Monday, July 25, 2011

Out-of-Align Wheels: The Silent Killer

Estimates on the number of cars on the road right now that need an alignment range from as low as 25% to as high as 75%! Even if you have the best tires and vehicle that money can buy, all it takes is a little pothole or curb to cost you a new set of tires. This can cost you anywhere from $300 to over $1,000. If you live in an area with unpaved roads or lots of roads in need of repair and being repaired (Like South Florida) you’re especially vulnerable to potholes and other road obstacles that can knock your front and rear wheels out of alignment. One of my “favorite” ways to misalign my wheels is curbs…I can’t seem to avoid them when I’m parking, especially backing into a parallel parking place.

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 have to 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 naccurate on today’s cars. Nowadays, many 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 actually align it even if the measurements find it is perfectly in adjustment. There are newer, very expensive machines that will quickly measure alignments but most 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, 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. This is why 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.


  1. I didn't even notice that my alignment was off, since my car was driving perfectly straight. It wasn't until I took a good look at my new tires (under 10K miles), and noticed that one edge was wearing out more than the other.

    After doing a 4 wheel computer alignment, it turned out that my alignment was just slightly off, but enough that it would have prematurely worn out my tires!

  2. Dear "Soylent Green",

    By the way, I love your user name. I'm old enough to remember the classic Planet of the Apes movie and what soylent green is. I'll never forget the look on Charlston Heston's face when he found out what he and everyone else had been eating.

    Thanks for your comment. You experienced first hand how a car out of alignment can drive perfectly straight. You're lucky that the wear was on the outside edge of the tire where you could see it.

    You should check your alignment at least every 5,000 miles. Otherwise, but the time your realize you have a problem one or more tires are shot and it's too late.

  3. Dear "Soylent Green",

    My oldest son, Stu, just corrected me. As you must know very well, "Soylent Green" was the name of the move starring Charlton Heston, not "Planet of the Apes" although they were both science fiction fantasy movies starring Charlton Heston.

    Stu has a lot of time on his hands and enjoys trivia.

  4. I just bought a brand new Ford Focus in May. It's just under 4 months old and I took it in for an oil change and tire rotation. They were unable to rotate the tires because the car was so far out of alignment. They did a free alignment and replaced all 4 wheels free because they said that it was most likely out of alignment when I bought it. I had never heard of such a thing. Thank goodness I didn't have to cough up the money for new tires. Thank you for pointing out that even brand new cars can be misaligned.

  5. I'm glad you were able to get your wheels aligned under warranty. If you have time, please read my blog "That Brand New Car May Need An Alignment". It's a follow up articlde to the one you've read.

    It's too bad that manufacturers won't pay for an alignment under warranty unless the customer complains of a pull or uneven tire wear. In your case, fortunately, there was a symptom (couldn't rotate and balance your tires). But in many cases you don't know about the misalignment until you have severe tire wear.

  6. At the beginning of your most recent radio show of Oct. 22, I heard that you were going to comment on the alignment issue and the increased scrutiny you were receiving from Toyota but did not hear that issue addressed. Do you plan to cover it on next week's show or will you post something on your web site?

  7. Articles like this one really underline just how important wheels are to a car. They’re more than just what makes the body move on the street. If there’s something wrong with the tires, chances are something bad could happen if they remain unchecked. Routine check-ups are definitely a great way to prevent mishaps, if at least to give you peace of mind that everything is working perfectly with your car.

  8. Good info, if you don't mind sharing, where did you find the estimates of cars that need alignment?


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