How To Tell If A Steering Gearbox Is Bad?

Are you facing any difficulties with your steering? The steering system of your car keeps it on track. A fault developing in it is dangerous and requires immediate repair. When the steering rack wears out or breaks entirely, leaving it unattended may result in a mishap. In this article, we will discuss the symptoms that tell if a steering gearbox is bad.

steering gear box

Regular maintenance and service will detect any problem with the steering gearbox. A repair at the right time can save money, time and lives in the future. However, if you suspect that the steering isn’t working as it should, you are at the right place. We will tell you how to interpret the symptoms of a defective steering box.

What Is A Steering Gearbox? What Does It Do?

The steering gearbox or the steering box is virtually the heart of the steering system. The most commonly employed gearbox in modern cars is the rack and pinion gear system. It comprises multiple components, like the rack, pinion, support yoke, cover plates, bearings and housings. If you refer to the steering gearbox diagram, you can see how the various components fit together.

Rack and Pinion Steering Gear Box
Rack and Pinion Type Steering Gear Box

The steering rack or gearbox receives input from the driver via the steering wheel and column. It then transmits this input into the turning of the wheels to either side. Thus, the car can turn whenever and wherever the driver needs it.

How To Tell If A Steering Gearbox Is Bad?

If we need to understand whether the gearbox is damaged, we first look into the symptoms of a bad or failing steering gearbox. We can also identify the faulty component by studying the symptoms. How do you check a steering gearbox? Most of the symptoms below reveal themselves in normal driving conditions. For inspection of the steering box, the car needs lifting in the front.

1. Tight Steering Wheel

Most modern cars come equipped with power steering that provides easy and quick handling of the steering wheel. It does so by employing hydraulic pressure from the power steering unit. If the steering wheel feels tight or difficult to move, it can be because of increased heat generation at the rack and pinion gears. It results from excess friction due to damage to the gearbox or misaligned gears.

a tight steering wheel is a symptom of a bad steering gearbox

Hydraulic pressure in the power steering unit may be low due to a leak in the system. In either case, the steering system needs inspection by a certified professional mechanic. An expert will be able to identify the damage and suggest repairs or replacements. This kind of problem will not go away on its own.

The solution may be as simple as adding more fluid in the power steering or a minor adjustment in the rack-and-pinion to increase the life of the steering gearbox.

rack and pinion in the steering gearbox

2. Leaking Power Steering Fluid

Sometimes, a tight steering wheel develops from low power steering fluid. The power steering unit is, however, a sealed system. Thus, low fluid levels can only occur due to a leak in the structure. A leak crops up because of a loose-fitting component, a broken gasket, or similar mechanical issues. Puddles under the driver’s side of the vehicle indicate that a seal or gasket on the steering gearbox is leaking fluid.

A steering fluid leak can be discerned from other fluids by its smell, typically, a burning oil smell. Steering fluid is usually pink or red and usually leaks from the back of the power steering motor.

steering fluid leaks from behind the motor

Leaks in the steering unit need a patch up as soon as possible, followed by refilling the steering fluid. Consult with a professional mechanic. Failure to complete this step leads to the generation of excess heat in the gearbox or steering rack. You will run the risk of broken gears and ultimately a crash when you can no longer control the steering.

3. A Grinding Noise During Steering

What does a bad steering box sound like? When the fluid level in the gearbox is too low, high friction occurs from the metal to metal contact. The steering fluid lubricates the moving parts of the gearbox. In its absence, the friction causes a popping or grinding noise when the car steers either left or right. You will notice this sound, especially when you go over a bump during a turn, like at the end of a driveway.

If you hear a grinding noise during steering, consult with a mechanic to find out the issue with the steering gearbox.

4. Burning Oil Smell

As we have discussed earlier, the power steering fluid smells like burning oil. A less common alerting clue of a defective steering gearbox is the smell of burnt oil. A strong aroma emerges when the steering gearbox is overheating. If this hint manifests during a drive, stop your car as soon as possible. Find a safe place to park and contact a mechanic immediately.

Continuing to drive with an overheating gearbox can lead to fire and catastrophic damage to the vehicle.

5. Foaming Or Discoloured Oil

This particular symptom will reveal itself during a regular maintenance inspection. You can tell if a steering gearbox is bad by the colour of the steering fluid, either foaming, blackened or milky.

different stages of used steering fluid.

Black fluid indicates excessive heat build-up between the gears and other moving parts of the gearbox. The foaming oil arises from air build-up in the steering box. The presence of air means the fluid is not lubricating the steering gears properly. Milky fluid is evidence that water is contaminating the lubricant, lowering its effectiveness.

foaming steering fluid can cause a defective steering gearbox
Foaming Steering Oil

Contaminated fluid needs renewal with new steering oil. If a leak is allowing contaminants to enter, it calls for repair as well.

6. Wandering Or Inconsistent Steering

Your vehicle may be wandering slightly or veering to one side while on the road. Such is the result of the worn-down steering gear. The steering wheel may also pull to one side in case of excessive wear. Occasionally, the steering wheel could jerk or turn either way without any input from you. If that is happening, the bearings in the steering rack are likely too loose.

steering column bearing
Upper Steering Column Bearing

The whole steering assembly requires inspection. If the steering gear or the bearing is damaged, it necessitates replacement.

7. Excessive Play In The Steering Wheel

Excessive play means the steering wheel turns more than 1 inch in either direction before it engages the steering mechanism. Such a phenomenon is also the outcome of the steering gear being defective (worn-out). The wheel may also wobble from time to time.

excessive play in the steering wheel can tell if a steering gearbox is bad

You can confirm this problem by asking a friend to watch the car wheels. Meanwhile, you turn the steering wheel. If you have to turn the steering more than 1 inch before your friend signals the wheels turning, you can tell if the steering gearbox is bad. As we said earlier, the steering gear necessitates replacement.

8. Clunking In The Steering Column

If you hear clunking from the steering column while driving, it is one of the symptoms of bad steering rack bushings. It could be a loose or worn out steering rack mounting, upper control arm or stabilizer link bushing. It comes to notice, especially when driving over a speed bump or uneven roads. A thorough inspection of the steering and suspension mechanisms will reveal the faulty bushing.

Once identified, you can easily replace it with a new one. We also have an article on dealing with a defective stabilizer link. You may like to check it out.

9. Clicking Or Popping During A Turn

A worn-out steering rack mounting bushing creates free play in the steering column. It can twist or misalign the steering box and supporting components, causing popping in the gearbox joints. It occurs due to damaged mounting bushings on the steering rack.

new steering rack bushing can help if a steering gearbox is bad

Is It Safe To Drive With A Bad Steering Gearbox?

No. It is unsafe to drive with a defective steering gearbox. The gearbox is vital to the smooth steering of any vehicle. When it wears down, it seriously compromises your steering ability. If that happens during a trip, you could crash. Be alert to the warning signs. Consult a mechanic and arrange repairs as soon as possible. Don’t drive your car until it is in good repair.

What Happens If You Over-tighten The Steering Box?

If you over-tighten the steering gearbox, the wheel will no longer return to the centre by itself. As long as the wheel self-centres after a turn, the gearbox is loose enough.

Do You Need An Alignment After Replacing The Steering Box?

No, an alignment is not necessary after the steering gearbox undergoes replacement. The new gearbox does not affect the caster, camber or toe of the wheels during replacement.

castor, camber and toe of a wheel


You can tell if a steering gearbox is bad by studying the symptoms mentioned above. They are easy to notice right at home. Further inspection, however, must be performed by a certified mechanic. For damaged bushings, you can replace them by yourself. Otherwise, any work on the steering gearbox should occur under the supervision of an expert mechanic at a local automobile shop.

If you have noticed any of these symptoms, do not delay any further. Consult a mechanic today.

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