Dear Tom and Ray:
I just bought a 2003 VW Passat and actually read the owner's manual. I'm curious about its comments on power steering. The manual claims that holding the steering wheel "at lock" for more than 15 seconds could damage the power-steering unit. I live in the city and do a lot of parallel parking, which involves a lot of backing up with the wheel at lock. In fact, sometimes I leave it parked with the wheel in the lock position. I had no problem with my last car, a '95 Jetta, which had power steering. Do I now have to carry a timer with me, to know when my 15-second time limit is up? Or do I just hope the warranty covers any damage? Frankly, had I seen this before I bought the car, I would have bought something else. -- Bill
RAY: Geez, Bill. I can see that this has severely cut into your honeymoon with this car. And that's too bad. The "new-car honeymoon" isn't supposed to end for months ... until you realize the car's burning a quart of oil every 750 miles.
TOM: This is actually no big deal, Bill. What it says in the manual is true of every car: You COULD damage the power-steering system by holding it for a long time at lock (which means turned as far as it can possibly go). And by the way, it's not talking about when you're parked and the engine is off. You can park your car for a week with the wheels turned all the way and no harm will come to it.
RAY: In reality, you almost never hold the wheel at lock position for 15 seconds in normal driving or parking. Think about it. When you turn the wheel all the way to back into a parallel parking space, it takes far less than 15 seconds before you start turning the wheel the other way to finish parking.
TOM: I can only think of a couple of situations where you might hold it at lock for more than 15 seconds. One would be if you're all set to back into a space, with the wheel already turned, and then you have to wait for traffic to pass before you can back up. The other situation would be on the way out of a space -- if you have the wheel cranked all the way, ready to pull out, but you have to wait for traffic to clear.
RAY: And all Volkswagen (and everyone else, including us) is suggesting is that if you find yourself in one of those situations, relax the wheel while you wait. It doesn't mean you have to straighten the tires back out. Just let go of the steering wheel and let it move a few degrees away from its most extreme position.
TOM: And even if you do occasionally hold the steering wheel in the lock position for more than 15 seconds, no instantaneous harm is going to be done. It's just that in the lock position, the system is working its hardest, and all of its components -- the rack, the pump, the hoses, the seals -- are under maximum pressure. What the manufacturer is saying is that if you do that frequently, don't be surprised if you wear something out. And it's right.
RAY: But it's hardly worth worrying about, Bill. In fact, I think you're a perfect case for automotive hypnosis, Bill. So, as soon as you finish this column, close this newspaper, and you'll forget you ever read about any power-steering warning. Of course, you'll miss today's comics, but do you want everything, Bill?