A properly aligned car has wheels that drive straight, and no additional effort is needed to keep them that way. If your wheels are out of alignment, you’re looking at a potentially costly problem, not to mention a safety issue. It’s time for a car alignment test.
Here’s all you need to know to see whether you need a tire alignment, learn how to fix your wheels and avoid future problems.
Signs You Need a Tire Alignment
Some signs you need to have your tires aligned become evident as you drive. For instance, if the steering wheel pulls slightly to the left or to the right while you’re driving, or the steering wheel is off center when you’re driving straight, a tire alignment may be necessary. Be mindful, though: Those symptoms can also be the sign of an under-inflated tire. Troubleshoot by verifying tire pressure at all four corners and re-inflating your tires, if necessary. If the problem persists, that’s a good sign of a tire alignment issue.
Additionally, if you sense steering wheel vibration even when you’re driving on a smooth road, then you need to perform an alignment check.
Other signs of a tire alignment issue become evident when the car is parked, such as visibly uneven tread wear on your tires. Examples of uneven tread wear include greater wear on one side of the tire or diagonal wear. And if the tread wear indicators or “wear bars” are exposed, then that tire no longer has enough grip to safely bring your vehicle to a stop. It should immediately be replaced. Perform the alignment at this time, too.
DIY Tests: Camber, Toe and Caster
- Camber. Besides signs of tire wear, you can spot problems by observing how the tires are aligned when viewed from the front of the vehicle. When you’re looking directly at that car from that angle, you’re observing the camber, which is the inward or outward angle of the tire when seen straight on. Properly aligned tires are absolutely straight; tires aligned inward have a negative camber, and tires aligned outward have a positive camber.
- Toe. The toe alignment is a second test. Look straight down at the tires. Tires angled inward represent a toe-in alignment; tires angled outward represent a toe-out alignment. In both cases, the wheels need to be aligned.
- Caster. A third check for misalignment can be done by viewing tires from the side. A vehicle’s caster angle helps balance steering, stability and cornering. This car alignment test is harder to perform, but when the problem is present, the steering axis will either tilt toward the driver (positive caster) or toward the front of your vehicle (negative caster).
How to Avoid Future Problems
There is no guarantee that you’ll never have to re-align your tires again, but there are steps you can take to maintain your vehicle’s proper alignment once it’s been fixed. The best offense is a good defense: Skirt potholes or slow down as you cross over them. Avoid turning corners too tightly or backing into curbs. Keeping on top of potential warning signs and learning to follow up with a thorough tire alignment examination is the best way to protect your vehicle in the long haul.
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Photos courtesy of Matt Keegan
Matt Keegan has maintained his love for cars ever since his father taught him kicking tires can be one way to uncover a problem with a vehicle’s suspension system. He since moved on to learn a few things about coefficient of drag, G-forces, toe-heel shifting, and how to work the crazy infotainment system in some random weekly driver. Matt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association and is a contributor to various print and online media sources.