Do I Really Need an Alignment?
Alignment assures your tires meet the road at the proper angle, your wheels are pointing straight and your tires are centered in the wheel wells. It adjusts the angles of your vehicle’s wheels to original specs for best gas mileage, proper road contact, a smooth ride and longest tire life.
The most common signs of misalignment are pulling to one side while you’re driving, unusual tire wear and a steering wheel that’s off-center even though your vehicle is pointed straight. But these symptoms can have other causes, sometimes simpler and sometimes not.
Steering pull can be caused by road conditions. If the asphalt has grooves that are slightly farther apart than your car’s axles, you may feel a pull as the tires on one side ride slightly higher. If the road is noticeably higher in the center, the vehicle may veer as the tires try to find a level surface.
Torque steer is a pull that happens during acceleration, from a difference in power being delivered to the wheels. A pull only during braking is probably from a caliper on one side sticking and not fully disengaging from the brake disc. A failing tire and improper tire rotation are two more causes of steering wheel pull.
Poor alignment may not be the issue if your steering wheel sometimes tugs in one direction and then the other. A bent or worn suspension part — ball joints, strut bearings or tie rods — could be to blame.
Atypical tire wear may be the result of worn shocks or struts, bushings or springs, or from carrying heavy loads (all of which can also put your vehicle out of alignment). Uneven wear can also be caused by driving on over-, underinflated or imbalanced tires.
An off-center steering wheel can be caused by worn steering or suspension parts. Just getting an alignment won’t fix the root cause.
One last common point of confusion: Vibration while underway is often a symptom of out-of-balance tires, not bad alignment.
When We Recommend an Alignment
An alignment is important to do when:
- You get new tires.
- You lower or lift your vehicle.
- Suspension parts that affect the tire angles are replaced or adjusted.
- You’ve had a fender-bender or a hard impact with a curb or road debris.
- It's been a year since your last one.
Tire stores strongly recommend an alignment after installation of new tires because they want you to get what you pay for: full tread life. They also want to be sure that any defect that becomes apparent during the warranty period is from a manufacturing issue, not from wear that could have been avoided with basic vehicle maintenance.
Lifting or lowering a vehicle will affect your toe, camber or caster angles. So will repair or replacement of suspension and steering parts — struts, shocks, ball joints, tie rods, bushings or control arms. If one of these components is damaged, it’s a pretty good bet your vehicle’s alignment is out of spec. If you don’t fix them before your vehicle is aligned, you’ll soon have the problem recur.
Alignment checks are always advised after any significant impact with a bumper, a curb, a big pothole, an animal or anything else. It may have knocked your vehicle off spec.
Also, get a check annually, or twice yearly if you typically travel on rough roads. Regular checks are important because off alignment isn’t always obvious. The wrong toe angle can go unnoticed and so can atypical tire wear. Cars usually go out of alignment gradually, so you may not realize how much it was impacting drivability, gas mileage or tire wear until it’s corrected.
Tips Before Getting Service
Because the measurements are very fine, misalignment is not something you can see by just eyeballing whether the wheels and tire angles look right. But an experienced tire technician will usually know if you’re overdue for an alignment just by looking at your tire wear.
Here’s what to know if the service is recommended:
- If you have a damaged suspension part, replace it first. Worn or bad parts will put your vehicle right back out of spec.
- The technician may recommend a thrust alignment or a four-wheel alignment. Here’s a primer to understand what they’re talking about.
- Before service, let the tech know you’d like a printout showing what your alignment measurements were prior to the work being done and the final settings for your records. You can verify the job was truly necessary. Here’s an example of what you’ll see.
Measurements Before Alignment:
Measurements After Alignment:
Looking at existing tire wear is one way to identify misalignment but the ideal is to correct your wheel’s positions before you have early and unnecessary tire wear. Regular alignments are part of basic maintenance that helps you get full mileage out of your tires.
How to Jump-start a Car
There’s a right way and a wrong way to jump-start a vehicle. Doing it wrong can damage your battery or other electrical components. Learn how to do it correctly in this Les Schwab Quick Tips step-by-step video. We show you:
- The proper order for connecting and disconnecting jumper cables.
- How to keep the cables clear of hot engine areas.
- What to do once the dead car starts.
The main safety concern around jump-starting isn’t the electrical current. Jump-starting your battery in the rain, for example, doesn’t put you at risk of shock. Passing vehicles are a bigger issue. Be sure to stay out of the path of traffic and use flares or reflective triangles if you have them when it’s rainy or dark out.
What is Wheel Offset?
Customizing your ride with aftermarket wheels and tires is a fun way to make your car or truck your own. If you’re shopping around, it helps to have a basic understanding of wheel offset.
Proper offset assures your new package has enough clearance so nothing rubs against the suspension, brakes or vehicle body (like fenders, bumpers and mud flaps).
It’s also important for driving safety, since the wrong offset can reduce vehicle stability or interfere with braking.
Wheel Offset and Backspacing Explained
Offset refers to how your car’s or truck’s wheels and tires are mounted and sit in the wheel wells.
- Zero wheel offset is when the hub mounting surface is in line with the centerline of the wheel.
- Positive wheel offset is when the hub mounting surface is in front (more toward the street side) of the centerline of the wheel. Most wheels on front-wheel drive cars and newer rear-drive vehicles have positive offset.
- Negative offset is when the hub mounting surface is behind the wheel centerline. “Deep dish” wheels are typically a negative offset.
Backspacing is the distance your wheels and tires need to accommodate both offset and wheel width. It’s especially important to factor in when the new package you want is wider than what came on your vehicle.
Getting offset and backspacing measurements right means you’ll get a wheel and tire package that offers the looks, handling and performance you’re after.
Getting them wrong can mean big problems.
Common Problems From Too Much Positive Offset
- Expensive damage from the inner edge of the wheel and tire rubbing against the bodywork or suspension
- Interference with brake parts
- Risk of tire failure
- Poor handling
- Making your car unstable
Problems from Too Much Negative Offset
- Increased steering wheel kick-back
- Additional stress on the entire suspension
- Poor handling
Remember This About Wheel Offset
- New wheels and tires can make your everyday ride look and handle a whole lot better.
- Offset measurements can be tricky. Even if the tire and wheel have enough clearance, the wrong offset can decrease vehicle stability. Generally, with new wheels, you don’t want the new offset to be more than 5 millimeters different from the old offset.
- Especially when your new wheels are wider than the originals, backspacing has to be factored in along with offset.
- To make sure your tire and wheel package fit right, stay within load capacity and give you the handling and stability you need, ask a tire professional for advice.
Want to see some options that will fit your vehicle? Browse wheels suited for your make and model.
Important Notice: The information provided above is of a general nature gathered from a variety of resources deemed reasonably reliable. The operation of your vehicle, or the repair or replacement of your vehicle’s equipment, may be different than for a typical vehicle. Please consult your owner's manual for specific warnings, notices, and other advice relative to the subjects addressed herein.