Most people know that if their car is pulling to the left or right, they need an alignment. Most also know that if they see wear on the edges of their tires, they may have an alignment problem (It could also be under inflated tires). But what most people don’t know is that your wheels can be badly out of alignment with no symptoms whatsoever. It’s like high blood pressure and that’s why I used the phrase “silent killer” in the title of this article. Some people can tell their blood pressure is high from headaches or dizziness, but most feel no difference. Most people learn that they have hypertension only when their doctor measures their blood pressure. Unfortunately, many never find out until it’s too late.
Last year I had to replace a nearly new set of tires which had only about 5,000 miles on them (it cost me over $1,000) because all four of my wheels were out of alignment. There were no symptoms whatsoever. My car didn’t pull, my steering wheel was perfectly straight, and I saw no abnormal tire wear. I brought my car in for its routine 5,000-mile service and when my technician put it up on the lift to rotate and balance my wheels and tires, he found that the inside of all four of my tires was severely worn. When you have offsetting misalignment on opposing wheels, there is no pull and when the wear is only on the inside of the tire, it’s invisible until the car is up on a lift. I had my car aligned only a few months ago but I knocked it out of alignment again without even realizing it.
Aligning the four wheels of your car, like everything else, is a lot more complicated than it used to be. Cars' shocks and suspensions are more complex today. When most cars had rear wheel drive, aligning was simple. Now we have mostly front wheel drive and even some all-wheel drive cars on the road. We no longer do just “front end” alignments we must align all four wheels. In the “old days” service departments routinely checked the alignment for all cars that drove in. There was a simple machine built into the service drive that registered the measurements when you drove over the track. Some service department still use these dinosaurs, but they are not accurate on today’s cars. Nowadays, some older alignment machines are so complex that it takes almost as long to measure your alignment as to adjust it. For this reason, many service departments will charge you the same to measure your alignment as they do to align it, even if the measurements find it is perfectly in adjustment. Modern machines will quickly measure alignments, but some service departments don’t have these.
There are three basic measurements that must be exactly right for your tires to be in align, castor, camber, and toe-in. This website links to a video that gives a very clear, easy to understand explanation of these measurements, www.TireKiller.com. The video was produced by the manufacturer, Hunter, who is the largest and best manufacturer of alignment machines in the world.
When you buy a new or used car, you should insist that the dealer check the alignment. A new car can be knocked out of alignment in many ways. Transporting the car to the dealer from the manufacturer and driving it on or off a ship, truck, or train can do it. A technician can do it during a pre-delivery road test or a car salesman or prospective customer might during a test drive. Remember that a demonstration drive in a new or used car won’t necessarily reveal any symptoms like a pull or abnormal tire wear. Many manufacturers will allow one alignment under warranty for a short time and mileage period (like 1 year or 20,000 miles), but some will only permit the dealer do check your alignment if you complain about a pull or abnormal tire wear. Manufacturers consider alignment a maintenance item that is your responsibility. Therefore it’s important to be sure your new car is aligned when your car is still within the alignment warranty time and mileage.
When the service department measures your alignment, be sure that they use the latest equipment. A modern alignment machine is computerized, measures all four wheels, requires that your car be elevated on the lift, and the technician must be fully trained. And they are very expensive, about $60,000 for a state-of-the-art machine. Many independent service departments and some dealers can’t afford these. You should ask for a copy of the computer printout showing the specific measurements before and after your alignment. You should have your alignment checked every time you bring your car in for service, approximately every 6 months or 5,000 miles. If you hit a curb, pothole or other obstacle in the road or notice abnormal wear on the edge of your tires, bring it in for an alignment check immediately.