If you’ve ever done a quick internet search for “How do I know if my wheels are aligned,” then it’s likely that you’ll see a few different terms thrown around with some variation of these words: camber, toe-in, or toe-out, caster, etc… But how exactly does this affect your driving experience? And more importantly, can you even check whether your tires are properly aligned or not? In short, yes! Let’s take a look at each of these components in detail so we have an understanding of how they all work together.
To understand the importance of having proper wheel alignment, let us first break down each component individually. We will explain what camber, toe-in/toe-out, and casters mean when describing a vehicle’s alignment. Then, we will explore how changing any one of those three factors can impact your vehicle’s performance both positively and negatively.
Camber refers to the tilt angle of the tire tread relative to the road surface (or centerline). It describes how much pressure is applied by the suspension system to the ground through its contact patch.
When looking from above, it should be perpendicular to the pavement. If the tire has too little camber, meaning the bottom edge of the tire sits closer than the top edge to the road surface, it forces the tire sidewall inward toward the inside of the rim, which increases rolling resistance and decreases fuel efficiency.
Too much camber causes excess wear due to uneven distribution of force across the width of the tire as well as increased chances of hydroplaning during wet conditions. The ideal amount of camber depends on many variables such as load type, speed, weather condition, etc.
For example, less camber may help increase traction while maintaining stability if you’re going downhill. So, like most things in life, there isn’t just one right answer here – it varies depending on the situation.
Now, let’s talk about toe-in or toe-out. This term relates to the position of the front axle (and rear axle) relative to your direction of travel. Properly adjusted steering angles allow the wheels to face straight ahead without hitting obstacles along the way.
Even though the exact measurement may vary slightly depending on your particular setup, cars with too much toe-in are harder to drive fast and maneuver sharply. On the other hand, vehicles with excessive amounts of toe-out are often easier to handle since their weight is better balanced over the two axles.
The last factor we want to discuss is caster. Caster basically measures how far forward or back the front wheels point when viewed from directly overhead. Larger vehicles with bigger wheels typically require greater amounts of caster because the wheels need enough space to turn freely.
Vehicles with smaller wheels tend to use less caster but also rely heavily on adjustments made elsewhere to ensure adequate clearance between the fenders and corners of the frame and bodywork.
So now that we know our terminology, let’s move on to how to measure them ourselves.
Getting a wheel alignment means lining up all of your tires to the proper height, depth, and width on the axles. It’s ensuring that everything is symmetrical or exists in the proper location to promote optimal driving conditions.
Once you finish checking your car’s dimensions, it’s time to begin exploring the three main aspects of alignment. Let’s go over cambers, toe-ins, and casters separately.
As mentioned previously, the purpose of adjusting the camber is to distribute the weight of the vehicle equally between the front and rear tires. Adjusting the camber helps improve handling characteristics, reduce braking distances, and maximize gas mileage.
Since modern roads aren’t perfectly smooth surfaces, imperfections exist beneath the rubber of your tires. By lowering the lower edges of the tires further away from the road surface, you apply extra downward pressure on the tires’ inner sides, resulting in tighter turns.
Conversely, raising the upper edges of the tires lifts the outer sides of the tires, causing them to lift off the road, making tight maneuvers difficult.
Most drivers utilize adjustable shocks or springs to achieve this effect. Some manufacturers install special shock absorbers specifically designed for this function. Other owners opt to replace worn-out factory equipment instead.
Although this solution usually works just fine, it does add cost to the repair. Moreover, replacing original equipment doesn’t always yield positive results either.
Depending on the age and quality of the old shocks, sometimes you can accidentally damage other parts of the vehicle after installing the new ones.
When turning, the majority of torque generated by your engine gets transferred to the outside wheels. The correct toe settings allow these wheels to remain pointed straight ahead, ensuring maximum grip.
Excessive toe-out creates difficulty when cornering quickly or attempting sharp turns. Additionally, large gaps between the fender and corner of the frame cause unsprung masses to vibrate excessively, increasing drag.
Adjustments related to toe-in and toe-out happen automatically via a stabilizer bar device. Manufacturers place this rod diagonally behind the suspension control arms to provide leverage to counterbalance lateral movements caused by bumps and potholes.
If the stabilizer bars become misaligned, it becomes necessary to adjust them manually. Because the adjustment range of these bars is quite small, it requires great care when trying to balance the vehicle correctly.
Furthermore, the process of adjusting toe-in and toe-out can easily lead to inconsistent results among similar vehicles. That being said, adjusting the toe setting is relatively easy. Simply loosen the bolts holding the stabilizers in place, rotate them 90 degrees clockwise or counterclockwise, reattach them securely, and tighten the nuts again.
While the primary role of the front wheels is to steer, they also contribute significantly towards providing support for the vehicle’s mass. Large wheels require wider spaces for rotation.
Without sufficient clearance, the wheels can rub against the surrounding areas creating friction. This reduces acceleration rates and makes high speeds uncomfortable. Wider wheels also occupy valuable cargo space, reducing the total carrying capacity of the vehicle. Lower casters offer improved agility since the front wheels inherently swing farther from the rest of the vehicle. At higher speeds, low roll centers also prevent loss of stability.
Okay, if you’re a do-it-yourself kind of person, we have a special guide for you. Although many people choose not to, you can complete an alignment by yourself.
Test out some things about the following guide, alter some portions, or just try it once and leave it. This is how to complete the alignment process on your own without the help of a professional.
Although this isn’t an actual alignment of your tires, it does provide many of the same benefits.
Here’s a breakdown of what you can expect throughout the entire process.
First things first, you’ll probably notice that the steering wheel isn’t parallel to either side marker. This means that the two tires attached to the outside wheels aren’t perfectly straight ahead.
While this doesn’t necessarily mean anything bad has happened, it does indicate that your wheels should be straight. Next up is checking all four corners for uneven tire wear. This is done with a quick visual inspection.
Afterward, you’ll need to determine whether your suspension system is working well enough. Since the goal is to ensure that every tire sits level, you’ll likely want to test the ride quality. After that, you can head back around to the front corner of your car and measure the distance between both front markers using a tape measure.
Once again, you’ll need to use another tool called a bubble vial to mark the height of the bumper. Then fill up a container with water until it reaches the same level as the measurement you took earlier.
Take note of what color the bubbles appear once filled. If they turn yellowish-green, then you’ll need to start thinking about lowering your car’s front end. It could even affect the way your brakes work. However, if they stay clear like normal, then the problem lies elsewhere. Continue testing all four corners for uneven tire wear and looseness before moving on.
If the measurements show that the front of your car is higher than the rear, then you’ll need to raise the nose slightly. Otherwise, you may not have any further adjustment options. Now, you can repeat the process mentioned above for measuring the distance between the front and rear markers.
Next, take a few moments to review the previous steps and compare the results. Once again, if your tires seem low compared to the rest of your car, you’ll need to drop the front end of your vehicle ever so slightly.
Conversely, if the opposite seems true, you’ll need to lift the front slightly. Either way, you’ll still need to continue performing checks under all four corners for uneven tire wear.
While performing this inspection can provide you with assistance for alignment, it’s impossible to achieve optimal results without the assistance of an alignment machine. These can get your specifications to near 100%.
At some point, you’ll still need to prepare to have your vehicle taken into a repair shop and have them complete this task on their machine. You might pay $100 per hour for these services, which isn’t an easy pill to swallow.
However, getting your car properly aligned provides some of the following benefits regarding the future of your car:
When you get your wheels aligned, your vehicle receives the following perks:
This brings us to our final point of tire condition. Pay attention to how your tires wear to identify the presence of misalignment:
When the tread ribs are worn lower or smoother on one side and elevated and sharper on the other, this is known as feathering. This is one of the number one signs of misalignment.
If the outside or inside is more worn than the center of your tires, this is known as camber wear. There is positive and negative camber wear. Positive is when the treads wear outward, and negative is when the treads wear inward.
Noise and vibration are signs of head and toe wear. Head and toe wear is when one side of the tire blocks wears quicker than the other.
An alignment may seem like a simple enough procedure and normally is, with the right equipment. However, this can be one of the single most important processes you can have performed on your vehicle. The consequences and benefits of not aligning or aligning your tires can be matters of wellbeing and mechanical performance.
Not only will you extend YOUR life by avoiding blowouts and other dangers, but the life of your tires increases significantly as well.