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Rack and Pinion Replacement: Everything You Need to Know 

Rack and Pinion Replacement

Rack and pinion steering is a fairly involved and complex part of your steering system. Most modern cars use this kind of steering and it's generally the kind of thing that you need to get replaced rather than repaired when something goes wrong. In fact, it would probably cost more to repair it rather than just replace it if something fails. That said, it's not a cheap repair by any means. It very much depends on the make, model, and year of your vehicle but the rack and pinion replacement cost should run you anywhere from about $400 to $1,700.

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You can go to AutoZone right now and check out what the cost of rack and pinion is going to be if you're interested and just buying the parts yourself. You'll see that the range of prices is remarkable. Some are as low as $94 and some can be as high as $1,500. Factor in the labor costs and you can see why the price can get so high for this repair.


The great range in cost for a rack and pinion replacement is due to a number of factors. As we said, the make, model, and year of your vehicle will have a big effect on this. It's just par for the course that higher end vehicles always have more expensive parts. The same goes for particularly rare vehicles. If you are driving a Koenigsegg around town, your mechanic is probably going to have to special order those parts at great expense. If you happen to be driving a Toyota Camry, the parts are going to be a little more common and easy to find.


Repair costs always vary from mechanic to mechanic even within the same city. This is why it's always a good idea to shop around a bit and get some estimates. If you don't have a mechanic that you trust and rely on already in town, then you'll want to ask some friends and relatives what they think. If they don't have much insight, or if you're in a new town and haven't made any connections like that, then the internet is going to be your best friend here.


Anytime you're looking for a new mechanic it's always a good idea to Google them ahead of time. Check out the reviews that have been posted online for the shop and see what they say. If a mechanic has a few hundred reviews and they're all bad news, you may want to avoid them. On the other hand, if hundreds of clients have had pretty good experiences, then it's a safe bet you're going to get that same level of service.


Whatever the case, you should always go with your gut and get some estimates in writing before you commit to any repair that's this in-depth and expensive. 


What Does Rack and Pinion Mean?


Most people have heard the term rack and pinion steering before, but don't always know what it means. In very basic terms, rack and pinion steering is a set of gears that are used to change the circle motion of your steering wheel as you turn it into linear motion that is used to move the wheels of your car. 


Rack and pinion steering works by encasing the system in a metal tube. The rack extends out of the end of the tube and attaches to an axial rod which in turn connects to the tie rod. The pinion gear is attached to the steering column and moves the rack as you rotate the wheel while you're steering.


This is a crucial part of the steering system in your vehicle. If this fails then you simply cannot steer any longer, and that could be disastrous. If it happens when your car is parked, you simply can't get moving. If it happens while you're driving that your rack and pinion steering fails, but you may lose control of your vehicle entirely. 


Signs of Failing Rack and Pinion Steering


When your rack and pinion steering begins to fail, hopefully you'll be getting some warning that things are wrong. It's very rare for a system to fail utterly without warning in a vehicle, so you can take some solace in the fact that there will be symptoms that you can be on the lookout for with it. As with most problems in a vehicle, there could be other issues at play if you experience any of these problems. The most likely culprit is going to be your steering however so you should really take a look at this issue if it comes up. It's never safe to continue driving if you know you have issues with your steering. If you can't control your vehicle, you can't prevent an accident in a pinch.


  • Power Steering Fluid Leaks: Your power steering is a hydraulic fluid system in your vehicle. If you don't have the proper pressure in the system, your steering wheel won't respond the right way. And because this isn't a closed system the only reason you were going to lose fluid pressure is if there is a leak somewhere. This likely means that a gasket has worn down or some fitting that has broken loose. 


Your power steering fluid will leak out of the back of your engine so you may be able to notice it on a visual inspection. It's typically red or pink in colour and produces a distinctive burnt oil smell when it gets into your engine. If you don't get this fixed in the fluid and continues to leak it won't have adequate lubrication within your steering column. That could lead to broken gears, as well as accidents and more.


  • Grinding: If your steering wheel is making an audible grinding sound it usually means that the gearbox in your steering column is not properly lubricated. That's a result of the power steering fluid not being present, which means you probably have a leak in there somewhere. If it gets bad enough, as you take a left or a right turn, you'll notice the sound of metal grinding against metal.


  • Tight Steering Wheel: When your steering is functioning as normal, your steering wheel is fairly loose in your grip. It's easy to turn left or right and you get minimal resistance. When you have an issue with the power steering fluid, it's going to feel much harder to make turns of the wheel. It will  feel tight or stiff as you try to make any left or right turns. As you can imagine, this could be a serious safety concern if you need to make the turn in an emergency and it's too hard to make the wheel move.


  • Burning Smell: One of the things that happens when you have an issue with your power steering is that the gearbox can heat up. You'll know if the smell of burnt oil when this happens because power steering fluid already has a kind of burnt oil smell, so as it heats up it gets worse. If you're noticing this smell  suddenly when you're driving and you're sure it's coming from your car, the safest thing you can do is to pull over as soon as you can do so in a safe manner. The longer you drive with your gearbox overheating, the greater the risk that you could actually start a fire in your car. In the interest of your own safety and the safety of others, you should get this looked at immediately.


  • Steering Wheel in the Wrong Place:  Normally when you make a turn while you're driving and release the wheel it will return to the straight position in your hands. If there's a problem with the rack and pinion steering it will not return to that proper, centered position.


  • Disconnected Feeling: This one is harder to diagnose, and also a little hard to explain. There can be a point when you are turning the  steering wheel of your car and it will feel as though the steering wheel has just come loose and is no longer connected to the tires any longer. It should only last a moment and be at a certain point in the turn, but it does feel like there's a disconnect that you can physically feel in your hands as you're turning. This is a definite sign to get your steering checked out by a professional.


Can I Replace My Own Rack and Pinion?


Any repair job can't be done at home if you have the right tools and equipment. Replacing the steering rack in your vehicle is no different. This is definitely something that you can do yourself, and you will save a lot of money because, as we've seen, the labor cost can greatly increase the cost of this whole repair overall.


That said, replacing the steering rack in your vehicle is not a beginner job by any means. Even people with an intermediate skill level when it comes to doing home car repairs would be challenged by this job. We would suggest that if you are looking at a guide like this about how much it cost to replace rack and pinion steering in your vehicle, and what it does, then you probably would be best served by getting a professional to do this job for you.


If you feel like you're ready for the challenge of replacing your steering rack on your own then you definitely need to be prepared ahead of time. Assuming you've never done this job in the past, you're going to need high-quality jack and jack stands and wheel blocks and all of that to keep your car very secure because you're going to be working underneath it. You'll also be dealing with things like the suspension and alignment of your vehicle which are interconnected throughout the steering rack but you'll be working on.


We're fortunate to live in an age where many experts are willing to share their skill online with everyone else. You can find videos from highly-skilled mechanics who will show you how to swap out your steering rack and keep things working safely and securely. Again, this is a highly detailed job and even with a walk through in one of these videos you're going to need to review it a couple of times and probably keep it handy on your phone so that you can refer back to it frequently while doing the job.


Always make sure you have the parts you need ahead of time, and keep yourself safe and secure above all. If you're not one hundred percent confident that you can get this job done, then it's best not to even try. You do not want to risk your safety behind the wheel unless you know for sure what you're doing. There's no shame in admitting that you need help with a job like this, this is a very challenging task and many DIY mechanics would be hard-pressed to get this done.


The Bottom Line 


It's a serious issue if  your steering gives out on you while you're driving. Few things can be as terrifying as not having control of your vehicle, especially when you're driving that speed. Imagine being on the highway and not being able to turn properly for one lane to the next. Your ability to avoid danger is non-existent. You're putting your own life and the lives of everyone else around you at risk. That's basically a nightmare scenario for any driver.


The cost of replacing your rack and pinion steering is definitely not cheap, but you can't put a price on safety. If you don't get it fixed, then your vehicle at best will not be drivable, and at worst will cause a serious accident. There's no need to put yourself in that situation.


When you notice issues with your steering, take it to a mechanic as soon as you can to get it checked out. Even though you could technically do this job on your own, we definitely recommend taking it to a mechanic to get it done professionally. It's going to cost more, but it's a complicated job and a lot can go wrong if you're not sure what you're doing. As we said, you never want to take risks if you don't have to.


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