DIY Car Alignment: The Tests the Pros Use
Your vehicle’s suspension alignment is very important, maximizing traction, directional stability and the life of your tires. Advice about when to get an alignment ranges from as soon as you get a new set of tires to if you impact a curb or deep pothole or even just annually. But considering that a suspension alignment can require $10,000 in tools and equipment, DIY car alignment is not exactly realistic. The average four-wheel computerized suspension alignment can cost nearly $200, so being able to determine if you actually need one is important.
So here are the DIY car alignment tests that most technicians will perform to decide whether your vehicle needs an alignment, and checking all of these things yourself should take you less than a 30 minutes.
Tire Size, Type, Age
Tires should be the proper size and about the same age. One mismatched tire, whether it be of another brand, type, size or mileage, can result in pulling to one side or another.
You tires need to be properly inflated. Uneven tire pressures can increase rolling resistance on one side of the car, making it pull to one side.
Check for abnormal tire wear. Feathering, cupping, scalloping or wear on one edge are all signs that may indicate an alignment problem.
Make sure that all suspension components are tight. Loose tie-rod ends, suspension arms, ball joints and even wheel bearings will let the wheel move independently of the rest of the vehicle, even if only slightly. This can throw off alignment angles, causing abnormal tire wear and poor directional stability.
On a level surface, looking at the side of your car, does it seem that the nose is abnormally higher or lower than the tail? Similarly, looking at the back and front of your car, does it seem that one side is abnormally higher than the other? Make sure your vehicle isn’t overloaded or that you don’t have a weak or broken spring.
Finally, take your car out for a road test. Look for a straight stretch, drive at cruising speed and see how the car feels. Holding the steering wheel straight, if your car drifts left and right, you might have loose steering and suspension components. If you’re driving straight down the road, but the steering wheel is off to one side or another, you may need a simple toe adjustment.
If all the above checks out, take your car to an abandoned parking lot with a decent straightaway. Next, drive very slowly and carefully let go of the steering wheel (keeping your hand just hovering above it so you can take control quickly). Then, observe what happens when you give the car its head on straight drive. Both the car and the steering wheel should stay straight, but if your car immediately heads for the yellow or white lines, you need to have an alignment.
Really, the most you’ll need for these DIY car alignment tests is a good pair of eyes, a tire pressure gauge and a length of straight road. Chances are, given a half-hour, you can stave off that suspension alignment for when you really need it, like when you hit that pothole the local DOT still hasn’t gotten around to fixing.
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