Checking Steering for Play
The rack-and-pinion steering system system used on most modern cars is a very precise and accurate system. However, like all things mechanical, it is subject to wear.
The tie rods on either side of the rack can wear in two places. They can wear where they attach to the steering arms, at the struts, and they can also wear where the arms attach to the rack itself. Sometimes the way in which this play is checked can be a little misleading.
Typically, the play in these joints is checked with the car up on a hoist and the suspension hanging all the way down. The check is made by grabbing one of the wheels and wiggling it back and forth to see if there is any play. The problem with this method is that the car doesn’t drive down the road with the suspension hanging. The car should always be checked for steering play with the car at normal ride height. This is the way most alignment shops do it — with the suspension loaded.
One effective way to do this at home with the vehicle on level ground is to have someone wiggle the steering wheel back and forth a small amount while you watch to see where any play is visible. Sometimes putting your hand on the joint will allow you to feel play you normally cannot see. It might mean crawling around on your back a little, but it’s a better way to do it.