All You Need to Know About Car Wheel Alignment

Why care about your car wheel alignment?

Well, if you’ve ever driven in a car that is extremely out of alignment, it may seem obvious. Having to turn the steering wheel just to keep the vehicle pointed straight is a nuisance at best and a flat-out hazard at worst. But even subtle misalignment issues will cost you over the long-run in the form of fuel inefficiency and accelerated wear and tear on your tires.

Here’s all you need to know to protect your car’s alignment, recognize when something’s off, and communicate with your auto shop when it’s time to take your car to the professionals.

What Causes a Car to Need Alignment Services?

Knocking your car out of alignment can happen as suddenly as bouncing over a pothole you didn’t see or sliding into a curb during a snowstorm. But it can happen gradually too as your car’s suspension parts experience unavoidable wear during the course of your day-to-day commutes.

Is it Bad to Drive a Car that is Out of Alignment?

Short answer: yes, especially if you thinking wasting money is bad. Long answer: Replacing a full set of tires is one of those expensive but necessary costs that just comes with owning a car. The typical driver tries to stretch the lifespan of those tires to the limit and driving on misaligned wheels can shorten a tire’s life by thousands of miles. Ouch. But in addition to accelerated tire wear, you’ll also be paying more in gas since your miles per gallon (MPGs) will take a big hit in a car that’s expending so much energy just to drive straight.

What Are the Car Alignment Symptoms You Should Look Out For?

Before you take your car into the shop, run a quick check down this list at home to have a detailed report to give to the mechanic.

1. Check tire tread.

If all four of your tires have been on your car for the same amount of time, the front two tires should have the same wear patterns as each other and the same for the back. If they don’t, this will be a likely sign that the wheels are out of alignment.

2. Are your tires properly inflated?

The correct tire pressure for your vehicle will be specified on a label located inside the drivers door jamb. When in doubt, check with your mechanic, but under-inflated tires may lead you astray when you’re checking your alignment. Driving on underinflated tires can create patterns of uneven wear as well as cause the vehicle to pull in one direction.

3. Does the car pull slightly or sharply in one direction while driving?

Now that you’ve verified that your tires are properly inflated, take your car to a flat, empty lot and try to drive straight while lifting your hands just slightly off the steering wheel. If the car is misaligned, it will pull sharply to one side or simply drift toward one direction. Both instances are clear signs of misalignment.

4. Does the steering wheel vibrate while driving?

Imbalanced tires are the most likely case for this, in extreme misalignment conditions symptoms can be similar. One of these signs is steering wheel vibration. In the case of extreme misalignment, the vibration is caused by the tires pulling in opposite directions of each other and may be present at any speed. Imbalanced tires, however, will create shakiness or vibrations at around 40 to 50 miles per hour and intensify with the increase of speed.

5. Is the steering wheel “crooked” while driving?

If you’ve been driving with a subtle misalignment for a while, it may have been easy to overlook this particular sign. If you’re driving straight but your steering wheel is off-center, that means that you’ve been subconsciously correcting for the misalignment without recognizing that you have a problem.

How Often Should a Car Have an Alignment?

Assuming you haven’t hit a curb recently, or encountered an especially grisly pothole (in which case, you should probably get your car’s suspension and alignment checked out to be safe), we at Dickerson suggest that you have your car’s wheel alignment checked every 10,000 to 12,000 miles or every other tire rotation .

As an important part of your ongoing, standard automobile maintenance, this schedule will allow you to curb the negative effects of misalignment without waiting for the signs to creep up on you. When you’ve arrived at the point that your car is noticeably experiencing the symptoms of misalignment, damage has already been done that you might have avoided.

How Much Should You Expect to Pay for Regular Wheel Alignment?

While there certainly may be some automobile maintenance that a well-equipped do-it-yourselfer can tackle in their own garage, wheel alignment is not one of those things. Performing wheel alignment maintenance requires costly precision tools and advanced digital equipment. So while you’re looking for tire alignment services near you, understand that the costs that you should expect to pay will depend on these factors:

  • The shop
  • The equipment used
  • The make and model of the vehicle (European and Asian models may cost more.)
  • Warranties
  • What other maintenance services are included (such as electrical services, wheel balancing, oil change, and other preventative maintenance.)
  • Four wheel alignment check versus complete four wheel alignment

On average, costs can range from $40 to $65 for a wheel alignment check and from $80 to $100 for the alignment of all four wheels.

At Dickerson, our rates are $44.95 for alignment check, which includes:

  • Inspection of suspension components
  • Check and adjust tire pressures if necessary
  • Measurement and recording of camber
  • Caster and toe angles on all four wheels

Our rate for complete four wheel alignment is $89.95 which includes:

  • Inspection of suspension components
  • Check and adjust tire pressures if necessary
  • Measurement of camber
  • Caster and toe angles on all four wheels
  • Adjust all alignment angles to the extent factory adjustments permit

In some instances aftermarket components will be recommended to enable complete adjustment of all alignment angles if necessary.

Overall, it’s important to consider that the long-term savings created by increased fuel economy and the extended life of your expensive tires will offer a significant counterbalance to the cost of regular wheel alignment maintenance. Depending on your tires, the cost of replacing them when they’ve been worn out will be much higher than the costs of regular wheel alignment.

What’s the Difference between Wheel Alignment and Wheel Balancing?

While your automotive technician may also inspect the balance of your wheels during a wheel alignment service, the two services are very different though they’re often confused for each other. Here’s what you need to know about how they differ and intersect.

Wheel Alignment

Simply stated, wheel alignment involves adjusting the wheels’ angles to make sure they are perpendicular to the ground at right angles and parallel to each other.

Wheel Balancing

Wheel balancing ensures that all four tires spin without causing vibrations. This is done by using lead balancing weights to compensate for irregularities of weight between tires. Vibrations can be caused by as much as an ounce of imbalance.

The Signs

Both the balance and alignment of the tires affect the handling of your car and the quality of the ride, but here is how the signs differ when there’s a problem with one or the other.

Signs of Misalignment

  • Uneven or rapid wear on tires
  • Sharp or slight pulling and drifting from a straight line
  • Crooked steering wheel on a straight and level road

Signs of Imbalance

  • Vibrations in steering wheel, seat, or floorboards while driving at highway speeds
  • Scalloped or cupped tire-wear patterns

At Dickerson, we recommended that your car’s wheels are balanced every other tire rotation. Approximately every 10,000 to 12,000 miles.

Simple Wheel Alignment Glossary

As mentioned, wheel alignment involves the work of making sure all four wheels are perpendicular to the ground and parallel with each other, but there’s a lot of precision adjustments that go into correcting alignment angles. When trying to understand what goes into the typical wheel alignment procedure, it’s important to have a working knowledge of the terms your mechanic will be using to describe what they are doing. Here is a short glossary of terms for your reference.

Camber

Camber is measured in degrees and describes the angle of the wheel as viewed head on from the front of the car. It is described as positive or negative depending on the direction the tire is leaning. If the tire is leaning out from the center of the vehicle, the camber is positive, but the camber is negative if the tire is leaning in.

  1. Positive camber: tire is leaning away from center of the car.
  2. Negative camber: tire is leaning into center of the car.

The tire-wear pattern for a tire which has a camber that is too far negative will show as excess wear on the inside of the tread. A camber that is too far positive and the tire will show more wear on the outside of the tread.

Note: Camber is generally not adjustable on most front-wheel-drive vehicles so if camber is misaligned on these vehicles, it’s a sign that a part may have been damaged in even a minor accident and may need to be repaired or replaced. In some cases aftermarket component installation may be recommended to make camber angles adjustable.

Caster

Caster describes the angle of the front wheels’ steering pivot as viewed from the side of the car. Caster, like camber, is also measured in degrees and is described as positive or negative.

  1. Positive caster: top of steering pivot leans toward rear of the car
  2. Negative caster: top of steering pivot leans toward front of the car

When camber is misaligned, the result is the tire-wear pattern as described above, but caster actually does not affect tire wear. The sign of misaligned caster is in straight line tracking with the following possible scenarios:

  • Caster differs between both front wheels: the car will drift or pull to the side with the less positive caster.
  • Caster is equal between both front wheels and too negative: light steering and a wandering car that is hard to keep straight.
  • Caster is equal between both front wheels and too positive: heavy steering and impaired quality and smoothness of the ride.

Note: Like camber, caster is generally not adjustable on most front-wheel-drive vehicles so if caster is misaligned on these vehicles, it’s a sign that a part may have been damaged in even a minor accident and may need to be repaired or replaced. some cases aftermarket component installation may be recommended to make caster angles adjustable.

Toe

For both the front and rear wheels, toe describes the difference in distance between the front of the tires and the back of the tires. Instead of being measured in degrees, toe is measured in fractions of an inch and described as in or out.

  1. Toe-in: the front of the tires are closer to each other than the back of the tires
  2. Toe-out: the back of the tires are closer to each other than the front of the tires

Like camber misalignment, issues with the toe results in tire wear that is described as a saw-tooth pattern.

What is the Typical Wheel Alignment Procedure?

The type of alignment and the length of the service your car will need will depend on its suspension and the nature of the damage or misalignment. The process involves bringing the vehicle’s suspension back into its proper configuration by securing the vehicle to an alignment machine, which then adjusts the applicable alignment angles (camber, caster, toe, etc.).

If your car isn’t four-wheel or all-wheel drive, on average, your alignment service should be expected to take at least an hour.

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Quick Facts:

  • Misaligned wheels can take thousands of miles off your tire’s lifespan.
  • Signs of misalignment:
    • Car pulls to the left or right
    • Uneven or accelerated tire wear
    • Must constantly make adjustments to steering wheel to drive straight
    • Tires squeal
  • Under-inflated tires mimic signs of misalignment. Don’t be fooled!
  • You should get an alignment every 10,000 to 12,000 miles or every other tire rotation.
  • An alignment service should take about an hour.
  • Alignment service costs range between $40 and $100.
Sources:
https://www.carparts.com/alignment.htm

Things to consider when choosing an aligner

Is It Time for a Wheel Alignment?


https://www.pepboys.com/car_care_corner/car_care_basics/maintenance/wheel_alignment/

How Much Does An Alignment Cost – It’s Almost Free


https://www.carparts.com/carcare/alignmentbalance.htm#Wheel_Balance:
https://auto.howstuffworks.com/under-the-hood/diagnosing-car-problems/body/car-realigned1.htm