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What Is Tire Alignment

Tire alignment is an important aspect of tire maintenance. Its purpose is to ensure you get the best performance out of your tires. It’s also important for proper tire wear. Making sure you don’t ruin your expensive tires more quickly than necessary is important to most of us.

An alignment is a relatively inexpensive procedure and certainly worth the time and money required. This is more true the more expensive your tires are.

mechanic using wheel alignment equipment

Despite the expense, safety is always important. Ensuring your tires come in contact with the road properly can be the difference between a near miss and a catastrophic accident.

Tire alignment, also know as wheel alignment, can sometimes be confused with tire balancing or even tire rotation. If you want to learn more about those topics be sure and check those articles out.

Let’s go over the details of exactly what a tire alignment is and how to determine if and when you need to have an alignment service performed.

What Is Tire Alignment

Tire alignment is the adjustment of the suspension components to ensure the tires come into proper contact with the road.

Tire or wheel alignment adjustments are made by the 3 main tire angles of camber, toe, and caster.

Tire misalignment can result in poor handling and reduced tire life.

Why Is Alignment Important

Proper alignment of your tires is critical to ensuring your tires contact the road surface in a way that provides maximum grip and superior handling.

Poorly aligned tires will also wear out more quickly. If tires aren’t aligned properly they can easily drag a portion of the contact patch and scrub away tread rubber quickly. This accelerated tire wear can happen in various ways depending on the specific alignment problem.

When Is An Alignment Needed?

It’s wise to have an alignment service performed when you purchase new tires. Tires are a significant investment and you want to ensure you can get the most mileage out of them that you can.

You may not “need” a wheel alignment if you are getting new tires and haven’t had any issues with poor or unusual tire wear on your vehicle. It’s still a good idea to get your alignment checked. Especially if the service center is providing the service for cheap or free.

A wheel alignment should be performed if you notice unusual tire wear, your steering wheel is off center when driving in a straight line, or your vehicle pulls to one side when you let go of the steering wheel.

You also may need to consider a vehicle alignment if you’ve recently hit a particularly bad pothole or some other significant impact that could have negatively affected your vehicle’s suspension. Even poor road conditions over time can take their toll.

Bad Wheel Alignment Symptoms

There are several signs of wheels in misalignment. Not all of these are only caused by misaligned suspensions. There can be other reasons for some of these symptoms. If you are experiencing any of these problems you should set up an appointment with your mechanic for wheel or tire alignment service for your vehicle.

Uneven Tire Wear

Tire wear is the most common symptom of misalignment. It also has a devastating affect on tire life. A misaligned vehicle can lose thousands of miles of tread life in a very short time.

Unfortunately not every tire wear problem can be solved with a wheel alignment. The following are the most common tire wear issues associated with poor alignments.

cupping - tire wear pattern

Tire Cupping

Tire cupping, also know as tire scalloping, is a tread wear pattern that features diagonal low and high spots across the tire tread. The diagonal wear grooves are usually a few inches across and repeat uniformly around the entire tire circumference and width.

feathering - tire wear pattern

Tire Feathering

Tire feathering is when the tread blocks of a tire are worn more on one side of the block than the other. The result is the tire tread having an almost sawtooth feel as you run your hand across the tread from one sidewall to the other.

heel and toe - tire wear pattern

Heal & Toe Wear

Heal and toe wear is very similar to tire feathering. The tread blocks wear in a similar sawtooth pattern but they do so along the circumference of the tire as opposed to sidewall to sidewall. In other words, the sawtooth pattern occurs 90° from that of tire feathering.

shoulder - tire wear pattern

Inner Or Outer Shoulder Tread Wear

Inner or outer shoulder tread wear can be caused more commonly be under inflation. But this tread wear pattern can also be a sign of improper alignment.

Steering Wheel Is Off Center

If your steering wheel is off center this is a very common sight of a wheel misalignment. The more off center your steering wheel the more of an alignment problem your vehicle likely has.

Poor Handling

There are any number of reasons that you could be having handling problems with your car or truck. One of these is could be improper wheel alignment. Your technician will be able to better troubleshoot the root cause of the handling issue. But if some more common sources of poor handling are ruled out, tire alignment will need to be checked.

Pulling To One Side

If your vehicle pulls to one side when you don’t have your hands on the steering wheel, you likely have a misalignment problem. Alignment, as the name implies, has a lot to do with ensuring that your car or truck tracks down the road straight and true.

Why Your Car Keeps Losing Alignment

A well maintained and cared for vehicle should not have alignment issues, but in the real world, things happen.

Your car or truck can get out of alignment due to 3 primary reasons:

Impact To The Wheel Or Tire

An impact with a pothole or curb can easily cause your suspension geometry to get out of alignment. Any time you have an impact or accident that comes into contact with the wheel or tire, you should have your alignment checked.

Suspension Component Wear Or Failure

As vehicles age, so do suspension components. When shocks and bushings begin to wear and fall out of spec, you can expect your wheel alignment to do the same. Any time you have a replacement of a critical suspension component you’ll want to ensure a proper alignment is performed.

Suspension, Wheel, Or Tire Modification

Lowering springs, adjustable coilovers, larger wheels or tires, among other modifications can have a significant impact on alignment.

Any time any suspension component, which does include wheels and tires, is changed in any way, alignment should be checked. This is true whether or not the new component meets the OEM spec or not. Never assume that because you’re replacing one part with another identical part that everything will align the same.

How Is A Wheel Alignment Done?

Wheel alignment involves making adjustments to the suspension components to ensure that the tire angles are adjusted to the vehicle manufacturer’s specification. The suspension components that are adjusted to align your tires are the upper control arms, lower control arms, and steering rod.

The adjustments are done to 3 main tire angles – camber, toe, and caster. All 3 of these angles need to be in proper alignment to allow your vehicle to drive straight and your tires to properly contact the road to maximize traction and ensure proper tread wear.

front suspension geometry

What Is Camber

Camber is the tilt angle of the wheel assembly when viewed from the front or rear of the car. Proper camber is important to ensure the tire comes into contact with the road surface evenly from side-to-side.

Positive Camber Vs Negative Camber

Positive camber is when the top of the wheel assembly, when viewed from the front or rear of the vehicle, is further away from the center of the vehicle than the bottom of the wheel assembly. Negative camber is when the top of the wheel assembly is closer to the center of the vehicle.

positive camber

Positive Camber Effects

Positive camber is preferred for off-road vehicles as it creates more stability and easier steering.

negative camber

Negative Camber Effects

Negative camber is preferred for on-road passenger vehicles as it improves traction in corners and handling.

What Is Toe

Toe is the angle of the tires/wheels as viewed from the top of the vehicle. The purpose of toe is to help compensate for suspension fluctuations. Toe also can allow you to dial in more oversteer or understeer.

Toe-In Vs Toe-Out

Toe-in generally makes a vehicle feel more stable while toe-out can make it feel more unsettled and darty.

Toe-In Effects

Toe-in increases understeer and adds stability to handling. Understeer is when the car doesn’t turn as much as the steering input would normally create. To state it more simply, the front tires begin sliding and the car doesn’t rotate or slide in the direction of the turn.

Understeer is ideal for passenger vehicles since it makes the car or truck easier to control.

Toe-Out Effects

Toe-out increases oversteer and can make a car or truck feel twitchy and unpredictable. Oversteer is when the car begins to turn more than the steering input would normally create. Again, to state it a little more simply, the rear end of the car begins sliding, causing the car to rotate in unison with the turning and rotate the car more.

Oversteer is ideal for race cars since it allows the car to turn in quicker and go around corners faster.

What Is Caster

Caster is the vertical pivot angle of the wheel assembly for steering. As the steering wheel is turned, the tire will pivot on a vertical axis. This axis is not typically perfectly straight up and down. Imagine there is a bolt or pin that runs from the top of the tire to the bottom that the tire pivots on when steering. If you could see this bolt or pin when viewed from the side of your vehicle, the top of the pin will be slightly more toward the rear of the vehicle. This angle is the amount of caster.

Positive Caster Vs Negative Caster

Positive caster is the only type of caster you will find in a properly designed vehicle suspension. Positive caster improves driving characteristics so it is designed into suspension geometry. It is possible to adjust caster but it shouldn’t be adjusted into the negative.

Positive Caster Effects

Positive caster is desirable to a point. Mild positive caster improves cornering grip by causing the tires to lean in a way that will increase grip as the tires steer into a turn. Positive caster also increases high speed stability. Steering will want to track straight and releasing the steering wheel will cause the tires to return back to a straight direction.

Too much positive caster will begin to diminish the benefits of positive caster. It can make steering more difficult, reduce traction and handling performance, and negatively affect tire wear.

Negative Caster Effects

Negative caster should be avoided. It provides no benefits to handling, traction, or stability. It will only degrade these characteristics and make for a dangerous vehicle.

Frequently Asked Questions

HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU NEED AN ALIGNMENT?

Uneven tire wear, an off center steering wheel, poor handling, or pulling to one side are all symptoms of improper wheel alignment. There can be other reasons for these problems however. You should let your local tire tech troubleshoot your specific problem so they can rule out other issues that may be causing your unique problem.

HOW MUCH DOES IT COST FOR AN ALIGNMENT?

Alignment typically costs around $75 to $100 dollars.

DO I REALLY NEED A TIRE ALIGNMENT?

You may not need an alignment. If you’re not experiencing any issues that could be related to alignment problems and your tires are very inexpensive, it may not be worth it.

If you are experiencing problems that could be alignment-related or your tires are more expensive, it makes sense to take the time and spend the money to get the most out of your investment and ensure your vehicle can handle safely.

WHAT IS DONE DURING TIRE ALIGNMENT?

Suspension components are adjusted to change the camber, toe, and caster angles of the tires to be within the range specified by the vehicle manufacturer.

HOW LONG DOES A CAR ALIGNMENT TAKE?

Assuming no problems are encountered, alignment usually takes around an hour to complete.

HOW OFTEN SHOULD YOU GET AN ALIGNMENT?

Every 2 or 3 years with an average of 12,000 miles driven per year is a reasonable interval. Generally speaking, alignment shouldn’t drift but potholes, hitting curbs, and suspension wear and tear can all cause alignment to drift out of spec over time.

It’s also smart to get an alignment performed when you purchase new tires.

CAN YOU DO A WHEEL ALIGNMENT AT HOME?

Yes you can! An alignment can be done at home with a tape measure.

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TIRE ALIGNMENT AND TIRE BALANCING?

Alignment adjust the camber, toe, and caster angles of the tire to ensure that it contacts the asphalt in a way to maximize grip and ensure even tread wear. Tire balancing deals with ensuring the weight around the circumference of the tire and wheel assembly is uniform so that it will not vibrate as it spins at higher speeds.

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TIRE ALIGNMENT AND TIRE ROTATION?

Alignment adjust the camber, toe, and caster angles of the tire to ensure that it contacts the asphalt in a way to maximize grip and ensure even tread wear. Tire rotation is the process of removing a wheel assembly from one location on a vehicle and move it to a different location to help ensure even tire wear over the life of the tire.

WHAT CAUSES ALIGNMENT ISSUES?

Potholes, curb strikes, or any accidents that involve hard contact with the wheel and/or tire are common causes. Suspension component wear and tear is another cause. Finally, an changes to tires, wheels, or suspension components, especially if the are different than the OEM specifications, can cause misalignments.

WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU DRIVE WITH BAD ALIGNMENT?

If you have improper alignment and drive for an extended time you will experience poor tire wear. The speed of the abnormal tire wear will depend upon the severity of the misalignment. You can also experience handling problems, pulling to one side, or an off center steering wheel.

HOW DOES WHEEL ALIGNMENT AFFECT STEERING?

Alignment can have a significant affect on steering stability and handling. It can cause the vehicle to pull to one side. Alignment can also affect whether a steering wheel is crooked when the car is driving straight.

DO I NEED AN ALIGNMENT AFTER REPLACING TIRES?

An alignment isn’t always necessary when buying new tires. Although I highly recommend performing an alignment if your tires are expensive or you haven’t hand an alignment performed within the last 3 years.

HOW LONG IS IT SAFE TO DRIVE WITH A BAD ALIGNMENT?

In general, it’s unsafe to drive with a bad alignment for any period of time. Obviously, minor alignment issues aren’t an immediate threat but even if poor alignment doesn’t create unreasonably poor handling characteristics, it will cause uneven tire wear that will quickly make your tires unsafe in wet conditions.

Resources

Below are some links you may find helpful when learning about tires

About The Author
Will Creech
Will has been an automotive enthusiast since he was old enough to make engine sounds. Formerly a member of the contract training team at Discount Tire, he is unusually knowledgeable on all things related to tires. He is now the owner of and main contributor to TireGrades.com.
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