By on March 14, 2011

Ronald writes:

Hi Sajeev,

Just about 2 years ago, the steering rack failed on my 1996 Lexus SC400 at 132,000 miles. Reconditioned rack #1 went bad in 3 weeks, and replaced with another. Reconditioned rack #2 also failed in about 2 months, and was replaced with a brand new rack.

Every time I got the car back, the steering feel was horrible even though they claimed they did an alignment (which they ended up doing every time I returned with the car). The last straw came when I was driving up a freeway entry ramp that had the pavement scraped in vertical lines, and the steering felt like a snake undulating left and right. Pissed, I finally took it to a Lexus shop where they performed an alignment and the car seemed to handle better. While satisfactory, it still was not the same as before the rack went bad. However, 2 weeks later the steering wheel was cocked to the left and the car was out of alignment. It went in yet again for an alignment at an independent shop and everything seemed fine – it was done better than by Lexus. Now two weeks after the latest alignment the steering wheel is cocked to the right and I’m beginning to feel the snake undulations again. What is throwing the car out of alignment? I live in Tampa, and the roads where I travel are in good condition, no potholes, I’m not running into curbs, and my wife doesn’t drive the car.

A few websites mention the control arm bushings, so I took it into an independent Toyota/Lexus repair shop that I found and have been happy with. They said they couldn’t find anything wrong.

One last thing: the rotors need to be replaced all around the car. The front rotors are warped, but I don’t know that that could throw the alignment off. I held up on spending the money for them because of the steering issues. I love this car and would like to keep it, but I’m at the end of my rope in dealing with it. Any help in the matter would be greatly appreciated.

Sajeev answers:

There are two problems presented: first is the insinuation that your wife cannot drive a car without throwing the front end out of spec. I suggest a date night with dinner and a movie for compensation. The second is the number of mechanics who didn’t replace a single bushing. The rubber on this car is positively ancient, it needs to be replaced. Many people drive older cars on occasion, unaware of the ravages of time on clearances and component decay, and simply assume that “The Good Old Days” were truly awful. False.

Putting a new (OEM) rack, new air springs, control arms, bushings in my ’95 Lincoln Mark VIII was a serious wake up call: all of a sudden the steering went from stereotypical Detroit land yacht to something disturbingly close to the heft and accuracy of a late-model AMG Benz. Did a similar transplant to our 1972 Mark IV: lo and behold, the yacht’s tiller gained the accuracy (if not speed in lock-to-lock turning) of a Camry LE. This isn’t a load of bunk, it happened.

So get serious: rubber and ball joints get out of whack after 10+ years and 100+k miles on the road. It’s time for a complete suspension rebuild, even if it doesn’t seem necessary. Rubber can look fine. Ball joints may not pop and knock in the middle of the night, but it’s time to replace damn near every moving part in the suspension.

Of course, if this was an undesirable vehicle, this is the time to consider scrapping it for something less claptrap-tastic. But a Lexus SC400? This is a no brainer, if you want showroom-fresh dynamics, you rebuild the entire front clip. And it’ll be worth it. Off to you, best and brightest.

Send your queries to [email protected] Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

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14 Comments on “Piston Slap: Self-Conscious About Your Rack?...”

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Remember kids, when you see a story about someone who kept a car for 30 years and 500,000 miles it isn’t because the car was magically blessed, it was because they did the preventative maintenance and then replaced parts as they wore out.  (Still cheaper than a car payment BTW.)

    • 0 avatar

      (Still cheaper than a car payment BTW.)

      If you value your time at $0.

    • 0 avatar


      Even at dealer prices. Depreciation is FAR more expensive than repairs and maintenance.

      Having said that, a new car has it’s own intangible appeals. But it is ALWAYS cheaper to maintain the one you have, assuming it is not a complete heap with rust holes and a smoking engine. And maintained properly, it will never get to that state.

  • avatar

    Were the tires investigated thoroughly?

  • avatar

    Did anybody check the torque for the rack mounting bolts?  I’m not familiar with how the rack mounts in your car, but in my truck there are two ginormous bolts that attach the rack to the K-frame and have a rather high torque spec (~150 ft-lbs IIRC).  If someone were to run these down with an average impact gun on shop air they wouldn’t be tight enough and high cornering forces could laterally displace the rack.
    Did anybody check lug nut torque?  The last time I got my truck back from tires & alignment 4 of  5 lug nuts were loose (only tightened with a hand ratchet and not to 125 ft-lbs spec, not completely loose) on my front left wheel.  I drove it for a few days hating the shaking before crawling around looking at the front end where I noticed the inside of the tire had rubbed on the upper control arm (normally enough clearance to almost get a finger in there).  Thinking I had a bad wheel bearing I went to pull the tire and discovered the loose lugs.  Since studs, nuts, and lug seats in the rims all visually checked OK I torqued it up and the steering shake went away.

  • avatar

    If the car handled normally before the rack was replaced, and it did not after the rack was replaced, I strongly suspect that the rack is at fault. It has been my experience that the  quality of replacement parts like this is abysmal, doubly so if a “rebuilt” part was installed.

    It has been my experience that parts like a rack, that have calibrations specific to the car, should never be replaced with a generic unit. Better to repair and rebuild the original rack. If that’s not possible, replace with a factory part that is new, not rebuilt.

    Sure, replacing bushings and ball joints will usually make the car handle better. In teh case of the Mark VIII, the original parts were pretty poor, and the replacement bushings and ball joints would have made an improvement even if they were installed when the car was new. But a sudden change in handling won’t be caused by a gradual deterioration of bushings or ball joints.

    When the rack is replaced, only the toe is affected. It shouldn’t require a complete alignment.

    But if you’re really ready to get rid of this car, let me know. I always liked the SC400, and I could be tempted by a really nice one that needed some work.


  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    When the racks were replaced, did that include the tie rods?
    Whatever problem killed the first rack is still at it. I’d think either the pump is killing them somehow, or a suspension piece got bent at some point and the resulting bad geometry is the culprit. The bushings are a nice idea, but at 132k+?, I don’t think they’re to blame.

  • avatar

    14 years and 140K miles in Tampa?
    Yeah, the elastomers underneath are perished. The elaborate multi-link monkey motion links on the Soarer/Supra of this era have bushings everywhere except for the ball joints, and even they go wonky with time and use. Toyota being Toyota, though, you can’t just buy the bushings and ball joints; you have to buy the complete links. This is less of a hassle than you might think, though, particularly if you’re refreshing all of it: you’ll easily save in labor $ more than you spend in parts compared to just replacing the bushings and ball joints, which are notorious time sinks in a shop. Swapping out the entire link is a bolt-off/bolt-on proposition, generally speaking.

    Sajeev’s spot-on with his advice. I’d add doing some shopping as an SC300-driving coworker has discovered that the identical suspension bits for a Supra can be had at the Toyota store for a fraction of the price of the SC bits at a Lexus store.

  • avatar

    I live in Tampa too, the roads here suck, almost as bad as up north.  That being said, its pretty obvious your problem is dealerships and mechanics.  Along with bad roads, the Tampa Bay area has horrible dealerships and horrible mechanics, this place is scam city.  Do yourself a favor, stay away from any dealer, and call Rich’s Import Auto Repair in Tarpon Springs.  Its worth the drive, he is a no BS mechanic and has become a good friend of mine over the years.  He is the only guy who touches my cars besides myself (unless I need warranty work at the dealer.)

  • avatar

    It’s the tires. I used to get the same steering problem when going through broken pavement on the highway. After new tires the steering felt a lot better.

  • avatar

    Not that I’m a Toyota loyalist or despise imported cars…but just let me note that if this was a US made car or a VW, by now there would have been multiple posts by previous owners of SC400s about how crappy their car was, how they’ll never own a Lexus again, and how the dealership service departments repeatedly ripped them off.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t consider it a double standard. I’d be vocal too if I experiencing sludging, blown gaskets, warped rotors, electrical gremlins, tranny failures etc. Let’s just say that there are some cars that just don’t experience these issues as often, and Lexus seems to be consistently one of those brands.

  • avatar

    From my experience 140K miles is pretty low mileage, nothing should fail at this mileage. 15 year is a long enough period of time though for rubber to deteriorate. So inevitably all rubber must be replaced after 15 years for sure. I know that tires must be replaced after like 6 years regardless of condition, even if car was not driven much. Shocks should be replaced probably after 100K. Of course if you want to keep car for long time and enjoy the ride.
    Regarding rack failure, just replacing failed part may not be enough because root cause of failure is still there. I had Ford Taurus bought used with over 100K miles. Its torque converter started leaking badly when get hot after couple of months and transmission was already in bad condition. I spend couple of grands to replace torque converter and rebuild transmission. Problem repeated after couple of month and after couple of years torque converter was leaking like same way as when I bought it. The problem was with slipping piston clutch in TC and to compensate it controller increased pressure in transmission which messed up the whole process of switching gears  making it out of sync and etc. which in the end tend to ruin transmission. And of course hard gear changes also were wearing out torque converter prematurely and cause the leak in place where shaft connects to TC. I do not know what was the problem with piston clutch and why it started to slip while TC new (actually rebuilt). But I learned the lesson that if something strangely fails it will not be fixed by just replacing the expensive part because problem may be elsewhere and you need to make full blown research to find out if you have a time. Consider it as a bad karma and get rid of car while you can and buy another one of the same brand which do not have same strange problem, but pay attention to every detail to not end up with another nasty problem.

  • avatar

    If you’re looking for a “I had one of those, and it was crap” story, well I had one of those, and it was crap. Mine was the same year, but with the straight six rather than the eight. I sold mine at 12 years old and roughly 110,000 miles. The suspension as far as I could tell was in good shape, and the drivetrain was holding together reasonably well, but the electronics were completely hosed. The car had constant starting problems, CELs were more frequent than not, and the O2 sensors seemed to last 3 months.
    Every piece of interior trim cracked, and the leather seats wore terribly. The headlights were always full of water (common SC problem) and eventually both lights had to be completely replaced. LS400s from that era deserve their bulletproof reputations, but the SC does not.
    I won’t be buying another Lexus any time soon, not really due to my poor experience with the SC, but just because everything Lexus makes now is boring and ugly, with perhaps the single exception of the IS350. Even that though is barely average in a class of much better cars like the S4 and 335i.

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