What's a Wheel Alignment and When Do I Need One?

January 26, 2009

What's a Wheel Alignment and When Do I Need One?

When we notice our vehicle begins to pull to the right or left while in motion, things are no doubt starting to get out of whack – or for a better term - "out of alignment."  To correct the problem, a wheel alignment requires attention from a certified mechanic who will perform the necessary maintenance and see to it that all the wheels are parallel and the rubber can once again firmly meet the road.

How Do Things Get Out Of Whack?

Driving over potholes is just one of the many ways our vehicles get out of alignment. Other reasons include driving on rough roads or taking the same bad road day after day, as well as general wear and tear, which can cause the wheels to become knocked out of place over time. Eventually things can get so rickety that it becomes obvious, especially when we have to continually fight with the steering wheel to keep control as we attempt to drive the straight and narrow.

When Should I Get an Alignment?

First of all, check your tires to be certain they are inflated correctly. If your tires are under - inflated, you may notice a distinct pull to one side or the other while driving, so be certain tires have the proper amount of air.

If you begin to notice your vehicle pulling to the left or right while driving on a straight road or highway, it's a good indication that an alignment may be needed.  Another clue is to note the wear on the tires.  If tire tread is frayed, striped or show more wear on one side than the other, it's a good sign that an alignment may be needed. Also, if your vehicle seems to move sideways while you're driving forward or if the rear is off to one side as the car is in forward motion, it's definitely time to take your vehicle in for a much needed alignment check-up.
How Much Does an Alignment Cost?

The cost of an alignment depends on the make and model of your vehicle, the extent of the damage and the rates in your area. Note that SUV and 4WD alignments may cost more.  It's a good idea to get estimates from a few different service providers to choose which rates and services are best for you.

Guest Blogger: Tina Mockmore, CarsForGirls

About the Author

Tina Mockmore is an automotive expert at RepairPal, the leading online source of auto repair resources and estimates. With many ASE Master certified mechanics on staff who have decades of experience, RepairPal knows all the fine points of car repair.

1 User Comment

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By , August 26, 2009
An alignment is only needed when it's needed. Sort of a lousy answer but it's true. First of all, the entire suspension and steering system (both front and rear) must be in good condition before your vehicle can be aligned and expected to hold an alignment. - If you have "knocked" your vehicle out of alignment you have to have bent something. If it's slightly bent you may be able to compensate fairly by adjusting (aligning) it. Only a portion of the vehicle may need to be re aligned but all 4 corners will be checked and referenced for accuracy. If your alignment has simply "changed" with wear then in effect you have parts that are worn should be replaced, otherwise your probably just treating the symptom instead of setting it back to factory specifications. If you want it to be right, it has to be right. - An honest alignment shop will check your alignment - if it is within specification then the charge will be for only for a check, not an alignment. Some vehicle has sophisticated traction control systems that have electronic settings that need to be synchronized with the vehicle alignment after a re alignment. If a component is bent beyond the point where it can be adjusted within manufacturers specification it will need to be replaced. All of this is going to effect the price of an alignment so the best estimate any shop can do is offer a price for a system exam, alignment check and basic adjustment (in this exact order). Sometimes a system if so far off a good alignment technician can only begin repairing a vehicle by replacing or trying to adjust obviously bad parts and once that is done only then can not so obvious components be tested. On extreme occasions a vehicle may need several attempts starting with the worse parts progressing to questionable ones to get back into alignment. The remaining item to discuss is that the actual ride height. It is critical to be at or very near factory specifications in order for the actual alignment measurements to be accurate. It may be necessary to replace a vehicles springs prior to even being able to properly align a vehicle. In experienced technicians can over look this simple early step in the process and end up aligning a vehicle to the wrong design configuration. Bizarre ill handling and unusual tire wear can result while a vehicle actually measures to alignment settings.