Wheel Alignment 101: The Secret to Smooth Driving

Let's explore the basics of wheel alignment and keep your vehicle running at its best.

Are you tired of feeling like you’re in a wrestling match with your car’s steering wheel? It’s time to throw in the towel and get a wheel alignment!

A wheel alignment can improve your car’s handling and ride quality and save you money on repairs by reducing tire wear and tear. 

In this article, we’ll discuss wheel alignment and how it can make or break your driving experience. By the end of this article, you’ll learn:

  • Different types of wheel alignment
  • When to get a wheel alignment
  • Why recalibrate ADAS after a wheel alignment
  • How to recognize the signs of misalignment
  • How much does a wheel alignment cost
  • ……

What Is Wheel Alignment?

Wheel alignment is also known as tire alignment. It is the process of adjusting the angles of the wheels so that they are parallel to each other and perpendicular to the ground. It involves putting the camber, toe, and caster angles back to the manufacturer’s recommendations. Wheel alignment improves safety, performance, fuel efficiency, and tire lifespan.

Camber

Positive camber and negative camber

Camber describes the angle of the wheels when viewed from the front or rear of the vehicle. More specifically, it is the angle between the wheel’s vertical axis and the plane of the road.

  • Positive camber means that the top of the wheel is tilted outward.
  • Negative camber means that the top of the wheel is tilted inward. 

The proper camber improves tire contact with the road, leading to increased grip and handling of vehicles. The adjustment also distributes vehicle weight equally over all four tires. This helps to reduce strain on each tire and extend its lifespan. 

Toe

Toe in and toe out

Toe describes the degree to which the wheels are angled inward or outward when viewed from above. 

  • Toe in means the front of the wheels points inward towards the vehicle’s center.
  • Toe out means the front of the wheels points outward away from the vehicle’s center.

Improper toe angles have a significant impact on vehicle handling and stability. When the front wheels are too far inward or outward, the car pulls to one side, making it hard to drive straight. Besides, it can also cause uneven tire wear and premature tire failure.

Caster

Positive caster and negative caster

Caster refers to the angle of the steering axis when viewed from the side of the vehicle. 

  • Positive caster means that the steering axis tilts towards the driver.
  • Negative caster means that the steering axis tilts away from the driver.

Improper caster may cause steering instability, wandering, or pulling to one side. It may also increase fuel consumption, diminish vehicle performance, and harm suspension components. 

How Often to Get Wheel Alignment

Aligning wheels at regular intervals is essential to your vehicle’s performance and tire lifespan. But how often should you actually get a wheel alignment? Here’s what you need to know:

Manufacturer’s Recommendations

The recommended frequency for a wheel alignment is typically every 10,000 miles or at least once a year.

Different car manufacturers may have varying recommendations for wheel alignment frequency. Check your vehicle’s owner’s handbook or contact the manufacturer for advice.

Signs of Misalignment

You should schedule a wheel alignment if you notice any of the following:

1. Uneven Tire Wear: Inspect your tires regularly and look for signs of wear and tear that are not consistent across the tread. If you notice bald spots, excessive wear on one side, or feathering, it may suggest an alignment issue.

2. Vehicle Pulling: If your car tends to pull to one side while driving on a straight road, it can be a sign of wheel misalignment. Be mindful if you have to constantly correct the steering to keep your car going straight.

3. Steering Wheel Off-Center: When you drive on a straight road, take note if the steering wheel is not aligned with the vehicle’s emblem. 

4. Steering Wheel Vibration: Misaligned wheels can cause steering wheel vibrations, especially at high speeds. This is because incorrect alignment makes uneven tire contact with the road.

5. Squealing Tires: When tires are out of alignment, they slide or drag on the road, making noise while turning.

Driving Conditions

Certain driving conditions can accelerate the need for wheel alignment. If you frequently travel on rough or uneven roads, or hit potholes or curbs, your alignment may be affected more frequently. 

Additionally, if you have recently been in an accident or had a significant impact on your wheels, it’s essential to have your alignment checked.

Tire Rotation

It’s good practice to schedule a wheel alignment when you rotate your tires. Having both tasks done at the same time ensures your tires are aligned correctly and wear evenly.

Professional Inspection

If you need clarification about the condition of your vehicle’s alignment, or if it has been a while since your last alignment, it’s recommended to have a professional inspection done. Skilled technicians can assess the alignment and advise the appropriate timeframe for your specific vehicle.

Recalibrating Your ADAS After a Wheel Alignment

Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) are safety features in modern vehicles. Their sensors and cameras assist drivers with lane departure warnings, adaptive cruise control, and collision avoidance. 

During a wheel alignment, the suspension and steering system are adjusted to ensure the wheels are correctly aligned. This adjustment could affect the positioning of the ADAS system’s sensors and cameras. And then may result in inaccurate readings and safety feature failure. 

Therefore, it is crucial to recalibrate the ADAS system after a wheel alignment.

Three Types of Alignment

Three types of alignment are commonly performed: front-end alignment, thrust angle alignment, and four-wheel alignment.

Front-end alignment is also known as a two-wheel alignment. It focuses on adjusting the angles of the front wheels to ensure they are parallel and pointing in the same direction. This type of alignment is mainly done on vehicles with a solid axle in the rear, such as older trucks and SUVs.

Thrust angle alignment involves adjusting the rear axle to ensure it is parallel to the front axle. This type of alignment is typically done on vehicles with solid rear suspension. 

Four-wheel alignment focuses on adjusting all four wheels to meet the manufacturer’s specifications. It ensures that tires are in sync and pointing in the correct direction. This most advanced alignment technique can benefit vehicles with independent four-wheel suspension or adjustable rear suspension on the front-wheel drive.

How Much Is a Wheel Alignment

The cost of a wheel alignment varies based on several factors. In general, a basic wheel alignment for a standard passenger car can range anywhere from $50 to $170

Type of alignment: Front-end alignment is a quick and straightforward process and costs $50 to $80. However, four-wheel alignment adjusts all four wheels. It charges $100 to $170 since it needs specialist equipment.

The make and model of your vehicle: Luxury cars often require specialist equipment or complex engineering designs. This can make the maintenance harder and longer. Thus, luxury car wheel alignment may expense more than a standard vehicle.

How Long Does Wheel Alignment Take

Wheel alignments usually take 30–60 minutes. A technician with the necessary equipment and experience may fix a minor misalignment quickly. If the misalignment is severe or there are other issues with the suspension or steering components, it may take longer to adjust. 

Remember that shops typically have one alignment rack/system. Without making arrangements in advance, you may end up waiting in line for a long time. Always call ahead to book a wheel alignment appointment to minimize delays.

The Bottom Line

Now that you have learned what wheel alignment is and when to do it, it’s time to take action. Doing so will improve your vehicle’s safety and performance and save on costly repairs in the long run. Don’t wait until you start experiencing problems! Getting your wheels checked regularly to ensure that they are appropriately aligned.

Picture of Nick Wang

Nick Wang

Nick is the guy behind Tire Think. He’s been working as an engineer in the tire industry for 8 years, focusing on endurance indoor testing operations.
Share the Post: