While, in the beginning, cars were very simple, as technological innovation has progressed, they have become more and more complicated. The need to reduce harmful emissions, keyless systems to open and start the car, driver assistance and increasingly advanced infotainment systems have turned cars into technological ‘monsters’. But why this preamble if we want to talk about wheel alignment?
Many drivers mistakenly believe that a car only needs the scheduled service and occasionally replace a part when it breaks!
Today, this is no longer the case! To have a car in optimal condition, you must consider all the car components and pay close attention to critical parts that can greatly impact driving and safety. One of these is the wheel alignment, which some drivers completely ignore.
Wheel alignment vs. tyre balancing
Although often confused, wheel alignment and tyre balancing are very different. Both affect car ride and handling and are important operations for car stability and safety. Tyre balancing corrects the imbalance of weight on the wheel. In contrast, alignment corrects the angles of the tyres so that they touch the road perpendicular to the ground and parallel to each other.
Wheel alignment involves adjusting the car’s steering and suspension system, which connects the car to the wheels. Alignment helps keep the vehicle straight along the road and prevents the car from swerving from side to side. Wheel alignment is always performed according to the manufacturer’s specified values.
Alignment problems can result from hitting a kerb or pothole, driving with damaged or worn suspension parts, or being involved in a car accident. These may seem like mundane aspects of car maintenance, but they significantly ensure a smooth and safe ride.
Warning Signs of Misaligned Wheels
When the wheels are misaligned, there will be signs warning you.
- Your car pulls to the left or right
One of the easiest signs to identify is when your car pulls to one side while driving. If you have to steer constantly to stay straight, you probably have an alignment problem.
- Uneven steering wheel
Observe the steering wheel’s position while driving on a straight and even road. The steering wheel must remain straight while driving. You can check the steering wheel logo as a reference. If it tilts slightly off-centre in any direction, you must realign the wheels.
- Unusual or premature tyre wear
Uneven or premature tyre wear indicates problems with tyre pressure, wheel alignment or suspension system components needing replacement. We assume the tyres have always been correctly inflated, and the wear is not due to incorrect tyre inflation!
Wheel misalignment is not a simple annoyance. You will likely get used to the car pulling slightly to one side, although this will no longer be acceptable when the tyres wear very quickly. You should immediately act if you suspect a vehicle’s wheels are misaligned.
Many modern vehicles have safety systems such as steering angle sensors (SAS) and/or advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). Sensors, cameras, lasers and radar that help your vehicle detect other vehicles, pedestrians and road markings depend on correct wheel alignment to function accurately.
Remember! If you have a car equipped with ADAS systems, if you do the wheel alignment afterwards, you must do the ADAS calibration.
Wheel Alignment angles explained: Camber, Caster, and Toe
Three angles are mainly checked when checking the wheel alignment: Camber, Toe and Caster.
- Camber: Camber refers to the angle of your wheel when viewed from the front of the vehicle. If the top of the wheel leans outward, it’s called a positive camber; if it leans inward, it’s a negative camber. If the camber is out of adjustment, the tyre will only wear on one side of the tread.
If the camber differs from one side to the other, it can cause a pulling problem. Positive camber almost always creates handling problems. 0 or negative camber is almost always desired because it counteracts the tendency of the inner wheel to protrude from the centre of the vehicle during a bend.
- Caster: Caster relates to the steering pivot angle. If the steering axis tilts backwards, it’s a positive caster; if it tilts forward, it’s a negative caster. Most vehicles are set to have positive caster (between 3 – 5°). This provides straight-line stability at high speeds and steering return.
- Toe: The toe concerns the direction the wheels point toward each other when viewed from above. If they point slightly inward, it’s toe-in; if they point outward, it’s toe-out. The toe angle is the most important alignment angle and helps to keep your car’s tyres in line.
If you have a rear-wheel drive car, the tyres might push back against the suspension because of rolling resistance. To fix this, the toe angle is set to make the tyres point slightly inward, which helps balance things out. But if you have a front-wheel drive car, the car’s weight can make the front tyres want to pull forward against the suspension. To fix this, the toe angle is set to make the tyres point slightly outward, which helps counteract the pulling. The toe angle can also affect how your car handles. More toe-in (tyres pointing inward) can make your car more stable when going fast and help prevent it from spinning out. More toe-out (tyres pointing outward) can help your car turn better and not slide out. But, like with anything, there are some downsides to toe angle. If the toe settings are too extreme, it can make your steering feel shaky and make your car feel unstable. It can also cause your tyres to wear out faster, which is definitely not good.
Benefits of wheel alignment:
- Extended tyre life: When wheels are properly aligned, tyres wear evenly, resulting in longer life and cost savings;
- Improved fuel efficiency: Misaligned wheels can cause vehicle drag, reducing fuel efficiency. Correct alignment reduces this drag, saving you money at the pump.
- Smoother driving: lack of vibrations at high speeds;
- Straighter driving with no pulling to one side or the other;
- Reduced brake and steering wear and shorter stopping distance;
- Improved safety: Correct wheel alignment is crucial for vehicle manoeuvrability and stability, reducing the risk of accidents due to pulling one side or another.
If you want a better and safer driving experience, ensure you have the correct wheel alignment settings.