Do you find your car won’t drive straight? Or perhaps you’ve noticed your car shaking? Both can be symptoms of bad alignment. The term ‘car alignment’ or ‘wheel alignment’ refers to the adjustment of the car’s suspension; the system that connects the vehicle to the wheels. This includes all the springs, bushings, tie rods and everything else that’s designed to absorb bumps, give a smooth ride and make sure the car responds well to the driver.
To correct the car alignment, a mechanic will adjust the angles of the wheels so they’re set exactly to the car manufacturer’s specifications. All new cars have perfect alignment when they first roll out of the factory, to make sure the vehicle handles and brakes at its optimum.
The ways car alignment is measured
There are several ways that alignment (sometimes called ‘tracking’) is measured and corrected. These calculations are known as the caster, camber, toe and thrust:
Caster: compares the steering axis to the vertical axis, when the car is viewed from the side.
Camber: measures the vertical tilt of the wheels, when the car is viewed from the front.
Toe: measures whether the front of a pair of wheels turns in or out, viewed from the front.
Thrust: the imaginary line drawn perpendicular to the rear axle's centreline.
Signs you need wheel alignment
It’s not always clear whether a problem points to wheel misalignment or another issue with a car. Here are the main car alignment symptoms to watch out for:
Car pulls to the left or right
This is often the first sign that drivers notice. Very slight pulling or drifting to the side is normal, as roads aren’t perfectly flat and there will be some crowning in the road surface. But driving straight should feel easy, without much need for steering.
Steering wheel off center
When you drive down a straight road, your steering wheel should be in the middle. You can see that it’s balanced, as the logo will sit straight. If you’re concerned about crooked steering wheel causes, then car alignment could be the answer.
Car shaking or steering wheel wobbles
If you can feel vibrations in your hands, there can be a range of reasons. It may be a symptom of bad wheel alignment, but not necessarily. Car shaking may also indicate worn parts or tyre imbalance. Wheel balancing equalises the weight in the wheels when they spin. This is different to car alignment and needs looking at more often.
Abnormal or rapid tyre wear
The wear on your tyres is a good clue to the general health of your car. Unusual wear, such as focused on the inside or outside, will give a trained mechanic a picture of how the weight is distributed through the car. Perhaps there’s a tilt at the top of the tyre or excessive wear on the outside edge, showing that car realignment is needed.
If you’ve tuned into any of these signs, it’s time to have your car alignment checked.
What causes car alignment issues?
Alignment problems will occur naturally over time with the ordinary ‘wear and tear’ of car parts and as a result of aging. They can also be caused by a particular event, like impact with a nasty pothole or bang up a high curb. It’s common to have an alignment problem after an accident, and if you have the suspension raised or lowered to adjust the ride height, the wheels will need the car realigned to make sure it fits the car maker’s specifications.
Checking out an alignment problem
Wheel alignment issues won’t go away. If you ignore them or delay a visit to a garage, you may experience more problems and face bigger, unnecessary costs. When camber and toe (alignment) specifications drift outside the manufacturer’s limit, it can quickly lead to:
•Premature wear of tyres and steering and suspension parts – which is expensive
•Undue stress on the whole suspension system – which is damaging
•Poor handling and road holding – which is dangerous
How often should you get a wheel alignment?
If you’ve been unlucky enough to have a serious driving incident or encounter a major road hazard, then a full wheel alignment procedure should be top of your list. Even if you’ve had a clear 6 months, car alignment will be included in your regular car service – generally advised every 6,000 miles. It’s also good practice for alignment to be checked whenever a steering or suspension component is replaced. This allows all the car parts to work together in harmony, and for the vehicle to drive at peak efficiency.