Kevin Thorpe | Friday 14th February 2020 5:05pm
Until something goes wrong, most of us donít give much thought to the wheels on our cars. This is despite the fact that the condition of wheels and tyres are essential for smooth, safe contact with the road.
Wheel alignment is one of the most commonly overlooked areas of car maintenance. But what does wheel alignment actually mean and why is it important? Hereís your essential guide to getting your wheels ship-shape, and keeping them that way.
What is wheel alignment?
Wheel alignment refers to the angles your carís wheels are set at. Itís also known as tracking, and you may see it referred to as Ďfour-wheel alignmentí because technicians assess and adjust all four wheels together rather than just the front two.
Your vehicleís suspension is usually the main culprit if the wheels are misaligned. This is because sudden jolts, jarring, or a heavy impact can disrupt your suspension and throw other components out of alignment. This then affects the way your wheels are positioned.
The manufacturer of each vehicle will set specifications for exactly how the wheels should be aligned. This is to ensure optimum performance, safety and tyre lifespan, among other important factors.
What causes misalignment?
The following driving scenarios can all cause disruption to your suspension or other issues leading to wheel misalignment:
- Hitting kerbs, potholes, or speed bumps, especially at speed.
- Road traffic accidents and collisions.
- Height modifications made to your vehicle, if the suspension has not also been adjusted to match.
- Worn parts such as suspension springs.
Spotting the signs of misaligned wheels
If youíve been in an accident or experienced any of the situations above, it could be worth booking into a repair centre to get your wheels checked out. You may notice problems with your car following a bump or after driving over a particularly nasty pothole. Look out for these key warning signs of wheel misalignment:
- Your car tends to drift off to one side while driving. You can do a careful test on this if you arenít sure, by heading to an empty, flat stretch of road and momentarily releasing the steering wheel. In this situation, the drift or pull to one side should be unmistakable.
- Your steering wheel doesnít return to its original position easily after youíve completed a turn.
- Your carís tyres seem to be wearing unevenly.
- Thereís an unusual vibration coming from your steering wheel, or it seems crooked.
- Your tyres start to make a squealing noise.
You may still notice some of these warning signs even if you havenít been in an accident or hit a kerb, especially if wheel alignment hasnít been assessed for a long time.
What can happen if your wheels are misaligned?
Wheel alignment is far more important than you may think. It could even affect your safety while driving, as well as the safety of others on the road.
Incorrect alignment of your wheels can have a huge impact on handling, which means you have less control when driving. Your car could become unstable, making it extremely dangerous in urgent driving situations - such as swerving to avoid an obstacle or applying the brakes sharply to make an emergency stop.
Your tyres will also be seriously affected by wheel misalignment. They are likely to wear unevenly and have a much shorter working life. Uneven wear makes the risk of a tyre blowout a very real possibility, as well as affecting handling and the vehicleís contact with the road.
Lastly, misaligned wheels can hit your wallet in the form of poor fuel economy. Youíre likely to spend much more on fuel if you have misaligned wheels, because there will be greater resistance with the road.
How often should your wheels be checked?
Ideally, wheel alignment should be checked once a year. An ideal opportunity is when your car gets its annual service. If not included in a basic or interim service, it could be worth upgrading to a full or major service to make sure that wheel tracking is properly checked.
However, if you experience a jolt or collision on the road and have concerns over the way your car is handling, itís definitely recommended to book in for a checkup. Some repair centres even offer free wheel alignment checks, where you wonít pay anything unless an adjustment is needed. This can provide great peace of mind, even if it turns out that no work is needed.
Remember that when it comes to wheel alignment, prevention is the key. You donít want to leave it until itís too late, as misaligned wheels could cause an accident, tyre blowout, or other dangerous driving issue. So, make sure you put wheel alignment checks at the top of your car maintenance to-do list.
What happens during wheel alignment checks?
Wheel alignment should only be checked by an experienced technician. Most repair centres have a specialist wheel alignment machine, which is able to analyse and measure the four wheels in relation to each other. This equipment can be highly sophisticated, even using high-definition imaging sensors to ensure absolute accuracy.
Your technician will check the manufacturer's specifications and make small adjustments to components until your wheels are in perfect alignment. They do this by looking at the following factors:
- Toe-in and toe-out. These terms are used to describe the angles of the front of the tyres, in relation to the back of the tyres. Imagine it like your feet, where your toes are pointing inwards while your heel points outwards, and vice versa.
- Negative and positive camber. This refers to the Ďtiltí of the tyre, either inwards (towards the vehicle) or outwards. This angle can be affected by the jolt of driving over a pothole, as this disrupts your suspension.
- Negative or positive caster. This more complicated concept relates to the angle created by the pivot point of the steering. Think of it as a line stretching from the front to the back of your car. Caster is negative if this line is angled backwards, and positive if angled forwards.
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