Alignment refers to the way your car's wheels are positioned. Your wheels should be parallel and facing forward.
How does alignment affect my vehicle?
When your wheels are properly aligned, you'll get better gas mileage, your tires will last longer, steering will be easier, and your ride will be smoother and safer.
What could go wrong with my alignment?
Several factors could contribute to a shift in alignment including old, worn-out components including Ball Joints, Control arm bushings, and poor road conditions, resulting in a few different problems including Camber, Toe and Caster, and if any of these problems develop, they will take a toll on your vehicle's tires, performance and manageability. Worn out shocks and struts can also be a serious problem with un-even tire wear.
The wheels are tilted, either inward or outward. This will create pulling and tire wear.
A change in the distance between the front and back of the front or rear tires. This will wear on the tires, too.
A backward or forward tilt at the top of the wheel's spindle support arm. This will cause either loose or difficult steering.
If any of these problems develop, they will begin to take their toll on your car's tires and performance, as well as steering
How will I recognize a problem with my alignment?
Check your steering wheel when you're driving. Does it stay straight? Does it vibrate? When you are traveling along a straight road, does your vehicle pull to one side? Is your steering loose, or difficult to control? Have you noticed uneven tire wear?
Check your tires periodically. A number of different things can affect your tires - from alignment to suspension components to improper inflation of tires. such as ball joints, control arm bushings, checked every 10,000 miles or once a year, and there are three types of alignment jobs with a good-better-best approach.
Two-wheel geometric centerline alignment.
This adjusts the toe on your front wheels only. This will work only if your rear wheels are properly aligned. (Used mostly on trucks and older rear-wheel drive cars).
Four-wheel thrust line alignment.
This aligns the front wheels to the rear-wheel alignment.
Complete four-wheel thrust line alignment.
This is the optimal approach: aligning all wheels straight ahead and parallel.
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What is a wheel alignment?
A wheel alignment is nothing more than setting the angle of the hub/wheel so it tracks in the right direction. Most vehicles have four-wheel alignments, meaning each of the four wheels is separately aligned. Your basic alignment consists of three angles: camber, caster and toe-in. Camber is the tilt of the tire when viewed from the front of the car. Positive camber means the top of the tire is tilted away from the car. Negative camber means the top is tilted in. Camber has a lot to do with cornering performance. Too much negative camber will wear the inside of the tires prematurely. Too much positive camber will wear the outside tread.
Caster is the inclination of the front spindle. Picture the angle of the forks on a bike top to bottom. When the caster is out, it creates a pull or wandering condition and sometimes a slow responding steering wheel. Toe-in is measured in inches or degrees. Viewing from the front of the car, it is the difference between the front and rear center-line of the tire. Toe-in means the fronts of the tires are closer together. Toe-out means, the fronts of the tires are farther apart. Toe-in or out has the most effect on tire wear.
How does an alignment effect handling and tire wear?
When your car is out of alignment, the tires will wear prematurely. In some extreme cases, new tires will be gone within 500 miles. At the price of tires, especially high performance tires with soft compounds, you want to keep your vehicle in alignment as long as possible. Other symptoms of an out-of-alignment car are poor handling, pulling to one side, or wandering from side-to-side. An alignment will also affect the steering wheel response and how quickly it returns to the center.
When should I do an alignment?
Your vehicle's alignment should be checked every 10,000 to 12,000 miles. Any harsh impact such as potholes, curbs, objects in the road, or the damage of an accident, should prompt you to have your alignment checked. If you do any modifications to your suspension, raising or lowering your car, that will affect the alignment angles. Even changing the tire size will effect the alignment. Loose, worn or bent suspension parts such as ball joints, springs, bushings, and control arms will have an adverse affect on your alignment, too. In most cases you do not know if your alignment is out. The best way to check it is with a precision alignment machine. Laser optics combined with a computer allow for the most accuracy in alignment readings.
Remember you are aligning the hub of your vehicle. Check to see if the alignment shop or dealer has equipment that attaches to the hub, not the wheel. Many independent shops that do alignments have a specialty tool called "Tru Align" that attaches to the hub. This will make for a much more accurate alignment with the added bonus of not damaging the delicate finish on your wheels.
There is a lot more to suspension alignment, especially if you push your vehicle on the track. The modifications you make on your suspension are just the beginning. Once you start down this road you will be concerned with things like bump steer, weighting (vertical load), pre-loading, tire traction versus tire load, and more. Now you're thinking under-steer, over-steer, tire compound, sway bar design, and other topics that can be covered in a later article. For now, just remember to have your vehicle aligned every 10,000 to 12,000 miles in normal driving conditions.
How would I know if my alignment is out?
If you accidentally hit a curb, or drive through a nasty pothole or other road obstruction, that would be a cue to have your car's alignment checked more often. Proper alignment is good for your car. It will save unnecessary wear on your tires. It will ensure that your vehicle is giving you the handling the factory designed the car to have. And, most importantly, a properly aligned car is safer and more fun to drive. Have your alignment, ball joints and suspension checked regularly checked regularly.