The rack and pinion is a newer alternative to the steering gearbox. Both take inputs from the steering column; at the top of the column is the steering wheel, and at the bottom is either a steering box or a rack and pinion. From there, steering forces run out through inner and outer tie rods to the steering knuckles at the wheels. The rack and pinion is a lighter, simpler, and generally easier arrangement, especially on a front wheel drive vehicle.
There are many newer rack and pinion designs that are partially or fully electric, and problems with them are more rare so far. In many cases, odd electric steering issues can be solved with software updates. One of the advantages of electric power steering is that it potentially allows a vehicle to incorporate various driver-assist features, such as lane-holding, automatic parking, and self-driving.
How hard a rack is to replace depends mostly on how it sits in the vehicle. On a front wheel drive car, the rack usually sits behind the engine, tucked in between the frame and subframe. It’s common to have to support the engine and lower the sub-frame to gain enough access to undo and remove the rack and pinion. On light trucks that use a rack and pinion, it will typically sit in front of the engine, where replacement is usually pretty straightforward.
Signs that a Rack Might Need Replaced
There are a few different things that can wear out on a rack and pinion, though it’s also not uncommon for one to last the life of a vehicle. Most problems will cause leaks. There are seals at the input shaft and both output shafts, which can cause external fluid leaks if they fail. There are internal seals that balance the steering assist between the two sides and can cause a pull or intermittent handling issues if they fail. A minor leak isn’t always important, but if fluid has to be added regularly, then the leak should be diagnosed and corrected.
Loose steering and sometimes a knocking noise in the steering can also be symptoms. There are bushings that hold the rack to the frame of the vehicle, which can wear and cause slack and play in the steering. And there are internal gears and bushings that can also wear out, causing binding or rough or sloppy steering. In a collision that damages the front suspension, it’s not uncommon to have to replace a damaged rack and pinion as well. Tight steering can also be a symptom, if the rack’s internal seals are bypassing excessively.
Costs of Rack and Pinion Replacement
On average, for most vehicles, it costs about $1200 to replace a rack and pinion.
For some more specific estimates on some common vehicles, using $150 an hour as a labor rate and adding in an amount for fluids and re-aligning the vehicle:
For a 2005 Honda Civic with a 1.7 liter engine, the labor time to replace the rack and pinion is 3.5 hours. A factory rack costs about $751, and a Maval remanufactured rack costs about $440. This makes the job about $1275 using OE parts, or about $965 using aftermarket parts.
For a 2004 Toyota Sienna with a 3.3 liter engine, the labor time to replace the rack and pinion is 3.6 hours. A factory rack costs about $700, or a new AAE rack costs about $381. This makes the job about $1240 using OE parts, or about $921 using aftermarket parts.
For a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu with a 3.5 liter engine, the labor time to replace a rack and pinion is 2.6 hours. A factory rack costs about $534, or a remanufactured ACDelco rack costs about $323. This makes the job about $924 using factory parts, or about $713 using aftermarket parts.
For a 2014 Ford F150 with a 5.0 liter engine, the labor time to replace the rack and pinion is 1.6 hours. A factory rack costs about $1396, or a remanufactured Cardone rack costs about $870. This makes the job about $1636 using OE parts, or about $1110 using aftermarket parts.
Warranties on new and remanufactured parts are typically about the same—two or three years.
Resealing vs Replacing
Not too many years ago, rack and pinion assemblies tended to be pretty heavy and very solidly made, in keeping with the larger and heavier vehicles of the time. The main thing that went wrong with them was that seals would leak; the main seals are at the shaft ends and the input from the column. In many cases, those seals could be replaced with the rack in the vehicle, saving a great deal of labor.
But resealing rack and pinions is much less common of an operation since then. Part of the reason is that modern rack and pinions aren’t so heavily built, and often seals will leak because the shafts and bushings they seal are worn. Lighter parts tend to wear more when they are designed to operate closer to their mechanical limits.
Another reason is the warranty, which doesn’t always cover much in a resealing job. For instance, if a rack is removed, resealed, and reinstalled, and then comes back with an end seal leak, that would be covered if the seal was put in incorrectly or was defective. But if it turned out that the leak was due to excess wear in the shaft bushings, not only would that not be covered, but the resealed rack would need to be replaced at the customer’s expense. Which would put everyone in a bad position, and it’s not always possible to predict problems like that.
But it is still worth a try sometimes to reseal a rack and pinion if it has developed leaks without any apparent reason, if it doesn’t show any signs of excess wear, or if it doesn’t have too many miles on it. Sometimes a seal will just leak, and then a new seal will fix the problem. Or in many cases the cost difference between the two jobs is large enough that it’s worth trying the relatively inexpensive fix first, especially if the rack can be resealed without having to be removed from the vehicle.
What Else Might be Recommended
Rack and pinion assemblies come in “long” or “short” form. A “long rack” includes the inner tie rod ends, and only the outer tie rod ends need to be transferred to it. It’s pretty common to just install new outer tie rod ends while everything is apart. It’s also ok to not replace them, on the general principle of not replacing non-maintenance items that are still working fine.
A “short rack” doesn’t include inner or outer tie rod ends, and they could be transferred from the old to the new, or they could just all be replaced. Tie rod ends are relatively inexpensive in any case.
When the rack is installed, that includes draining and refilling the majority of the power steering fluid. Ordinarily, that would all be priced into the job, but it’s not uncommon to have a power steering flush added on at an extra cost. Unless fluid contamination is suspected, there’s usually no reason to do that or pay the extra amount for it.
The alignment also needs to be done when the rack and pinion are replaced, so any shop with a little foresight would do a good inspection of the front and rear suspensions in order to make sure that the alignment can be completed successfully. Ball joints and bushings should be inspected, and if anything needs to be done, it should be done at the same time. In some areas of the country where rust is a big issue, it’s a good idea to make sure adjustments can be made and things aren’t frozen up. It’s not uncommon to have rear adjusters, for instance, seize to the point that they need to be cut off and parts replaced. Things like that are better to find out before the job is on its last step, when it’s on the alignment rack.
The main thing is servicing the fluid. Clean fluid is a good lubricant; old, dirty fluid is less good. The other thing is to take it easy while driving; like many things in a car, the rack is more or less stressed depending on how the vehicle is driven.
Usually, yes, though it depends on how bad the leak is. If too much fluid is lost, then power steering is lost, but if the leak is slow and monitored, usually there’s no problem.
On most trucks, yes, it’s not too hard. On most cars, no; it’s difficult to impossible to get enough access without having the vehicle up on a lift. Specialized tools such as an engine support bar are often needed as well. In either case, it still needs to be aligned afterwards.