How to Tell When It's Time for a Tire Alignment

November 6, 2013

Learn about the benefits of tire alignment, the average prices, and the signs that it's time for an alignment.

Tire Alignment

Proper tire alignment is important to avoid excessive wear on tires and vehicle parts. Bad tire alignment can decrease your MPG, make wheels work against each other, and wear out tires by causing bad tread wear patterns. Here are some signs that suggest you need an alignment fix.

  • Uneven wear. If one of your front or back tires shows a much different wear pattern than its opposite, more likely than not, it's time for a tire alignment.
  • Pulling to the right or left. If a vehicle's wheels are badly out of alignment, you'll notice the vehicle will automatically try to turn to one side or another. If you have to wrestle with the wheel, it's time for an alignment, so that the wheels all point in the right directions.
  • Passive pulling. With a lesser alignment problem, the vehicle may not actively pull, but when you let the car go straight ahead, without a hand on the steering wheel, the vehicle may naturally drift off to one direction or another. This is also a sign of an alignment problem.
  • Vibration. Bad alignment can also cause vibration as wheels pull against each other. If your car is shaking while running down the road, check your alignment.
  • A crooked steering wheel. Another sign of a vehicle that is out of alignment is that the steering wheel may be crooked while the car or truck is going straight ahead. Keep an eye on this tell tale signal of an alignment problem.

Learn How to Adjust your Tire Rotation >>

The Benefits of Tire Alignment

Bad tire alignment can lead to a lot of different problems on a vehicle. Here are some of the reasons it's not a good idea to keep on driving without a good tire alignment from a professional shop.

  • It aids tire rotation. Even though you may take care to rotate tires every 7000 miles, if the car is out of alignment, they can still wear wrong and get shredded in a relatively short time.
  • It satisfies warranty requirements. If your tires carry a warranty or "lifetime certificate," check the fine print. It's likely that it includes the requirement of getting periodic alignments to keep tires from wearing incorrectly. Don't let your warranty be voided by a lack of proper maintenance.
  • It improves handling. A car with a proper wheel alignment is easier to drive. When dealing with road obstacles such as potholes (which also throw out the alignment even more), you're one step ahead if you have correct wheel alignment on your vehicle.
  • It reduces wear on steering column. Bad alignment causes wear on a lot of car parts, not just the tires. In extreme situations, a vehicle out of alignment can shake parts and cause even more deterioration. Your best bet is to do periodic alignments so that car systems don't suffer from being jolted around.
  • Improves gas mileage. Like numerous other car problems, bad alignment can lead to lower MPG as the vehicle puts more energy into its trajectory than it should. Don't let improper wheel alignment work against the overall health of your vehicle and limit the MPG it gets on the road.

Read more about Wheels and Tires >>

Tire Alignment Costs

Auto cost helper sites provide a range of pricing for a tire alignment. This breaks down into categories:

  • Front end alignment. This service involved just fixing the alignment of the two front tires. Standard costs for this package are in the range of $30 to $65, based on local market.
  • Four wheel alignment. This involves alignment of all four wheels on the vehicle. This ranges from $50 to $95, based on local market.
  • Additional costs. Larger vehicles may be more expensive when you want to get a full four wheel alignment.

Alignment Terminology

To understand wheel alignment we must understand the terms used and what they mean.

Camber

Camber pertains to the angle of a wheel. The measurement is calculated in degrees. Looking at the front of the vehicle, if the wheel is leaning outwards, it is a positive camber. If the wheel is leaning towards the car, it is a negative camber. When the camber for the wheel is not true or dead centered it leads to uneven tire wear that causes the car to pull to one side or the other. Some front wheel drive vehicles cannot be adjusted for camber, therefore if the camber is off on this type of car it means that some part is worn out or broken within the suspension system and needs to be repaired.

Caster

When the steering wheel on a car is turned, a pivot is turned by the front wheels. This pivot is attached to the suspension system of the car. The angle of this pivot is calculated in degrees which is called caster. If you look at your car from one of the sides and the pivot's top portion is leaning towards the back of your car, it is a positive caster. When the top of the pivot is leaning to the front, it is in negative caster. When the caster of the wheels is off, it causes the car to not track correctly when moving straight. This can cause the steering of the car to be too light or too heavy making it difficult to control. Caster is also usually not adjustable on front wheel drive cars. When the caster is off on these cars there is some part within the suspension that needs to be repaired.

Toe

The "toe" of your vehicle is how far the front of the tire is from the back. When your tires are toe in it means the front part of the tires is closer together than the back portion of the tires. When looking at the front tires, if your tires resemble a triangle in their relationship to each other with the small end towards you, your car is toe in. If the triangle has the small end toward the back of the vehicle then this means it is toe out. Your tires should be even from each other, forming a square. When the tires are toe in or out, it will cause them to wear rapidly. The toe of a car is adjustable on all types of cars.

Related Questions and Answers

Can Bad Car Tire Alignment Cause Loud Tire/Road Noise?

It is very rare for poor car tire alignment to cause loud tire road noise. This would mean a very serious problem in your alignment if it got to this point. Tire alignment basically means that your tires are straight in relation to each other and for them to be crooked enough to make a loud noise against the road is indicative of a severe situation. Poor tire alignment is evidenced by drifting while driving where the car seems to pull to one side or the wheels being visibly off center. If left unattended, poor alignment will cause uneven wearing of your tires, and it remains an extremely rare occurrence to have loud noise from your tires due to poor alignment.

What Is the Average Tire Alignment Price?

The tire alignment price you pay will vary depending on the alignment done and the location. The recommended alignment is a four wheel alignment and you should make sure that this is what you are getting, as you may be charged less for a front wheel alignment or a thrust alignment, which takes care of the rear axle only. A price in the $60 to $85 range is reasonable, depending on various factors. Most mechanics will begin by quoting a higher price than their final offer. Negotiate the price and get the best possible deal. Anyone asking for more than $90 is too expensive, and you should look elsewhere.

Do Tire Alignment Costs Vary Depending on the Type of Car?

Tire alignment costs will vary depending on the type of car that you are aligning. For example, if you were to align a smart car, the alignment costs might be less than if you were trying to align the latest Cadillac CTS. It's a matter of cost and car. A truck, on the other hand, will likely cost even more to align. Especially if it is a 4X4, because you not only have the full alignment of the front end to take care of (idler arm, upper/lower racks, steering assembly, etc.), you would also have to make sure that the driving wheels on the rear four-wheel-drive were also working correctly. This could cost you more than you think.

Does Rear Tire Alignment Cost More or Less than Front Tire Alignment?

A rear tire alignment will tend to be less expensive than a front-end alignment for one reason, complexity. In a rear alignment, you are still setting toe-out and toe-in, but that's about it. You will have to make some minor suspension adjustments, but they can be achieved with a wrench. If you need to insert rear shims (spacers) to bring your car's rear end into alignment, a wrench will do. The front end, with its toe-out/toe-in, idler arm assemblies, steering rack assemblies and the like is more involved, since one thing affects another. So, a front alignment will actually be the more costly alignment.

How Can You Tell the Difference Between Tire Vibration and Engine Vibration?

Rather than tire vibration, engine vibration is easy to determine. First, sit at a red light and watch the tachometer if your vehicle has one. If the engine refuses to settle down and the idle level runs between 800 rpm and 2,600 rpm, you can be pretty sure you have an engine idle problem. If you have a tire vibration, you won't notice it until you are at speed. Once you've hit cruising speed, you will likely feel the steering wheel vibrate. Holding it by one hand will just confirm it. If it's a tire vibration, it could indicate wear or a tire problem. It might also indicate that your crankshaft could be slightly out of alignment, or it could just be a resonance with the roadway.

Are Oversteer and Understeer Signs of Bad Tire Alignment?

Oversteer and understeer are more likely signs of poorly maintained tires than the signs of bad tire alignment. Poorly maintained tires should be treated for safety purpose. On the other hand, an alignment manifests itself in cupping in the front and rear tires. If you find such cupping, give your tires a shake to see if there's play in them. If there is, then the chances are good the toe-in and toe-out have to be reset, as do the idler arms. Once that is completed, your car is ready to roll. However, watch the state of your tires and keep them in good shape.

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