It’s been said countless times, but one of the most critical components of any landed vehicle is the tire. Some might say that you can’t get anywhere without the proper tire for the occasion. And I’d even go as far as to say that tires are the most underappreciated engineering marvel that has been continuously developed upon during the last century.
Here’s the thing though, tires aren’t exactly cheap for most people. Depending on your driving style and type of tire, tires might not even last a year before needing to be changed. Most drivers willfully ignore that their tires are way past the safety limits. Only to find that their 5 years expired summer tires with cracked sidewalls and barely any tread will skid at a moment’s notice in the rain.
If you skimp out on tires, you are compromising the handling capability of your vehicle, and thus the safety of you and your passengers. However, there’s another element at play in getting the most out of your brand new tires – wheel alignment. There’s no point to splurge on a set of expensive all-seasons when you don’t carry out alignments regularly.
Below you will find out exactly how much you can expect to pay. But consider it will be around $75 for the front wheels and $150 for 4 wheel alignment.
What is Wheel Alignment
You might’ve heard about wheel alignment before, but what exactly is it? Wheel alignment can be summed up as the process to ensure that all of your wheels are pointing in the right direction. If tires are the contact patch, proper alignment is what utilizes that contact patch to the fullest and it’s what maintains tire contact with the road surface.
But you might question the need for wheel alignment. Of course, your car should be set up perfectly from the factory, and you’ve never changed it. Why should wheel alignment become a regular part of your vehicle ownership?
Regular Wheel Alignments
This is necessary due to the intricate suspension components that actually hold and maintain the tire’s road contact. These individual components aren’t rigidly mounted to your vehicle and wheel hub. Pliable bushings within the components are what mounts the wheel hub and chassis bolts to.
These bushings are made of rubber, and over time rubber wears out and even deforms. This contributes to a small amount of variation to the individual wheel alignment. Regular wheel alignments seek to correct the change in tire alignment caused by component wear.
Of course, that’s not the only cause. The vehicle’s alignment can be changed just by driving it daily. If you’ve hit a curb or a pothole, chances are that you’ve changed the alignment of your tires. There’s typically no need to fret as long as it’s not a serious hit, but you should get it checked at your next service.
If you’ve driven right into a massive pothole though, it’s prudent to visit an alignment shop immediately. The massive shock caused by the impact can damage suspension components and drastically alter the vehicle’s alignment.
Continuing to drive with damaged or bent suspension components is dangerous. It can cause your vehicle to behave unpredictably at high speeds. This is why it’s advised that you avoid driving a car that has been involved in a seemingly minor crash.
Even if you can’t see the surface damage, there’s no guarantee that the chassis is in a roadworthy state. In fact, problems with the vehicle’s handling might only be amplified at highway speeds, at which point it might just be too late.
Signs You Need A Wheel Alignment
The effects of a car out of alignment can be immediately palpable. The most common sign that people recognize is when their steering isn’t tracking straight while driving on a flat surface. When you have to actively perform steering corrections to keep the car going straight, that’s a sign that you need an alignment check.
Car Pulling to One Side
This happens because one side of your car is getting more traction than the other side. There’s always a tendency for a car to go towards the side with more traction. When you crash into a pothole or curb and alter the wheel alignment in a way that reduces the tire’s road contact.
It’s suggested that you get your wheel alignment checked when this happens, but it’s doesn’t pinpoint the issue to the alignment. This may also occur due to uneven tire pressure, eccentric tire wear, and worn suspension components.
If this happens when your car is braking, this points towards unevenly worn brakes. One side may be braking more than the other, causing the car to go towards the side that’s faster.
On the other hand, if your car only pulls towards one side when you accelerate, it’s torque steering. This typically happens on high-powered front-wheel-drive cars. It happens because one side of the driven tire is breaking traction when you accelerate.
Unpredictable Steering Behaviour
In severe cases of wheel malalignment, it contributes to poor steering demeanor. If you notice that your car turns better on one side than the other, then that hints at an issue with the vehicle’s alignment.
You might also feel that the steering is ‘running’ away when you hit a bump. It might even happen when you’re turning a sharp corner. This happens due to bump steer, which is an unintended steering effect while your suspension is going through its travel range.
Poor wheel alignment may also manifest as a steering wheel that won’t self-center. Because the vehicle’s suspension setup is critical to this phenomenon, there might be an issue with the vehicle’s wheel alignment if your steering self-centers too quickly or won’t return to the center at all.
Premature or Uneven Tire Wear
Noticing that one of your tires wears out faster than other tires? This is also a common sign that points toward a car that needs an alignment check. It might even be tires that are wearing out unevenly. Inspect your tire carefully, is the tread pattern consistent?
If you notice that the tread is wearing in an extraordinary manner, then there might be an issue with your vehicle’s alignment. This is also true if one of the tire’s shoulders is wearing out quicker than the rest.
However, before you drive to the alignment shop, you should always check your tire pressure beforehand. Irregular or rapid tire wear can be caused by tire pressure, which is something that many car owners neglect.
If you end up hitting something with your wheels hard, then you should get your alignment checked out. Because there’s a default resting state for every wheel, a big enough hit can adversely affect the position of the wheel.
You should also get a wheel alignment check when you buy new tires. It doesn’t cost that much more and it will help to prolong the life of your tire. It will also ensure the tire can be performing at its peak.
Finally, getting your wheel alignment checked is mandatory when you’ve had suspension components replaced on your vehicle. Although it’s worth noting that not all suspension components necessitate a wheel alignment check after being replaced.
Why Proper Wheel Alignment is Critical
Driving a car with the correct wheel alignment is vital from a safety standpoint. In minor cases, a wheel that’s out of alignment might just be a minor inconvenience. You might not even notice it until your technician tells you about it.
However, if you can catch the signs of a wheel that’s running out of alignment quickly, then you can quickly get it rectified. If you’re fortunate, then all you’re going to need is a simple wheel alignment correction. It also makes sense to get your wheels rotated and balanced while you’re at a tire shop.
Sometimes though, a wheel that’s out of alignment is caused by a worn suspension component. This is usually the case when an element of the wheel’s alignment that cannot be adjusted is out of specification. A proper inspection should reveal any failed suspension piece.
When your car is out of alignment, you’ll begin to notice accelerated tire wear. This means that you’ll end up forking over extra money for tires. The uneven tire wear will put additional wear on the differential as well, which is detrimental to its lifespan.
However, it can become dangerous if you continue to ignore wheel alignment issues. Poor wheel alignment can make your car unpredictable when you’re navigating a twisty road. Your steering might even ‘run away’ from you when you hit a bump on the road.
The effects of bad wheel alignment can be egregious. A badly worn suspension component can run the wheel alignment out so far that your vehicle oversteers itself into a ditch when you’re going high speed around a corner.
Wheel Alignment Cost
There are two types of wheel alignment that most alignment shops offer. First, there’s front-end alignment. In this case, the technician only performs an alignment correction for the front of the vehicle. This is also referred to as a 2-wheel alignment.
Typically, the front end is more important because it refers to the direction that your car is pointing towards. All of the vehicle’s steering is handled at the front. Because there’s less work involved, front-end alignments cost around $50 to $75. This is a valid option if you only want the front end worked on, such as the tie rods.
However, normally you would have to get a complete alignment done for your vehicle. A complete wheel alignment encompasses an alignment check for all four of your wheels (for typical passenger vehicles), and will run you from $100 to $150. It’s all dependent on the type and brand of vehicle you’ve got of course.
Getting a four-wheel alignment is mandatory once you’ve been involved in a severe accident. It’s also advised that when you get a complete wheel alignment you should also ask for a tire rotation if possible. Tire rotation is basically swapping the tires around different axles to ensure even tire wear and to prolong tire life.
Sounds expensive, but when you think about it, a single tire costs more than a complete alignment. And properly sorting out your wheel alignment goes a long way into extending the lifespan of your tires. It also a cheap way to guarantee that your vehicle is performing at its best.
How Often Should I Get Wheel Alignments
It’s difficult to recommend a default wheel alignment interval for most cars. It’s highly dependent on the type of vehicle, the purpose of the vehicle, and the driver’s behavior on the road.
However, most manufacturers would recommend that you get a wheel alignment check every 2 to 3 years. The owner’s manual should provide you with an insight on how often you should check your particular vehicle’s alignment.
If your manual doesn’t state the service interval for your wheel alignments, then it’s recommended that you get an alignment check at least once per year. Performing more frequent checks proves to be prudent as well.
It’s also recommended that you get a wheel alignment check every time you get a set of new wheels or tires. These should be included with tire rotation if possible and wheel balancing.
If you’re interested in getting the most out of your tires or is heading toward a track day, then it’s worth the effort to get a tire alignment. It can drastically alter the handling characteristics of your vehicle as well. This potentially translates to better track times if you know what to ask for.
Tire alignment mileage is generally subjective. It depends on who you ask. Someone who treats their vehicle gently and lives in an area with smooth roads won’t find the need to get an alignment often, even if they travel 100 miles on the highway for their daily commute. For them, getting an alignment every time they replace their tire is good enough.
However, that only exists in the ideal world. For most of us, we live in an area with rough road conditions. Gravelly roads with numerous bumps and potholes strain the vehicle’s suspension severely. On these roads, you will find that an alignment might be necessary every 5,000 miles just to keep the vehicle driving straight.
If you live in an area that offers it, getting a lifetime tire alignment is worth it. Firestone is an example that offers this service. If you qualify for the lifetime alignment service, Firestone offers a free alignment every 6 months or 6,000 miles as long as you remain the vehicle’s owner.
What’s Done During Alignments?
Understanding the individual elements of a vehicle’s wheel alignment is important so you know what is being adjusted, and how it affects the character of your vehicle. If you intend to take your car to track days, then it’s mandatory that you grasp the effects of each alignment change.
Perhaps one of the most commonly mentioned factors of a vehicle’s alignment is the camber setup of each wheel. You might’ve seen a heavily lowered vehicle with its tires leaning outwards. The amount of tire lean is what camber affects, and it is almost always adjustable at all wheels.
Camber refers to the angle at which the tire rests relative to a perfectly flat surface. Because suspension components deflect and travel, but the dimensions are static, a vehicle’s camber is dynamic. This means that it changes depending on the force exerted upon it.
Because it isn’t a perfect world when a car corners it rolls on its own axis. This means that with a perfectly neutral camber, the contact patch will be reduced as the vehicle leans on the tire. Hence, if you’ve paid attention, you’ll notice that every car has a slight outward lean on its tires.
This outward lean is negative camber. If the tire contact is leaning in towards the vehicle, it’s known as positive camber. A certain degree of negative camber is crucial to counteract against cornering forces. Basically, the negative camber cancels out the reaction of the cornering force and becomes neutral in corners, ideally maintaining the perfect contact patch.
The Perfect Camber
While negative camber is desirable for performance driving, it’s imperative to note that excessive negative camber deals more harm than good. Exaggerated negative camber will actually reduce the amount of available traction on straights. It’ll also cause accelerated tire wear on the inner shoulders. In extreme cases, your car will begin to follow the imperfections on the road.
This is why cars don’t come from the dealers with 10 degrees of negative camber. If your only purpose is to drive the car on a daily basis, then all you need is sufficient negative camber to make it work. The amount of negative camber you need also depends on the type of vehicle you’re driving and the suspension setup, but the general guideline is between -0.5 to -2 degrees.
The rear of the vehicle will typically have a bit more camber than to front to reduce the chances of oversteer. If your car is heavy, it will roll more in the corners, hence more negative camber can be beneficial.
However, when it comes to track racing, getting the proper amount of camber is a science. It takes a lot of trial and error to know the precise amount of camber that works for your car. This might even change from track to track, so knowing how to configure your own camber is important.
Following camber, the other crucial aspect of your vehicle is the toe angle. Toe refers to what angle the tires are pointing towards with regards to the vehicle’s centerline. Basically, the toe angle is what you’re changing when you turn the steering, which varies the direction your car tracks.
Imagine it like pointing your feet. Toe-in means that the tires are pointing inwards to the centreline, and toe-out is pointing outwards. Toe angle is represented in degrees, much like camber. And much like camber, static neutral toe isn’t desirable due to the deflections of a suspension.
Toe angles can alter the way a vehicle feels around corners too. But for commuter vehicles, toe is used to neutralize the vehicle’s straight-line handling. In a rear-wheel-drive vehicle, the front tires are pushed outwards when driving, so a bit of toe-in is necessary. It’s vice versa in front-wheel-drive cars. In some cars, the rear toe isn’t adjustable.
Excessive toe however can cause the vehicle to feel nervous in a straight line due to the unpredictable road conditions. It will also cause consistent tire scrubbing which accelerates tire wear. As a rule of thumb, toe adjustment should be correctional, and shouldn’t be perceptible with the naked eye.
Finally, the third part of a vehicle’s alignment is the caster. Caster denotes the fore or aft position of a tire’s steering axis with regard to the vertical axis. Basically, imagine it as the angle of a vehicle’s suspension strut to the tire when viewed directly from the side.
Caster is critical in a vehicle because it drastically alters how the steering behaves. This effect is most easily palpable with a shopping cart. Shopping carts use a lot of positive camber, which means that the tire is leading the vertical axis. This means that the tires are ‘pulling’ the cart. This makes it track straight naturally without the need for continuous corrections.
A negative caster is rare to see nowadays because it makes a vehicle tricky to handle down a straight road. It’s only ever applied with specific suspension designs in mind. Caster is not adjustable on the majority of vehicles, and deviations occur due to worn bushings or damages.
Of course, there is a multitude of other alignment factors to consider when the technician is working on your vehicle. This includes toe-out on turns, kingpin inclination, etc. These are considered as secondary angles, and in many cases aren’t adjustable and serve as an indication of a vehicle’s suspension condition.
It’s plain to see just how important the proper alignment is to maintain drivability in a vehicle. However, it is an often neglected part of vehicle maintenance, perhaps because the effects aren’t usually as drastic.
But when you understand what vehicle alignment entails, you’ll begin to appreciate the knowledge behind proper vehicle alignment that makes a car behave the way it does.
If you’re even remotely interested in performance driving, correcting your vehicle’s alignment is a no-brainer. And when you understand how it works, you can utilize it to optimize the handling characteristics of your vehicle.
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