What causes your rack and pinion to go out?

The rack and pinion is a key component of a vehicle’s steering system. It converts the rotational motion of the steering wheel into linear motion to turn the wheels. There are several potential causes for rack and pinion failure, which can result in very dangerous steering issues.

Wear and Tear

Over time, the rack and pinion is subject to mechanical wear just like any other part of a car. The inner tie rod ends and outer tie rod ends are points of wear that can cause the system to fail. The pinion gear is in constant contact with the rack, which can slowly wear down the teeth on both components. This is a gradual process that takes place over tens of thousands of miles in most cases. Eventually, excessive wear prevents proper engagement between the rack and pinion gear, leading to steering difficulties.

Lack of Lubrication

The rack and pinion relies on grease inside the steering gear assembly to lubricate the components and minimize friction and wear. Over time, this grease can dry out or leak. Lack of lubrication accelerates wear and tear. Noisy operation is usually the first symptom of low lubricant levels. If left unaddressed, the unlubricated metal components will grind against each other, damaging the gear teeth and rack. Therefore, inspecting and replacing the power steering fluid according to the maintenance schedule is essential.


The rack must be perfectly parallel to the pinion gear for optimal operation. Collisions, heavy impacts from potholes, and other events can bend components and throw off this delicate alignment. Even minor deviations from parallel can greatly accelerate wear and possibly lead to gear binding or separation. Misalignment usually requires replacement of the rack, pinion, or both.

Excessive Play

Too much play or slack between the rack and pinion manifests as wandering, loose steering. This problem has several possible causes:

  • Worn inner/outer tie rod ends
  • Loose steering gear mounting bolts
  • Damaged steering gear assembly housing
  • Loose or damaged steering column couplings

Excessive play requires replacement of the affected components to restore proper steering responsiveness and control.

Power Steering Failure

The power steering system provides hydraulic assistance to reduce the driver’s steering effort. Problems with the power steering pump, fluid lines, hoses, belt, etc. can eliminate assist, increasing strain on the steering components. The lack of power steering places more stress on the mechanical parts of the manual system, accelerating wear. Driving without power steering assistance will quickly damage the rack and pinion.

Incorrect Installation

Rack and pinion systems are complex and must be installed precisely to OEM specifications. Incorrect positioning or angles of the gear assembly will cause premature failure. Using the wrong fasteners or improper torque specs can also lead to early wear or breakage. Always have a professional mechanic handle rack and pinion replacement to ensure proper fitment.

Bent Steering Components

Impact with potholes or other objects can bend the rack, inner/outer tie rods, steering knuckle or other components. Even very slight bends will alter the geometry and introduce uneven wear. A bent component must be replaced to prevent rapid failure of the new rack and pinion.

Excessive Free Play

Too much free play in the steering wheel indicates mechanical issues. Potential causes include:

  • Worn splines on the steering shaft
  • Loose fasteners in steering linkage
  • Worn steering coupler or U-joints
  • Damaged steering gear assembly housing

Excessive free play allows unnecessary movement between components. This accelerated wear will quickly lead to failure.

Binding and Restricted Motion

Binding or sticking can prevent proper articulation of the rack and pinion. This is usually caused by:

  • Bent or misaligned components
  • Severely worn gears
  • Damaged steering gear assembly
  • Corrosion

The increased friction from binding generates excessive heat and uneven forces that can lock up the steering. This represents a grave safety issue and requires immediate repair.

Loose Steering Linkage

The various connectors between the steering wheel and rack – such as the intermediate shaft, steering coupler, tie rods, and ball joints – must be securely fastened without play. Looseness in the steering linkage components allows unnecessary movement and vibration. This quickly accelerates wear on the associated parts, including the rack and pinion gears. Listen for clunks and look for looseness during inspection to identify worn linkage parts before they damage the rack.


The rack and pinion rely on thick power steering fluid for lubrication. Leaks in the power steering lines, pump, or gear housing allow this fluid to escape. Running low on fluid eliminates the crucial lubricating film between components. This metal-on-metal contact significantly increases friction, heat, and wear. Spotting leaks early and addressing them promptly is key to maximizing the life of your rack and pinion steering.


Rack and pinion steering failures result from a variety of causes. Wear and tear, lack of lubrication, damage from impacts, incorrect geometry, and loosening of components are just some of the ways these sensitive systems can be compromised. Thoroughly inspecting and replacing worn parts according to schedule can maximize the lifespan of your rack and pinion steering. Immediately addressing any steering system noises, looseness, or fluid leaks is also critical to prevent catastrophic failures leading to complete loss of control.

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