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When Should You Get a Wheel Alignment?

202308 when to check wheel alignment scaled jpg Wheel alignment | Cars.com illustration by Paul Dolan

Even though a wheel alignment isn’t a normal maintenance item, and there isn’t a set mileage or time interval for having it done, you should recognize the indications for when it might be needed for your vehicle.

Related: How to Check Tire Tread

Why Should I Care About Proper Wheel Alignment?

Besides the fact that it can shorten tire life, improper alignment can cause added wear to steering components and even be a safety hazard, particularly if it’s causing the car to be pulled to one side. (See “What’s Adjusted in a Wheel Alignment?” below.)

Your car’s suspension and steering components are most often thrown out of whack by either normal wear, sagging springs, an accident, or hitting large potholes, frost heaves or a curb. This can lead to the steering wheel not being centered, the car pulling to one side when driving straight, steering vibration under acceleration or uneven tire wear.

Wheel alignment is sometimes checked as a matter of course when you get new tires — in order to prolong their life — or after replacing worn or damaged suspension or steering components. But if there are no indications as mentioned above, an alignment probably isn’t needed. Sometimes, tire stores will offer an alignment check for free, but if any adjustments are needed, you’ll likely have to pay extra for that.

It’s important to note that a wheel alignment is really an alignment of all the suspension and steering components that hold the wheels in their proper positions. It affects the front wheels of all vehicles and the rear wheels on those with an independent rear suspension — which includes many modern cars and small to mid-size SUVs. Most pickup trucks and large SUVs have what’s known as a solid rear axle, which normally doesn’t need adjustment — unless something’s broken. The former is known as a two-wheel alignment, the latter a four-wheel alignment.

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What’s Adjusted in a Wheel Alignment?

img1602142132 1443105161546 jpeg Wheel alignment adjustments | Cars.com illustration by Paul Dolan

There are three settings that affect wheel alignment: toe, camber and caster. Note that these adjustments are usually measured in fractions of an inch, so they require precise equipment to get right. Thus, a proper wheel alignment isn’t something you can do yourself.

Toe

Toe is how much the front of the wheels point toward (toe-in) or away (toe-out) from each other, if you could look from above. Besides excessive tire wear, improper toe adjustment can cause the car to wander side to side, making it hard to keep it going straight. It can also inflict added wear on steering components and even be a safety issue.

Camber

Looking from the front of the wheels, the tops of the wheels are closer or farther apart than at the bottom — this is the camber angle. Not only does improper camber adjustment wear out the inside or outside tread of the tires, it can also adversely affect steering and handling.

Caster

If you could see the components from the side, caster is the angle of the upper and lower steering pivot points; it can be toward the front of where the tire touches the ground (positive caster), the center (neutral caster) or the rear (negative caster). Caster is largely what prompts the steering wheel to return to center after making a turn, but it also helps the car run straight on the highway.

Checking Tire Wear

Aside from the aforementioned off-center steering and pulling to one side, uneven tire wear is a strong indicator that your alignment is off, and you can do a rather good check of it yourself. Note that caster doesn’t play a noticeable role in tire wear, so these checks only detect problems with toe and camber.

Your tires could be positioned so that they are either toe-in or toe-out. Either will affect the way the tread wears. To check, run your hand across the tire’s tread (inside to outside and back). If you feel edges going one way and not the other, that’s called “feathering,” and it indicates the toe angle is out of proper adjustment. Sometimes, you can even see a sawtooth pattern if you view the tire straight on by turning the wheel all the way right or left.

Camber — whether the tops of the tires are leaning in a bit (called negative camber) or out (positive camber) — will result in the tread depth on the inside of the tire being different from that on the outside of the tire. Excessive camber can be a big detriment to tire wear.

While you can use a coin placed in the lowest part of the tread groove to check tread depth (make sure it’s not resting on one of the tread-wear indicators, which are narrow, raised bars that run across the tread at a few points around the tire), you can also buy tread-depth gauges that are more accurate. A simple stick-type gauge can be purchased online for less than $5; an easier-to-use dial-type gauge can cost less than $15. (You can also get digital ones, but they run on batteries that can go dead.)

These gauges can also be used to check for over- and under-inflation of the tires by comparing tread depth in the center grooves to that at both edges. Shallower tread at the outside edges indicates the tire has generally been run under-inflated, a potential problem for both tread life and safety.

A third use for a tread-depth gauge is to determine tread depth of your tires if you decide to buy a used tire to replace one of yours that has been damaged by a puncture or road hazard. This is a much less expensive alternative to buying four new tires if one of your still-usable tires has to be replaced. Keep in mind that it’s always best to have all the tires at the same tread depth — which is one reason to have them rotated periodically — as differing depths can result in driveline wear and even throw off some of the high-tech safety features included in modern cars. 

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