When your wheel alignment is off, it can cause a roadblock in terms of safe driving. Wheel alignment, also known as tire alignment, is an important aspect of keeping your car in top condition. Misalignment can damage your tires, causing them to wear out before they’re supposed to. It can also cause the steering wheel to be off-center or cause the vehicle to pull.
What is Wheel Alignment?
A wheel alignment is often referred to as a tire alignment. Wheel alignment involves adjusting your car’s steering and suspension system, which connects the car to the wheels. It does not refer to adjusting the tires or wheels. The key to proper alignment is adjusting the angles of the tires which affects how they make contact with the road.
Alignment can help your tires perform properly and help them last longer. It can also improve handling and keep your vehicle from pulling in one direction or vibrating strangely on the road.
Wheel alignment sometimes referred to as breaking, or tracking is part of standard automobile maintenance that consists of adjusting the angles of wheels to the car manufacturer’s specifications. The purpose of these adjustments is to reduce tire wear and to ensure that vehicle travel is straight and true (without “pulling” to one side).
Alignment angles can also be altered beyond the maker’s specifications to obtain a specific handling characteristic. Motorsport and off-road applications may call for angles to be adjusted well beyond normal, for a variety of reasons.
- Related: What is Tire Balancing?
- Related: Difference Between tire Balancing and Tire alignment
How Do I Know If I Need a Wheel Alignment?
There are a couple of ways to tell if your car needs a tire alignment. If you’ve noticed one or more of these indicators, you should have your alignment checked by a licensed service technician immediately.
- The vehicle pulls to one side
- The steering wheel does not return to center
- The steering wheel is off-center
- Excessive tire wear in certain spots
- Loose steering
- Steering wheel vibration
Camber, Toe, & Caster
When a technician checks your tire alignment, he or she is mainly concerned with three things:
This is the inward or outward angle of the tire when viewed from the front of the vehicle. Too much inward or outward tilt, also known as negative and positive camber, respectively, indicates improper alignment and will need to be adjusted. Worn bearings, ball joints, and other wheel-suspension parts may contribute to camber misalignment.
Distinct from camber alignment, toe alignment is the extent to which your tires turn inward or outward when viewed from above. If that’s confusing, just stand up and look down at your feet. Angle them inward toward the center of your body.
When the tires on your car are angled the same way (remember, we’re thinking in terms of birds-eye-view), we call this toe-in alignment. Angle your feet outward and you have toe-out alignment. Both require adjustment.
Your caster angle helps balance steering, stability, and cornering. Specifically, it’s the angle of your steering axis when viewed from the side of your vehicle. If you have a positive caster, the steering axis will tilt toward the driver. A negative caster, on the other hand, means the steering axis tilts toward the front of your vehicle.
Why wheel Alignment Matters
Improper wheel or tire alignment can cause your tires to wear unevenly and prematurely. Here are some specific types of undue tread wear attributable to misalignment:
Tires are “feathered” when the tread is smooth on one side and sharp on another. This is usually a sign of poor toe alignment.
This strain of tread wear means the inside or outside of the tread is significantly more worn than the center of the tread. As its name implies, positive or negative camber causes this type of wear.
This happens when one side of your tread block wears down more quickly than the other in a circumferential direction. When you run your hand over the tread, it will look and feel like saw teeth when viewed from the side. Heel/toe wear could be a sign of underinflation and/or lack of rotation.
If you’re experiencing any of these unusual wear patterns, you should have a technician check your alignment. While tire wear prevention is a good reason to keep your wheel alignment in check, the consequences of misalignment can also play out in overall vehicle performance. A car that pulls to one side or steers erratically, for example, probably has an alignment problem.
4 Signs That It’s Time for A Wheel Alignment
Although an actual inspection is needed to confirm if your vehicle is misaligned, there are four tell-tale signs that let you know your wheels are likely misaligned!
1. Your Car Pulls to The Left or Right
One of the easiest signs to identify is when your car pulls to a particular side when driving. It’s normal for slight pulling to the left or right, however, if you find you have to constantly steer to keep straight – you’ve likely got an alignment problem.
2. Your Steering Wheel is Off Center
A crooked steering wheel is often a sign of a misaligned vehicle. Your steering wheel was designed to be dead center. When you drive down a straight road, check to see where your steering wheel is aligned. An easy way to identify this is to check if the logo in the middle is centered.
3. Car or Steering Wheel Shaking
When you’re accelerating, your vehicle or steering wheel should not be vibrating to the point you feel it in your hands. When your vehicle shakes when driving, it may indicate several issues, one of them being wheel misalignment. An ASE-Certified technician would need to diagnose the issue to validate if the cause is a misalignment or a separate concern.
4. Abnormally Quick Tire Wear
Tire wear is a great indicator of vehicle issues. Tire wear should be evenly spread on the inside and outside. Using your own eyes, or a trained mechanic, you can quickly identify abnormal tire wear. Similar to car shaking, abnormal tire wear can indicate different issues, one of them being wheel misalignment.
Related: Why is My Car Shaking?
Types of wheel alignments
An ASE-Certified technician will know the ideal alignment required for your vehicle year, make, and model!
- Two Wheel Alignments. Also referred to as “front-end” alignments. These alignments are only performed on the two front wheels. This is because for many vehicles, the rear portion of the suspension is not designed for adjustments.
- Four Wheel Alignments. As the name suggests, alignment is performed on all four wheels is typically only performed on all-wheel drive vehicles. Interestingly, front-wheel drive vehicles may still receive four-wheel alignments if they have rear suspensions designed to be adjusted.
- Thrust Alignments. Thrust alignments may occur in conjunction with a two-wheel alignment. These occur in cases where technicians ensure the front wheels align with the back wheels.
Wheel Alignment Cost Near Me
A front-end alignment usually costs between $65 and $100 (some brands, of course, are more). At that price, it should be a regular part of your car care regime. To make an alignment even more economical, some car care facilities offer lifetime alignment packages for around $200. Your car gets a scheduled alignment every 6,000 miles (or as needed) for as long as you own it.
A single alignment just checks one set of wheels. This will generally cost between $50 – $100 at most mechanics. A full alignment checks both sets of wheels. You should expect this to cost between $150 – $200 at most mechanics.
However, like most auto repairs, this is not a hard and fast rule. A mechanic might charge more for particularly complicated cars or ones that require specialized equipment.
Further, bringing your car in for an alignment might trigger additional repairs. The mechanics might find issues with components such as the suspension, which they must repair before working on the alignment, or the breaks, which they really should repair before sending you back on the road. This can add to the cost as well. Many new cars will come with a warranty that covers alignment for a period of time.
How often should the wheel alignment be done?
Typically, it is recommended to get your wheels aligned every 2 to 3 years. However, to ensure the optimal safety of your car, yourself, and others around you, it is best to opt for a wheel alignment every time you go to change the oil of the vehicle.
For most cars, there are no specific requirements. Your mechanic would typically recommend doing the wheel alignment every two-three years or if there are signs that the alignment is off. Often, wheel alignment is recommended when new tires are installed.
The alignment should be done more often if your car has wider tires or if it’s a sporty car, e.g., Audi, BMW, Mazda 3, Nissan 370Z, etc. From our experience, if you re-check the wheel alignment after a year or two of driving, usually it will be slightly off. If you hit a large bump, the alignment will most likely be off.
However, if your vehicle holds the road well, doesn’t pull aside and tires are wearing evenly, doing the wheel alignment every year is not necessary. Carmakers typically don’t include the wheel alignment in the vehicle’s maintenance schedule but advise checking it if you find a tire is worn unevenly.