What is a Wheel Alignment?
A car alignment is actually an elaborate process that brings the car's suspension into its proper configuration, positioning and adjusting components so that wheels are aligned with one another and the road surface. The alignment should be performed by an experienced mechanic, who uses an alignment machine.
Newer alignment machines, feature clamp-like devices that are attached to the wheels of the car (which is raised up in the air) and that link to a computer that helps make precise measurements. The mechanic will also take this opportunity to make sure that no suspension components are excessively worn or broken.
An alignment essentially requires squaring a car's wheels and axles with each other so that they're moving in the same direction. The mechanic adjusts the various suspension angles -- known as toe, thrust, camber and caster -- that influence tire movement and position. The technician will also ensure that the steering wheel is centered.
Each car's manufacturer designates standard angles for the alignment, specified in degrees. If you're a driver of a high-performance car or sports car, your mechanic may be able to align your suspension to improve handling and tire performance, but such an alignment still may lead to uneven tire wear.
Does my car need a wheel alignment?
If you're wondering whether your car needs an alignment, first look at your tires. Uneven tire wear -- often, more wear on the outside of some tires -- is a prime indicator that your car is likely out of alignment. Here are a few more indicators:
- your car seems to be drifting to one side, even when you think your'e driving straight
- your steering wheels vibrate
- you are driving straight, but your steering wheel isn't centered
- If none of these indicators occur but it's been a while since your last alignment, you may consider doing an alignment as part of regular maintenance.
- An out-of-alignment car is a common result of everyday driving.
The term alignment does not really refer to your car's wheels but rather to the suspension. As part of normal driving, parts of your car's suspension may become worn, and springs can be stretched out. Even a small accident or bumping a curb can disrupt your suspension, knocking some of the highly calibrated components off-kilter, making your wheels sit at improper angles. An alignment restores these angles to their correct measurements, making sure that your wheels sit straight.
The most visible benefit of an alignment is less tire wear. And when tires do wear down, they'll do so evenly on a properly aligned suspension. Tires can be quite expensive -- easily $100 or more per tire -- whereas an alignment often costs $50 to $100, making it a cost-effective procedure that should be part of regular car maintenance.
An alignment will ensure that your car drives straight and handles properly, making your ride safer. You'll also get better gas mileage because your tires will be properly aligned with the road, decreasing resistance.