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Summary
  • Problems that can result in a stiff steering wheel include a bad steering rack, misaligned wheels, power steering fluid issues, a faulty power steering pump, tire pressure leaks, and worn ball joints.
  • Electric steering gears (more common on vehicles after 2000) can cause suddenly stiff steering and sometimes require replacement of the steering gear.
  • Some ways to keep steering wheels from getting stiff include changing the power steering fluid regularly, checking the tire pressure, and ensuring wheel alignment.
  • Driving carefully and staying on top of car maintenance also prevent steering wheel issues.

Driving with a stiff steering wheel is incredibly dangerous. It affects your ability to control your vehicle, making driving feel clunkier. Your ride will be less responsive, and you’ll have a hard time turning your vehicle. This can put you and the people around you at risk.

Why Is My Steering Wheel Stiff?

Various issues can turn steering wheels stiff, including a bad steering rack, misaligned wheels, power steering fluid problems, a faulty power steering pump, tire pressure leaks, and worn ball joints. The question is whether it happened suddenly or gradually and whether there are noises like whining or squealing when you turn the wheels.

Bad Steering Rack

The steering rack connects the steering wheel to the tires. If the steering rack malfunctions or gets damaged in any way, it will hamper your steering. Bad steering racks make steering feel stiffer, and the wheels won’t be able to rotate smoothly.

Misaligned Wheels

Misaligned wheels lead to numerous problems – stiff steering wheels included. They can cause uneven tire wear, making the vehicle veer towards one side when driving. This leads to stiff and heavy steering because the tires are constantly pulling your vehicle toward a certain direction.

Power Steering Fluid Problems

If your steering wheel is stiff when turning, there’s a good chance it’s because of a lack of or insufficient power steering fluid. This fluid can leak or become unusable over time due to contamination.

The power steering fluid lubricates different parts of the steering system. If there isn’t enough of it, the steering wheel becomes stiffer and more difficult to control.

Bad Power Steering Pump or Slipping Belt

A faulty power steering pump can’t pump the power steering fluid throughout the steering system. That can prevent proper lubrication (even if there’s nothing wrong with the fluid), resulting in a stiff steering wheel. A slipping belt due to wear or oil can cause the power steering pump not to work well.

Variable Assist Steering Issues

A variable assist power steering system malfunction can cause the steering to be stiff in the parking lot or in town when it feels normal on the highway.

Tire Pressure Leak

When tire pressure is too low, it becomes more difficult to turn the steering wheel because the insufficient pressure increases brake distance and slows steering response time.

In other words, tires that lack air pressure won’t steer properly, making the steering wheel stiff.

Tires with low air pressure are also safety hazards because they reduce traction. Not only is your ability to control your vehicle hampered, but you’ll also be less effective at braking and staying on course.

Worn Ball Joints

Ball joints let the wheels move up and down while steering. If the ball joints become rusty and seized due to missing or compromised grease boots, steering may be stiff and may even fail to return to center after a turn. Of course, caster angles can cause the steering not to return as well, but usually the steering won’t be stiff due to caster.

How to Prevent Stiff Steering Wheels

A stiff steering wheel is a hassle to deal with. Fortunately, there are ways to prevent it, including checking the tire pressure regularly and ensuring proper wheel alignment. Driving carefully and proper maintenance helps.

driver with stiff steering wheel
Driving with a stiff steering wheel is incredibly dangerous. It affects your ability to control your vehicle, making driving feel clunkier.

Check Tire Pressure

As mentioned previously, low tire pressure can leads to stiff steering. To prevent this from happening, check the tire pressure regularly and ensure that it’s within acceptable parameters.

Most small vehicles ideally have a tire pressure of 30 psi. Medium-sized vehicles must have 36 psi, while large vehicles should have a tire pressure of 42 psi.

Ensure Proper Wheel Alignment

Because misaligned wheels can make vehicles more difficult to steer, it’s important to inspect them every once in a while. Too much positive caster can make the steering more difficult, but too much negative caster can cause issues with steering stability and return-to-center after turns. Keeping the wheels aligned also helps ensure that the steering system works as intended.

Too much positive caster can make the steering more difficult, but too much negative caster can cause issues with steering stability and return-to-center after turns.

Richard McCuistian, ASE Certified Master Automobile Technician

Drive Carefully

Every responsible driver knows this, but tire damage can affect your ability to steer and control your ride, so be careful on the road to avoid getting into accidents.

Commit to Regular Maintenance

It’s a good practice to bring your vehicle to an auto shop for maintenance at least once a year. This way, you can have a mechanic inspect your vehicle and confirm that everything is fully functional.

Regular maintenance prevents stiff steering because experts can fix broken or malfunctioning components before they become serious problems.

, Stiff Steering Wheel: Common Causes and How to Prevent It

Pro Tips are nuggets of information direct from ASE-certified automobile technicians working with CarParts.com, which may include unique, personal insights based on their years of experience working in the automotive industry. These can help you make more informed decisions about your car.

Pro Tip: Make sure you tell the service advisor or shop foreman if you have steering issues, even if they seem insignificant. If the shop wants to do hundreds of dollars worth of front end repairs, get a second opinion without telling the second shop what the first shop said.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some of the most commonly asked questions regarding stiff steering wheels.

Can you drive with a stiff steering wheel?

No, it’s not recommended to drive a vehicle with a stiff steering wheel. While it’s technically possible to do so, driving with a stiff steering wheel is dangerous because it makes it hard to control the vehicle.

How firm should the steering wheel be?

A steering wheel must be balanced enough to be maneuverable with a firm, yet gentle grip. It must be flexible, responsive, and easy to rotate.

, Stiff Steering Wheel: Common Causes and How to Prevent It

Pro Tips are nuggets of information direct from ASE-certified automobile technicians working with CarParts.com, which may include unique, personal insights based on their years of experience working in the automotive industry. These can help you make more informed decisions about your car.

Pro Tip: Variable assist power steering reduces steering assist on the highway but provides max assist when driving slowly.

It’s bad if your steering wheel is too loose. You won’t be able to control your vehicle as well because the wheel can easily lull and change directions at the slightest touch.

Similarly, it’s bad if your steering wheel is too tight. A steering wheel that’s stiff and difficult to turn is hard to control.

Can the weather and climate affect the stiffness of a steering wheel?

Yes, the weather and climate can affect the stiffness of a steering wheel.

Vehicles become more difficult to drive in winter overall because the sheer cold makes steering wheels less responsive. This occurs because colder temperatures thicken the power steering fluid. In more extreme temperatures, the cold freezes the fluid.

About The Authors
Written By Automotive and Tech Writers

The CarParts.com Research Team is composed of experienced automotive and tech writers working with (ASE)-certified automobile technicians and automotive journalists to bring up-to-date, helpful information to car owners in the US. Guided by CarParts.com's thorough editorial process, our team strives to produce guides and resources DIYers and casual car owners can trust.

Reviewed By Technical Reviewer at CarParts.com

Richard McCuistian has worked for nearly 50 years in the automotive field as a professional technician, an instructor, and a freelance automotive writer for Motor Age, ACtion magazine, Power Stroke Registry, and others. Richard is ASE certified for more than 30 years in 10 categories, including L1 Advanced Engine Performance and Light Vehicle Diesel.

Any information provided on this Website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace consultation with a professional mechanic. The accuracy and timeliness of the information may change from the time of publication.

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