There are three main goals of wheel alignment: the vehicle upon completion shouldn’t wear tires, the vehicle should drive straight down the road with the steering wheel held straight, and it should handle as safely and confidently as the original engineering provided for.
All of these have some caveats; tires wear from use regardless, and many vehicles are designed for performance rather than for optimal tire wear. A vehicle’s tracking depends primarily on the caster it was built with and this is only rarely adjustable.
Many times tracking issues are caused by tires rather than the alignment. And naturally, most vehicles with normal wear and tear and aged components won’t drive like new.
What a Wheel Alignment Is
The first part of a wheel alignment is to measure the angles of the wheels. Most modern machines measure all four wheels the same, regardless of whether there are adjustments or not. Many places will check an alignment for free, as it’s usually not possible to say whether an alignment is needed without measuring things up. That usually takes about 10 minutes, depending on the machine used.
Every vehicle has a specific set of specifications for the wheel angles, which have an allowable range within which things are ok and a “preferred” number in the center of that range. The numbers can be given in hundredths of a degree, in hundredths or fractions of an inch, or in millimeters. Adjustments are usually fiddly enough that the effort isn’t to make things exactly perfect, but close to the center of the range.
What an alignment is, essentially, is measuring the angles and then making adjustments until everything is within spec. Ideally, that optimizes tire wear and handling. If a vehicle was brought in to check the alignment because of a wear or handling complaint, the shop should be able to hand the keys back to the customer at the end and say “the tire wear should be good now, and it should drive fine”.
What’s the Total Cost of a Wheel Alignment Procedure?
The basic cost of a wheel alignment was traditionally calculated as an hour of labor. With the newer machines that are almost universally used now, the work should go a lot quicker. However, an hour is still the basis for the charge and is usually justified by the high cost of the alignment machine.
A wheel alignment price varies from $70 to $150, roughly. Prices in most shops vary depending on whether a 4-wheel alignment or a 2-wheel alignment is done. A front-wheel-only alignment is usually about $20 to $30 cheaper. Vehicles without rear adjustments, such as light trucks and many economy vehicles, will only need the front wheels aligned. Most machines will measure all four wheels, regardless.
As with most things, wheel alignment costs are higher in metropolitan areas and dealerships and lower in rural areas and independent shops. In most cases, an alignment will come with a 30-day warranty. If you have the work done and it doesn’t seem right, bring it back, and it will be rechecked, basically.
Sometimes lifetime wheel alignments are also offered, at a price of about $200 to $250.
Is It Worth it to Get a Lifetime Alignment?
In normal light use, perhaps not. Driving habits and driving conditions are factors. In areas where the winter weather and roads are rough, it may be more worthwhile. In areas of milder weather and good roads, there is less to be concerned about.
Different vehicles also have different wear tendencies. A Jeep Wrangler, for instance, has solid front and rear axles, and there are few moving parts to wear or shift and cause alignment issues. In contrast, a vehicle with independent front and rear suspensions will have more moving parts and connections and will likely need more attention.
The competency of the shop should also be taken into account. The main factor is the experience of the mechanic. Wheel alignments are a fairly easy thing to get started in and do a passable job, especially with modern equipment, but they are a very complex thing to become proficient in. A lifetime alignment deal at a shop where they have difficulty centering a steering wheel isn’t a very good deal. And then the economics of it are also inevitable; once the first alignment is done, the rest are free. For better or worse, the best work isn’t often done for free. And if the work is being done for free, is the best mechanic doing the work?
PRO TIP – A good guide is to have the tires rotated regularly, every 5,000 to 10,000 miles, and they will be checked for unusual wear at that time. Most shops will recommend an alignment if they see signs of a problem.
Where is the Best Place to Have a Wheel Alignment Done?
It should always be remembered that it’s not a tire shop, a dealership, or a service center that does the alignment; it’s a person. Wheel alignments are one service where expertise is not evenly spread or common in the mechanical trades. Modern alignment machines have programs that guide a technician through the steps of the procedure. However, this is still a poor substitute for experience, expertise, and understanding.
The best advice is to have the wheel alignment done by an experienced alignment technician. As alignment problems are most often noted and corrected when tires are replaced or installed, shops that don’t focus on tire work are at a disadvantage.
It’s difficult to build expertise without experience. A tire shop, for example, may have one or more technicians who do nothing but wheel alignments all day, who then benefit from the regular flow of past customers returning for tire rotations and so forth, at which time the tire wear is examined. This allows a technician to see the results of their work over time. Dealerships, on the other hand, while usually having very good training and excellent access to tools, service information, and technical specs, are less likely to have anyone with specific expertise in wheel alignments. For the simple reason that they rarely focus on tire work and so have less opportunity to perform wheel alignments.
Wherever the work is done, the best result is gained by scheduling the work, which makes it most likely that it’s on a well-qualified mechanic’s schedule. Last-minute and rush-jobs can be risky; allowing time for the job to be done right is the best approach in any area of work. In any case, it does all come down to the person doing the alignment, and there’s not always a way to find the best person to do the job without asking.
What to Expect with the Alignment Service?
The three main reasons for bringing a vehicle in for an alignment are tire wear issues, handling or tracking issues, or a steering wheel that is off-center. It is worth noting that vibration in the steering wheel or front end at speed is not one of those reasons. The goal of an alignment shop is to hand you back the keys when it is finished and let you know that the tire wear should be fine now and that it should drive and handle well.
PRO TIP – It is a common mistake to think that a shake or vibration issue can be corrected by an alignment when, in fact, it is usually caused by a rotating part that is out of balance or out of round, which is a different kind of problem.
The most important thing is to let the shop know why the vehicle has been brought in for an alignment. The odds of issues being taken care of are higher if they know clearly what those issues are. The shop should test drive the vehicle, place it on the alignment rack, and check the suspension for wear or problems. There are many things that can wear out in the suspension, and if there are problems, these are best addressed before an alignment.
If issues are found, expect to get an estimate rather than an alignment. If no issues are found, then, the alignment should be completed within an hour.
Tips for Getting the Best Service
- Pay attention to how the vehicle drives before bringing it in and communicate any concerns to the shop doing the work.
- Allow enough time for the work to be done. An alignment should take about an hour and is often done while a customer waits. Sometimes, there may be vehicles ahead in line, and it may take longer, or the work might need to be scheduled in. In most cases, a busy shop is a good sign, in the same way that a busy restaurant is a good sign. If the goal is to have the job done once and done right, allowing enough time for the job to be done without rushing is a good practice.
- Don’t be afraid to ask about the technician’s experience and the equipment used. The replies are likely to always be positive and reassuring, and most shops will take a customer’s interest as a good thing. Having promised a good result, the shop incentivizes itself to deliver that result, and a good technician will welcome a customer’s high expectations, especially if time allows.
If there are problems with the alignment that can’t be addressed with the adjustments built into the vehicle, sometimes it is necessary to have more work done. Adjustable arms, shims, and camber kits are available for many vehicles at an additional cost in parts and labor. This is always a tough call. Ideally, the adjustments built into the vehicle should be adequate. If there is a problem, then, finding the root cause is often a better idea than installing parts that the manufacturer didn’t feel were necessary.
One example is ride height issues. On many vehicles, the camber varies with ride height. Springs can settle and weaken with age, and a vehicle’s camber might show up as out of spec on the alignment machine. The choice then becomes whether to replace the weak springs, or to install a kit to allow adjustments that mask the problem, or to do nothing.
Camber issues can also be the result of something being bent. It’s always best to replace a bent part rather than adjust around the problems it causes.
An example would be solid-beam rear axles, such as the ones used on many economy cars. Those have, by design, no adjustments. The angles are built into the axle at the time of manufacturing.
An alignment problem on a rear axle of that type should indicate that the axle is bent and needs to be replaced. But it is also usually possible to install adjusting shims where the wheel hubs bolt to the axle. Opinions vary as to whether that is a good idea. Manufacturers almost universally say no, but the service is nevertheless available in non-dealer shops.
One of the best practices in all these cases is to ask the question, “what are the consequences of doing nothing”. And then, if doubts remain, to take advantage of the normally free alignment-check service at another shop for the sake of getting a second opinion.
What Could Go Wrong
Wheel alignments aren’t an exact science. The manufacturers provide ranges of acceptable measurements for the three principal angles (caster, camber, and toe), and when the numbers are within the acceptable range, that’s often called being “in the green”, due to how it shows up on a printout. On most printouts, anything outside the acceptable range is highlighted in red. It is possible, however, to have the numbers all in the green but still have tire wear and handling issues.
One of the reasons for an initial test drive is to discover how the vehicle handles so that any handling issues can be taken into account in the adjustments. That doesn’t always work perfectly, and sometimes more than one try is needed. Any reputable shop should be willing to repeat the test-drive, suspension check, and measuring process if the result of the first attempt was not quite optimal. The possibility of things not coming out quite right is also a reason for the customary 30 day warranty.
Another common problem is a steering wheel that is not quite centered. Not every driver pays much attention to that, but getting the steering wheel straight is the goal of the wheel alignment. Sometimes the small amount of play built into the steering mechanism can make this goal difficult.
In other cases, the alignment machine may be blamed. Alignment machines perform measurements to a standard level of accuracy and well within the margin of error provided for in the manufacturer’s specifications. But on a modern vehicle with very precise steering, this might not be exact enough to center the steering wheel perfectly. This is probably the most common complaint, and most alignment mechanics are familiar with the challenges there. An off-center steering wheel is usually easily corrected, at no charge and without fuss if a customer returns with a complaint.
“Pulling” complaints are also common. That’s when, on a flat road driving straight, you let go of the steering wheel and the vehicle drifts off one way or another, rather than tracking straight. Typically, that would be caused by a caster problem, but most vehicles don’t have adjustments for caster. Some vehicles are very sensitive to camber issues and can pull due to those, but most vehicles aren’t. This is one reason to make sure the shop knows why the vehicle has been brought in for an alignment, as well as one reason to test drive a vehicle before the alignment.
If no cause can be found in the alignment numbers, it’s usually a tire issue. Either a tire pressure imbalance or a difference in wear or tread profile. Even perfectly matched new tires can cause a pull. The test is to swap the front tires from one side to the other and test drive again to see if the pull is gone or if it now pulls the other way. This usually isn’t done unless there is a specific complaint.
The Three Primary Alignment Angles
The most important alignment angle is the toe. Toe refers to how straight-ahead the wheels are pointed. If you think about it like how people’s feet point when walking; toe-in would be pigeon-toed, and toe-out would be the opposite, walking duck-footed it’s sometimes called.
On any vehicle, the ideal is that when rolling straight ahead down a flat road, its wheels should point exactly straight ahead, neither toed in or toed out, with the steering wheel level. Any wheel that’s not pointed straight ahead will be scrubbing slightly sideways as it rolls, which causes tire wear, usually noted first on an inside or outside shoulder.
Toe adjustments are always provided for on the front wheels, and there will also always be rear toe adjustments, if there are any rear adjustments at all. The preferred settings aren’t always zero, as there are various forces working on the suspension to account for and things move dynamically during actual driving. Part of the engineering of the vehicle is to determine the best toe setting that allows the wheels to point straight ahead in average driving conditions. A vehicle might have either a positive or negative toe when sitting still.
Camber is the second most common wheel angle. This is how the wheels sit on the vertical plane, leaning into or out of the wheel well. Leaning in at the top is negative camber, while leaning out is positive camber. Almost all modern vehicles use negative camber, as it plants the wheels well and provides the best control during cornering maneuvers. Racing cars are set up with very high negative camber numbers for that reason.
For the most part, camber should be close to zero, the same as toe. That allows the full contact of the tire with the road without stressing one shoulder more than another. In practice, most vehicles will use a camber setting between .5 degrees positive and .5 degrees negative. Some FWD vehicles designed for high performance and cornering stability may use a camber of up to 1.5 degrees negative in the front and 2 degrees negative in the back. Some SUVs and four wheel drive vehicles use negative camber for roll-over resistance. This does stress the inside tire shoulders and normally does lead to some extra tire wear, but it is a designed-in trade-off.
On most independent suspension trucks, camber can typically be adjusted at the upper or lower arms. It has some effect on handling and tire wear, and some effect on how well a vehicle tracks down the road. On Macpherson strut suspension, sometimes there are adjustments at the point where the strut bolts to the steering knuckle, and it is also possible to install a camber kit there. It should always be kept in mind, though, that if a non-adjustable alignment angle needs to be adjusted, that may point to a worn or damaged part rather than the need for an adjusting kit.
Caster is the third significant angle. This can be visualized as an angle drawn through the upper and lower pivot points of the steering mechanism at the wheels as viewed from the side. On a vehicle with upper and lower ball joints on the front, the pivot points are the upper and lower ball joints. Most common newer passenger vehicles use Macpherson struts, in which case the caster angle is established by the lower ball joint and the upper strut mount bearing, which is the pivot point in that system.
The effect of the caster is to give a vehicle stability on the road, so that it is most inclined to drive in a straight line. This also causes the steering wheel to want to return to the center after a turn. If the caster is out of specs or is a problem, the vehicle might be inclined to pull one way or another, and resist driving in a straight line.
Only very rarely is caster adjustment possible on modern vehicles. Construction methods are much more exact now than in the past, and caster is usually built into the vehicle’s suspension and shouldn’t need to be changed.
On light trucks with independent suspensions, the caster is usually adjustable. On most SUVs, AWD vehicles, and passenger cars, it isn’t adjustable. On non-adjustable vehicles, if caster needs adjusting, it can sometimes be done by shifting the front sub-frame slightly forward or back on one or both sides. The upper steering pivot is in a fixed position in the bodywork, while the lower pivot point is the lower ball joint, which moves with the sub-frame. Typically, this is done at a dealership or a body shop in conjunction with collision repairs, and isn’t usually part of the normal alignment procedure.
The answer is – nobody knows until the vehicle’s angles are measured. Some have adjustments just on one axle, some have adjustments on both, but most modern alignment machines measure all four wheels anyway. Having the alignment checked is the first step.
Yes. An alignment out of spec can affect the vehicle’s mileage and cause excess tire wear, which can both be expensive problems over time. It can also impact handling and make a vehicle harder to control on the road.
It’s possible. The best way to know is to pay attention to the position of the steering wheel when driving straight down a flat road. If it changes after hitting a pothole (or a curb, or anything like that), then the toe has shifted, and the vehicle should be aligned.
No, replacing tires has no effect on the alignment. It is, however, not a bad time to check the alignment and make sure that the new tires last as long as possible.
No, it’s a completely different operation. A wheel alignment measures and sets the angles of the wheels on the vehicle to optimize tire wear, while a tire balance corrects the rotating weight of the wheel and tire assembly to eliminate vibration.
Yes, it can. A tire has the least rolling resistance when pointed straight down the road, which is determined by the toe. If there is tire wear from a toe-in or toe-out condition, that also creates rolling resistance, which reduces fuel economy.
No, all manufacturers align their vehicles at the factory before shipment. However, if there is a handling or wear issue, that is usually fully covered by the factory warranty for the first 1200 miles or so.