When your car is working the way it's supposed to, if you take your hands off the steering wheel it should straighten itself out on its own. The emblem or logo of your car manufacturer that is in the centre of your steering wheel should be perfectly straight and aligned when your steering wheel is in the resting position. However, things obviously do go wrong from time to time. Your steering wheel can end up going crooked on you after a while in a way that can make keeping your car on the street somewhat difficult.
Even if you're off centre steering wheel isn't affecting your car's ability to travel in a straight line, it can still be frustrating for you as a driver to see that the wheel is off-kilter. Also, psychologically, it can cause you to overcompensate in the wrong direction when you're trying to make turns or avoid obstacles in a pinch if your steering wheel isn't lined up the way it's supposed to be. Let's take a look at what causes your steering wheel to not be straight in the first place, and then what you can do to get it back the way it needs to be.
What Causes a Steering Wheel to Not be Straight?
The steering wheel in your car is connected to the steering column. The steering column is a part of the rack and pinion steering system which allows the wheel and your hands to control the actual tires of your vehicle when you turn. The column connects to the pinion which is a gear. The pinion is attached to the rack such that when you turn the pinion it makes the rack move one way or the other. The rack itself connects to the tie rods and they are connected to the arms that attach to the wheel hubs.
This whole system needs to be properly aligned for your vehicle to turn and respond exactly the way you want it to when you move the steering wheel. When there are alignment problems in your vehicle, it throws this entire system out of whack and makes controlling your vehicle more difficult.
When your vehicle is properly aligned when you turn the wheel to the right, your car turns to the right in an amount equal to the turn of your steering wheel. As things come out of alignment, which can happen as a result of standard wear and tear and is exacerbated when you run over potholes and bumps in the road, you'll find your vehicle pulling in one direction or the other as a result because the tie rods are out of alignment and your vehicle pulls inconsistently with the way that you're using the steering wheel.
A proper wheel alignment ensures that all the wheels of your vehicle are touching the ground at the right angle and are moving consistently with one another. This will prevent that pulling we talked about and it will also increase your gas mileage while preventing uneven wear on your tires as well. And, more importantly in this case, it ensures that your steering wheel will no longer be crooked because, as the name suggests, everything is now properly aligned.
How to Tell You Need a Wheel Alignment
There are more symptoms of misaligned wheels than simply a crooked steering wheel. That may be one of the easiest visual signs that you can look for to let you know something needs to be done, but the way your car performs can also alert you to problems as well.
Uneven Tire Wear: Take a look at your wheels and see how the tread looks. If you're noticing that there are certain parts of your tires that are clearly more worn down than others that could be a clear sign that you need to have your wheels realigned. When everything is working the way it's supposed to, your tires are going to wear down evenly because they should be hitting the road evenly and equally from the left side of your car to the right side of your car. However, things like bad tire pressure and of course misalignment can cause your tires to hit the road at an unusual angle. That could cause perhaps the inside of your tire or the outside of your tire to wear down much more unevenly than the other side. The fix for that would be some kind of a camber adjustment.
If you noticed strange patterns that look like feathering or scalloping, then you likely need some kind of a toe adjustment.
Vehicle Pulling: This is one of them more clear signs that you have an alignment issue, and likely one of the first ones that you're going to notice. If you're driving down the road trying to go in a straight line your car is going to feel like it's pulling on its own either to the left or to the right. Obviously there is a little bit of variation for how your car is going to drive and even with perfect alignment your car won't go in at 100% straight line all the time, but if you have a serious issue with your alignment the pulling problem is going to be much more noticeable. If you feel that your car is pulling in one direction so much that you actually need to turn the wheel slightly to compensate for it, then that's a good sign you have an issue with your alignment that should be looked at.
Loose Handling: Aside from your steering wheel not being fully aligned properly, if it feels loose in your hands when you're driving, which is to say if you try to turn in one direction or the other and it just doesn't feel responsive, almost like the steering wheel isn't really connected to anything, that could definitely be a sign that you have an issue with your alignment. This situation can be very anxiety-inducing as it feels like your car isn't responding at all, and combined with pulling to one direction or another may make it seem like you really don't have the ability to control your vehicle with the steering wheel at all.
Steering Wheel Won't Return to Center: Aside from starting in a misaligned position, if you're finding that when you turn the wheel to go around the corner for instance and the wheel does not return to the same center position once you let go of it and straighten out your vehicle again, then that is a sign that you definitely have a problem with your alignment. You should never need to force your steering wheel back into the centre position, it should actually drift back there once you've completed a turn. If that's not the case, then you're going to have to have a mechanic take a look at things to see if it can be properly aligned again.
How Much Does It Cost to Repair a Steering Wheel That Isn't Straight?
Often the easiest and most obvious way to fix this problem is to take your vehicle into the mechanic to have everything realigned. A typical alignment is going to cost you maybe $50 to $100 for the front wheels. If you're doing a four-wheel alignment then you can look to double that price, so potentially up to $200 for the full job.
Why is My Steering Wheel Not Centered After Alignment?
If you found that your steering wheel is no longer straight after you had an alignment, but it was fine before, then it shouldn't be too hard to figure out what happened here. Although it's always possible that something else has occurred, there's a good chance that the cause of your problem was the person doing the alignment did the job poorly.
A proper wheel alignment should always end with your entire steering system being fully aligned. It's entirely possible that your wheels can be properly aligned and everything in the steering system that you don't see including the tie rods and the toe and all the business that exists under your car is where it needs to be but the wheel is still not straight. That's just the result of the mechanic not getting the job done properly. There should be no justifiable reason why the steering wheel isn't center aligned when the job is done. If it didn't happen, then you should be able to get the mechanic to fix the problem, or take it to someone else who can do it and hopefully you won't have to pay that first mechanic who didn't get the job done properly.
How Do You Straighten a Steering Wheel?
If you have had your vehicle aligned recently but your steering wheel is still off-centre there is potentially a method that you can follow that may help you get things straightened out again. You have to be comfortable getting under your car to do some work, but it's possible that you can straighten out your steering wheel without actually throwing off your alignment in any way whatsoever.
You have a tie rod that comes out of your steering and there is a nut on each one, the right side and the left side. You can loosen each one of those nuts and then turn the right side clockwise or turn the left side counterclockwise to make adjustments. You could also turn the left clockwise, but you need to turn the right counterclockwise. The point is one has to be turned in the opposite direction of the other.
However you turn one, you have to turn the other an equal amount in the opposite direction. That will keep everything properly aligned and even for you. As you turn the tie rods you should notice the steering wheel move. This requires a little bit of playing around to figure out which way you need to turn which rod in order to get the wheel straight.
If that sounds a little confusing don't worry. There is a helpful video you can watch on YouTube that demonstrates the process pretty clearly for you so you can figure out exactly what to do if you want to get your steering wheel lined up properly again without sacrificing the alignment of your wheels.
The Bottom Line
Having a steering wheel that's not straight can seem like a very big deal at first. If your wheels are properly aligned, then technically this may not be a big issue. The problem is, for your steering wheel to get crooked in the first place, things have to be misaligned. And if you do get the alignment fixed the wheel is not straight, then your alignment was not done the way it should have been.
Regardless of whether or not your steering wheel is working properly, and your car is properly aligned, the other issue is the confusion that it can cause. You're used to your steering wheel being in a certain position. It can interfere with your ability to gauge just how far the wheels should be turning and where you need to hold it if it's skewed enough when it's in the resting position. It may only seem like a minor inconvenience when you're looking at it in a parked position but when you're driving, and especially if you need to react to something in a pinch it can be very distracting and even potentially dangerous if your steering wheel isn't moving or sitting the way you expect it to be.
Ensuring that your steering wheel is straight and level at all times is key to ensuring that your entire steering system is properly aligned and that you're not going to be wearing your tires out prematurely because of an issue with camber, nor are you going to be losing fuel economy because you're riding on your tires on evenly. If you notice that your steering wheel is not returning dead centre when you are not operating your vehicle, make sure you get to a mechanic and get it checked out as soon as you can.