Your car’s steering wheel lets you maneuver the vehicle, so when this component fails to engage properly, your safety is at risk. Trying to turn or even change lanes when the steering system feels slow to respond (or locks up), indicates a dangerous issue that needs righting as soon as possible. Interestingly, the steering wheel is affected by other elements in the system (power steering fluid, belt, pump and piston), and if any loses efficiency, your ability to turn the wheel without resistance is impaired. Here are the most common sources of a steering wheel that’s difficult to turn:
Faulty Steering Rack
The steering rack–comprised of a rack and pinion attached to the steering wheel via U-joints and shafts–can wear out like any other component. If steering becomes difficult because of the rack, it might feel tight when you start to drive but ease up as the car gets going (the engine warms lubricant, which begins to spread out and aid steering). Nonetheless, when this symptom starts, you should have the system serviced to ensure the problem doesn’t escalate.
Compromised Power Steering Fluid
If your power steering fluid gets too low, it will increase steering wheel stiffness, since the pressurized system can’t properly lubricate the pump. You might have a leak or simply need a fluid refill.
Also, power steering fluid can thicken with sludge over time (like other vital fluids), decreasing its efficiency. To avoid dirty or low power steering fluid, have it checked frequently in alignment with your manufacturer’s service schedule.
Worn Serpentine Belt
Like most belts, the serpentine belt can become cracked or damaged with time and use, causing difficulty steering. If it doesn’t get replaced in time, it can break and render the car undrivable. To be safe, have the belt evaluated frequently and check the owner’s manual for a replacement schedule.
Failing Power Steering Pump
Creating adequate pressure for smooth steering, the power steering pump has a big job. If it becomes damaged or worn, you will still be able to turn the vehicle, albeit with much more force. You will know this part is to blame for your steering difficulty if the issue increases as speed decreases (the slower you drive, the more difficult it is to steer). Luckily, having this part replaced will fix the problem.