What Does Wheel Alignment Do for Your Car?

Is your car pulling to one side as you drive, making it difficult to control? Have you noticed that the tires on one side of your car are much more worn than on the other side?

If you’ve noticed something like this, it could mean the wheels on your car are out of alignment. To correct the issue, you need to hire a technician to realign your car’s tires.

But what exactly does wheel alignment do for your car? Read on to find out what kinds of alignment services you can get, how they work, and why your car needs them.

What Is Wheel Alignment?

As you drive your vehicle, its components will gradually wear away. The most obvious sign of wear might be scratches and chips in the paint job, but it’s the damage to the components you can’t see that you should worry about more.

Wheel alignment is also often called tire alignment. Technicians might prefer one name over the other, although they mean the same thing. Both terms refer to the angle of your car’s wheels, which impacts how they contact the road.

But despite both terms referring to your car’s tires, they’re not actually behind any alignment issues. Instead, the problems are caused by your car’s suspension system.

As your suspension gets tired and wears out, it can stop supporting your wheels properly. As a result, the tires might get misaligned, or start pointing slightly away from the center line of your car’s chassis.

3 Types of Wheel Adjustments

When you bring your car in for alignment service, you will see the technicians move your car to a hoist to get to its underparts. They will then adjusts your vehicle’s suspension system to realign your wheels. While doing so, the technicians mostly look at three main factors:

1. Toe

The toe describes the angle the wheels tilt inward or outward when viewing your car from above. To get an idea, look at your feet but imagine they’re your car’s tires and your body is the chassis. Turn your feet left or right — this angle is what technicians mean when they talk about your car’s toe.

The manufacturer of your car will have described its proper toe angle in maintenance documentation. Having the right toe alignment ensures your tires roll effortlessly when your car moves.

A misaligned toe angle will cause your tires to drag along the road as you drive. This will cause excessive wear that is bound to quickly destroy your tires completely.

2. Camber

Camber measures how far a car’s wheels tilt inward or outward when viewing the vehicle from the front. If the top of the tire tilts inward, the car has negative camber — conversely, the top tilting outward is positive camber. 

Calling the angle positive or negative is not a value judgment, just a way to describe the tire’s camber. In fact, most cars have a slight negative camber since it increases stability.

But if the camber angle is too steep in either direction, it will start to wear your tires disproportionately on one side. Eventually, your car will begin to pull to one side, which can be a serious safety risk.

3. Caster

The caster angle is the most complicated wheel alignment adjustment, but also potentially the most important. It describes the angle of your car’s steering axis and the angle at which the suspension components meet the wheel when viewing the vehicle from the side.

If the suspension connects to the wheel at a perfectly vertical angle, you would have a neutral caster. Tilt the angle toward the driver and you get a positive caster, while angling it away from the driver gives you a negative caster.

Modern cars don’t use a negative caster. Your car should have an appropriate positive caster angle to improve its steering and ensure your steering wheel returns to a neutral position when driving straight.

How Does Your Car Benefit from Tire Alignment?

Surprisingly many drivers ignore regular wheel alignments, but they shouldn’t. Correcting even slight misadjustments in your tires can deliver significant benefits over time. The most significant ones include:

Better Fuel Efficiency

Even though it may not be noticeable from the driver’s seat, even slightly misaligned wheels will drag along the road. Consequently, your car has to work harder to propel itself forward, which naturally wastes gas.

Well-aligned wheels will roll effortlessly, which improved your vehicle’s fuel efficiency. You’ll get more miles out of a single tank and will save money on fuel expenses.

Longer Tire Lifespan

We probably won’t have to tell you that dragging your tires across pavement isn’t good for them. Misalignment will always lead to uneven and excessive tire wear. Properly aligned wheels ensure equal weight distribution across all wheels and reduce wear, meaning you won’t have to buy new tires as often.

Smoother Driving Experience

Misalignment can cause all kinds of unpleasant sensations during driving, from vibration to pulling. It could even lead to your steering wheel being permanently off-center. Well-aligned wheels will give a more comfortable and confident driving experience.

Improved Steering

If misaligned tires cause your car to pull or force your steering wheel off-center, you can’t steer your car properly. Not only is this frustrating, but it could also put you at serious risk of getting in an accident. Wheel alignment can improve the way your car handles and keep you in control, giving you a safety boost.

Less Maintenance

If your tires are out of alignment, every bump and jolt will cause more damage to your car. Northern Virginia’s winters put enough strain on your suspension as is — you don’t need misalignment to add to the problems.

Wheel alignment isn’t free, but it can save you a lot of money in unnecessary car repairs. After all, it’s much cheaper than replacing a busted suspension system.

What Types of Alignment Services Can I Get?

For the purposes of wheel alignment, technicians consider your car to have two sets of tires — the front and the back. Depending on the issues you’re facing and the wear to your suspension, they may not always adjust the suspension for both axles. During wheel alignment, you can expect to get one of these five procedures:

  1. Front-End Alignment: Front-end alignment is the most common alignment service technicians carry out, although it’s not suitable for all modern cars. During this service, the technician will adjust only the front axle suspension.
  2. Thrust Alignment: Thrust alignment is the usual alignment procedure for cars with solid rear axles. During this service, the technician adjusts the rear axle’s thrust direction to align with the car chassis’ center line, while also fixing the front tires to align with the rear tires.
  3. Four-Wheel Alignment: During four-wheel alignment, the technician adjusts all wheels to be parallel to each other, the ground, and the car’s thrust angle. It’s the most comprehensive alignment service and should be done regularly on all vehicles.
  4. Premium Alignment: Some cars — particularly European makes like BMW, Volkswagen, Audi, or Mercedes — have advanced, complex steering and suspension systems not used on American cars. These systems require special procedures to align properly. Every service shop may not offer premium alignment services.
  5. Wheel Balance Services: Wheel balancing isn’t an alignment service per se, but it can address the same issues and support proper tire alignment. A wheel balance service will ensure your car’s weight is equally distributed across all wheels to reduce uneven tire wear.

How Do You Know You Need Wheel Alignment?

Tire misalignment isn’t always obvious and some issues it causes could stem from any number of other car problems. There are a few telltale signs that you need wheel alignment services. If you notice any of the below symptoms with your car, bring it in for a nearest auto repair shop right away.

  • Uneven wear on tires, either across all tires or on one side of the car.
  • Your car constantly pulls to one side while driving.
  • Your car wobbles or wanders from one side to another without you turning the steering wheel.
  • When driving straight, your steering wheel is off-center. 
  • Noticeable vibration or shaking in the steering wheel while driving.
  • Your car has been in a minor accident.
  • You’ve replaced your tires.
  • You’ve had suspension work done on your car.

How Often You Should Get Your Tires Aligned

Even if you don’t notice anything wrong with your vehicle, you should still get your tires aligned on a regular basis. In general, it’s recommended that you get wheel alignment service every 6,000 to 10,000 miles — roughly once a year. It might be a good idea to add tire alignment to your annual car maintenance routine.

Get Local Tire Alignment Services in Chantilly & Warrenton

Northern Virginia’s icy winters and hot, humid summers can cause significant wear to your car and its components. The varying weather is also rough on our road surfaces. For both of these reasons, it’s important that you ensure your wheels are properly aligned.

Advanced Automotive has been offering tire alignment services in Chantilly and Warrenton, VA, for more than 35 years. Our ASE-certified technicians use professional computerized tools to ensure your toe, camber, and caster angles comply 100% with your car’s manufacturer’s recommendations. As a bonus, we offer tire wear inspection and a tire pressure check with every wheel alignment service.

Book your wheel alignment service appointment today, or call our Chantilly shop at (703) 783-1409 or Warrenton shop at (540) 503-3335.