When it comes to your car steering most drivers don't really think about how exactly the steering wheel in their hands connects to the actual wheels on the ground and steers the car. The process of changing the movement in your hands to the movement of the wheels is one that requires a lot of parts to move together. One of those parts is the intermediate steering shaft. It connects the steering wheel with your steering gear box or the rack and pinion in your vehicle.
The intermediate steering shaft has what's called a universal joint on one end which is what allows the shaft to connect to the gear box. The other end connects to a second universal joint and that is attached to your steering wheel. Basically, the steering shaft is a piece of metal that is an angle connecting the gearbox to the steering wheel. It's necessary because there is an obvious space between the gearbox and your steering wheel that needs to be filled by something which will still allow the entire steering unit to function. Without the intermediate steering shaft in place, your steering wheel would have to be directly connected to the steering gear box which is of course impractical.
As simple as an intermediate steering shaft maybe, it can also suffer some problems that can wreak havoc with your steering overall. If something were to go wrong with your intermediate steering shaft, then controlling your vehicle could potentially become extremely difficult. Let's take a look at exactly how your intermediate steering shaft works, how it can go wrong, and what you can do about it when it happens.
Signs of a Bad Intermediate Steering Shaft
If your steering shaft is starting to go bad there are a few signs you can be on the lookout for to let you know what's about to happen. If your steering shaft were to fail completely while you were driving you would have no ability to control your vehicle any longer, which would be extremely dangerous. With that in mind, if you're noticing any of these symptoms of a bad steering shaft you need to get it checked out as soon as you can to avoid a serious accident.
Noises When Turning
If you're hearing a sound coming from your steering wheel or somewhere inside your dashboard when you turn it, that's a good indication you have a problem with your intermediate steering shaft. This will likely sound like metal grinding on metal, or a crunching kind of popping sound. It's possible this could be fixed with the application of some lubricant but it may also be indicative of a bigger problem.
Problems Turning the Wheel
One of the most common symptoms of a problem with your intermediate steering shaft is difficulty actually turning the wheel. The wheel feels stiff in your hands and requires much more force to actually get it to turn either left or right. If it gets bad enough it can be almost impossible to move. As you can imagine, this could be disastrous if it happens while you're driving. Your steering should be tight and precise at all times in your hands, especially if you're driving a sportier car. If you ever start feeling resistance when you're turning the wheel, especially when you hit corners and you have to actually use some brute force to get your wheel to turn, then you definitely have a problem with the intermediate steering shaft and you should get it fixed quickly.
Unstable Steering Wheel
Typically you have the ability to adjust your steering wheel based on your height and comfort level of your driving. There should be some ability to adjust your wheel by tilting it up and down and then locking it in a position that is most comfortable for you. If the steering wheel is no longer able to be adjusted or you can't get a lock in position, that could be a problem with your intermediate steering shaft. It's also possible that this problem is caused by the actual tilting mechanism itself, or the locking mechanism that should hold it in place, but you can't rule out the steering shaft. Especially if you're experiencing any of these other symptoms that we are listing as well.
Off Centre Steering Wheel
If your steering wheel is working normally then when you turn the wheel to go around the corner and then release the wheel to straighten out again it should return to straight and centered. The logo in the centre of your steering wheel should be straight and centered when it's back in position. However, if your steering wheel returns to an irregular position even though you're driving straight, that's a good indication that you have a problem with your steering shaft. This can become very problematic when you're taking many turns in a road as your wheel will continue to reset itself in an irregular position making it difficult for you to navigate bends and corners.
There is something called needle bearings that are a part of your steering shaft. You have four of them in total and they should be completely sealed which means they don't need any maintenance normally. However, they can end up losing their lubrication over time and moisture can get in there which will cause some corrosion. This can lead to some of the noises we mentioned earlier, and also difficulty getting the steering shaft to move.
What Causes an Intermediate Steering Shaft to Fail?
Now that you know some of the symptoms you can be on the lookout for to let you know there's a problem with your intermediate steering shaft, you might be wondering why any of these would happen in the first place. This isn't a kind of part that is subject to the same sort of stresses that the outside of your vehicle is, nor is it the sort of part that needs routine maintenance or changing like oil filters are fuel filters. However, there are stresses that your steering shaft is going to be under. Remember, this part is subject to stress every single time you turn the wheel so it's not inconceivable that it will wear down eventually.
A broken seal is often the culprit when it comes to a problem with your intermediate steering shaft. This seal is what holds the needle bearings that we mentioned earlier. Where the seal breaks, the needle bearings become exposed and they can lose their lubrication. This could allow moisture and dirt to get inside which will greatly decrease their functionality and lead to rusting and stiffness in the steering shaft.
It's also possible that physical damage could cause a problem with your intermediate steering shaft. If you've been in an accident you may not have noticed it at first, but the steering shaft itself could have bent, or the universal joints on either end could have sustained some damage which is causing it to function improperly.
Finally, there's also the possibility of a manufacturing defect being the cause of problems with your steering shaft. Any part of your vehicle is subject to manufacturing errors which is why many vehicle recalls are issued in the first place. Parts that are meant to last a lifetime in your vehicle can sometimes be subject to problems in the manufacturing phase that cause the metal to not be tempered correctly and as a result it's weak, or the alloy it was made from was produced incorrectly so it's not as strong as it should be. And there's also the possibility that there are some kind of microscopic fractures in the overall manufacturer as well but, over time, will become larger until they actually cause the steering shaft to fail or break.
How Much Does It Cost to Replace an Intermediate Steering Shaft?
If your intermediate steering shaft has failed and the solution is not simply ensuring that it’s properly lubricated again, you're going to need to have it replaced. The cost for replacing your steering shaft depends very much on the make and model of your vehicle. There are two kinds of steering shafts commonly used vehicles, one that is an integrated shaft and others that are completely separate parts.
For the parts alone on Autozone.com you can get an intermediate steering shaft for anywhere from $80 to as much as $500. That's quite a remarkable range, so you'll need to make sure you're getting the correct shaft for your vehicle and the best priced one as well.
The task of actually replacing the steering shaft is not all that complicated and if you take it to a mechanic to get it done, you're probably looking at about $100 to $200 for labor. It should take a professional mechanic only around 1 hour or so to get the steering shaft replaced, depending on the make and model of your vehicle. Obviously, some vehicles are a little more complicated so if you have a more rare, high-end vehicle you can expect that you're going to have to pay more to get this job done.
Can I Replace My Own Intermediate Steering Shaft?
Because an intermediate steering shaft has such a wide range of potential costs just in terms of the part, you may want to save yourself a little money by doing the replacement job on your own. If you're new to home auto repair this might not be the kind of job you want to handle on your own right off the bat. If the most complicated task you've managed so far is changing a tire or replacing an oil filter then it's probably best to leave this job to a mechanic.
If you feel confident in your auto repair skills, then you may be tempted to take this one on by yourself. If so, there are some helpful videos on the internet like this one that have been made by skilled mechanics that can walk you through the process of replacing your own intermediate steering shaft. One of the most important things to remember if you're going to handle this job on your own is that you need to have the exact right replacement part. If you got an incorrect steering shaft, it's not going to fit properly in your vehicle and will render your steering impossible. Make sure you have the right one for your vehicle before you get started and follow along closely with the instructions to make sure you get the job done correctly.
One of the other things to consider is that many of these videos that you can watch online will show you how to swap the intermediate steering shaft out for a specific kind of vehicle. It's not exactly the same from one vehicle to the next, which is true of most repairs as the layout under the hood is very similar from one car model to another, but not always exactly the same. If you're not sure how to swap it out for your specific vehicle you can try to search for instructions for the exact model you have, and you might get lucky. The more common your vehicle is, the more likely you are to find a video that can walk you through the car that you drive.
The Bottom Line
If your intermediate steering shaft is starting to fail on you not only will it make steering difficult, and turning a stressful situation, it could seriously increase your chances of a major accident. You need your steering to be sensitive and responsive at all times. Losing that ability puts you in danger of not being able to avoid dangers in the road. If you're noticing problems with your steering being stiff, making noises, or any of the other symptoms that we listed that could indicate a problem with your intermediate steering shaft, you're going to want to go into a mechanic as soon as you can. Along with your brakes, your steering is the most important part of controlling your vehicle and you never want to take chances with your life or the lives of others on the road.