When looking at maintaining those round things that your car rolls on, it’s insufficient to merely pay attention to tire changes alone. There are, in fact, an abundance of other aspects to ponder over as far as servicing your tires, wheels, suspension, and steering altogether. It’s important to get started ASAP at heading over to your local tire shop, as soon as bad wheel alignment symptoms appear.
After all, you definitely don’t want to be driving for much longer with poor alignment. It’s a lifetaker, leading your car to drive unreliably, either pulling left or right, not to mention a bad steering response. Compromised handling, unpleasant vibrations, and excessive tread wear on your tires could all easily put you in danger. Beyond that, there are other downsides to living with poorly aligned wheels.
Your car’s performance and driveability won’t be as smooth as they had been. Moreover, it’ll wear out the tires much faster, leading to the constant need for tire changes. And, poor alignment could add to your fuel bill, too. Hence, why getting your wheels aligned is a fairly straightforward, but utterly consequential step in keeping your car in good shape. Always be wary of bad wheel alignment…
What Is A Wheel Alignment, Anyway?
Before looking at what a bad wheel alignment looks like, it’s worth discussing what aligning a set of wheels means for your car. So, why is a wheel alignment so important, anyway? Wheel alignments are sometimes called ‘tracking’, and its process is as the name suggests. It’s a typical maintenance procedure for aligning, correcting, or keeping the angle of the wheels in its most ideal position.
Aligning (or sometimes, adjusting) the angle of the wheels is done for a myriad of reasons, such as:
- Ensures that your vehicle’s direction of travel is always straight and true.
- Prevents excessive tire tread wear, and optimizes the lifespan of your tires.
- Alter your car’s driving characteristics, such as adapting it for racing or off-roading, for example.
- Enhances your car’s smooth and comforting driving dynamics.
- Reduces rolling resistance, which can substantially decrease fuel consumption.
- Avoids putting unwanted strain or accelerating wear on the suspension and steering.
- Increases the safety of your vehicle, with predictable and reliable handling.
For most of us, wheel alignments are done routinely without understanding their many benefits and long-term value. When performed correctly, you’re left with a car that isn’t only much safer, is better to drive, and more comfortable. But, it could also save you a bucket load of cash in future repairs or servicing, as it puts as little stress on your suspension and steering components as is possible.
How Are Wheel Alignments Done?
In the olden days, wheel alignments are executed by feel. Your mechanic would set the angle of the wheels as best as they could, with whatever measuring tools and experience they’ve garnered. Once that’s done, they’d take your car out for a spin, and take note of how it drives. All of which is done by intuition and skill. Depending on your mechanic, a bad wheel alignment is more likely back then.
These days, however, even a cheap wheel alignment is supremely high-tech by comparison:
- Your car would be driven up a ramp or lift, where clamp-like devices are then secured to the wheels.
- These clamps are filled with sensors, where data is siphoned back to a computer. It can measure, to a very precise degree, your car’s present alignment.
- Accompanying the process is a mechanic, who will reference the data they see on the computer and make adjustments to the wheels where necessary. They’ll keep tweaking until the alignment is perfect.
- Primarily, the mechanic will reference your car manufacturer’s designated specifications for optimal alignment angles.
- Meanwhile, the mechanic will also double-check that everything else concerning the tires, wheels, axles, suspension, and steering are in good order. For example, inspecting to see if there’s any play with the steering wheels, or if your suspension is worn out.
- Once the alignment is complete, you could ask the mechanic to supply you with a printout. This can detail the before-and-after changes made to your car’s wheel alignment.
What Are The Different Types Of Wheel Alignments?
When you’re getting a wheel alignment done, you have the option to specify what type of alignment you’d want. Naturally, your mechanic may make recommendations depending on the configuration and layout of your vehicle. In other words, an alignment for a regular sedan isn’t at all the same as an alignment done for a hardy sports car, or a rugged off-roader.
In general, there are 3 types of wheel alignments jobs offered:
- Front-End Alignment – The most basic and cheapest alignment job, which some find inadequate for most modern vehicles. It covers the most basic form of alignment; adjusting your front axles. They’re suitable for front-, rear-, or all-wheel drive vehicles. Most especially, they’re suitable for cars that feature a solid rear axle. Front-end alignments only dabble with toe position (more on this later), and not much more.
- Thrust Alignment – A much more comprehensive solution, it caters to making sure that all 4 wheels are “square” against each other. In other words, both front- and rear-end tracking are in unison. Thrust alignments are highly suggested for those cars with a solid rear suspension. Getting aligned this way is also recommended for vehicles that were involved in accidents, or hard knocks.
- Four-Wheel Alignment – It’s the most detailed alignment solution you can get. It’s particularly crucial for vehicles that feature all- or four-wheel drive, and cars with 4-wheel independent suspension. Or, you might consider it for your front-wheel drive vehicle that has an adjustable rear suspension. An alignment of this type does all of what a thrust process includes, on top of adjusting the rear axles.
While we’re here, it’s also worth understanding the unique types of wheel alignment solutions. The most common types of wheel alignments done to aid in optimizing your car’s camber, toe, and caster settings…
1. Wheel Alignment – Camber
This refers to the angle of the lean that your wheels are set in. To best describe this, look at your car from the front, dead straight. There are two types of camber settings, positive and negative:
- Positive Camber – The top of the wheels are seen leaning outwards, and away from the car.
- Negative Camber – The top of the wheels are seen leaning inwards, and looking into the car.
Poor camber adjustments can lead to uneven tire wear, as it can force your wheels to pull the entire vehicle to one side. Not all cars can be altered for camber. For instance, front-wheel drive cars have to drive on their manufacturer-set camber angles (measured in degrees).
2. Wheel Alignment – Toe
In this instance, we’re referring to the angle of where your wheels are pointed at. Imagine you have a bird’s eye view of your car, looking up from above. Two types of toe settings are available, toe-in and toe-out:
- Toe-In (Positive Toe) – The front of the wheels are pointing inwards, and looking into the centerline of the car.
- Toe-Out (Negative Toe) – The front of the wheels are pointing outwards, and away from the centerline of the car.
When done badly, modifying the toe angles could lead to excessive wearing and straining on your suspension and steering. Unlike camber, toe (in or out) can be done on most, if not all, vehicles. But ordinarily, toe angles are set to zero (neutrally set, forming a square).
3. Wheel Alignment – Caster
As you’re steering your car, the front wheels are turning a pivot. Connected to the suspension, this pivot angle (also measured in degrees) is best seen from the side. The caster can be adjusted either by a negative caster, or a positive caster:
- Positive Caster – The upper half of the pivot is leaning towards the back of the car.
- Negative Caster – The upper half of the pivot is leaning towards the front of the car.
With an incorrectly judged caster, it will predominantly affect your steering. When driving straight on, it might not track correctly. In addition, it has the effect of making your steering feel overly light or heavy. Once more, front-wheel drive vehicles can’t have an adjustable caster.
What Are The Symptoms Of A Bad Wheel Alignment?
When your car has gone through a bad wheel alignment, its many symptoms and tell-tale signs can rear their ugly heads right away. They can be very noticeable as you’re driving along, even at fairly slow speeds. Worse, they can very rapidly worsen, and could easily increase the chances of getting into a nasty accident. A bad wheel alignment could make your car that much harder to control.
For example, it can reduce the effectiveness of your brakes, and worsen your ability to steer out of the way of something. And, it’s far more unpredictable, uncomfortable, and inefficient. In short, a bad wheel alignment needs to be sorted out promptly, without a moment’s hesitation. This should be done at your local tire shop or mechanic as soon as you notice these symptoms…
1. Vehicle Is Pulling Or Veering To One Side
This is immediately the most deadly, and a noteworthy sign of a bad wheel alignment. As you drive along, you can feel your car pulling off to one side, left or right. Even as you’re keeping the steering wheel straight-on, the car continually drags itself to either side, without any input from you.
It will make it challenging to keep your car moving in a straight line, which could be detrimental for those long highway cruises. In some cases, the pulling or veering is so bad, it could force your car to hop over onto the opposing lane.
You can test just how bad the veering is for yourself. Find a straight, flat, and crucially, empty stretch of road. Remove your hands from the steering wheel, and gently apply throttle to make your car go forward. See if there’s a noticeable drifting over to one side, left or right.
You may repeat this test again, as poor road conditions may also contribute to your car veering or pulling to one side. Otherwise, you have misaligned wheels that need correcting. While you’re there, observe by how much your car pulls to the side. The more it pulls, the worse the alignment is.
2. Steering Wheel Is Crooked And Isn’t Centered
Another way for you to notice a bad wheel alignment is by how your steering wheel is placed. When you’re driving on a straight and flat road, your steering wheel should, naturally, remain centered. You can gauge this by the tilting of the logo on the wheel, or the relative positioning of the spokes.
If the steering wheel is off-center while driving down a flat and straight road, that’s a sign that your bad wheel alignment is adversely affecting the steering. Off-center by even a degree or two isn’t an ideal scenario, as it can somewhat make it more off-putting to steer and turn.
3. Looseness In The Steering Feel
Again, a bad wheel alignment is capable of altering the way your steering feels. When your wheels are aligned properly, the steering should feel solid, planted, and responsive. With bad alignments, the steering now feels loose while turning, with a lot of play and vagueness.
In addition, it might also add a delay to the steering response. For instance, you’d turn in hard, but it takes a moment before your vehicle can respond at all. Changing directions this slowly would force your car to be that bit more sluggish while cornering, which is incredibly hazardous.
4. Vibrations In The Steering Wheel
This is further proof that a bad wheel alignment can be immediately felt through the steering wheel. Ordinarily, the steering wheel should feel smooth, while occasionally transmitting feedback from the road underneath back to you. Never should your wheel vibrate, shake, or shudder.
A bad wheel alignment means that your car might not be tracking properly. Or, it might’ve broken or worn-out key components within your car’s suspension and steering setup. Either way, you’ll be able to feel shuddering and vibrations right through the steering wheel.
5. Steering Wheel Won’t Return To The Middle
In practically every car with power steering, the steering wheel should return to the middle after a turn has been made. It’s instinctive for the wheel, no matter how far left or right it has turned, to gradually rotate back to its center point.
Should the steering wheel not rotate back to the middle once completing a turn, it could point to a bad wheel alignment, as it’s failed to track properly. You can test this out for yourself, just as how you would with the car pulling or veering to one side.
6. Squealing Sounds From The Tires
Your tires shouldn’t make that much noise. At the very most, you should be able to hear it “roar” and rumble as it rotates at speed while driving. Other than that, unpleasant sounds such as screeching or squealing should be red flags that maybe, your alignment is off.
With a bad wheel alignment, the first victim would be your tires. Poor tracking and adjustments can lead to accelerated or uneven treadwear. They’d turn bald much earlier than tires typically would. With fewer treads to count on, the squealing will eventually get worse.
7. Uneven Tire Treadwear
Relating to our earlier point, misaligned wheels won’t just wear out the tires much hastier. However, it would also wear down the treads unevenly. When looking at your tires, you can see that certain sections are wearing out at a faster pace than the rest.
You can measure the tread depth, both on the inner and outer edge of the tires, to confirm this. It’ll depend on the exact offset of your camber, toe, or caster specifications. Based on how far off they are, you might notice the tires wearing out much quicker on the inner half.
8. Increased Fuel Consumption
If you’ve somehow managed to not notice any of the aforementioned symptoms, this one might still be able to catch your attention. With a well-done alignment, your car would roll like it’s on a bed of butter, smooth and unhindered.
On the other hand, a poor alignment would significantly increase the rolling resistance of your wheels. This is used to describe how much harder the wheels are to rotate. With increased difficulty, your car will have to burn a lot more fuel to get it going.
What Causes You To Experience A Bad Wheel Alignment?
Having now understood what’ll happen to you when your car has a bad wheel alignment, how about discussing what caused it? Wheel alignments don’t organically go awry on their own, not without a direct influence. Usually, it may be due to deficient or aggressive driving on your part. Or, perhaps a bit too much driving over rough roads and over speedbumps.
Here are some of the most common causes for your wheels to be misaligned:
- Driving over potholes or speedbumps at high speeds.
- Hitting or constantly driving over curbs.
- Impact against larger road debris, especially at speed.
- Accidents, even minor ones that strike any part of the suspension, steering, wheels, or axles.
- Aftermarket modifications, such as lifting or lowering your car beyond its factory specs.
- Driving with under- or over-inflated tires for prolonged periods.
- Running with worn-out shocks, struts, or other suspension components (such as bad shocks – you can learn more in our guide on replacing struts).
- Using tires that aren’t the right size, or don’t fit your wheels right.
The good news here is that most of these direct or indirect causes of a bad wheel alignment could be mitigated with frequent alignment jobs. It’s impossible to avoid needing an alignment, even for those of us who are careful behind the wheel or don’t drive regularly. Getting your wheels aligned on time, or whenever it’s been scheduled, would no doubt prevent you from experiencing issues.
How Can You Solve A Bad Wheel Alignment?
So then, how can you solve a bad wheel alignment? Simple, just get it aligned again. All tire shops feature this service, as well as popular auto center chains, like those offered by Walmart. General, do-it-all workshops and mechanics might also manage wheel alignment services if they have the right equipment. Therefore, and with so many options available, there’s no excuse to avoid doing it.
As for cost, the tally will vary depending on where you’re visiting, and what type of alignment you’re getting. For the most part, you’re able to get your wheels aligned for much less than $100, or even below $50 if you can get a good deal. Note, this pricing is commonly attached to aligning either the front or rear wheels, not both. For a full four-wheel alignment, you can expect it to skyrocket.
Typically, somewhere between $100 to $200 for all four wheels. In regards to how often you’ll need to get your wheels aligned, it differs. For most people, you could get away with an alignment every 10,000 or so miles. Although, you may have to halve this amount if you frequently drive over rough roads. With that much strain put on the wheels, an alignment every 5,000 or so miles is a safe bet.
In either case, it’s a much better alternative than not getting an alignment done. Driving with a poorly aligned wheel, or skipping out on alignments to save a buck will cost you substantially over the long run. You’ll have to swap your tires more often and lower your fuel economy. That’s beside the fact that your steering and suspension would wear out far sooner, likely costing thousands in repairs.
Final Thoughts On Bad Wheel Alignments
All in all, that rounds up our look at bad wheel alignments. As soon as you note the symptoms which we’ve explained earlier, don’t hesitate at getting it checked out as soon as you can. We can’t stress enough how dangerous it is to drive with misaligned wheels. Seeing that they’re chiefly responsible for keeping your car on the road, steering it, and providing traction, there can’t be any compromise.
Badly aligned wheels leave a huge impact on your car’s handling and driveability. Sometimes, it gets to a point where you’re essentially sitting in a death trap. It’s unfortunate that quite a lot of people actively skimp on getting alignments, just to save money. While alignment jobs aren’t free, they’re far cheaper once you compared them to death, or getting into a terrible accident.