How much play in a steering wheel is too much?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Dec 01, 1992

Dear Tom and Ray:

The steering wheel in my wife's 1992 Ford Taurus wagon has a noticable amount of play. The steering wheel feels loose, and turning it through the "dead zone" causes no change in the car's direction. There is about five-eighths of an inch of play in the 15-inch steering wheel, and it is the same regardless of speed. It's driving me nuts. The service manager at our dealer says the Taurus specification allows up to 2.36 inches of play. That's over 18 degrees! Anyway, the dealer says he cannot eliminate the relatively small amount of play about which I am complaining. What is a reasonable amount of play, and what should I do about my wife's Taurus?

RAY: What's a reasonable amount of play? I'd say about two or three hours a day, Jeffrey. Remember, all work and no play makes Jeff a dull boy.

TOM: Five eighths of an inch is actually not very much at all. All cars have some play simply because the steering wheel is not rigidly connected to the front wheels. There are lots of pieces and bends along the way. And at every place where two pieces are connected, there's a tiny bit of play. And when you add it all up, you almost always get a little bit of slop in the steering.

RAY: And most rack and pinion steering systems are not adjustable. On old heaps without rack and pinion steering--like the cars my brother drives--you could tighten up the steering box to make up for slop in the front end. But there is no steering box on your Taurus, and it shouldn't be necessary to tighten up anything.

TOM: As far as the dealer's "specifications" are concerned, 18 degrees of play IS too much in our opinion. But understand that when car companies publish "allowable limits," what they're really saying is that "yeah, there may be something wrong with it, but we won't fix it for free until it gets worse than this." So you can ignore that number.

RAY: I see only two choices for you, Jeff, my boy. One is to dump this Taurus and buy your wife a BMW 525i wagon. BMW says there is no "allowable play" on that car, so you shouldn't have any problem with them.

TOM: The other option is to employ the theory of relativity. Borrow my 1963 Dodge Dart Convertible for a week. Relative to that, the Taurus, will steer magnificently!

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