Uneven tire wear is a classic indicator that a vehicle is out of alignment but there are others. You’re driving on a straight piece of road but your car pulls to the left or right. That pulling is an indicator that your vehicle is out of alignment. A vibrating or off-center steering wheel indicate misalignment. When a steering wheel is off-center the spokes are positioned as if you are turning when you are going straight.
A front end alignment puts the components of the front suspension back in their proper position. Misalignment can be the result of worn suspension components. A collision no matter how slight can adversely affect a vehicle’s alignment. The constant pounding your suspension takes from potholes and rough road surfaces can throw it out-of-whack.
Rear End Alignment
Most people think in terms of front end alignment. The fact is your rear suspension can also get out of alignment. Known as a four-wheel alignment the front and rear suspension should be aligned together.
A Coordinated Effort
To explain the importance of a properly aligned front and rear end we’ll use the analogy of a fire department aerial ladder. Some aerial ladders have a separate steering wheel (tiller) for the rear wheels. If the firefighter at the tiller doesn’t keep the movement of the rear wheels in sync with the movement of the front wheels the truck will not travel straight or corner properly. If a vehicle’s front and rear suspensions are not in sync with each other the vehicle will not travel straight or corner properly.
Off-Center Steering Wheel
Remember the off-center steering wheel I mentioned earlier? The process of aligning the front and rear tires can put the steering wheel out of alignment. Have you ever noticed that when a dog walks it looks as if its tail will swing around and meet its nose? That motion is called “dog tracking”. An off-center steering wheel causes a vehicle to the dog track. As the vehicle is going down the road its body will be askew in the lane of travel.
The Alignment Glossary
You have just had an alignment and the technician explains the adjustments that were made. If you don’t speak autoese here is an explanation of those terms.
- Toe is the vertical angle of the tires from top to bottom.
- Toe-In is the angling of the front of the tires inward toward each other.
- Toe Out is the angling of the front of the tires outward away from each other.
- Thrust alignment is the alignment of the front tires with the rear tires.
- Camber is the vertical tilt of the tires forward or rearward.
- The caster angle facilitates proper steering and controls the vehicle’s direction of travel.
Here are links for illustrations of toe toe in and toe out, thrust angle, caster, and camber.
Like oil changes, regular alignments are preventive maintenance. Information on the alignment schedule for your vehicle can be found in the owner’s manual.
Why Alignment Matters
From a safety standpoint, proper alignment prevents accidents. Misalignment impairs braking and steering increasing the risk of an accident, especially at high-speeds. Proper alignment saves money. Gas mileage is reduced by improper alignment increasing friction between the tires and road surface and dog tracking decreasing a vehicle’s wind resistance. Not keeping a vehicle aligned shortens the life of suspension components leading to costly repairs. Improper alignment reduces tire life. Proper alignment makes for an easier less tiring drive.