Our off-road vehicles are built to handle the reasonable rigors of dirt antics, but time and torture take their toll on the mechanical components. The front axle, suspension, and steering components see the stress of ruts, whoops, and other obstacles. Parts wear, bend, or break, causing vehicle tracking and handling to suffer. Poor steering reaction may result, or the rig may pull off center or wander. Worse yet, neglected steering components could leave you stranded or careening onto some path you didn’t choose voluntarily.
The addition of larger tires places greater loads on all steering components so it accelerates wear of wheel bearings, steering joints, idler units, steering boxes, suspension bushings, and all associated mounting points and hardware. Routine maintenance and occasional needed repairs in these areas will keep steering performance on par.
A bent draglink or tie rod can affect steering as well. Depending on steering linkage configuration, a draglink often won’t affect tracking of the vehicle but can affect steering limits and position of the steering wheel. A bent tie rod can cause improper toe-in resulting in increased tire wear. It may also cause the vehicle to wander or pull to one side or the other. Along these lines, poor front end alignment can affect a variety of front end behaviors, including tire wear, pulling off-center, steering wheel return to center, and overall steering tracking.
Experiencing steering issues? Here’s a quick rundown of items to check in your quest to keep your rig steering straight down the road or in the dirt.
Step By Step
Of course, it’s always easiest to check the simplest things when steering issues arise. These can include looking for badly worn tires, bent wheels, and low air pressure. Loose or worn wheel bearings can cause steering wander. The best means to check bearing condition is to jack each front tire off the ground, and check for any wiggle or play by pushing and pulling on the tire. You should detect none. Traditional taper roller bearings can wear out prematurely if they were set too tight or improperly lubricated. Modern unit bearings can also wear over time, or prematurely if they were not initially torqued correctly to establish proper preload.
Worn tie-rod ends, idler units, or other steering linkages can cause poor steering response and accelerated tire wear. There should be no play in the joints. Torn boots let dirt and water in, and degrade grease. A periodic shot of grease on joints with zerk fittings prolongs joint life. Spherical rod ends or heims may wear out their liners, resulting in joint play. Once a ball begins to get loose in its race, subsequent loading will bang it back and forth, accelerating the wear and play between the two parts. Though uncommon, catastrophic rod end failure may eventually occur. In race applications, it may be appropriate to have rod ends magnafluxed at the end of the season to check for any signs of fatigue before issues arise.
Worn A-arm bushings or ball joints on an IFS vehicle can result in play in the front suspension that can cause all kinds of front handling and tire wear problems. On front straight-axle vehicles, steering wander or looseness can result from loose U-bolts, worn spring bushings, or worn ball joints or kingpins. Additionally, badly worn or damaged shocks can cause poor ride and handling on any front suspension. Sticking brake calipers can cause steering pull, although this is routinely evidenced by brake heating and accelerated pad wear.
A worn or loosely adjusted steering box can cause your steering to behave erratically as the gear components inside wobble back and forth due to play in the steering box. Most steering boxes can be adjusted via a screw on the top of the box that sets the worm gear play. Numerous times we’ve seen steering problems arise from steering boxes not tightly secured to the frame or frame cracks near the box allowing flex and wander in the steering behavior. Generally, once you’ve bent a steering rod, it’s weakened and prone to further bending with minimal steering input.