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Camry Steering - Hard, Then Loosens

My 96 Camry runs great (191K) and tracks well while driving; and the steering feels just fine (not loose, no vibration) while traveling straight or on roads with slight bends. No vibrations at all. When I have to make a turn (left or right), the steering stiffens, at first, but when continuing to rotate the steering wheel it eases up and feels just fine. If I have to make a sharp turn, it will go through two or three of these hard/soft cycles. The change between hard and soft is not abrupt. No noise accompanies the hard/soft change; only the effort needed to rotate the steering wheel changes. Rounding the corners, the car tracks just fine and smooth as it always had. No loud power-steering pump noises, at all, under any condition. P/S fluid full; and the fluid does not look dirty, though I don’t know the age of the fluid (I bought the car used about a year ago). I have no P/S fluid leaks.

It sounds like your power steering drive belt is slipping. It probably needs adjusting or replacement. If you have a serpentine belt…check the belt, idler pulley and tensioner.

It could be simply a case of a slipping belt, or it could be a case of a worn-out/damaged steering rack.

Because the latter is a genuine safety issue, I strongly suggest putting the car up on a lift and having the rack checked by a competent mechanic.

This is one of those questions I just do not understand. The first time my steering acted like that I would call a frontend shop. the second time I would go straight there and say fix this before I kill someone instead of playing forum guessing games with complete strangers. Rant over.

+1 to Volvo V70’s comment.

While there might be a few minor automotive problems that I would choose to ignore for awhile, there are two that would (in my opinion) mandate an immediate visit to a mechanic’s shop, namely…
…any loss of braking ability
…any problem with steering.

I agree with the comments above that the rack needs to be examined immediately.

I am going to against the grain here. I’ll say check the intermediate shaft on the steering column. My reasoning is this happens multiple times during a sharp turn. If I remember correctly there are 2 joints, and a telescoping section on this and it is accessible from under the dash.

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The problem is probably being caused by a sticking or defective flow control valve on the power steering pump.


Thanks, Volvo V70. Not playing the guessing game with strangers. I understand the seriousness of steering related problems. I am awaiting to hear from the mechanics.

Since I have not experienced this in other cars, my intent for the post was to elicit an “oh yea… my car did the same thing and here’s why it happens and here’s what I did” message. For me, the “…and here’s what I did…” part of a response would arm me against a mechanic who may want to inflate the amount of work needing to be done in an effort increase the shop’s revenue. As a result, through my conversation with the mechanic, I could ask some pertinent questions that might convey me as not being an easy target for work-revenue inflation.

Not having laid that background in the original post, I can see why you would include the implied messages of your last two sentences, though, for me, it wasn’t needed.

Other than a belt slippage or tire pressure issue I tend to agree with VolvoV70 about checking the front suspension given the mileage.

A worn strut bearing, ball joint, or tie rod end can cause a problem like this also. Regarding the latter two, sometimes the round ball stud develops a flat spot on it and this in turns leads to a “hitch” in the steering if you want to call it that.

Kind of like a gimpy horse I suppose but make sure that belt is not glazed over.

Just to clarify, in that drawing Tester linked too, there are two valves shown. A flow control, and an air control. The air control valve – if it is like my 92 Corolla – just causes the engine idle rpm to increase when the power steering pump gives an add’l load to the engine during turning. It’s to prevent the engine from stalling when making tight parking maneuvers.

There are numerous possibilities, including but not limited to a bad rack, bad ball joints binding up, and even worn inner CV joints. The inner joints consist of a three pronged center with bearings on each prong that slide in and out when you turn, allowing the axle to lengthen and shorten to accommodate suspension and steering system dynamics. They can wear grooves in the outer housing over time and want to stay in them when you turn. I’ve attached a link to some illustrations of this system.

Note that I’m not saying the problem IS the inner CV joints. I’m only pointing out that there are a number of possible causes, some not obvious. It’s impossible to diagnose over the internet. But, as you already realize, it DOES need to be diagnosed by a competent chassis shop.

The CV joint is a good suggestion. It could also be that going on 200k miles and with who knows what kind of driving habits and conditions the car has seen over the years there is the possibility of wear in multiple components.

Thanks for all the replies. The problem: CV joints. The boots were completely ripped. The car passed the state mechanical inspection in November, so the boots were OK then. Anyway… thanks for the replies. I appreciated each.

Thank you for the update. At that mileage most CV joints have wear in them to one degree or the other.

I have owned numerous Toyotas and what you are describing is a seized U-joint on the steering shaft. It is dangerous but not very expensive to replace. My guess is $250 to $300.

I have a 2004 Camry and I have the exact problem you described on my car. When you said the problem was on the CV Joint, you are referring to the CV Joint connecting to the front wheels, right? Need steering alignment after changing the CV Joint?

Your Camry has 4 CV joints, 2 on each front axle. 2 of them (outboard CVs) are located near the front wheels, and the other 2 (inboard CVs) near the transmission. The OP above stated the problem w/their car was discovered & solved after a look-see under the car at the CV joints, b/c the boots were torn. That’s where to start.