Excess movements of the front wheels may mean either of these two things: tie rod ends, which are a part of the rack assembly and are connected to the steering knuckle, are worn and need to be replaced, or tie rod ends are loose and need to be tightened. To avoid compromising safety, you need to check your tie rod ends whenever you experience free-play in the wheels. It sounds pretty uncomplicated, but here is a simplified way of doing it.
- Use a floor jack to lift the vehicle. To check the tie rod ends, you need to easily manipulate the front wheels. You can do this by using a floor jack to elevate the vehicle. Once you have raised it to an appropriate level, place two jacks underneath the vehicle, with one on the left side and the other one on the right side. Before lifting the vehicle, make sure to keep it in neutral and turn the ignition key to accessory.
- Look at the tie rod ends. Crawl under the vehicle to have a pretty good look at the wheels. Unclamp the ends of the tie rod end boot. Then, repeatedly push and pull the wheels. As you do, pay close attention to the tie rod ends. If the tie rod ends make some sound and are loose, you will notice that there are some movements in the inner ball socket. If the loose movements are due to a worn out joint, you need to replace the tie rod ends. If the tie rod ends are loosely connected to the rack, the excess movements can be resolved by tightening. In other cases, however, it is the rack that is at fault, not the tie rod ends. This happens because the bushings do not properly secure the rack in its housing, causing loose movements. Worn out bushings need to be immediately replaced.
- Test the wheels. After identifying the cause of the excess movements and addressing it properly, it is time to test the wheels. Push and pull the wheels again and notice if there are excess movements. If there are no more free-plays, the vehicle is safe to drive. If you prefer, you can even test-drive and see if you can steer the vehicle easily.
You may need assistance, preferably of a car expert, when checking the tie rod ends, especially if this is your first time to do so. That person will help you verify the loose movements and help you identify the cause. Remember: expert opinion will save you from making wrong conclusions. It is also important to be extra careful when lifting the vehicle. This is to avoid creating damages in the vehicle or putting yourself in danger. Again, have someone assist you. In the absence of a floor jack, you can park your vehicle in an area that has an elevated part. Settle your front wheels on the elevation so that the vehicle is slightly slanted. Crawl underneath and begin checking your tie rod ends.