Wobbly Wheel? Trouble Steering? Check the Alignment!
Anyone who’s ever run up on a curb or nailed a pothole has probably been told they needed a front end alignment as part of the repair. The question many people have when they discover their vehicle has an alignment problem is why does it matter? It’s a fair question, since wheel alignments can be expensive, but the cost of doing nothing is potentially much higher.
Proper alignment of your vehicle’s wheels—front and back—is critical for safety and a very important part of vehicle maintenance. Even if you haven’t crashed into anything lately (good work!), it’s still worth having your vehicle alignment checked regularly, since improper alignment can affect vehicle handling and tire wear.
What Exactly is Wheel Alignment?
Put simply, wheel alignment is making sure your wheels are properly parallel with each other and perpendicular to the road. When you have an alignment problem, your wheels have been knocked out of their proper positioning, which can hurt both handling and tire wear.
How Does It Happen?
In an ideal world, your car drives on well-maintained roads in good weather conditions. Yet we rarely get a consistently smooth ride. Potholes and other road damage are common problems, especially after a lot of extreme weather, and even a minor bump in the road can affect your car’s alignment. You may be guilty of bumping a curb or misjudging a turn from time to time as well—it happens to the best of us. But all of these impacts, great and small, take their toll on your vehicle and can cause problems with your car’s suspension and alignment.
Out of Alignment
You don’t need to be a mechanic to tell if your car has alignment problems. Take a look at your tires: are they showing signs of uneven wear? When you look at your tires they should show even wear across the tread. Does the inside of the tire look more worn than the outside, or vice versa? If your tires are wearing unevenly, it’s usually because of an alignment problem.
Another way to gauge alignment is to do a simple handing test. How does your car handle at city and highway speeds? When the car is going straight, is the steering wheel centered as well? If you have to hold the steering wheel off center to maintain a straight line, your car is definitely out of alignment. Improper alignment can cause your car to drift or pull when you hold the wheel straight.
A third way to tell if your car needs an alignment is how the steering wheel feels in your hands when you’re driving at highway speed. Improper alignment can cause the steering wheel to vibrate or shake when driving. As you bring your vehicle up to highway speed, pay close attention to the steering wheel; does the wheel shake or vibrate? While there can be other causes of steering wheel wobble, improper alignment is at the top of the list of things to consider.
Align Your Priorities
Why should you care about wheel alignment? First and foremost, proper wheel alignment is a safety concern. Poor handling and uneven tire wear resulting from improper alignment can conspire to cause a wreck and possibly a fatality. The cost of having a certified mechanic perform a wheel alignment pays you back a big dividend in peace of mind. If the spend still feels painful, remember: over time you’ll claw back the cost of the repair because alignment issues decrease your car’s fuel efficiency, which means fixing a misalignment keeps money in your pocket instead of putting it into the gas tank.
So What Do I Do?
Be proactive! Rather than waiting for a problem, you can always have your car checked at important milestones. Alignment problems can happen to good, accident-free drivers, but proper preventative maintenance, and being aware of the causes of alignment problems, can help save you the time and hassle of a more serious problem.