Wheel alignment , also known as car or front-end alignment, is an often overlooked, but critical adjustment performed to insure your vehicle tracks straight and true as you cruise down the road. Poor alignment can cause premature tire wear, suspension failure, unsafe operation, excessive steering wheel play, driver fatigue and more.
The ability of a car, truck, or SUV to operate properly is a balancing act that depends on a combination of power, acceleration, steering and braking. It requires proper alignment specifications and well-maintained suspension components. Tires, steering mechanisms, shock absorbers and springs must work properly with each other for continued reliable service.
Simply put, a vehicle that is out of alignment means that your wheels are pointing in different directions. This in turn causes accelerated and uneven tire wear as well as causing your vehicle to pull to the right or the left. Easily correctible, your local dealership service department, tire retailer or a local automotive service center is ready and able to straighten things out for you.
Keep in mind that precise wheel alignment does not last for the life of your car. The potential exists for even brand-new vehicles to have a chance encounter with a curb or pot hole. These impacts can cause your vehicle to fall out of alignment instantaneously. In most cases, alignment can degrade gradually and almost imperceptibly over time as components start to show wear.
How Much Does a Wheel Alignment Cost?
With a typical cost in the range of $65 to $100 per tire alignment service, it is not out of reach and should be a regular part of your car care regime. To save money, some tire and auto care facilities offer lifetime alignment packages in the range of $200 with scheduled alignment every 6,000 miles, or as needed, for as long as you own your vehicle.
You can find out how much a wheel alignment costs for your vehicle using the Kelley Blue Book Service and Repair Guide.
What is Involved in an Alignment?
In the past, as with body-on-frame vehicles and those having non-independent rear suspensions, front-end alignment was usually all you needed to have you on the straight and narrow again. With today’s unibody designs and multilink independent rear suspensions, four-wheel alignment is recommended to have all tires working together and tracking in the same direction.
Depending on the adjustments available on your vehicle, alignment is a procedure that involves adjusting the camber, the outward or inward tilt of the tires when view head-on; caster, a front or rear tilt when viewed from the side; and toe, which way your tires are pointed when viewed from above. Toe-in means they are pointed inward, toe-out means they are turning away from each other.
Tire alignment services require specialized equipment and trained technicians. It requires the proper tools to diagnose, repair, replace and properly align your vehicle. It’s not an easy fix like changing your motor oil and should be done by a dealership or repair shop.
While they check alignment, consult with them on wheel balancing, as well. Vibrations can crop up from an out of balance tire, which in turn causes excessive tire wear. With so many components responsible for specific causes and subsequent affects, it’s a good idea to have all these exams and services performed at the same time.
Signs Your Car Needs an Alignment
Here’s how to tell if your car needs an alignment. Your car displays a tendency to drift left or right, especially when you apply the brakes. Or you notice while driving down the highway, an excessive amount of steering input is required to keep you in the lane. Or you may feel a bit of shimmy and shake from the steering wheel. These are all clear signs that you may need of an alignment.
But even before you take the car in, perform a check of your tire’s inflation. Having one tire measure substantially more or less than what the owner’s manual calls for, could cause the same effect of drifting left or right or vibration in the steering.
Imperfections in the road surfaces could be your vehicle’s worst enemy in keeping proper alignment. If you regularly drive on poorly maintained roads or one riddled with potholes or accidentally hit a curb or a parking bumper, you may knock your vehicle out of alignment.
Effects on Tires
A vehicle that is out of alignment can result in excessive tire wear. When the wheel takes a set in a different direction than intended, a constant scuff works against normal tread wear. You’ll notice that the tire tread is disappearing prematurely and unevenly across the tire’s surface. This also can cause a loss of traction, especially in wet conditions. Uneven tire wear, if ignored, can also contribute to premature tire failure or a blowout.
How Often do I Need an Alignment?
We recommend an alignment check every six months or 6,000 miles, whichever comes first. Regardless, don’t let your vehicle go more than 10,000 miles without examining the alignment.
It’s a good idea to have your tires checked for alignment bi-annually, or anytime you have your tires rotated. Obviously, if your vehicle tracks straight on the highway, it most likely will be in proper alignment. If it veers left or right, that’s a clear sign it’s time for a checkup.
The other time you should absolutely have your tires aligned is when you replace them. Properly balanced and aligned when placed on your vehicle, this will ensure they wear evenly from the start. Placing new tires on an improperly-aligned vehicle will end up costing you more in the long run, because your new tires will continue to wear in the same manner as the previous set.