Wheel alignment is one of those things you probably don’t think about very much.
The great news is, unless you have a problem, you really don’t need to. The bad news is, it can be hard to know whether or not you have a problem. Do you simply take your mechanic’s word for it?
The most common signs of a wheel alignment problem are unusual or uneven tire wear, pulling to one side when driving on a smooth, straight road, and vibration in the steering wheel.
Each of these symptoms may also be caused by other things besides just improper wheel alignment. Bad wheel alignment can also eventually end up triggering other, more costly, mechanical breakdowns.
The Basics of Wheel Alignment
There are three basic kinds of wheel alignment: front wheel, rear wheel, and all four wheel. These come down mainly to what adjustments are possible on your particular car. They have little to do with where the drive wheels are.
The very name wheel alignment is slightly misleading because no adjustments are made to the tires or wheels themselves. Instead, suspension and steering components are adjusted to set the posture of the wheels to a more neutral position.
The more neutral your wheels are, the better your car will handle and the longer your tires and other components will last.
The three basic angles that are considered when checking or performing adjustments on wheel alignment are:
- Camber – Whether your wheels are perfectly perpendicular to the road when the car is looked at from head-on.
- Toe – Whether the wheels are perfectly parallel with each other and with the vehicle’s centerline when viewed from above.
- Caster (front wheels only) – Where the pivot point for the steering is in relation to the center of the wheels. This affects steering and handling.
Most manufacturers and service centers recommend having your alignment checked every 5,000 to 6,000 miles, or whenever you replace tires or any suspension or steering parts.
Is It Worth The Cost?
It’s very important that defective or excessively worn steering or suspension parts be fixed or replaced before even checking wheel alignment. Otherwise, the alignment will have to be done again once they have been repaired.
Because checking wheel alignment requires sophisticated lasers and computer diagnostic equipment, this is not a do-it-yourself project. Typical cost for the service is $75-$100, though specialized cars or add-on service or warranties can drive that price up.
If recommending that you regularly get a fairly expensive service to check something you can’t even see with the naked eye seems a little shady, you’re not alone in feeling that way.
So what do you stand to get for your money?
Quite honestly, if your wheels are not out of alignment, you get nothing but peace of mind and a computer printout showing that everything’s fine.
If they are out of alignment and a qualified service technician is able to properly correct that, you stand to get:
- Approximately 5%-10% more life from your tires (for a $400 set of tires, this equates to about $40 savings on each set of tires)
- Approximately 5% better fuel efficiency (at an average of $2.50 per gallon and 20mpg, this can mean savings of about $30 per year)
- Avoid premature wearing or breaking of much more expensive parts like tie rods, wheel bearings, ball joints, shock absorbers, etc. (any one of these could run into multiple hundreds of dollars)
- Reduced likelihood that poor handling could cause a crash (how do you even put a dollar value on that?)
As noted above, there are tell-tale signs of misalignment. If you notice steering wheel vibration, a tendency for your car to veer off to one side, or uneven tire wear, get your alignment checked.
If none of those things apply, you should be okay skipping it for now.
At The Auto Warehouse, we love driving. We believe in demystifying both the car buying process and car maintenance. Whether you’re in the market for a car or just want to talk shop, stop by. We’d love to see you!