Understanding wheel alignment

By: Kris LeSueur   |   26 Sep 2022

It’s not necessary for a vehicle owner to know entirely how their car works down to the tiniest detail. However, such knowledge can come in handy from time to time, especially when some work needs to be done.

Some of the most basic car services vehicle owners are familiar with are oil changes and maintenance checks. However, not many drivers know how wheel alignments are done and what they are for. The following is a discussion of what it is and how it works.

What is wheel alignment?

This may come as a surprise but wheel alignment hardly involves wheels. Wheel alignment services mainly work on the car's suspension to ensure proper road-tire contact. The adjustments are made to the suspension and not the wheels. Properly aligned wheels come in contact with the road at the right angles and are responsible for smooth car handling and making turns.

When wheel alignment is done to a car, service technicians inspect and make adjustments on three components–the camber, toe, and caster.

Camber

Camber refers to the angle of the front tires as viewed from the front of the vehicle. Zero camber refers to the alignment of the front tires when it’s perfectly vertical in relation to the road surface. Negative camber is when the top of the front tires is tilted towards the vehicle, and positive camber is away.

Toe

This refers to the wheels as seen from a bird’s eye view. When the wheels are turned toward the car, it’s called a toe-in, and if away from the car, it’s a toe-out. Toe-ins reduce the car’s turning ability but improve straight-line driving.  Toe-outs, on the other hand, enhance cornering ability and reduces understeer.

Caster

When viewed from the side, the caster refers to the tilt of the steering axis. A positive caster is when the axis is tilted slightly to the rear. It makes the tires lean slightly when steered. Cars with positive caster angles are hard to turn, and the steering wheels go back to the center more quickly.

Finally, the two most common wheel alignment services are front-end alignment and 4-wheel alignment. What is the difference?

Front-end alignment

As the name suggests, when a car gets front-end alignment, only the two front wheel gets adjustments. The toe, camber, and caster are usually included in the adjustments in this procedure.

4-wheel alignment

This one covers all four wheels of a car. 4-wheel alignments are needed for cars with 4-wheel drives using independent suspensions for each one. Front wheels get caster and front toe adjustment while rear wheels receive camber and toe adjustment.

What are the signs that wheel alignment is necessary?

Rapid and uneven tire wear is the most common sign that car needs to have its wheels aligned. When the cars pull to one side, that is a telling sign, too. It can easily be detected by observing if the steering wheel needs to be pushed back straight to the center when you let go.  Another one is when the steering wheel is slanted or when it makes loud vibrations and noises.

Steering, cornering, and comfort are all crucial parts of a drive. Having aligned wheels is one of the best ways to achieve these. 

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