
Uneven tire wear, such as excessive wear on one side of the tire tread, can lead to a steering wheel going off-center. One of the culprits behind it is tire imbalance, where the weight distribution of the tire and wheel assembly is uneven.
Tire imbalances can result from several factors, including uneven tire tread wear, improper tire mounting, damaged wheel hub assembly (view on Amazon), a bent wheel, or imbalanced wheel weights. Another cause of uneven tire wear is inadequate or uneven tire pressure.
Whichever this cause, this situation can create a slew of other issues that adversely affect vehicle handling and steering. Irregular tire surfaces, for instance, can cause responsiveness, traction, and stability variations, leading to a crooked steering wheel.
3. Tie Rod Issues
Worn or damaged tie rod ends, improper adjustment or damage to the tie rod itself can affect the steering system’s ability to maintain proper alignment, causing the steering wheel to go off-center.
Worn tie rod ends develop play or looseness and may not connect to the steering knuckles as effectively. On the other hand, improperly adjusted tie rods predominantly result in uneven steering wheel alignment. Meanwhile, a bent or damaged tie rod can cause the steering wheel to deviate from its center position — hence, steering wheel misalignment.
4. Compromised Suspension Components
In addition to tie rod problems, here are other suspension-related causes of a steering wheel deviating from its center:
Control arms, also known as A-arms, are suspension components that connect the wheel hubs to the frame. When worn, damaged, or improperly installed, they can cause the suspension geometry of the vehicle in question to be altered, leading to an off-center steering wheel. This can occur due to excessive play, bushing wear, or misalignment of the control arms.
Ball joints are pivotal components that connect the steering knuckles and control arms. They allow for smooth articulation of the suspension while supporting the weight of a vehicle. If worn, loose, or damaged, they can affect the steering system’s stability and alignment.
Strut or Shock Absorbers
Struts or shock absorbers dampen suspension movement and provide a smooth ride. When worn or damaged, these components can impact the suspension’s ability to maintain proper alignment. This, in turn, leads to an off-center steering wheel since the suspension may not be able to respond accurately to steering inputs.
The sway/stabilizer bar helps minimize body roll during cornering. Function-wise, it connects the left and right suspension components and ensures stability.
If the sway bar or any of its components are damaged or worn, it can affect the suspension’s ability to maintain proper alignment and cause an off-center steering wheel.
Control Arm Bushings
Control arm bushings provide a cushioning effect and allow for the smooth movement of the control arms. When these bushings fail or deteriorate, they can introduce excessive play or allow for control arm misalignment. This outcome particularly affects suspension geometry and can result in an off-center steering wheel.
Problems with this component can disrupt the vehicle’s suspension system’s balance, stability, and alignment. Issues such as uneven ride height, imbalanced load distribution, reduced stability, altered suspension geometry, and the subsequent impact on other components can all contribute to an off-center steering wheel.
5. Wheel Bearing Problems
Faulty wheel bearings can cause the wheels to move out of alignment, as they essentially support the vehicle’s weight and provide smooth rotation of the wheels. And there are several factors leading to wheel bearings being in this state. Among them are improper installation, physical damage, and normal wear and tear.
Let us take normal wear for starters. Over time, wheel bearings can wear out due to constant use and exposure to various road conditions. Once worn, they develop excessive play or looseness (much like tie rod ends), causing the wheels to be misaligned.
Conversely, improper installation and damage are somewhat self-explanatory — although it takes excessive heat and lack of lubrication (not just impact collision) to wreak havoc on wheel bearings.
6. Steering Gearbox Concerns
Steering gearbox issues are another apparent cause of an off-center steering wheel after alignment. This is because checking steering gearbox components each time an alignment is performed is not exactly necessitated, even by OEMs.
Nonetheless, an inspection of these parts is ideal for avoiding the below hiccups (not to mention that it should be done regularly as part of maintenance):
Natural Gear Breakdown
The steering gearbox (a.k.a. steering gear or steering rack) contains gears that convert the rotational motion from the steering wheel into lateral motion to turn the wheels.
Over time, the gears experience wear and tear, leading to increased play or looseness in the gearbox. This occurrence results in a lack of precision and responsiveness, causing the steering wheel of a vehicle to be off-center.
Like wheels, the steering gearbox relies on proper alignment to ensure accurate steering input. However, factors such as impact from potholes, collisions, or improper installation can cause it to misalign and the steering wheel to be off-center. Misalignment also disrupts the gears’ ability to translate steering wheel movements correctly.
Internal Component Damage
Various internal components like bearings, seals, bushings, and shafts inside the steering gearbox can become damaged or worn. When they do, they adversely affect the overall functionality of the gearbox.
Worn bearings or seals, for instance, can introduce excessive play or friction. Meanwhile, damaged shafts or bushings can impair the smooth movement of the gears, leading to imprecise steering.
Power Steering System Malfunction
This dilemma is specific to vehicles equipped with power steering systems that assist in steering efforts. The system includes components like the power steering pump, hoses, and steering gearbox.
A malfunction, such as a fluid leak, pump failure, or a clogged hose in the power steering system, can impact the steering gearbox operation and lead to irregular steering response.
Loose or Damaged Mounts
Gearbox mounts or brackets securely mount the steering gearbox to the vehicle’s chassis or frame. If these mounts become compromised in any way, they can affect the stability and alignment of the gearbox and cause the latter to shift or move slightly, leading to an off-center steering wheel.
Lack of Lubrication
If the gearbox does not receive adequate lubrication due to insufficient or contaminated power steering fluid, it can increase friction and wear. This can result in stiffness, binding, or uneven operation of the gears, contributing to an off-center steering wheel.
7. Steering Column Problems
Steering column problems can indeed cause the steering wheel to be off-center. The steering column is crucial in that it connects the wheel to the gearbox or rack and pinion. It comprises various elements, such as the steering shaft, universal joints, couplings, and the steering column.
One common issue leading to an off-center steering wheel is a misalignment or binding within the steering column. This can occur due to worn or damaged components such as the universal joints or couplings, steering column bearing, or clock spring.
When these parts are not functioning properly, they can restrict the smooth movement of the steering column, resulting in an irregular steering wheel alignment.
8. DIY Suspension Mods
Me saying this does not necessarily mean that I am against garage mods. But let us face it; sometimes suspension mods do us more harm than good — especially if we take on the task ill-researched and unprepared.
Case in point, aftermarket suspension adjustments are not as easy as replacing your stock headlights with LED lighting. If new suspension components are incompatible or improperly installed, an off-center steering wheel would be the least of your worries.
9. Sticky Brake Calipers
One of the primary ways brake calipers can cause the steering wheel to go off-center is through uneven braking forces. If one caliper is sticking or not releasing properly, it can cause uneven brake pad wear and uneven braking force distribution between the left and right wheels.
This imbalance can result in the vehicle pulling to one side during braking, affecting the steering wheel alignment — hence, a steering wheel going off-center either in motion or when brakes are applied.
Another way sticky brake calipers contribute to an off-center steering wheel is through increased rolling resistance on one side. Increased rolling resistance can cause excessive friction between the brake pads and the rotor on one wheel, leading to uneven rotation of the wheels and the vehicle pulling to one side. As drivers compensate for this pulling effect, the steering wheel deviating from its center becomes apparent.
10. Drivetrain Issues
Problems within the drivetrain can have a negative impact on the alignment and handling of the vehicle, including the steering wheel.
Issues such as worn CV joints, a misaligned driveshaft (view on Amazon), a damaged axle, and flawed differentials are some of the most common contributors to a steering wheel going off-center.
How to Fix a Misaligned Steering Wheel
Due to the plethora of vehicle makes and models in the market, we would not be going into the nitty-gritty details of fixing an off-center steering wheel. Instead, I will provide you with general guidelines on resolving the issue respective to the causes detailed in this guide:
To fix misalignment, perform a wheel alignment. This process involves adjusting the angles of the wheels, including camber, toe, and caster, to OEM specifications.
A professional alignment technician uses specialized equipment to make precise adjustments and ensure the wheels are aligned correctly. So if you do not have these pieces of equipment at home, then better to outsource the task.
If uneven tire wear is causing the steering wheel to be off-center, first address the underlying cause of uneven wear, such as misalignment or suspension issues. Once the root cause is addressed, you may need to replace the affected knobbies to ensure even wear across all tires.
Tie rod ends
If tie rod issues are the culprit, then damaged or worn tie rod ends should be replaced. Replacement typically requires removing the tie rod ends, installing new ones, and adjusting them to the correct length. Afterward, perform a wheel alignment to ensure the steering is properly centered.
To fix an off-center steering wheel caused by compromised suspension components, identify the specific component/s causing the problem. The erring components could be one of the following — control arms, bushings, or struts (to name a few).
Replace any damaged or worn suspension components and ensure proper installation. After which, perform a wheel alignment to ensure proper steering centering.
For wheel-bearing-related causes, the faulty wheel bearings need to be replaced. This involves removing the wheel hub assembly, replacing worn bearings, and properly reinstalling the hub assembly.
Proper torque specifications should be followed during reassembly. Also, take care not to damage the wheel hub assembly, as it can lead to many other problems.
Steering gearbox concerns typically require inspecting and potentially replacing the faulty components within the steering gearbox.
Mechanically-savvy vehicle owners can perform this (proper diagnosis and necessary repairs or replacements included). However, the process is still best done by a qualified mechanic or technician with experience in steering system repairs.
Steering column problems
If steering column problems are causing the steering wheel to go askew, a thorough inspection of the steering column is necessary. By thorough inspection, I mean scrutinizing the system and checking for damaged or worn components, such as the steering shaft, universal joints, or couplings.
Afterward, replace faulty components to restore the steering wheel’s proper alignment.
DIY suspension mods
For DIY suspension mods, it is important to carefully reassess the modifications made. Depending on what you discover, replacing an erring part with something compatible can sometimes resolve the steering wheel problem.
Otherwise, consult a professional suspension specialist to evaluate more complicated changes. They should be able to guide you on how to get your steering wheel centered.
Sticky brake calipers
Suspected sticky brake calipers should be inspected and serviced. This involves cleaning, lubricating, or replacing the caliper pins or slides to ensure smooth operation.
Depending on what caused the calipers to stick, there may be additional steps. Either way, it is important to address brake caliper issues promptly to prevent further complications.
Lastly, drivetrain issues require addressing the specific problem affecting the drivetrain. Depending on the culprit, the fix could involve inspecting and repairing components such as CV joints, driveshafts, or differential mounts.
Once this bit is covered, you also need to perform the following steps to ensure optimal alignment and steering:
- Wheel alignment
- Suspension inspection
- Steering linkage check
- Test drive and verification
Conclusion — Steering Wheel Off-Center
I trust this article proves valuable to you, whether you require immediate assistance or anticipate future needs.
If you possess mechanical expertise, utilizing this guide should aid you in diagnosing and pinpointing the root cause of the issue. However, still revert to your owner’s manual for OEM-specific instructions — whether or not you feel uncertain or unfamiliar with diagnosis and resolution.
Kris is an avid off-roader and outdoor enthusiast who loves to brave the elements and take on challenging terrain. He also enjoys sharing his passion and knowledge with others so that they, too, can appreciate the ride.