You hit a pothole a week ago and your car hasn’t behaved quite right ever since. Maybe it’s started pulling to the left or your steering wheel isn’t centered — even when you’re driving straight. That’s when it’s time to get the tires of your car realigned.
During a wheel alignment service, an auto shop technician will check and adjust the angle of each of your car’s tires to match each other and the car chassis. But many drivers don’t get their wheels aligned regularly. You might even be wondering how important wheel alignment is in the first place.
Read on to find out more about the importance of wheel alignment and why you need to get your tires set straight.
How Important is Wheel Alignment?
The short answer to “how important is wheel alignment” is: very. Correctly aligned wheels are critical for keeping you safe on the road.
Tire alignment ensures that your tires contact the road surface at the proper angle and that they point straight (that means in the same direction as your vehicle’s chassis. It also makes sure that your tires are properly centered in the wheel wells.
If your tires are misaligned, your car will not handle properly. After all, how could your vehicle move straight ahead if each of your wheels is pointing in a slightly different direction?
The smallest issue wheel misalignment can cause is wearing down certain parts of your car faster. But the problem won’t fix itself, and as it gets worse, misalignment will start affecting your ability to control your car more and more. Needless to say, driving with misaligned wheels can be dangerous — especially on icy Virginia roads in winter. Your safety is the number one reason you need to get your wheels aligned.
Things that Can Cause Wheel Misalignment
Most wheel alignment issues stem from your car’s suspension being out of whack. Although the suspension system is there to absorb bumps from the road, it’s not invulnerable to impacts.
Strong impacts can wear down or shift suspension components, knocking them out of place. Any of these events could misalign your tires:
- Replacing your tires
- Adjusting, lifting, or lowering your suspension
- Being in a car accident
- Hitting a pothole or driving on rough roads
- Bumping into a curb or a parking stall
- Regular wear and tear
It’s a good idea to get your wheel alignment checked after any of these incidents.
Your Vehicle Benefits from Wheel Alignment
Accurately aligned tires do more than just keep you safe, though. Wheel alignment brings a whole slew of benefits to both you and your car. The benefits of keeping your tires properly aligned include:
- More even tire wear, which makes the tires last longer and improves handling
- Longer lifespan of suspension and steering systems
- Better fuel efficiency and higher mileage per tank
- Stable, comfortable, and safe handling
How Do I Know My Tires Need Alignment?
Any impact — whether big or small — could throw your wheels out of alignment. But sometimes the tires simply misalign on their own. Your suspension wears down just like any other part of your car, and with each bump on the road, the tires get a bit more twisted.
Most of the time, wheel misalignment isn’t visible to the naked eye — and if it is, your car probably won’t be going anywhere without major repairs. But there are still some clear signs that indicate your tires aren’t aligned. Bring your car in for service if you notice any of these most common signs of tire misalignment:
- Steering Pull: Steering pull isn’t necessarily the fault of misaligned tires, and it could also stem from an uneven road surface, power delivery issues, or failing brakes or tires. But if your car pulls one way or the other constantly, it could indicate alignment problems.
- An Off-Center Steering Wheel: If your steering wheel is constantly at a strange angle even when driving straight, you’re likely dealing with either tire misalignment or failed suspension parts — or both.
- Wandering: Is your car wobbling from side to side even while you hold the steering wheel steady? Don’t delay getting an alignment service, as wandering could pose a danger to you and others on the road.
- Vibration: Vibration while driving is a telltale sign that something’s wrong with your car. It could be caused by misaligned tires, but also any other number of issues. You should get your vehicle serviced immediately if you notice continuous vibration.
- Uneven Tire Wear: If you notice that one or more of your tires are much more worn-out than the others, they’re likely out of alignment or poorly balanced.
How Often You Should Align Your Wheels
No matter how sharp of an eye and ear you keep on your vehicle, you may still run into mechanical issues, like your tires misaligning. Tires usually get out of alignment very gradually, so most of the time you probably won’t notice how much they’re impacting your driving.
As such, you have to get a tire alignment check regularly. Unlike with other maintenance services, like oil changes, you may not find a recommended service interval for wheel alignment in your owner’s manual. The general technicians’ recommendation is to get your wheels aligned annually, or every 6,000 to 10,000 miles.
There are a few exceptions to this rule. If you’ve bought new tires, been in a minor accident, or driven a lot on bumpy on uneven roads, you should get a tire check done immediately afterward.
What Happens During Wheel Alignment?
When you bring your car to an auto maintenance shop for tire service, the technician will ask you to describe the issues you’re having. Using the information detailed above, try to give them as many details as you can. The technician could also ask to take your car for a short test drive to verify the problems.
Your car will then go on a hoist and the technician checks the undercarriage for any damaged or worn suspension or wheel parts. They will replace any components showing excessive wear before starting the alignment process.
Most service shops use a machine to align your tires. For example, Advanced Automotive provides a computerized alignment service to ensure the tires on your vehicle are absolutely correct. The automated system references your car’s manufacturer’s recommendations to find the right alignment, while also adjusting wheel camber, caster, and toe angles. The length of the service depends on your car and the amount of work the technicians need to do. On average, tire alignment service takes approximately one hour.
Different Types of Alignment Services
During the service, the technician may carry out a specific alignment process. The choice depends mostly on what type of suspension system your car has. The most common service types are:
- Front-end Alignment: Front-end alignment service adjusts only the front axle, which steers your vehicle. It’s the most basic and common alignment service, but it may not be suitable for all modern cars.
- Thrust Alignment: A thrust alignment service matches the rear axle’s direction to the centerline of the car’s chassis, while also adjusting all four wheels to be squared with one another. This is the recommended service type for vehicles with a solid rear axle.
- Four-wheel Alignment: This all-encompassing service combines the front-end and thrust alignments, while also adjusting the rear axle angle. It’s the best option for four-wheel drive vehicles or front-wheel drive cars with independent rear suspensions.
- Wheel Balance Service: Balancing wheels isn’t an alignment service, but it’s closely related to the same issues. During the service, the technician ensures the vehicle’s weight is equally distributed across all wheels to reduce vibration.
- Premium Alignment: Some imported cars — like BMW, Audi, or Mercedes — have complex steering and suspension systems that require specialized maintenance. The same can go for customized or high-end performance cars.
Different Types of Wheel Adjustments
The technician may perform different adjustments to your tires, depending on their condition. These adjustments can include:
- Toe: The toe describes the angle at which the tires turn in or out when looking at the car from above. An appropriate toe angle ensures even tire wear and extends their service life.
- Camber: The camber is the vertical angle of the tires, describing how much they tilt inwards or outwards. Many cars have a slight negative (inward-tilting at the top) camber for increased stability.
- Caster: The caster angle describes the forward or backward angle of the steering axis when viewed from the side of the vehicle. A properly aligned caster keeps your car moving straight. It also ensures the steering wheel returns to a neutral position after a turn.
The Cost of Wheel Alignment Services
How much you have to pay for wheel alignment depends on multiple factors. The number of serviced wheels, the car’s make and model, suspension or tire damage and wear, and potential additional services can all affect the total service cost. The average price for a full-service, four-wheel alignment sits in the ballpark of $100-$200. For the exact cost, contact a car technician. A reliable auto service shop will give you a cost-free estimate before carrying out any work.
Where Can I Get Wheel Alignment Done in Chantilly & Warrenton?
The road conditions in northern Virginia can be challenging. Frequent rain in the summer makes surfaces slick, while ice and snow are our regular guests in winter. For these reasons, drivers around Chantilly and Warrenton need to keep their wheels aligned to handle the difficult weather.
Advanced Automotive provides top-notch alignment services at our conveniently located shops in Chantilly and Warrenton. No matter what kind of car you drive, we’ll ensure your tires point in the direction they should. Book a service appointment today, or call our friendly and knowledgeable car repair experts.