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Steering Problems - Not Always the Pump

Power Steering Box (typical)

A recent question in our Ask a Mechanic forums highlighted how sometimes, the obvious answer isn't the right answer.

2004 Chevrolet Cavalier Steering

The question was about the steering on a Chevy Cavalier. From the initial description of the steering seeming "different than normal", being affected in both right- and left-hand turns, and an occasional whining noise accompanying the change in steering, the assumption would be the power steering pump or belt.

In many cases, this assumption may be correct, as this is the most likely part to fail. But in this case, assuming that would have meant hours of labor and a costly replacement part to ultimately not resolve the problem.

So it pays to look deeper first.

Start By Knowing the Basics

How does the steering system in modern vehicles work? If you don't know the answer and can't name the basic parts involved, then you'll need to bone up before you try any diagnostics.

Modern cars use rack-and-pinion steering. You can find out more about them here, here, and here.

Once you know that, you can start digging for solutions.

Check the Easy Stuff First

Since the problem is likely with the power steering assist modules (aka p/s pump and components), check those first. Under the hood, you'll find the p/s pump, which is usually driven by the accessory belt from the engine's crankshaft. It will have a small reservoir for power steering fluid on top of it.

Start by checking the belt to be sure it's tension is correct. Your owner's manual should have the torque requirement and most repair manuals give you simple ways to test this. If it's not tight enough or is too tight, take the appropriate measures to rectify that. This may or may not fix your problem.

Check the fluid level and the fluid itself - use an extractor, turkey baster, or other tool to draw a small amount of fluid out. Make sure the fluid is of the proper color and is not contaminated. Either could indicate problems. If you're unsure what it should look like, purchase a container of new fluid from the parts store and compare side by side.

Check for leaks in and around the pump and the lines that go from it to the power steering box on the rack.

Finally, with the engine running, watch the pulley on the power steering pump turn. Is it wobbling? If so, you may have a bent pulley shaft.

Now for the Rack

If everything around the pump checks out OK, then your next issue will be the steering rack itself. While in the early stages of failure, the rack will exhibit some of the same symptoms a failing pump will have, but there's no simple way to test it.

Most mechanics at this point will just replace the rack. You could do this, or you could find out what the cost will be and begin saving in order to do it soon. The p/s rack can be rebuilt if removed before failure, which may be an option as well.