Toyota Camry getting a wheel alignment in a mechanic shop

What is a Wheel Alignment and Why Does My Car Need It?

All car owners know that tires are expensive, often dreading the inevitable circus act of researching the perfect tires for their vehicles. Consumer Reports data indicates that the average sedan, coup, and minivan owner spent $137 per tire in 2019, while SUV owners spent an average of $162 and pickup truck owners, $175. And that’s before installation!

But once those tires are installed? How does vehicle owners take care of them to ensure that they don’t wear out prematurely?

Mechanic preforming a wheel alignment on a car in a mechanic shop

One of the pillars of tire maintenance is actually wheel alignments. “Alignments help you keep tire wear to a minimum, says Kate Reed, a mechanic at Quality Car Service in Bedford, Texas. “They prevent shaking of the steering wheel, and of course help keep precise control of the direction of the vehicle.”

So What is an Alignment Anyway?

White car getting a wheel alignment after getting new tires

As you drive your car, you often hit potholes and curbs. As you do that, the impact may slightly push your wheels so they are no longer parallel to each other and perpendicular to the ground. A wheel alignment is a service where a mechanic makes the adjustments needed to straighten your wheels.

In addition, “alignments make your wheels and the steering wheel point the exact same way so that when your driving, you don’t have to fight the steering wheel or hold it crooked to drive straight down the road and keep control of the direction of the vehicle,” says Reed.

The alignment service combines technology to measure the angle of your wheels, and the work of a mechanic to make the adjustments. Your vehicle goes up on a special rack, designed for alignment. Your mechanic will attach specially designed sensors to each wheel, and those sensors will speak to the computer in front of the car. The computer will then give the technician specific instructions.

Mechanic putting a sensor on to a wheel prior to it getting a wheel alignment

On most vehicles, there are three main adjustments, toe, camber, and caster. Most often, for non-severe drivers, only toe adjustments are needed.

Reed breaks it down, “Toe is the direction the wheels face. Camber is the inward or outward tilt of the tires, and caster is the forward or rearward stance of the tires on a central axis point. The tires need to be in the exact same spot as the tire opposite on the same axle to avoid tire wear and pulling.”

When Do You Need an Alignment?

Man standing at computer preparing to do a wheel alignment

  • Once a year for maintenance purposes, although this does depend on the amount and way you drive.
  • After replacing any steering and suspension parts, you want to make sure everything is adjusted back to the correct measurements. This is because worn parts can and do affect the alignment of your wheels.
  • If your steering wheel is off-center or your vehicle is pulling. This suggests that there may be an underlying problem, like the above mention steering problems.
  • After a major accident where the wheel was impacted or frame damage occurred. Accidents affect the position of your wheels. Most insurance companies will cover wheel alignments in the event of wheel impact of frame damage.
  • When replacing two or more tires on your car, doing an alignment is recommended. You’ll avoid rapid wear on the new tires by doing the alignment prior to driving on them.

Consequences of Not Getting an Alignment

Tire worn do to alignment not being done

Although most drivers usually don’t need an alignment more than once every year, you could still get an alignment check every six months. This is a simple way to ensure nothing is wearing excessively, like your tires, says Reed. “If you can stop the damage when it’s minor it could potentially save you a lot of money and time, and minor wear can be corrected if caught in a timely manner.”

“Not having your vehicle aligned at regular intervals or after repair can cause damage to your steering gear or linkage. The vibrations make bushings wear faster,” Reed tells me. In addition to the vibrations,  you may experience pulling or drifting. However, getting an alignment done regularly prevents these scenarios, so you will likely not have any issues at the time you get the alignment done.

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