Steering Wheel: The Ultimate Guide
When you turn the steering of a car, the wheels turn to face the direction you want them to. But have you ever wondered how this happens or why it is risky to drive with a bad steering wheel? This guide provides you with information about this crucial component. It answers questions about automotive steering wheels and helps you to understand them in a more profound way.
Among the topic covered include what a steering wheel is, how it works, and its importance in a vehicle. We also show you how to tell a bad steering wheel, how to replace a faulty one and much more. In a nutshell, it is a comprehensive guide that leaves no question about the steering wheel unanswered.
Table of Contents
Steering Wheel Definition
What is a Steering Wheel?
A steering wheel is the part that a driver uses to control or steer a vehicle. The steering wheel derives its name from its shape. While there is no steering wheel universal design, most are circular, like a wheel, and turn on a central hub. Some of these wheels are not fully round but a half circle and commonly known as a butterfly steering wheel.
Other names for this vehicle part include “driving wheel” and “hand wheel”. Steering wheels are found in virtually all road vehicles, from small passenger cars to heavy trucks. They form part of a vehicle’s steering system that consists of other components and linkages, such as rods, and gears. Modern automobiles come with a steering wheel that has most of the vehicle controls connected to it. These include cruise control, horn, audio system, and others.
What Does a Steering Wheel Do?
A steering wheel’s function is to transfer a driver’s input to the wheels. As a result, the wheels move to rotate and face the preferred direction. That way, a driver can control a vehicle to drive to specific places, avoid things, and park the vehicle.
A steering wheel can be used to turn the front wheels or both the front and back wheels. It depends on the particular type of car or truck. Vehicles that turn using two wheels are called two-wheel drive vehicles and those that use all fours four-wheel drive vehicles.
How Does a Steering Wheel Work?
Steering wheels differ across vehicle types both in size and shape. Some have a single spoke, while others have two or more. Some are a half circle, others round rings. However, their working principle remains more or less similar. Here is how a typical steering wheel works.
When the steering wheel is rotated, the movement transmits down the steering wheel column, shaft, and to the other parts of the steering system. These are of different types, but the most common is the rack and pinion gear system. Another common steering mechanism is the recirculating ball system.
In a rack and pinion steering system, the motion of the steering wheel causes a small, round gear ( called the steering pinion), to lock with the teeth on a long metal bar (known as the rack). As the pinion gear rotates, it moves the rack from one side to the other. This transfers the wide angle of rotation of the steering wheel into small angle turns of the wheels.
The size of the pinion gear in relation to the rack determines the angle that the steering wheel angle of turn. This is what gives the steering ration of a vehicle. Usually, the steering wheel needs to turn a few time to turn the wheels fully. Different vehicles have different steering ratios, which is partly determined by the size of the steering wheel.
Modern vehicles use what is known as power steering. In simple terms, this refers to a kind of assisted steering where a motor or hydraulic system provides extra energy to the steering action at specific speeds. This makes the driver use less effort than would be needed without the power steering option. Maneuvers and vehicle parking then become much easier. Vehicle control also becomes precise, and the steering mechanism more responsive.
What is Steering Wheel Connected to?
A steering wheel is connected to the steering column which, in turn, connects to the steering mechanism. Inside the steering column is the steering shaft, a rotating part that that is supported by bearings at the top of the column. The steering column also houses various components that are operated by the driver from the steering wheel. The include the turn signal switch, ignition switch, dimmer switch for the headlights, and other related accessories.
How Important is a Steering Wheel?
The steering wheel is the only part in a vehicle that a driver spends a lot of time holding. In other words, a driver relies on the steering wheel to drive a car. Among the essential functions of this component is vehicle steering. It also provides the driver with feedback on how what the wheels are doing. A stylish steering wheel enhances the look of a car’s interior, and the reason why the components come in different designs and shapes.
The hub of the steering wheels of some vehicles hold a safety airbag. In the event of a crash, the airbag deploys from the wheel to protect the driver from impact. Most modern steering wheels also contain controls for various vehicle circuits and accessories, such as audio and cruise control.
What are Steering Wheels Made of?
Most steering wheels in modern cars are a thin ring made of steel encased in polyurethane material. In some steering wheels, the steel ring is covered with leather or even wood. The cover can also be a fabric material. For driver comfort, the material used to cover the steering wheel should be made of a material that does not become too hot or freezing cold. It should not slip when the hands become sweaty, too, among other safety features.
Do Trains Have Steering Wheels?
The answer is no. Trains do not need a steering wheel. That is because the rail steers them. The only control required is a braking system and acceleration, among other functions.
Do Ships Have Steering Wheels?
Ships and boats do have a steering part but which does not resemble that used by road vehicles. Usually, called a helm, the steering wheel on a boat or ship guides the vessel toward the preferred direction. A steering wheel for boat or ship steering is usually of a hydraulic mechanism, using the force of hydraulic fluid to actuate the steering components. Some ships use a simple toggle as the steering part.
As mentioned earlier, a steering wheel can have several parts integrated into it. Some come already installed by the manufacturer, while others are fitted by car owners themselves. The next part of this guide looks at these parts on a steering wheel and the purpose they serve. The tools that are also on the component, too.
Parts of a Steering Wheel
Parts of the Steering Wheel
A typical steering will have several parts fitted to it, some manufacturer-installed and others the work of the vehicle owner. Most of these parts help with controlling of various car functions, while a few help to improve the handling of the steering wheel. Some are tools to use when working on the steering wheel. The parts, add-ons and tools include:
Steering Wheel Cover
This is the part that covers the metal skeleton that makes the steering wheel ring. It can be made from different materials, the most common being foam plastic. Others include would, leather and fabric. The cover needs to absorb moisture. This ensures a firm grip even when a driver’s hands become sweaty. The cover can be different textures, which also helps to improve grip.
Steering wheel covers can be the heated type. Heated steering wheels provide for comfortable driving during cold weathers. They also prevent a driver’s hands from becoming incapacitated by freezing temperatures. Steering wheel covers vary across brands with some featuring colors and designs to make them look stylish.
Steering Wheel Buttons
The steering wheels used in modern cars do not just turn the wheels. They are multi-function steering wheels, with various control buttons mounted on them. Placed within a driver’s easy reach, the buttons serve to improve the safety of the vehicle. The driver is able control a car without taking their hands off the steering wheel or the eyes from the road.
The buttons include cruise control buttons to operate accessories such as the stereo, and those that allow the driver to answer the phone. Some vehicles include buttons to control the air conditioner and others a button to access the car computer. The buttons can be factory-installed or owner upgrades.
Steering Wheel Spinner Knob
Also known as a wheel spinner, steering ball, Brodie knob, or steering wheel knob is an add-on that is supposed to help a driver turn a car easily. They also allow for one-hand driving. By laying one hand on the knob, a driver is able to steer a vehicle without using both hands, even when making full turns. Wheel knobs, as they are also called, can help handicapped drivers to drive. When you have to turn many times when driving, the knobs makes that less tiring.
A steering knob spinner needs to be fitted at the right height; not too low and not too high. Tightly, too so it does not slip while driving. The mounting position also matters. Fitting it on the top of the steering wheel may not be a good idea. It may bump into your wrists. The sides make better positions as the knob will be easy to access. When mounted at the bottom of the steering wheel, the steering knob becomes easier to use. It is the position that a handicapped driver will find the best.
Steering Wheel Heater
It essentially comprises a heating element that heats the rim of the steering wheel. This causes the whole steering wheel, including the cover, to become warm. Steering wheel heaters are helpful when driving in freezing temperatures, as can happen in countries that experience cold months. The heater is not always on, and not all steering wheels have this option. The heater is usually activated by a switch on the dashboard or steering wheel.
Some factory-installed steering wheel heaters come with a remote module to activate them. This allows the driver to warm the steering wheel beforehand. The heating option used to be a preserve of luxury cars. However, modern non-luxury cars offer heated steering wheels. Heated steering wheel covers are also available as aftermarket auto parts for vehicle owners who want to upgrade.
Steering Wheel Lock
This is a device that locks the steering wheel to prevent theft of a vehicle. A typical steering wheel lock is a metal bar that sits across the steering wheel. Usually made of strong steel alloy, the lock works by immobilizing the steering wheel. A person breaking into the vehicle would then find it impossible to drive off.
Steering wheel locks come in a wide range of designs. Universal locks are a long metal bar that can fit a wide range of steering wheels. To warn a potential car thief from a far, a steering wheel lock bar features bright colors that are easy to notice.
Steering Wheel Audio Control Adapter
A steering control adapter for audio devices allows a driver to control some car accessories while driving. Because the driver does not take their hands from the steering wheel, a steering wheel adapter like a safety ad-on. The devices to be operated include the car’s stereo and the driver’s phone. Usually, the adapter communicates with the accessories through Bluetooth connectivity.
Although control options vary, most of these adapters allow one to change audio volume, channels, move from one song to another, and several other functions. When used to operate a phone, a steering wheel control adapter allows the driver to make and receive calls, or even hang up. There’s also the option to use voice controls if the phone supports that.
Steering Wheel Puller
This is a steering wheel removing tool. A steering wheel puller comes in handy when changing a steering wheel, especially the type that does not come off easily. The tool consists of two thin bolts that go through slots on the side and a threaded rod in the center. Steering wheel pullers come in different designs but work in the same way.
To use puller, the fasten the bolts in the corresponding holes on the steering wheel. These are meant for this purpose and hold the puller in place while you turn the center rod. After you have secured the tool’s frame to the steering wheel, you turn the central bolt using a ratchet. This presses the bolt against the steering shaft, creating a force that pulls out the steering wheel.
Proper Usage of a Steering Wheel
For better vehicle control and comfortable driving, a driver must understand how to use the steering wheel correctly. This vehicle part is one of the most important in a vehicle, yet one of the easiest to neglect or use wrongly. A driver needs to know how to hold the steering wheel properly, how to operate it, and how to improve its efficiency. And if it locks, how to unlock it.
How Many Degrees Does a Steering Wheel Turn?
The degrees that a steering wheel turns largely depend on the steering ratio and varies across vehicle types. One vehicle type will make 2½ turns from lock to lock, while another turns three complete circles end to end. Considering that a complete turn equals 360°, you can tell the number of degree that a steering has made. Other factors come into play, of course, such as the deflection angle.
The steering ratio of a vehicle is affected by various things, such as power steering and vehicle weight. A vehicle that uses manual steering will have a higher steering ration than one that uses power steering. When it comes to vehicle weight, the steering ratio of heavy vehicles is usually higher than that of lighter automobiles.
What is the Proper Way to Hold a Steering Wheel?
Holding a steering wheel correctly is crucial to proper driving. You may have heard about the 10 and 2 position. However, with the introduction of the airbag and the transformation that the steering wheel has undergone, that position is no longer safe. It is not advisable when a vehicle’s steering wheel is too small. Also, if equipped with an airbag.
Vehicle experts now recommend the 9 and 3 position. This means the left hand should be on the position where 9 would be if the steering wheel were a clock. The right hand should be in the 3 O’clock position. However, this should not be taken to be a rigid way to hold the steering wheel, but a safety recommendation. For information regarding the correct way to drive, it is more advisable to consult the car’s manual.
To hold the steering the proper way, follow these tips.
- Place both hands on either side of the steering wheel
- Grip the steering wheel firmly but not roughly
- Use the fingers to hold the steering wheel and not the palms
- Rest the thumbs on the steering wheel on both sides
How Can I Make My Car Steering Better?
It is every vehicle owner’s wish to make the steering more responsive, accurate, and efficient. Such a steering system would be safer and more comfortable to use, especially if the driving conditions involve lots of turning. To improve your vehicle’s steering, use these tips.
Check excessive play– too much play reduces the responsiveness of the steering system. Apart from making your vehicle difficult to drive, it can make make a vehicle unsafe. Usually, excessive play occurs when some components wear out. Inspect them and fix the affected parts.
Replace worn parts– parts that have become worn can cause your steering to perform poorly. To correct the situation, change the parts that you find to be no longer useful or efficient. These can include joints, bushings, and other components that are prone to wear. Most cars use rack and pinion gear steering mechanisms. Check if these gears are worn.
Fix the suspension– sometimes, bad components in the vehicle suspension can cause the steering system of a vehicle. Check the various parts that make the suspension to ensure they are in good condition. If worn or damaged, replace them to make the steering system responsive and accurate.
Consider an upgrade– some vehicle owners replace the steering wheel for a better one. Compared to big steering wheels, small wheels produce turns that are more accurate. Small steering wheels are also more responsive than bigger ones. You may also want a design that offers more comfort when driving.
Use add-ons– apart from a steering wheel upgrade, you could consider installing components that improve the handling of the wheel or even vehicle control. These include buttons to ensure you do not take your hands off the wheel, things like spinner knobs, and more.
How do You Control a Steering Wheel?
Steering wheel control is a crucial skill when it comes to steering a vehicle. To help you ensure proper use of the steering, follow these tips.
Hold the steering in a 9 and 3 position. It is the recommended way but not rigidly so.
Grip the steering wheel using both hands. Whenever you take your hand off to change gear, for example, return it to its position immediately.
Maintain a firm but gentle hold of the steering wheel. If you grip to tightly, you might tire and numb your hands. That can make you not to feel the feedback of the wheels, a dangerous situation when driving.
Keep the thumbs on the steering wheel. It offers you a better hold of the wheel.
When turning, use the pull and push technique to rotate the steering wheel. That means one hand pushing on the wheel while the other pulls and vice versa.
When reversing, hold the steering wheel at the 12 o’clock position with one hand and hold the passenger seat with the other.
A driver needs to be comfortable so they can steer a vehicle properly. Adjust the seat and the steering wheel column to your preferred positions.
How to Unlock a Steering Wheel
A vehicle’s steering wheel locks to prevent the vehicle moving without the ignition key or when the wrong key is used. However, the locking mechanism wears out over time causing the steering wheel to fail to unlock. Should that happen, use the key to unlock the wheel by following the steps below.
Insert the key into the vehicle’s ignition lock cylinder. Apply pressure to the steering wheel while turning the key. If you do so using the right timing, the wheel should unlock immediately. If not, it might take you a few tries to succeed.
The above procedure is not guaranteed to work. If it fails, consider using an electrical cleaner to loosen the lock’s internal components. Spray the cleaner into the opening of the lock. If the parts of the lock had seized, the lubrication should make them loose and release the wheel lock.
Symptoms of a Bad or Failing Steering Wheel
A bad steering wheel can cause loss of vehicle control, a safety risk when driving. Luckily, these components show signs of damage easily. You only need to be observant enough to pick these symptoms. Steering wheel failure needs to be corrected without delay. That is because problems will not go away until you take action.
Symptoms of Bad or Failing Steering Wheels
Symptoms of a bad steering system are many and varied. To help you take action early enough, here is a list of of the symptoms that show a steering wheel is failing.
The Steering Wheel is Hard to Turn
This happens in vehicles that use power steering. If the steering wheel is stuck, there could be a problem with the power steering mechanism. It could be a leak. Check the fluid level in the reservoir. If the level is low, fill it up.
A leaking steering pump or hoses will cause the fluid level to drop again too soon. If that happens, consider checking the system and fixing the affected part. If a steering wheel is stiff every time you are driving, it can be both uncomfortable and tiring.
Loosening of the Steering Wheel
If the steering wheel is loose, the problem is usually the tie rods or the steering rack. The components are likely to be excessively worn. They need replacing to restore the performance of the steering system. Continuing to drive when the steering wheel feels loose is not a good idea. It can be risk for you and other road users.
Steering Wheel Slipping
When the steering wheel slips when in a turned position, it can mean one of these two things; the power steering system could be lacking hydraulic fluid, or the steering rack mount could be worn. Check the power pump for leaks. If there is no leaking fluid, it could be that you need to replace some worn steering components.
Excessive Steering Wheel Vibration on Accelerating or When Turning
If a steering wheel vibrates at high speeds or on taking a corner, it could be a sign of tie rod damage. The problem can also happen when you step on the brake. The rods are either worn or damaged in another way. Consider replacing them. A vibrating steering wheel is not one of the nicest experiences.
- Excessive Steering Wheel Play
This problem is often caused by a damaged or worn out steering gear. How do you tell if there is excessive play in the steering wheel? You can do so by observing how turning happens. If you have to rotate the steering wheel by an inch or more before the tires begin to move, you have a worn steering gear. Too much steering wheel play can cause drivability problems.
The steering wheel making noise is a sign that the steering gear is worn. The noise can take many forms and during during different vehicle maneuvers. If it is a grinding sound, consider checking the steering gear for wear or damage. The steering system is made of many components. Check those that are likely to wear down quickly.
A Screech When Turning
A steering wheel squeaking or making a screeching sound when you turn it indicates a problem with the power steering mechanism. It could be the power steering belt that is worn or low levels of the hydraulic fluid. The symptom where the steering wheel makes noise when turning can, therefore, be caused by leaks in the pump or hoses of the power assist.
The Steering Wheel is Off Center
If the steering wheel is not centered, the problem could be a broken part in the steering column or blockage. Usually, the steering wheel should return to the center by itself when released. A bad one with a damaged column will not have this ability.
Wobbling Steering Wheel
Normally, the steering wheel should operate smoothly, without shaking or wobbling. A steering wheel wobble is a sign of worn parts of the steering system. It should be dealt with immediately or it will generate into a worse situation that affects vehicle control.
Uneven Tire Wear
This can be caused by a bad vehicle alignment, but also bad parts of the steering system. A worn rack gear can result in one of the tires wearing unevenly, a symptom you can easily notice by observing the tires on either side.
Failed Tilt Angle
Most steering wheels that use power assist feature a tilt function that lets you set the angle of tilt. It allows you the preferred steering wheel position and comfort when driving. If it fails, it can mean a problem in the steering system, and a steering wheel that will not lock in one position.
Warning Light On
If your vehicle uses electric power steering, it will likely have the system monitored by a computer. A problem in the system will cause a dashboard warning light to activate. If that happens, have the computer scanned for the trouble codes.
Car Pulls to One Side
A damaged or worn gear in the steering system will cause drivability issues. One of them is the car drifting or pulling to one side. A binding gear will cause a pull, while excessive play within the steering components causes a drift. A problem with other parts of the vehicle can also cause this symptom, so it is advisable to have the issue checked first.
- Steering Wheel Crooked
Some steering problems are not caused by a faulty steering system. A crooked steering wheel, for example. If the steering wheel is crooked, the reason is usually misalignment. Getting this adjusted, corrects the fault a steering wheel not straight, and restores driving accuracy.
Steering Wheel Shaking at High Speed
If the steering wheel is shaking when you pick up speed, the problem could be worn or damaged components in the steering system such as gears and linkages. Have the system checked and the worn parts replaced. If a steering wheel shakes when driving, it can take away a driver’s comfort.
Steering Wheel Repair
The steps you take to fix a bad steering wheel depends on the type of damage. It can be as simple as steering wheel adjustment, or drastic like steering wheel replacement. An off-centered wheel can be corrected by carrying out steering wheel alignment. If the problem cannot be fixed, installing a new steering wheel and other parts of the steering system is recommended.
Regardless of whether the steering wheel is stuck, shaky, or not centered, you should not ignore any sign that indicates failing parts. Take action immediately. Visiting a repair shop before more damage occurs can save you the cost of expensive repairs or damage. In the next section, we look at how to change a steering wheel.
When to Change a Steering Wheel
As a vehicle owner, you will want to change the steering at one time or another. Reasons for doing so may vary. They include changing a worn or broken steering wheel or simply making an upgrade to improve vehicle handling. If replacing the steering due to wear, ensure that you get the right one for your vehicle.
Alternatively, you may choose a universal steering wheel. For the steering wheel replacement that aims to improve steering performance, choose one with the right steering ratio. That means picking the right size, among other factors.
How to Replace a Steering Wheel
Can you replace a steering wheel yourself? The answer is yes, you can. However, modern ones come equipped with an airbag, and care should be taken when removing them. Older non-airbag steering wheels may not be as difficult to replace. Usually mounted using in a basic way, the steering wheels do not need any skill to remove. Here is the process for steering wheel removal and replacement.
How to Remove a Non-Airbag Steering Wheel
Things you will need:
Socket and ratchet kit, gloves, and protective eyewear. If possible, have a steering wheel puller with you. It helps to make the task easier.
Start by disconnecting the negative terminal of the battery.
Remove the steering wheel horn pad. Pull it out firmly but gently.
Disconnect the horn button wires.
Remove the steering wheel retaining nut and the washer behind the nut. Do so using a ratchet and socket.
Mark the orientation of the steering column using an appropriate marker. This will help during the installation of the steering wheel.
Finally, pull the steering wheel off the end of the steering column.
How to Remove an Airbag Steering Wheel
Caution: removing an airbag steering when requires great care and some knowledge about how the airbag works. Ensure that you disconnect the battery. Electric power can activate the air bag without your knowledge.
Start by disconnecting and removing the battery. You should wait for at least 30 minutes before removing the airbag. This allows the power in the airbag deployment module to dissipate. If the module contains no power, or the airbag cannot deploy to cause injury.
After the 30 minutes are over, you can now proceed to remove the airbag, avoiding any damage to it. Do so by unfastening the screws on the back of the steering wheel.
Take out the airbag assembly by sliding it off the front of the steering column. Set it aside, facing upward and in a safe place. Airbag assembly should be handled with care to avoid any damages.
Remove the steering wheel mounting nut.
Make the orientation of the steering wheel on the end of the steering column shaft. This mark is important when installing the new steering wheel.
Remove the wheel by carefully pulling it off the steering column. You can start the installation process now.
How to Replace a Non-Airbag Steering Wheel
Noting the marks made during the removal of the steering wheel, slide the steering wheel on to the steering column.
Ensuring that the nuts and torqued appropriately, install the wheel.
Attach the horn button wire to the horn button pad. Then, press the pad firmly on to the steering wheel.
Ensure the steering wheel is firmly tightened to the steering column.
How to Replace an Airbag Steering Wheel
Slide the steering wheel on to the steering column following the marks that you made earlier.
Replace the steering wheel retaining nut.
Plug in the airbag and insert it in the steering wheel. Replace the retaining screws.
Reconnect the battery terminal that you had disconnected.
Test the electrical parts on the steering wheel to make sure they are working. If the airbag light comes on, have its installation inspected by a mechanic. You do not want to have an airbag that is not properly installed in your vehicle.
When testing the electrical parts, it is safer to be outside the car to avoid a case where the airbag comes out unexpectedly.
Finally, replace any panel that you may have removed.
How to Remove a Steering Wheel Using a Puller
Removing the steering in some vehicles can be difficult. If yours is one of them, a removal tool called a steering wheel puller can come in handy. Here is how to use it.
Disconnect the battery negative lead.
Remove the airbag, lifting it off the wheel and disconnecting the cables. Keep it in a safe place.
Remove the retaining but of the steering wheel using a socket wrench or any other appropriate tool.
Attach the wheel puller. Find the right bolts that will fit the holes in the steering wheel. Insert the bolts in the puller and fasten them to the wheel.
Using a wrench, tighten the central bolt of the puller so it presses against the steering column. When the wheel loosens, remove the electrical connectors before pulling it out.
Steering Wheel Removal Questions
When changing your car’s steering wheels, you might have questions about the process. We answered the most common.
How much does it cost to replace a steering wheel?
Should you take the car to a repair shop, expect to pay between $400 and $100. Carrying out the replacement yourself could see you save some money.
How easy is it to replace a steering wheel?
Replacing a steering wheel should present no challenge, especially if the wheel does not incorporate an airbag. With an airbag, the process requires more care and precision. If unsure of how to do it correctly, it is advisable to involve a mechanic.
Are steering wheels universal?
The simple answer is no. Most come in different sizes, while some have the specific vehicle types that they fit. However, there are the so called universal steering wheels that can be installed in a wide range of vehicles.
Steering wheels are crucial components in all road vehicles. They are the parts that allow a driver to steer the vehicle. As such, learning how to use the steering wheel properly is an important part of being a driver. That means understanding how it works. How to tell when it starts to malfunction, too. As a vehicle owner, you also need to know how to change your car’s steering wheel.
All that information is what this steering wheel guide aims to provide. Having read through it, you now understand the working of this vehicle part better. Apart from making your driving better, it can help you avoid risky driving, such as using a bad steering wheel. It is knowledge you will find useful when using a vehicle.