A wheel alignment is a mechanical adjustment of your suspension system (the parts that connect your wheels to your car) to ensure your wheels are in the correct position. It can also be called tracking or tire alignment. Wheel alignments are important because wheels that are out of alignment can be a safety hazard, make your tires wear out quickly or unevenly, and lead to a less pleasant experience of driving or riding in your car.
If your car is constantly pulling to one side or another on straightaways, it is most likely out of alignment. To offset this pull, you’ll have to turn the steering wheel slightly in the opposite direction, so a steering wheel that is not centered when driving on a straight section of road is another telltale sign of alignment issues.
You can also spot alignment problems by visually inspecting your tire tread when your vehicle is stopped. Certain sections that are more worn down than others or a difference in tread depth from the inside to the outside edge of the tire are signs of different types of alignment problems.
You may even be able to hear an alignment issue because misaligned wheels can cause tires to screech in situations where they normally would not.
Wheel alignments are not a do-it-yourself project, unless you happen to be a mechanic with the specialized machinery needed to square up your vehicle’s four wheels. The process is more involved than just making sure your wheels are parallel and pointing straight ahead, and three main factors are at play.
Camber is the term for how far the wheel tilts outward away from the vehicle, or how far it leans inward toward it. Getting the camber angle right is important for guaranteeing that your car will corner safely. A camber angle that’s off can cause a ring of wear towards the inside or outside edge of your tire, depending on which way the excess slant goes.
Toe angle is what most people first associate with alignments, and it has to do with whether the wheels are pointing straight ahead or not. Your wheels should be neither pigeon-toed nor duck-footed. Toe alignment problems are the ones that can most quickly chew through your tire’s tread.
The caster angle is how far forward or backward (toward or away from the driver) the steering axis is tilted. The steering axis is the line between the upper and lower ball joints on the wheel, and the ball joints are the pivot points where the wheel attaches. Most vehicles have positive caster, meaning the steering axis is tilted toward the driver, which makes it more difficult to turn your vehicle unwittingly. Caster problems might make your steering loose or less responsive than it should be.
The cost of aligning your tires can vary based on several factors: the scope of the job, your location, the company or mechanic doing the work, and even the make and model of your car and the type of tires you are running. However, compared to many other repair or maintenance jobs, alignment is relatively inexpensive. A rough estimate of an average price would be $75 for a front alignment, and a little over twice that for a full alignment (see below for more on the difference between the two type of alignment).
The three Cs of why you need to align your tires are caution, cash, and comfort:
Caution: since bad alignment can lead to accelerated or uneven tire wear, it can compromise the tire’s grip on the roadway, especially in slippery conditions. In severe cases, it can even lead to a blowout, so alignment is necessary as a safety precaution.
Cash: accelerated wear also means you’ll have to spend more to replace your tires more frequently, so alignment is necessary from a financial standpoint as well. Dragging a cockeyed tire down the blacktop will also lower your gas mileage, so you’ll end up shelling out more at the pump too.
Comfort: finally, misaligned tires are less able to absorb shock and can make your car’s movements jerky or cause vibration. For a smoother, cushier ride, alignment is a must.
There is no set formula for how often you need to align your car’s wheels—it all depends on your normal driving conditions and habits. Many mechanics recommend an alignment at least every couple of years, but if you often drive on rough roads or put a lot of miles on your car, you may consider getting an alignment much more frequently. From a mechanical perspective, there is no such thing as too many alignments.
Regardless of when you did your last alignment, you’ll want to realign after replacing tires, replacing parts of the steering or suspension system, or after driving incidents like particularly hard blows to the wheel or accidents.
An alignment is not a time-consuming procedure and should typically take an hour or less. A four-wheel alignment (as opposed to a front-wheel one) will take a little longer, and if the mechanic finds broken or worn-out parts in the suspension system, replacing them will take longer as well.
Again, there is no magic number for how long your alignment will last. It comes down to how and where you drive your car, and even the weather conditions can impact an alignment’s durability. Vehicles that have been driven hard over speed bump or on rough roads will have more frequent misalignments, while the alignments on cars driven more conservatively should last two or three years, barring any incidents.
When you don’t align your tires, they can begin to wear quickly and unevenly. This wear can cause safety issues and make your ride less smooth, since crooked wheels can cause jerking and chattering. A bad alignment also means you will have to replace your tires sooner than expected. If you do the math, spending the $75 or so on getting your wheels aligned is well worth it when you compare it to the cost of having to prematurely buy and install a new set of tires.
The wear on your tires caused by alignment issues depends on the severity of the problem. Over time, even a minor issue can take thousands of miles off a tire’s life, but a major misalignment, especially in the toe angle, can chew through your tire tread depth in just a few hundred miles if you don’t get it fixed. You might be able to detect a problem severe enough to cause this kind of damage just by looking at the wheels on your parked car to see if they look parallel or not.
The type of vehicle you drive determines the kind of alignment you need. During a two-wheel (or front-end) alignment, the mechanic only recalibrates the front wheels. This is usually recommended for trucks or heavy-duty SUVs with a solid rear axle without independent suspension. Cars with independent suspension or all-wheel drive require a four-wheel alignment. Most passenger vehicles fall into this category. Your mechanic should be able to help you decide which service is needed.
Yes. When your wheels are out of alignment, they are often pulling against each other or being partly dragged along the road surface. This can have a number of consequences for the car’s handling and feel, including a steering wheel that vibrates or the whole car shaking as it goes down the highway.
The problems caused by imbalanced tires and out-of-alignment wheels can be similar: poor fuel economy, rapid or uneven wear, vibrations in the steering wheel, or other handling problems. However, the underlying issues and their remedies are quite different.
Tire balancing is in order when the mass of the tire is unevenly distributed around the circumference of the tire, for instance when the tread depth is greater on one side than the other. After using a machine to detect the imbalance, a technician will then apply weights to correct the lopsided spin.
A wheel alignment, on the other hand, corrects the various angles of contact a tire has with the road surface, which is a completely different procedure requiring separate equipment.
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