Wheel Alignment 101 – What your wheel alignment means

Wheel Alignment 101 – What your wheel alignment means

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The wheel alignment of your car or truck plays a huge role in the handling of your vehicle as well as tire wear. While it’s a vital part of maintenance it remains largely a mystery to most people. Today I’ll show you just what your wheel alignment means to your car or truck, and what the terms mean.

Understanding wheel alignment may seem overly complicated at first, but after you’ve read through this primer you’ll understand what goes into a proper alignment of your tires.

What is Wheel Alignment?

If you need new tires or you are taking your vehicle in to have your wheels balanced, it’s a waste of time without an alignment. There’s no faster way to destroy the new tires on your car or truck than driving with a bad alignment.

Having a professional shop aligning your wheels is also one of the cheapest and best ways to improve your vehicle’s handling. Not only that but the right static alignment will also extend the life of your tires. This is commonly referred to as a front end alignment because your front wheels dictate your vehicle steering angle.

Wheel Alignment wear

It’s also known as a front end alignment because your front tires and wheels are most likely to misalign themselves. Over time your suspension components such as your coil springs and bushings can become worn.

Heavy loads and driving aggressively contribute to your wheel alignment going out of whack. As you drive your vehicle over road imperfections and come to a harsh stop, normal wear and tear begins to chip away as your aligned wheels.

This leads to the front wheels becoming misaligned and causing negative handling characteristics. Without the right wheel alignment your tires will wear faster, costing you money when you need new tires.

Now even though it’s commonly known as front end alignment, all four tires will be aligned at your local shop. This is because cars or trucks with independent rear suspensions or front wheel or all wheel vehicles will require all four wheels to be aligned.

What is involved in a common wheel alignment?

Although it’s possible to perform a basic alignment¬†at home with just a set of tools, it’s best to take it to a professional. Most people think that alignment shops force or correct your vehicle with extreme tools. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact the basic wheel alignment is the act of adjusting a handful of specifications to ensure your vehicle tracks in a straight line.

Most alignment shops charge a nominal fee to perform this service, although the best deal is most often a unlimited wheel alignment offered by major chain stores. Even though these major chains usually charge a little bit more, it’s worth the money. You can bring in your car and truck and have it aligned whenever you need, which will pay off for itself sooner than later.

Wheel Alignment 1

Wheel Alignment – What is Caster?

Caster is the position of your steering knuckle in your suspension. What it refers to is the degree of your steering knuckle in related to a vertical line when viewed from the side of your wheel as shown above.

When your caster is properly set, it will allow your tires to track in a straight line. When your caster is misaligned your wheels may weave or even shimmy at high speeds. You can tell your caster is off when your steering wheel doesn’t return to the natural position after a sharp turn.

wheel alignment caster 1

Excessive negative caster will cause your vehicle to become unstable at high speeds. You can feel this on the freeway as wheel shimmy, and your steering wheel may vibrate. Positive caster can make steering a chore, and lead to premature bushing and steering rack failure.

Wheel Alignment – What is Camber?

Most people mistakenly confuse camber as wheel alignment, when there are many other specifications that factor into it. Camber is the angle in which the top of your tires sit in relation to the bottom of your rims when viewed from the front or rear of the vehicle.

Wheel Alignment 2

Camber plays a huge role in how your vehicle sits and handles, because excessively negative camber results in diminished tire contact. When less of your tire contacts the road, you have that much less control at speed or in turns.

Negative camber has recently become a huge phenomenon in tuning circles, known as “flush” or the flush movement. While it allows enthusiasts to tuck larger rims and wheels into their wheel well, it’s counter intuitive to performance.

wheel alignment camber

When your vehicle has excessive negative camber, installing camber arms or a camber kit can help you correct the issue.

Wheel Alignment – What is Toe?

The toe is one of the most commonly misaligned aspects of any car or truck. Toe is the position of your wheels in relation to the frame of your car or truck. Typically a neutral toe setting means that your wheels are parallel to your chassis.

Most factory vehicles are equipped with some degree of toe in or out. Typically front wheel drive vehicles are best aligned with a small degree of toe in at the rear wheels, and a slight toe out at the front.

Wheel Alignment toe 1

Either way this setting should ensure a vehicle that goes straight at speed. Excessive toe misalignment will cause poor vehicle performance, as you are dragging some part of your tires. Incorrect toe settings will also lead to a feathering effect of your front tires.

What is turning radius?

Although it’s not inherently a part of your static wheel alignment, your turning radius is very important to your vehicle. Turning radius refers to the angle in which your outside wheels turn in relation to your inside wheels. The turning radius of your vehicle is determined by your steering arms.

wheel alignment turning radius

As you turn your steering wheel your steering arms push or pull the wheels into the angle desired. If you hear your tires squealing during turns, this means that your steering angle or your arms are not aligned properly.

How do I know I need a wheel alignment?

Taking a look at your tires is always a good way to determine whether or not you need to take your vehicle in. Odd tire wear or uneven wear is a clear indicator that you need an alignment.

You can also tell by driving your vehicle in a straight line to see how it tracks. Try to pay attention to your steering wheel and see how your vehicle reacts in certain situations. Does your vehicle pull to one side when driving straight? Does the steering wheel feel unresponsive or sloppy?

What is Wheel Balance?

Another term that’s not really part of your alignment, wheel balance is as important to your vehicle as any aspect we’ve covered so far. When your wheels and rims are unbalanced, it causes vibration and a possibly dangerous driving condition. Unbalanced tires and wheels cause a whole host of issues for your car or truck.

There are two different types of balancing when it comes to your vehicle. Static wheel balance involves dispersing weight on either side around the axle. You can tell you need a static wheel balance when you raise your vehicle, and your wheel spins on it’s own. This happens because one side of your wheel is heavier than the other.

The other kind of wheel balance is called dynamic wheel balancing. It requires expensive machinery that spins your wheel and determines the degree of imbalance. These computerized balance machines that inform your technician where the problem areas are. By installing weights in the right areas, your dynamic wheel balance gets rid of wheel wobble when your car or truck is at speed.

When you have an issue with your car or truck steering, or it’s not driving as straight as it should seek a professional alignment shop. Having the right wheel alignment done on your vehicle will get you back on the road and your tires wearing evenly. Have any questions about our guide? Leave us a comment below and let us know!

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