Loose steering...but it's intermittent

2000 Honda Civic DX, green, four doors, 91,000 miles. A few weeks ago I noticed that the steering wheel was loose when driving but only about 30% of the time–didn’t seem to be related to whether the car was warmed up or time of day or speed, just that it happened when the car was moving. The steering wheel would have play when the wheels were pointed/driving straight and the looseness went away when turning. I brought it in to the mechanic and of course he couldn’t get it to happen when he drove it. Replaced worn inner tie rods, did a power steering flush/replaced the power steering fluid and did a front end alignment. Drove fine for two weeks but then it started occurring again, this time even more loose/more play in the steering, still only when driving straight. Oh, just one time (so far) a few days ago it was loose when I was standing still at a stop light.

Any ideas? Seems like a safety issue but we can’t find what’s causing this…and I don’t want to just throw money at it.

Have your mechanic check the rack and pinion mounting bolts and bushings.

It sounds like your mechanic did all the common sense things. If it isn’t what Rod says above, my guess is you either have an air bubble in the power steering fluid system, or the power steering pump is kaput. Ask your shop to carefully inspect all the power steering hoses and connectors, maybe one of them is loose and introducing air into the system.

Here’s another idea. A lot of cars will have the rpm speed up when you turn the steering wheel at idle. They are supposed to do that. Try that experiment with yours.

So, interestingly he checked the rack and pinion bolts and bushings, checked for loose bolts anywhere and it’s just solid. One theory, is that the shock on the left front is bad and is sticking in the up position sometimes. The shock is definitely worn, but is it doing this?

Side note: the car has sat idle for 2.5 months and again for two months this year.

I’m going to go get a second opinion at a different mechanic, see if someone else can definitively find the problem.

I just wanted to get a little more info. Are you saying that while moving the steering wheel the steering wheel is loose and the tire direction don’t move when steering wheel is moved?

Something sticking or locking up in the suspension system could definitely cause this symptom. If you are certain the shock is bad, replace it. Shocks should be replaced in pairs, so replace both the right and left. That would be a good time to have an alignment done too, and alert the alignment shop to this symptom, they might be able to spot something in the process of doing the alignment.

A sticking and/or badly worn strut could easily cause this symptom. If these are the original 2000 dampers, you’re due anyway.

Here’s a tip: when the struts are replaced (they should always be done either in pairs or sets of four), have the shop replace all the rubbery bits too. The rubber spring bushings, the bump-stops, the upper mounts, and (if your car has them) the bellows that protects the damper shaft. These items become hard and deteriorate over time, and you’ll be amazed at how much less road noise is transmitted and how much smoother the car rides. It’s worth the small added cost.

Thanks! I did have an alignment done when I redid the inner tie rods, but I’ll replace the front shocks and all the associated rubber bits up front as T.S.M. suggested. The car’s only worth $2000 at this stage, but with only 91,000 miles I think I can get a bunch more years out of it so it’s worth it.

I would also have the steering shaft to pinion shaft coupling checked for looseness on either shaft end and for damage of the coupling itself. I once experienced a failing coupling and was amazed at how close I came to losing complete control of the steering.


The car's only worth $2000 at this stage, but with only 91,000 miles I think I can get a bunch more years out of it so it's worth it.

Good for you! I’ve got a 99 Mercury Mystique with about 130K on it, and I feel the same way about it. It’s worth much more to me than the book value. We’ll continue to maintain it and probably keep it until a catastrophic problem develops.

91K miles? Ha, that’s hardly even broken in. You are absolutely right to keep this vehicle well maintained and on the road.