When your vehicle rolls out the factory gates, its wheels are perfectly aligned to follow the same path. This alignment extends the life of the tires, improves fuel economy, and makes sure your vehicle handles easily and safely on the road. However, the wheels can lose alignment with each other depending on your driving habits, the road surfaces you often navigate, and any accidents along the way. Fortunately, you can often restore your ride’s original handling with a wheel alignment, a complex maintenance process that checks the wheels and returns them to their proper position.
How to Know If Your Car Needs an Alignment
When one or more of the wheels goes out of alignment with the others, it will cause trouble with other parts and car systems connected to the wheels. Below, you’ll find some of the most common warning signs your car needs an alignment.
Note: Other problems, such as worn steering or suspension components, can cause the same symptoms like those listed below. A thorough diagnosis of the vehicle should always be performed.
The Steering Wheel is Crooked or Off-Center
Normally, the steering wheel sits centered and straight when you’re driving straight ahead on a flat road surface. But when the vehicle’s wheels go out of alignment, they may cause the steering wheel to become crooked by several degrees in either direction.
Your Car Drifts to the Right or the Left
A serious case of misaligned wheels may cause the entire vehicle to pull or drift to one side or another, even when you’re holding the steering wheel straight. This becomes very apparent when you drive straight down a level road.
If your vehicle drifts to one side despite your best efforts, there’s a good chance it needs a wheel alignment. However, keep in mind that even the best-kept roads are slightly crowned and will cause slight drift if you’re not holding the steering wheel.
Abnormal Tire Wear
Tire wear patterns can tell you a lot about the current state of your wheels, including their current alignment. Certain patterns can even indicate exactly what kind of alignment problem needs tending.
If the inner edges of the tire look more worn out than the outer edges or vice versa, you probably need to adjust the wheel’s camber angle to restore its alignment. Similarly, feathering or scalloping patterns suggest a problem with the wheel’s toe angle. One of the best times to check tire wear patterns is when you rotate the wheels.
Does your vehicle seem to wander as it’s going down the road? This is one of the warning signs that your ride may need a wheel alignment. A visit to your mechanic can help you determine whether or not your car is out of alignment.
Steering Wheel Doesn’t Return to Center Position
The steering wheel is designed to go back to its neutral position once your vehicle completes a turn. Poor wheel alignment can mess up that convenient feature and keep the steering wheel (and the wheels under its control) from returning to a centered position after a turn.
While you can compensate for this problem by actively returning the wheel to the center, doing so won’t stop the tires from wearing out prematurely. Your best course of action is to bring your vehicle in to see whether it needs a wheel alignment before you’re forced to buy expensive replacement tires.
How Often Should You Get a Tire Alignment
For most drivers and vehicle models, it’s a good rule of thumb to go for a wheel alignment every two to three years or 6,000 miles. If you’re on the road a lot or drive your vehicle fairly hard, you’ll need to perform an alignment on an annual or bi-annual basis. And it goes without saying that you shouldn’t hesitate to get your wheels checked when you come across one or more of the symptoms listed above.
How Long Does an Alignment Take?
Most vehicles take around an hour to complete a wheel alignment, while older models can take more time because of their antiquated systems. Replacing damaged parts may also take more time. Still, a full alignment will save you a lot of money that may otherwise go into buying new tires to replace the ones worn out by misaligned wheels.