Wheel alignment: a comprehensive guide

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Straight and true. That’s how your car or truck should drive. But it can’t if the wheels are out of alignment. Even a small misalignment issue can lead to serious safety and performance issues — and costly repair bills that could have been avoided.

The good news is that there’s an easy solution. Wheel alignment is a quick but comprehensive service that most auto repair shops offer. Here’s what you need to know about this vital part of vehicle maintenance.

What Is a wheel alignment?

Is a wheel alignment different than tire rebalancing and tire rotation?

Why do I need a wheel alignment?

What are the signs that I need a wheel alignment?

What are the types of wheel alignment?

How as a wheel alignment done?

How much does a wheel alignment cost?

How often do I need a wheel alignment?

The bottom line on wheel alignment


What is a wheel alignment?

A wheel alignment, also called a “tire alignment” or simply an “alignment,” optimizes the various angles of your wheels to each other and to the road. Those angles affect the way your vehicle drives and how your tires wear.

When your vehicle was built, the wheels were perfectly positioned to the manufacturer’s ideal specifications, right down to a tenth of a degree. But bumpy roads, potholes and “Oops, I didn’t see that curb there” moments, can wreak havoc on your alignment.

It may surprise you to know that bringing your vehicle back into alignment to avoid handling issues and premature and unsafe tire wear isn’t actually all about your wheels. In fact, it’s your vehicle’s suspension that needs to be adjusted. The suspension is an ecosystem of components that connect the body of a vehicle to the wheels. Working together, the components are designed to support the weight of the vehicle, control how well and smoothly it maneuvers, and ensure that the tires keep proper contact with the road.

By carefully fine-tuning a series of suspension angles, as well as adjusting suspension components that can shift from their ideal positions, become worn down by regular use or get damaged, your vehicle’s wheels can be correctly realigned.

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A wheel alignment, also called a “tire alignment” or simply an “alignment,” optimizes the various angles of your wheels to each other and to the road.


Is a wheel alignment different than tire rebalancing and tire rotation?

Wheel alignment is very different than tire rebalancing or a tire rotation. Tire rebalancing involves making sure the weight of your tires is distributed appropriately. Tire rotation means moving your tires to new positions, such as back to front or left to right, so that they can wear evenly and last longer.

All three of these services are important to your tires. In some cases, your auto technician may recommend rebalancing and rotating your tires along with your wheel alignment if you’re overdue for those services. If your tire tread depth is too worn down to be safe, new tires may also be needed.

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Tire rotation means moving your tires to new positions, such as back to front or left to right, so that they can wear evenly and last longer.


Why do I need a wheel alignment?

Making sure that your wheels go round and round the right way can have 3 big benefits:

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Cost savings
Yes, a wheel alignment is an expense (see “How Much Does a Wheel Alignment Cost” below). But it’s minuscule compared to what not having one done can cost you down the road. By keeping your vehicle properly aligned, your tires will wear down far less quickly. That means you need new tires less often. In addition, being in alignment means your fuel efficiency and gas mileage will increase because your engine doesn’t have to work as hard and your tires aren’t dragging and unnecessarily resisting the road.

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Safety
Misalignment can result in unsafe tires with uneven wear or too much wear. That means they won’t grip the road as well as they should, even in good weather, and can be extremely dangerous in wet, snowy or icy conditions. They’re also more likely to lose air pressure or blow out while you’re driving. In addition, your ability to respond to a hazard or another vehicle, either by stopping suddenly or accelerating quickly, may take longer than the split-second you have.

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Improved handling and performance. 
When your vehicle is aligned, your steering is precise and you don’t have to fight to stay on a straight path. You’ll also have a smoother, more comfortable ride without excess bouncing and shaking, even when you’re traveling rougher roads. 


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What are the signs that I need a wheel alignment?

There are several signs that can indicate you need to have your vehicle aligned:

  • Tires show uneven wear, particularly on one edge

  • Tires are wearing down faster than they should

  • The vehicle “pulls” to the left side or the right side, instead of driving straight down the road

  • The steering wheel feels very tight or very loose

  • The front wheels are perpendicular to the road, but the steering wheel is turned to the left or right

  • Your tires are “spinning out” or squealing when you start driving or go around corners

What causes misalignment? It depends. In theory, if you were to drive on a straight, perfectly smooth road at all times, you’d never need to have your wheels aligned. In reality, every-day driving over constant small bumps, tiny cracks and little pieces of debris can slowly cause your tire angles to change. So can driving like you’re in the Indianapolis 500. In other cases, being in an accident or hitting a large pothole or object can jar your suspension out of alignment and even damage some of the suspension’s components. 

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What are the types of wheel alignment?

There are different types of vehicle suspensions, so there are different types of wheel alignments.
The three main kinds are:

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Two-wheel alignment 
Only the two front wheels are adjusted. In many vehicles, the rear part of the suspension isn’t designed to be adjusted or doesn’t need to be. This is also known as a “front-end alignment.”

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Four-wheel alignment 
All four wheels are adjusted. It’s typically only done on all-wheel drive vehicles. It can also be done on front-wheel drive vehicles that have an adjustable rear suspension, if needed.

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Thrust alignment 
This alignment may be done in conjunction with a two-wheel alignment to make sure the front wheels align with the back wheels.

Your auto repair shop and/or dealership can help you understand which type of alignment is right for your vehicle. 

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How is a wheel alignment done?

Bring your vehicle to a reputable auto repair shop or your dealership’s service drive. There are a lot of different aspects to wheel alignment, so it’s important to use an experienced technician. 

Many auto repair shops and/or dealerships offer a free wheel alignment check. The technician will take your vehicle for a test drive and inspect the suspension system, the steering system and the condition of the tires. Then they’ll measure your current suspension alignment angles mechanically with a series of measuring tools and gauges, or they may use a digital system with lasers and cameras. Both methods can be extremely precise. Make sure the back of your vehicle isn’t unusually loaded down when you bring it in or the assessment won’t be accurate. 

After they take the measurements, they’ll compare the results with your car manufacturer’s recommended specifications to see if any adjustments are needed. No actual adjustments or work on suspension components are done during the check. Instead, they’ll let you know what they found and what they recommend in terms of a wheel alignment and, if necessary, repairs. 

During the actual wheel alignment, the car is raised onto a level platform. The technician will either perform a mechanical or digital alignment to adjust three different suspension angles:

Camber
The forward or backward angle of the steering axis, sometimes called the steering pivot point, if you’re looking at the car from the side. 

Caster
The forward or backward angle of the steering axis, sometimes called the steering pivot point, if you’re looking at the car from the side.

Toe
The inward or outward angle of the tires if you’re looking down on the car from above. 

In addition to these angles, the technician will also look at ride height, which is how far above the road your vehicle’s frame sits. Suspension components are adjusted, repaired or replaced, as needed. 

A typical wheel alignment takes about an hour to complete. The technician should take it for a test drive to make sure it’s running smoothly. If your car has advanced driver assistance systems, such as automatic braking, lane departure warning, blind spot detection or a host of other technologies, it’s important that they be recalibrated or “reset” after the alignment. Otherwise, the cameras and sensors these systems use may “read” the vehicle and its motion incorrectly. 

You should always ask for a printout that shows the initial readings of your suspension angles, the angles after alignment and the manufacturers specifications. That way you can see exactly what’s been adjusted and have a record of your ideal settings. 

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Many auto repair shops and/or dealerships offer a free wheel alignment check.


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How much does a wheel alignment cost? 

A two-wheel alignment typically ranges from around $129 to $199, but costs can vary widely. The cost for a four-wheel alignment is typically double. In either case, it’s less expensive than the cost of new tires, which can cost over $800, or, worse, an accident. 

How much you’ll pay for a wheel realignment depends on many factors, including:

  • What type of wheel alignment is being done

  • The make, model and year of your vehicle

  • The market in which you live

  • Where you take your car for repairs

  • The type of diagnostic equipment used

  • Any warranties you have that cover the cost of the alignment

  • Whether any vehicle components need to be repaired or replaced

Many auto shops and/or dealership offer coupons or discounts for this service, but be sure to work with one that you trust. They may also offer 6-month or 1-year alignment packages, as well as provide warranties on alignment-related parts and labor. In some cases, there may be additional costs to wheel alignment. For example, if your car has been modified in any way from how it was originally manufactured, whether due to personal preference or an accident, the technician might require what’s referred to as an “aftermarket kit.” These kits contain specific components needed to perform an atypical alignment. 

You may also choose to add services, such as having your tires balanced, which can range from around $15 to $80, depending on promotions, coupons and any warranties you hold. Or you may want to have your tires rotated, which can cost around $20. And, as previously mentioned, there’s also the chance that you may need to replace damaged or warn suspension parts or your tires. 

If you get an unexpected maintenance and repair estimate, you may want to consider applying for an affordable and flexible car repair loan. Be sure to work with a reputable lender that offers fair terms and excellent customer support. Paying for needed car repair services with a loan means you can get back in the driver’s seat now and make small, easy-to-digest monthly payments later.

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How often do I need a wheel alignment?

Some auto repair shops recommend having your wheel alignment checked annually. Others suggest having a check done every other oil change, or every 6,000 to 10,000 miles. Auto manufacturer’s also have recommendations for their specific vehicles. 

Check your vehicle handbook. You can talk with your auto shop and/or dealership about what they suggest for your vehicle and why. What you drive, how you drive and the kinds of roads you drive can also play into how often you need an alignment. In addition, any time your car is in for repairs, a multi-point inspection that includes checking your alignment should be performed as a matter of routine.

Remember, if you’ve been in an accident or are experiencing any signs of misalignment, get a wheel alignment check immediately. In addition, it’s also good to get your alignment checked when you get new tires installed to make sure they wear properly and last as long as possible.  

In between wheel alignment checks, make sure to keep your tires properly aired. Also, don’t load down the back of your vehicle beyond its capacity, which can throw off alignment.

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Remember, if you’ve been in an accident or are experiencing any signs of misalignment, get a wheel alignment check immediately.


The bottom line on wheel alignment

You know the old saying “Pay now or pay later.” When it comes to wheel alignment, nothing could be truer. An hour out of your day could save you hundreds – or even thousands – of dollars in the future. It could even save your life. If you don’t know if your alignment’s been checked recently, or at all, take the time to visit your auto repair shop and/or dealership. You’ve got little to lose, and a whole of future savings to gain. 

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