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Wheel Alignment FAQ

What’s a Wheel Alignment?

Though it’s sometimes so subtle you won’t notice, the alignment of your wheels can get out of whack from the jolts and mishaps of everyday driving. This reduces your vehicle’s drivability, lowers gas mileage and causes early tire wear. An alignment is the process of adjusting the angles of your vehicle’s wheels back to original specifications

Are Alignments Necessary?

An alignment improves driving safety by keeping the right amount of the tire in contact with the road and preventing your vehicle from pulling to the left or right. A properly aligned vehicle has a smoother ride and optimal gas mileage. Keeping the wheels aligned also extends tire life.

What Affects Wheel Alignment?

Over time, normal settling of the suspension – plus fatigue of springs and bushings (rubber cushions that dampen the amount of movement and noise) – will gradually change alignment. Impacts like hitting a pothole, going over big bumps, rubbing up against a curb or rolling over debris can push the wheels out of alignment. Aggressive driving, carrying heavy loads, bent or worn suspension parts (tie rods, ball joints, strut mounts and bearing plates) or a slight fender-bender can trigger misalignment.

How Can I Tell If My Wheels Are Misaligned?

Diagnosing misalignment isn’t always clear-cut. Because the measurements can be very fine, you may not see it with a quick look at the tires and wheels. You may notice the steering wheel is off-center, feel a pull or drift or notice your handling isn’t up to par. The only way to know for sure is to have a trained technician run a check on an alignment machine.

Will it Affect My Tires?

Yes. If they show moderate-to-severe edge wear or feathered wear, it likely means they’re being dragged along rather than rolling smoothly. This is often an indicator that the toe or the camber angle is off.

Toe and camber misalignment graphic

How Are Alignments Done?

They’re done using an alignment machine to measure the wheel angles. These are calculated and compared against your vehicle’s original specs. Then the technician makes adjustments as needed. A real-time computer readout shows when the target angles are met. A report will show the incoming and corrected alignment measurements.   

What Are the Types of Alignment?

Your technician will advise what kind of alignment is best for your vehicle type:

Standard

Known as a front-end alignment, the front wheels are adjusted so they are parallel to the centerline of your vehicle. This is the simplest and most basic alignment BUT it’s not recommended for any current model vehicle. It's less accurate. You may not get a centered steering wheel, because front-end alignment doesn't account for rear wheel angles.

Thrust

A thrust alignment is the most accurate alignment for vehicles without adjustable rear suspension. Only the front wheels are adjusted. Here’s how: There’s no guarantee both rear wheels are pointed straight ahead as they should be. One may be pointed exactly forward and the other slightly off. Or both their angles could be off. Since this can’t be adjusted, the front wheels are aligned as closely as possible to the thrust line, which is the average of where the two rear wheels point. This compensates enough to get a centered steering wheel.

Four wheels

This is done on vehicles with adjustable rear suspension, to bring all four corners of your vehicle back in spec. All four wheels are aligned to the center of the vehicle. First, the rear axle angles are measured and adjusted, then the front. This is the best, most accurate, manufacturer-recommended alignment for vehicles with adjustable rear suspension.

Should I Get an Alignment When I Get New Tires?

Yes. Getting an alignment when you replace tires is one of the best ways to get the most mileage out of them. Be sure to ask for an alignment, since it’s not generally part of the purchase price.

What Other Times Should Alignment Be Checked?

  • After you hit a curb, collide with an animal, or run over a pothole, bump or debris.
  • When tires are wearing unevenly.
  • You lower or lift your vehicle.
  • Steering or suspension parts that affect the tire angles are replaced.
  • You notice your vehicle drifts or pulls to one side.
  • The steering wheel is off-center when you’re pointing straight.
  • Following a fender-bender.
  • At least once a year.
  • Twice annually, if you regularly drive rough roads.

(Les Schwab does free visual alignment inspections. If we recommend an alignment but find during the course of the work that your alignment is good and can’t be improved, there’s no charge.)

How Often is it Needed?

Regular alignments are part of basic auto maintenance. Catching misalignment early means you can correct your wheel’s positions before you have premature tire wear. Cars usually go out of alignment gradually, so it’s important to check it at least annually, or twice a year if you travel roads that are washboard, rutted or have lots of potholes.

Is Four-Wheel Alignment Only for 4-Wheel-Drive Vehicles?

Regardless of whether they’re 4WD, front-wheel-drive or rear-wheel-drive, most cars and many SUVs today are four-wheel alignable. These vehicles should get a four-wheel alignment because the rear is just as likely to be out of alignment and cause uneven tire wear as the front.

Does Misalignment Affect Gas Mileage?

Yes. When your wheels are properly aligned, there’s less rolling resistance. Tires roll with less friction so your vehicle is more fuel efficient. When wheels are misaligned, tires will drag slightly, causing a loss in fuel efficiency. If the situation continues, the tires will wear unevenly and lead to worse gas mileage.

Can Misalignment Cause Steering Wheel Vibration?

Vibration in the steering wheel, the floorboard or the seat that gets worse at faster speeds is often a sign of out-of-balance tires, not bad alignment.

Is Alignment the Same as Balancing?

They are two different repairs. Rebalancing tires is a process of attaching small weights, just fractions of ounces, to the wheel so that weight is even around the entire unit. Although they’re round, tires have manufacturing imperfections and wear that create lighter and heavier areas. The weights compensate for this.

Rebalancing is done in a tire shop by putting the wheel-tire unit on a tire-balancing machine that takes weight measurements and shows where to make adjustments for any differences. It’s most often done during tire rotations and isn’t part of an alignment.

What’s Included with an Alignment?

Here’s what’s included with an alignment at Les Schwab Tires: tire inspection, test drive before, steering and suspension inspection, tire pressure check and adjustment, alignment angles measured and adjusted, test drive after, and a printed report showing before and after measurements. (Alignments done at Les Schwab Tires are covered by a 30-day guarantee, which includes labor cost.)

Can Misalignment Cause Noise?

Generally, any noise from misalignment is caused by abnormal tire wear. If tires are the source of road noise, an alignment correction may be needed but won’t solve the noise problem.

Will an Alignment Fix a Crooked Steering Wheel? Loose Steering?

An off-center steering wheel is one sign of misalignment. Alignment will restore the steering wheel to a centered position if there aren’t other undiagnosed problems.

When alignment angles are out of spec, steering can feel slightly loose. This condition can be corrected by an alignment. But if you’re noticing you need a lot more steering wheel movement than normal, there may be worn steering or suspension parts that are allowing way too much play. In this case, the loose parts should be identified in the pre-alignment inspection and repairs should be recommended before aligning. Some parts to suspect are ball joints, tie rods, idler arm, Pitman arm, rack, and pinion or steering box.

Is It Covered Under Warranty?

Check your vehicle’s owner manual for the original warranty.

How Much Does a Wheel Alignment Cost?

It varies according to vehicle type, shop, region and type of alignment. A quality shop will advise in advance what type is best and what it will cost before performing the work. A great shop only charges for work that is actually needed once the job is underway.

Who Does Alignments?

Tire stores and any good mechanic. Les Schwab Tires offers full wheel alignment services — including adjustments and free inspections — usually without an appointment.

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