Telescoping Steering Wheel Guide: Everything You Need to Know

By Russ Heaps 09/03/2021 4:00pm

2022 Lamborghini Countach LPI800-4

Increasing safety and reducing fatigue are the key reasons for tailoring your driving position to you. A telescoping steering wheel is a critical component in achieving that ideal fit.

No question, steering a vehicle is crucial to its operation. Whatever we can do to make steering more efficient, safer, and less tiresome remains a high priority. Setting the wheel to the appropriate position in concert with the best seat adjustment can help us reach that goal.

Nearly always, telescoping steering wheels tilt for height adjustment, as well. This makes attaining that ideal fit even more likely.

What is a Telescoping Steering Wheel?

A telescoping steering wheel is one that allows the driver to pull the wheel closer or push it farther away. Sometimes referred to as telescopic, a telescoping steering wheel operates much like its namesake the telescope.

In its earliest applications, making those distance adjustments was a more involved task, sometimes requiring tools. Today, adjusting the steering wheel distance manually requires flipping a locking handle on the steering column, then pushing or pulling on the wheel.

Some models transform the telescoping steering wheel into a luxury feature. Instead of manually flipping the locking lever and physically making the adjustment, a power button, lever, or switch located on the side of the steering column does all the work.

How to Adjust a Telescoping Steering Wheel

In many vehicles, the most comfortable driving position comes with a bit of a compromise. This is more true for shorter and taller drivers. That is, those on either end of the height bell curve.

Those drivers more to the center of the height bell curve, about 5 feet 9 inches tall for men and 5 feet 4 inches tall for women, stand a good chance of reaching the perfect driving position. Those on the edges usually have to make do.

Comfort and freedom of movement are paramount for steering a car. As you drive, you don’t want your arms extended and elbows locked like a 1920s Italian Grand Prix driver. Nor do you want the wheel so close to your body a Tyrannosaurus Rex would feel cramped.

What you do want is for your arms to have the free range of motion needed to safely steer the vehicle. Here is a good rule of thumb: With the front wheels pointed straight and your hands at the 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions, can you freely turn the steering wheel in both directions so your hands are at the 12 o’clock and 6 o’clock positions?

When setting the distance of the wheel from your body, keep in mind the explosive impact of a deploying airbag in the event of an accident. The closer the steering wheel, the greater the possibility of driver injury from the airbag deploying.

Moreover, only make adjustments to your driving position when you are safely parked and the car is not moving. Attempting to adjust your steering wheel while driving can cause you to lose control of the vehicle. Nobody wants that to happen.

To adjust your telescoping steering wheel to your best driving position, we suggest:

  1. Start adjusting. Move your seat along its fore-and-aft axis.
  2. Find your comfort zone. Stop at the point your feet rest comfortably on the pedals.
  3. Avoid the reclining position. If your seat has a recline setting, bring it to its upright position.
  4. Find the telescoping lock lever. Look for the lock lever on the side or bottom of the steering column and release it.
  5. Get into position. Pull and push the steering wheel until you find the optimum position.

You can use the steering wheel’s tilt feature and seatback reclining adjustment to fine-tune your driving position. And remember: Lock the steering wheel back in place after adjusting.

If you drive one of several larger vehicles like the Chevrolet Tahoe, Ford Explorer, or Ram 1500, look for adjustable pedals in your car because those can also help.

How Does Steering Work?

For the most part, the steering system in today’s cars is called rack-and-pinion. Its primary elements include a shaft leading down from the steering wheel to a round gear called the pinion. A notched rod (the rack), on which the pinon rests, stretches across the width of your car connecting the front wheels.

As you turn the steering wheel, the pinion also turns, engaging the notches in the rack. As the rack moves right and left across the pinion, the front wheels change direction in response.

What is Power Steering?

Power steering is basically a system that multiplies the force of the driver’s input to the steering wheel.

Before power steering, the input to turning ratio was one to one. For every inch the driver turned the steering wheel, the front wheels would adjust direction by one inch. This meant the driver had to wrestle the wheel around the full arc of the turn inch by inch. Then he or she had to wrestle it back once the turn was completed.

It was exhausting. On the plus side, every driver regardless of size, gender, or age had no trouble unscrewing the lid off a new mayonnaise jar.

A few patents for power-steering systems were floating around before World War II, but it wasn’t until the early 1950s that Chrysler introduced power steering into production cars.

This was a hydraulic system using a hydraulic pump to force the steering fluid into and out of pistons between the rack and the wheels. Pressure on one side increases as it decreases on the other during a turn. This amplifies the steering wheel’s effect on the amount the front wheels change direction in response.

Today many cars use an electric motor (electronic power steering) rather than a hydraulic pump and pistons to achieve the same result.

What Are Other Types of Steering Wheels?

Although carmakers experimented with steering wheels’ ability to perform different functions over the decades, most of them didn’t last more than a model’s life cycle. A couple are notable. Steering wheels that tilt and telescope stuck with us. The Swing-Away steering wheel did not.

Tilt Wheels

It is more likely to find a car model (or trim level, really) that offers only a tilt steering wheel. In fact, if a car has a telescoping steering wheel, it’s almost always going to have a tilt feature. A telescoping wheel may be added as you move up a model’s food chain to higher grades. But the entry-level will nearly always provide a tilt steering wheel.

A tilt steering wheel is one that adjusts for height. Upon releasing the adjustment lock on the side or the bottom of the steering column, the wheel will tilt up and down. It’s not a huge adjustment — maybe 3 inches of travel — but it can make a big difference in a driver’s comfort.

Swing-Away Wheels

Almost exclusively a feature of Ford models (Thunderbird and Galaxie) in the 1960s, the Swing-Away steering wheel was engineered to allow drivers to enter and exit with less fuss.

With the automatic transmission in Park, the driver could actually swivel the steering wheel to the right about 10 inches. The driver could easily slide into and out of the driver’s seat without squeezing past the wheel.

Although a popular feature in those models in which it was available, the Swing-Away steering wheel fell victim to new government safety standards. Mandating that the steering wheel and column had to absorb a certain percentage of the impact of an accident, the government essentially killed the feature.