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What is wheel alignment?

calendar Published on: Wednesday, 6th February 2019 | male icon Author: Kevin Thorpe

Even if you use your car a lot, the chances are you probably haven’t given much thought to the issue of wheel alignment. However, while it’s something that’s often overlooked by drivers, making sure that the wheels of your vehicle are properly lined up is essential for a variety of reasons.

If you want to get up to speed on this important topic, keep reading. In this blog, we take a look at what exactly wheel alignment is and why it matters - as well as how to spot the warning signs when something goes wrong and what you can do to fix this.

What does wheel alignment mean?

A crucial aspect of car maintenance, wheel alignment is the process of measuring and making any necessary adjustments to your wheels, suspension and steering components so that they are positioned according to the manufacturer’s specifications. Aligning only the front wheels of your vehicle is known as tracking. This is uncommon now as it doesn’t provide the best levels of safety, performance and comfort. Today, four-wheel alignment is the standard and it’s a much more all-encompassing process.

You may come across the terms ‘toe in’ and ‘toe out’ in relation to wheel alignment. Toe simply refers to the angle of your tyres against your car’s centre line. If the front of your wheels points inward, this is known as toe in, while if they point outward, this is called toe out. Camber is another important term. This is the amount of tilt in your wheels. If they have a positive camber, the tops of the wheels lean away from your vehicle, while a negative camber refers to the wheels tilting in at the top.

Is wheel alignment important?

If your tyres aren’t properly aligned, you can experience a range of problems. For example, it’s harder to drive in a straight line when your alignment is off. Your car might tend to pull or drift to one side. Another problem associated with wheel misalignment is the fact that it causes uneven wear to your tyres, which can impair their performance and potentially increase your stopping distance, putting you at a greater risk of collisions. Excessive tyre wear also means you’ll need to replace these pieces of kit more frequently and it makes it more likely that you will experience a blowout. This could be dangerous - particularly if it happens when you’re travelling at high speed.

Your alignment being off can also mean you rack up bigger fuel bills. This is because misaligned wheels may have more resistance against the road, meaning your car needs to use more fuel to get from A to B.

Why do wheels become misaligned?

Wheels tend to become misaligned over time as a result of the conditions on the road. Hitting a curb, pothole or even a speed bump can cause this to happen. Being involved in an accident may also have this effect. In general, any heavy impact or sudden jarring when you’re driving can result in wheel misalignment.

The wear and tear of car parts such as suspension springs may also cause a shift in the alignment of your wheels. And, if you have work done to adjust the height of your vehicle without also adjusting your suspension to account for this, there’s a risk you will experience problems.

What are the warning signs?

There are a number of warning signs to watch out for when it comes to wheel misalignment. For example, if you notice that your car pulls to one side when you’re driving, you will probably have to get your wheels looked at. Sometimes, it can be hard to tell if this is happening. To test if it is, drive on a straight, flat stretch of road and briefly release the steering wheel to see if your car drifts either left or right. Obviously, make sure the road conditions are safe before doing this.

If your steering wheel doesn’t return to the straight position easily after you’ve made a turn, this is another red flag, and a crooked or vibrating steering wheel should raise alarm bells too.

It’s important to keep an eye on the condition of your tyres as well. If you notice that they are wearing down unevenly or abnormally, this is an indication that something’s wrong. You can do a visual check on your tyres to assess this, and it may also help to run your hands over them.

In addition, pay attention if you hear a squealing noise coming from your tyres when you drive as this can indicate an issue with alignment.

Even if you don’t notice any problems, it’s recommended that you have your wheel alignment checked at least every year or every 12,000 to 15,000 miles.

How can I fix misaligned tyres?

Realigning your wheels is a technical job that requires specialist equipment, so this isn’t something you should try to do yourself. Instead, make an appointment with an expert technician. They will be able to align the wheels as per the recommendation of your car’s manufacturer. This may involve adjusting the toe and/or camber of your tyres. It may also mean tweaking the ‘caster’, which refers to the angle between the steering pivot axis and vertical.

Specialist equipment is used to measure either just the front wheels or all four of your vehicle’s wheels in relation to each other. As touched on earlier, it’s important to bear in mind that four-wheel alignment has added benefits, including resetting your steering wheel to the correct position and ensuring optimum driving comfort and performance.

How much is wheel alignment and how long does it take?

It may not cost you anything if you don't need any adjustments to your wheels and the check usually only takes a few minutes. If you would like to have the wheel alignment of your car checked, simply book an appointment at your local Tyre City centre. We use Hunter Hawkeye four-wheel alignment machines complete with high-definition imaging sensors to make adjustments with pinpoint accuracy. This service is available at all of our centres with or without tyre purchase. We only charge for adjustments so if we find that your tyres are already correctly aligned then there is no charge. Should our technicians recommend any adjustments to correct your wheel allignent, they will explain this and outline any costs before proceeding. 

By keeping tabs on this issue and making sure your wheels are realigned when necessary, you can prolong the lifespan of your tyres by as much as 12,000 miles, raise fuel efficiency and enjoy a better and safer driving experience.