Vehicles require a lot of maintenance to keep them in top condition, including oil changes, tire rotations, wheel balancing, and more. One often overlooked maintenance procedure is the wheel alignment. Misalignment can cause many issues, such as excessive and uneven tire wear, vibrations, pulling to one side, and more. So, having your wheel alignment checked and adjusted is critical.

So what is a wheel alignment exactly? We cover that and more below.

What is a Wheel Alignment?

Wheel alignment is a critical aspect of vehicle maintenance that car owners often overlook. A wheel alignment is the adjustment of the angles of the wheels so they are within the manufacturer’s recommended positioning. While you may think the proper specification is perpendicular to the road, this is incorrect. They generally sit slightly angled when you look at the wheels from the front of the vehicle, allowing the tire's full tread to contact the roadway when cornering.

When a car is manufactured, the wheels are set to specific angles to ensure they are aligned correctly. However, the wheels can become misaligned over time due to wear and tear, causing several problems. Misaligned wheels can cause uneven tire wear, leading to premature tire replacement. They can also cause poor handling, making the car difficult to control, especially at high speeds. Misaligned wheels can also reduce fuel efficiency because the out-of-alignment wheels can create more rotational drag, making the engine work harder to move the vehicle.

A wheel alignment is a relatively simple process for a professional mechanic to complete. To complete the service, a mechanic uses special equipment to measure the angles of the wheels and adjust them accordingly.

A wheel alignment service typically takes less than an hour, and you’ll notice the results immediately. After a wheel alignment, your car will handle better, track straighter on the road, and you may even notice improved fuel efficiency and tire life.

What Are the Three Angles of an Alignment?

When your mechanic performs an alignment, they focus on three main angles: camber, caster, and toe. Let’s review each of these angles and how your mechanic adjusts them.

What is Camber?

Camber is a term used to describe the angle at which your vehicle's tires lean when viewed from the front or rear. Camber is a critical aspect of your vehicle's suspension system that impacts handling and tire wear.

The two types of camber are positive camber and negative camber. Here’s the difference:

  • Positive camber: This refers to a wheel that’s tilted outward at the top
  • Negative camber: This refers to a tire that is tilted inward at the top.

Slight positive camber may help with stability in high-speed driving conditions. However, too much positive camber may result in uneven tire wear and decreased handling.

Negative camber can help with cornering and improve traction, and it’s especially common in racing and high-performance driving. Most manufacturers recommend slight negative camber. However, excessive negative camber leads to premature tire wear and poor handling.

On top of its effect on handling and tire wear, camber can also impact fuel efficiency. Excessive positive or negative camber results in increased rolling resistance, which can lead to decreased fuel economy.

To adjust camber, your mechanic will loosen the bolts connecting the suspension to the vehicle’s frame, adjust the wheel until it’s within specification, then torque the suspension components to the manufacturer’s recommended specifications. Some vehicles will also have camber bolts that allow the mechanic to fine-tune the camber with more control.

Sometimes, suspension components can become so worn out that the mechanic cannot get the wheel within specification. The only way to correct this is to replace the damaged component.

What is Caster?

Caster is another important aspect of a vehicle's suspension system that affects its handling and stability. Caster is the angle of the steering pivot when viewed from the side of the vehicle. The caster angle is created by the intersection of the steering axis and the wheel's vertical axis.

A positive caster angle means that the steering axis is tilted toward the rear of the car, while a negative caster angle means the steering axis is tilted toward the front of the vehicle. The caster angle is measured in degrees and is crucial to a vehicle's alignment settings.

A properly set caster angle provides several benefits to the vehicle's handling and stability. First, it helps the vehicle drive straight and true, without wandering or pulling to one side. This is because the caster angle creates a self-aligning torque, allowing the wheels to track straight ahead.

The caster angle also helps the steering wheel return to the centre after a turn. This is because the caster angle creates a moment that pulls the wheel back to its original position. Without the caster angle, the steering wheel would not return to the centre, forcing the driver to manually correct the steering after every turn.

A misaligned caster angle can cause several problems for the vehicle. Excessive positive caster angle may cause the vehicle to feel unstable at high speeds and make turning difficult. Excessive negative caster angle can cause the vehicle to feel unstable at low speeds and make it challenging to drive in a straight line.

A misaligned caster angle can also lead to uneven tire wear, premature tire failure, and costly repairs.

Generally, road cars have no caster adjustments because misadjusted caster can lead to accidents. If your caster angle is out of specification, a defective component in the suspension system likely needs replacing. You can purchase aftermarket offset bushings and adjustable caster arms, but these are for off-road use only under the careful guidance of a qualified technician.

What is Toe?

Toe is the angle front or rear tires point when viewed from above. Two toe angles exist:

Toe-in: The front of the tires pointing toward each other

Toe-out: The front of the tires pointing away from each other

Each vehicle has its own setting for the toe, as some require a slight toe-in and others require a slight toe-out angle. A general rule of thumb is front-wheel-drive (FWD) vehicles typically have a slight toe-out and rear-wheel-drive (RWD) vehicles typically have a slight toe-in.

When your vehicle’s toe adjustment is out of specification, this can cause a wide range of issues, including uneven and excessive tire wear, vibrations, decreased fuel economy, reduced handling, pulling to one side or another, and more.

The toe is one of the most common adjustments in an alignment because it’s the most susceptible to wear and tear over time. Often, you’ll hear mechanics say they are doing a “toe-and-go” alignment, which is an alignment that only needs a toe adjustment and takes just minutes to complete.

Mechanics adjust the toe by loosening the lock nut on the inner tie rod ends — the rod that connects the front hub to the steering system — and rotating the inner tie rod end until the wheel is within specification. The mechanic then tightens the lock nut, verifies it’s still within specification, then moves to the next wheel.

On the rear wheels, the vehicle will have toe bars connecting the rear hub to the frame. On these bars are bolts with eccentric washers — washers with off-centre holes. The mechanic will loosen the nuts and rotate these bolts and washers until the rear toe is within specification.

If the mechanic cannot get the front or rear toe into the manufacturer’s specification, this means there are damaged suspension parts that need replacing.

Why Are Wheel Alignments Important?

A proper wheel alignment improves handling, ride quality, fuel efficiency, and tire life. If your wheels are misaligned, it can, at minimum, result in you having to buy new tires quicker than you’d like and may lead to ride harshness and vibration. At worst, a bad alignment can create a serious safety hazard, as you can drift into other lanes and have difficulty controlling the vehicle.

What Are the Signs My Car Needs a Wheel Alignment?

If your car pulls to one side, your steering wheel is off-centre, or you notice uneven tread wear on your tires, it is likely time for a wheel alignment. Other signs your vehicle needs an alignment include a vibrating steering wheel or a noisy suspension system.

How Often Should I Get a Wheel Alignment?

Most professionals recommend having your wheel alignment checked at least once a year or if you experience any alignment-related issues, such as vibrations, pulling to one side, uneven tire wear, and more. Many shops will perform an alignment check for free or very inexpensively.

It’s also a good idea to get a wheel alignment when you replace your tires or have it checked if you hit a curb or go over a pothole too fast.

Can I Do My Own Wheel Alignment?

While a wheel alignment is relatively simple for a mechanic with all the required tools and an alignment machine, it is still a complex process. Theoretically, you can do your own alignment, but it’s not recommended because one incorrect adjustment can cause safety issues with your vehicle.

Instead, always have a professional inspect and align your wheels to ensure optimal performance and safety.

How Much Does a Wheel Alignment Cost?

Wheel alignment prices can vary by the make and model of your car and your location. A standard wheel alignment typically costs $50 to $100, but some specialty shops may charge more.

Some performance and luxury vehicles require additional steps, such as installing weights to pre-load the suspension. This generally comes at an extra cost and can push the price closer to the $200 to $300 range.

You Wheel Alignment is Covered on a Used Vehicle From Clutch

Wheel alignments are a key part of vehicle maintenance, and when you purchase a used vehicle from Clutch, you can rest assured the alignment has been checked and adjusted as needed. Every Clutch vehicle goes through a 210-point inspection and reconditioning process, which includes checking and adjusting the alignment.

Plus, all our vehicles include a 90-day or 6,000-km warranty and a 10-day or 750-km test-own period. If you don’t love your new Clutch vehicle within these 10 days, you can exchange it for a different one or return it for a full refund.

Check out our large inventory of quality pre-owned vehicles today and find the perfect ride for you. You can complete the purchase process, secure financing, and even get a firm offer for your trade-in vehicle 100% online. There’s no need to ever set foot in the dealership. And we’ll even deliver the vehicle to you. It doesn’t get much easier than that.