When the truck is not moving, with the engine on or off, the steering wheel can be freely rotated approximately 1" back and forth without moving the front wheels. At highway speeds, the truck will occasionally wander to the left or right, requiring frequent correction. When driving over speed bumps or pot holes, a clear "rattle" or "clunking" can often be heard and felt in the steering wheel. When driving on firm, rocky, off-road surfaces, the steering rattle is very apparent and annoying.
My truck is a 2004 Toyota Tacoma 4wd with tilt steering and no suspension/engine/steering modifications whatsoever. I am the second owner of the vehicle, and it has low miles (39,000 as of July 2010). I have read about similar steering problems reported on Toyota trucks from a wide range of years/mileages/models/options, but am not exactly sure which vehicles are known to be affected. If anyone has information about this problem on other years/models, please post it.
This is a very common problem, and to the best of my knowledge, the issue was figured out by "Gunny" in a thread titled "Clunking steering column/shaft?" from 2005:
Several other users contributed important information as well, and this thread is long but definitely worth reading if you think you have the same problem. The problem isn't actually found until many posts into the thread, but even then, keep reading, as they keep making progress on the issue all the way to the end. Thanks to anyone who contributed info in that thread. Anyway, the problem is that a slip joint along the steering column, (which is designed to collapse during a front end collision), develops a small amount of play over time. Toyota has never done a recall for this issue, so it's probably safe to say that the slip joint won't actually come completely loose to the point that you cannot steer the truck. The upper steering assembly can be replaced completely, but many people who have done this report having the problem come back after some time.
Diagnose Your Truck in 10 Seconds:
As Gunny pointed out, you can check to see if your vehicle has this problem simply by reaching under the dash and holding the steering shaft in one hand while slightly turning the steering wheel back and forth with the other hand. The shaft is behind the Lower Left Hand Finish Panel, and you can reach it without having to remove anything. I included a picture of this area in the procedure below. If you detect a small amount of movement between these two locations (you will feel a small knock, or pop), then it is likely that your truck has this problem. I have read many posts where people have replaced entire steering racks only to find that the problem is still there. This quick test will tell you if there is play in the steering system even before reaching the steering rack.
Disclaimer: As stated in other threads on this topic, this fix involves altering a safety feature (the slip joint) that was designed into the vehicle and should only be performed at your own risk. This is not a manufacturer-approved repair, but a user-discovered fix for the problem. That being said, I performed this fix and it completely eliminated the play in the steering wheel that I used to have. I can hardly believe how much better my truck handles, so I am kicking myself (and taking the time to make this post) for not having done it a long time ago. The fix involves doing a tack weld that allows the two parts of the slip joint to function as a single member, instead of two members which don't have a tight fit. Others have accomplished the same thing by installing a roll pin instead of doing a tack weld. I would like to think that in the event of a front end collision, the small tack weld (or roll pin) would fail and allow the slip joint to collapse as designed, so that the steering wheel is less likely to be shoved toward the driver. And as others have pointed out, in a crash the tack weld would have to outlive the 4 large bolts, which attach the steering assembly to the truck, in order to allow the steering wheel to injure the driver. In my opinion, having to constantly correct the truck's direction down a straight highway is a much larger safety risk. After fixing mine, I feel like I have much better control of the vehicle when driving on the road.
This is a very easy fix to perform yourself if you have any sort of mechanical ability at all. You only need to disconnect the battery, disassemble part of the dash, detach a few electrical connectors, unbolt the upper steering column, and partially disassemble the steering assembly. You don't even have to crawl under the truck for this one. The only tools you need are a screwdriver, open wrenches, socket wrenches, and an allen wrench. On the recommendation of others who have done this fix, I also bought a pair of needle nose vise grips to help with detaching the tilt-wheel springs, and I agree that this made it very easy. Since I don't have the equipment to weld, I found a custom fabrication shop nearby, took the part to them, and they did the weld for free. Even if they had charged me $50, it would have been money well spent. There are no special service tools needed, and it isn't even necessary to remove the steering wheel from the upper steering column in order to get to the part you need. Since you don't need to remove the steering wheel, you don't have to remove the airbag either... but a lot of people would say to remove and store the airbag out of the way since it's almost like working next to a small bomb.
*Edit: The procedure below worked for me and many others, but terryj5 in post #43 of this thread found an alternate (and probably easier) way to remove the steering assembly. Thanks terryj5 and others who have also made helpful suggestions in this thread.
Remove airbag (optional)
Although you don't have to remove the airbag to get to the part you need for this fix, some would say to disconnect the airbag to avoid injury if it decided to go off unexpectedly. If you want to remove the airbag, expose one screw on each side (image 1) of steering wheel by removing the small plastic covers (image 2). Using a torx bit, loosen each screw until airbag unit is able to separate from the steering wheel (image 3). You won't need to remove the screws completely. Gently pull airbag away from steering wheel and disconnect the black ground wire and yellow connector (image 4). Store airbag out of the way on its metal/barcode side (plastic side up):
Remove upper and lower column covers
Turn steering wheel left 90 degrees to expose screw (image 1). Remove the screw and do the same for the screw on the right hand side. Remove the screw on the bottom of the column cover (image 2). The three screws are shown (image 3) in case you forget what they look like later on:
Here's what the upper steering column looks like (image 1) with the column covers removed (image 2):
Remove the "Lower Left Hand Finish Panel".
Lift the hood release lever (image 2) and remove the two screws underneath (image 3). Push the lever back through the panel and leave it hanging from its cable:
On the Lower LH Finish Panel (image 1), remove the 4 bolts and 1 screw (image 2), then remove the panel (image 3):
With the panel removed, you can clearly see the steering shaft. Hold the shaft in your left hand (haha) and turn the steering wheel back and forth with your right hand to feel the play between these two locations. You will feel a slight knock/pop if your slip joint is worn:
Remove small panel at ignition location.
Pop out the small panel which houses the clock (image 1) and disconnect the cable (image 2):
Remove Ventilation Duct.
Remove the single screw holding the duct in place (image 1), then pull/jiggle each end of the duct downward until it detaches (image 3):
Detach electrical connectors.
Unplug 4 connectors near the steering wheel (image 1) and 2 more near the ignition, then push the cables out of the way:
Detach tilt wheel springs.
Tilt the steering wheel to the highest position, and unhook the 2 tilt wheel springs on top of the steering assembly (image 1). This is made easier with a pair of needle nose vise grips:
Detach brake assembly spring.
Unhook the spring between the steering assembly and brake assembly (image 1):
Loosen shaft/u-joint connection.
Some people say to mark the shaft where it connects to the u-joint to prevent the steering wheel from being crooked after putting everything back together. I marked mine (image 1), but after handling the assembly once it was out of the truck, the marks wore off. Luckily, the shaft in the 2004 Tacoma was splined and had one raised area which lined up with a slot of the same size on the u-joint end. In other words, I don't think it is possible to install the steering wheel so that it is rotated while the front wheels are pointed straight ahead. Marking the shaft/u-joint connection might make it easier to line things up later on, but if you pay attention to the shape of the splines, you won't have any trouble. Anyway, to free this connection, just loosen or remove the clamp bolt (image 2):
Unbolt steering assembly from truck.
Looking up from below, find the 4 bolts which connect the steering assembly to the frame (image 1 - lower 2 nuts not quite in picture). Remove the 2 nuts toward the front of the vehicle first, then loosen (but don't remove) the 2 nuts closest to the steering wheel. Then, sit in the driver's seat, hold the steering assembly, remove the 2 remaining nuts, and pull the assembly towards you until it slides out of the u-joint connection. Because of the splines on the end of the shaft, it may take a little bit of effort to free it up. Now the steering assembly should be sitting in your lap:
With the assembly removed, it will look like this:
Expose the slip joint.
To get to the slip joint, first remove the 2 allen bolts shown below (image 1)
Then place the assembly with the steering wheel down, and lift off the part of the assembly connected to the ignition:
To separate the shaft, just fold it down around 90 degrees (image 1), and it will lift straight up from the u-joint (image 2-3):
Now you've got the part of the shaft with the sloppy slip joint. Twisting the two parts of the shaft against each other, you can feel a little bit of movement and hear a "popping" or "clanking". The amount of movement at this location is small, maybe 1/16" of an inch, but as others have pointed out, when this is projected out to the radius of the steering wheel, it is much more noticeable. These two parts of the shaft in my truck had a hexagonal shape, meaning it would be impossible for the play in the slip joint to become completely lose to the point that you could no longer steer the vehicle... reassurance for anyone who decides not to do this fix. The arrow in the image below points to where the two parts of the shaft do not fit tightly and where the weld will be done:
Weld the loose slip joint.
Since I don't have the capability to weld, I had it done by a custom auto fabricator nearby. He recommended we weld it in two locations since a single tack weld might be able to break under a heavy steering load. So he welded it in two locations opposite each other:
Put it back together.
Now just put everything back together in the reverse order and you're done.
On my first drive after performing this fix, I could immediately detect that the truck handled better. No more clattering over pot holes, and no more wandering around and constantly correcting on the highway. It felt like a completely different vehicle.
One person who did this procedure reported that it took care of 90% of the play in the steering wheel, and that he attributed the rest to play within the u-joints. I've tried very hard to notice any other play still in the steering system, and there may be a tiny amount still there. However, I can't tell if it's just me being paranoid, if it's because the tread on my tires is low, or if it's because the truck hasn't had an alignment or rotated tires in over a year. If none of the above, then it might be the u-joints, but it's so miniscule that I wouldn't even consider trying to fix it.
I have not yet been off road, but at 100 miles after doing the fix, everything feels great, and I highly recommend this to anyone with the same problem. As you can see, it is not hard to do.