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’s the Total Cost of a Wheel Alignment Procedure?
The basic car alignment cost is roughly traditionally calculated as an hour of labor. With the newer machines that are almost universally used, it shouldn’t take anywhere near that amount of time. However, that is still the basis for the charge and usually justifiable by the high cost of the alignment machine.
The wheel alignment price varies from $50 to $150, roughly. As with most things, costs are higher in metropolitan areas and dealerships and lower in rural areas and independent shops.
Prices in many places also vary depending on whether a 4-wheel alignment or a 2-wheel alignment is done; usually a $20 to $30 difference. 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.
Another variable is the warranty. In most cases, an alignment will come with a 30-day warranty. But often, it is possible to purchase a lifetime alignment or a one-year warranty – making the price about $120 to $200.
Other Factors to the Cost of Wheel Alignment
There is some tendency in the industry to move toward a single price point such as a one-year warranty alignment for a basic price. Every vehicle has different needs – whether it’s adjustable at all four wheels or just the front and whether there are camber and caster adjustments or just toe.
Whether it needs one simple adjustment or numerous adjustments; it’s not possible to know until a vehicle has been driven and measured. A single price point averages out the different levels of effort involved in all varieties of alignments and removes a level of complication from the service.
Is that worth it to pay for a time warranty? In normal light use, perhaps not. Driving habits and the yearly miles the vehicle is driven are factors, as well as the condition of the roads it is driven on.
In areas where winter weather and roads are rough, it is usually recommended to check the alignment once a year, and it may be worth it then. 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.
A vehicle with independent front and rear suspensions has a much larger number of moving parts and connections in comparison and will likely need more attention. A good guide is to have the tires rotated regularly, in any case, and they will be checked for unusual wear at that time. Most shops will recommend an alignment if they see signs of a problem.
What to Expect with the Service
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. This also gives us the three main reasons for bringing a vehicle in for an alignment: tire wear issues, handling or tracking issues, and for a steering wheel off-center.
It is worth noting that vibration in the steering wheel or front end at speed is not one of those reasons. It is a common mistake that a vibration issue can be corrected by an alignment when in fact, it is usually caused by a rotating part out of balance or out of round which is a different kind of problem.
You should let the shop know of any concerns – 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 many of 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.
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 a cost in parts and labor, on top of the cost to align tires. 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 camber issues. On an independent suspension vehicle, 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, 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 find a work-around to the angle issues it causes.
A similar case 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 the 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 available nevertheless 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.
Where is the Best Place to Have a Wheel Alignment Done?
It should always be remembered that it’s not a tire shop or 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 when tires are replaced or installed and performed at that time, these leave shops that don’t focus on tire work at a disadvantage.
It’s hard 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 can 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 having usually very good training and excellent access to tools, service information and technical specs are often less likely to have general expertise in wheel alignments. For the simple reason that they rarely have any focus on tire work and so, have less opportunity to perform wheel alignments.
Often, the best result is gained by scheduling the work there and making sure that the work is on a well-qualified mechanic’s schedule. 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.
Tips for Getting the Best Service
- Pay extra 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 a few vehicles ahead in line and it may take longer or the work might need to be scheduled in. In most cases, that’s a good sign – that the shop is experienced with that kind of work and has dedicated technicians. If the goal is to have the job done once and done right, blocking out time to allow 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.
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 there is some leeway in where the final settings land.
One of the reasons for the initial test drive is to discover how the vehicle handles and then, once the vehicle has been measured up, 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 run the vehicle back in and go back through the test-drive, suspension check, and measuring process. That is if the result of the first try was not quite optimal.
Another common problem is a steering wheel that comes out not quite centered. Not every driver pays much attention to that, but getting the steering wheel straight is a goal of the wheel alignment. Often, there is a little looseness built into the steering mechanism – whether by design or from minor wear, which makes 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.
Most alignment mechanics are used to the challenges there and this is probably one of the most common and familiar issues. It is also usually easily corrected; commonly done at no charge and without fuss if a customer returns with a complaint.