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Why is wheel alignment important?

Here we detail what causes misaligned wheels, the symptoms and problems, and how to fix it.

Wheel alignment is completed using the machine on the left here, and must be done by an experienced mechanic

Wheel alignment is completed using the machine on the left here, and must be done by an experienced mechanic

The meaning of wheel alignment can often be confused, as the term is misleading. Rather than referring to your car’s wheels, wheel alignment (also known as tracking) is related to the suspension. Disruptions to your car’s suspension can cause some components to be knocked off-kilter, causing the wheels to sit at improper angles. Wheel alignment ensures that the wheels are set straight again, avoiding further problems to your vehicle.

What are the causes of misaligned wheels?

There are three main causes of wheel misalignment, these are:

  1. Sudden jarring or heavy impact caused by hitting something, such as a pothole, bumping a curb, or a road accident.
  2. Worn parts caused by wear and tear. Over time, parts such as suspension springs can become worn and slack, leading to a shift in the wheel alignment. In this case, prevention is more affective than cure; so regular service checks are necessary.
  3. Height modification, when suspension has not been changed to suit. Car suspension is designed to work at a certain height, and if you adjust the height of your vehicle without also adjusting the suspension, your car will probably suffer from wheel misalignment.

What are the symptoms of misaligned wheels?

If you experience any of the following problems, you should get your car checked out, as your wheel alignment may need adjusted:

  • Tyres wearing abnormally/unevenly
  • Car drifts to one side when driving
  • Steering wheel does not return easily after a turn
  • Steering wheel is crooked or vibrates
  • There is a squealing noise coming from your tyres

The first symptom here is the most obvious, and can be checked easily by running your hand carefully over your car’s tyres.

For another easy check to see if your wheels need realigned, drive on a straight stretch and briefly let go of the steering wheel to see if the car veers to the left or right. A correctly aligned car will stay straight.

What problems do misaligned wheels cause?

Uneven wear can seriously impair a tyre’s performance, and can even put lives at risk as an unevenly worn tyre is at risk of a blowout.

Misaligned wheels also have poorer fuel economy, as misaligned wheels have greater resistance with the road, leading to higher gas mileage. Steertrak found that by adopting preventative wheel alignment, there was an improvement of up to 20% in average tyre life.

We spoke to TyreSafe, one of the UK's leading tyre safety organisations, who commented: ‘Correct wheel alignment is essential not only for your safety and comfort on the road, but also to extend the life of your tyres. Cars suffering from misalignment will experience rapid or irregular tyre wear, meaning they need to be replaced much sooner.

Cars suffering from misalignment will experience rapid or irregular tyre wear, meaning they need to be replaced much sooner.
Your fuel bills will also be increased adding further expense to your motoring. Furthermore, when the wheels are misaligned, your car may become less stable, which may be a particular problem when having to take emergency or evasive action. As wheels can become misaligned through general wear or tear or every day occurrences like hitting a pothole or the curb, it’s important to have your car’s alignment checked regularly.’

How can wheel alignment be fixed?

In order to perform an alignment, you must take your car to an experienced mechanic, who will use a wheel alignment machine to check the alignment and adjust the components accordingly, so that the car is brought back to its proper configuration.

The three main angles where adjustments will be made are the camber, caster and toe. These sound rather complicated to us, but here is a quick summary of what each relates to:

Camber – This is the ‘tilt’ relative to the road at which the tyre sits. Positive camber is when the top of the wheel leans away from the car, and negative camber is when the top of the wheel leans in towards the car.

Caster – Caster is harder to conceptualise, but involves the angle created by the steering’s pivot point from the front to back of the vehicle. Caster is positive if the line is angled forward, and negative if backward.

Toe – Toe settings affect the handling capabilities of the vehicle related to the direction of the tyres relative to the centre line of the vehicle.

Regular maintenance

Prevention is better than cure when it comes to wheel alignment, as you can save more by keeping on top of it. If your wheel alignment is checked regularly, you will see the following benefits:

  • Tyres will last longer
  • Vehicle handling and comfort will be optimised
  • Fuel consumption and energy use will be reduced

It is recommended that your wheel alignment be checked every 12 months.

How much does it cost?

A wheel alignment with Arnold Clark costs from £30 and can be booked through any of our service centres.

About the Author

Sophie McGraw

Staff Writer at Arnold Clark

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