When people talk about a car's "alignment," they're talking about making sure the wheels all point in exactly the same direction. If a wheel gets knocked out of alignment just a little, you'll still be able to drive but your car won't handle well and you'll wear through tires and other parts more quickly than you should.
Most drivers don't realize they need an alignment until their mechanic tells them. Once you know what to look for, though, the signs of an out-of-alignment vehicle are obvious.
Signs of Poor Alignment
If your vehicle needs an alignment, you'll notice the following:
- A steering wheel that shakes at certain speeds
- A constant need to correct your steering to keep the vehicle moving in a straight line
- Uneven wear on your tires
- Vibration in the steering column at higher speeds
There are several ways your car can be knocked out of proper alignment. Every driver at one time or another has done one of these:
- Run over a curb
- Hit a pothole
- Run over or collided with a parking barrier
- Hit a speed bump while moving too fast
- Hit another vehicle
All of these can knock your wheels out of alignment. If your car has perfect alignment before you hit that pothole, but drifts to the left or right afterward, you know your vehicle's alignment has been altered. It's not an emergency condition, but driving your car with bad alignment can cause premature wear and tear on the suspension system and the tires.
Some professionals say you should get your alignment fixed every 10,000 miles, while others say you should have it done once a year. There are other times you may need an alignment:
- After an accident
- After hitting a curb or pothole
- As part of other scheduled maintenance
Your vehicle may also need an alignment as part of getting your rear brakes serviced. If your mechanic recommends getting an alignment done after inspecting the vehicle during scheduled maintenance, don't wait for the 10,000 miles to roll around. Get the work done and save your car some additional wear and
The Alignment Process
Your mechanic puts sensors on each tire and determines whether your alignment needs to be adjusted. The mechanic will also make sure the suspension system is in good repair. You may need to have these parts repaired as well if they are not in good condition.
Sometimes you may have the option of a two-wheel or four-wheel alignment. A four-wheel alignment is best, and the extra expense is worth it to keep your car, truck or van in top condition. Most mechanics recommend all vehicles get a four-wheel alignment.
Before and After the Repairs
Before doing the job, your mechanic may test-drive the vehicle to see how it performs. During the repairs, your mechanic will adjust the alignment, then test-drive the car to make sure it handles properly, or ask you to take it for a spin. Your vehicle should handle like new, with no vibrations or drift. Protect your investment after your alignment work is done:
- Drive slowly over speed bumps
- Give yourself plenty of turn space to avoid running over curbs
- Slow down and steer around potholes and objects in the road
Wheel alignment is a repair job that must be done by a qualified professional; while it is possible to change your own oil, replace an air filter or a even a fan belt, alignments require special equipment most drivers don't have in their garages. It's always best to get this work done as recommended by your mechanic or in the scheduled maintenance in your vehicle owner's manual.