Wheel misalignment is more than just an annoyance. You might get used to a car pulling slightly to one side, although probably not so soon to tyres wearing quickly. If the car is under suspicion of wheel misalignment, this should be quickly dealt with.
Symptoms of misaligned wheels
Wheel misalignment can be detected in different ways.
- If the car is pulling to one side even at low speed, this may indicate misalignment. Rumbling and knocking noises when steering definitely suggest damage to the ball joint or the coupling rod. Rattling of the strut bearing can lead to swerving on the road. Noise development and changes in the driving quality occur in case of defects to shock absorbers and suspension.
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- If the car pulls to one side only at high speed, the tyres are usually the cause. A slight difference in air pressure can lead to deterioration of the driving quality.
- A stationary vehicle showing wear on the inner side of the tyres is a strong indication of defective tracking. In this case, tyres no longer rotate completely straight, but are permanently set at a slight angle to the driving direction, causing considerable wear.
What causes wheel misalignment?
The wheel suspension is adjusted according to the caster and camber angle. Its goal is the most parallel alignment possible of all four wheels when driving straight ahead. Only in this state the car actually reliably drives in a straight line.
There are four general causes for wheel misalignment:
– age-related misalignment
– faulty repair
– damage to the chassis
– damage to the bodywork
A car with several tens of thousands of miles on its odometer might show slightly misaligned tracking. This is nothing serious and easy to fix. There is no regular maintenance interval for checking the car’s tracking. Always a good moment is the installation of new tyres. If tyres show wear on one side, the tracking should be checked with the new ones.
- A frequent cause of misalignment are errors made at replacement of components. Especially for the ball joint and tie rod end, precision is of the utmost importance: when replacing a defective ball joint or tie rod and by a new one, it must be screwed in at exactly the same torque figure as the old one. One turn more or less can have a considerable influence on the tracking.
- The most common reason for a tracking misalignment is bumping into the curb. If the front wheel receives an excessive blow from the side, it can change the axle geometry. With a bit of luck this can be corrected by readjustment. However in order to make the vehicle safe for traffic, several components must be replaced.
- In the event of bodywork damage, a misaligned tracking or a non-adjustable axle is usually an indication of a total loss. In most cases, a serious accident including damage to the frame has not been professionally repaired. These cars require considerable investment before they are fit for traffic again.
Cost and duration of a wheel alignment
In recent years, costs for wheel alignment have fallen sharply. Only 15 years ago this service was not available for less than 100 EUR (£90). Nowadays is it so much cheaper. In most garages a general fee of approximately 70 EUR (±£ 62) applies. On occasion of a discount action, wheel alignment might be performed for 30 EUR (±£27). Lower than this should not be taken seriously.
Wheel alignment lasts approximately 1 hour. Nowadays, professional garages use expensive laser technology to align wheels with a precision of up to a hundredth of a millimeter. Garages equipped with these modern laser systems are actually up-to-date. The old light systems are no longer in use. Some service providers for quick repair might still use them.
Professional car dealers are always up-to-date with their equipment and you can leave your car behind without any hesitation. On the other hand, a petrol station offering alignment services should be regarded with care. The operator might attempt to earn a little extra cash by using a second-hand system. Petrol stations, especially the independent ones are not the ideal workshops for precision diagnoses such as these.
Take care: Although garages calculate the indicated amount for alignment, every additional minor repair will be calculated extra. A popular argument is: “The bolts were very tight and steps were necessary to loosen them”. This can double the price for alignment. A tip: There is no harm in checking the tightness of the bolts or loosening them prior to going to the garage. If everything is turning smoothly, the garage has no grounds for calculating extra costs.
The alignment protocol
A wheel alignment protocol indicates the following values:
– Toe difference
– Individual toe
– Total toe
– Wheel misalignment
– Maximum steering angle
– Individual toe
– Total toe
Each of these positions has its ideal value which is subject to a tolerance. For example, if the caster angle is supposed to be + 7’40” and a ± 0’30” tolerance is still is acceptable, an actual value of 7’10” is still within tolerance. Most devices display tolerance deviations in colour: White or green = OK, yellow = within tolerance, red = action is required
A professional garage, however, will always attempt to attain optimal results in case of yellow values. A yellow value generally indicates no major damage, but only a minor wear.
Strong toe deviations indicate a defective ball or tie rod joint. If the camber angle exceeds the tolerance value, the coupling rod, shock absorber or strut bearing can be defective.
In any case, a wheel alignment is ideally conducted with completely new tyres. Old, porous tyres approaching their wear limit often provide faulty results.
Under certain circumstances the garage has the right to refuse the release of the vehicle in case of strong tolerance deviations. A specialist garage may only return a vehicle in a roadworthy condition.
Need for action in the garage
The suspension is re-aligned with adjusting bolts. If a bolt is already at its ultimate stop and cannot be adjusted any further, repair is definitely required. With regard to wheel alignment it is absolutely in the interest of the driver that his vehicle is in a good and safe condition.
Therefore, in case of these indications of wear, do not engage in discussion and trust the expertise of the garage. Even if it costs a few pounds now, at the end of the day your car will be in impeccable condition again. In comparison to other repairs, works on suspension and steering mechanism should no longer be so expensive. A new tie rod joint is available at 25 euro. Including installation it might cost 50 or 60 euro. Safe driving should be worth it.
In the event of a non-adjustable toe, a professional garage will not try to tinker with the results. Non-adjustable axle components are usually the result of serious accidents. The entire geometry of the car is warped and the frame is “crooked“.
This is usually a case of fraud, as obviously a crash car was sold to the customer. In this case, an alignment protocol by the garage showing non-adjustable tracking is a first indication for taking a closer look at the frame. Alignment inspection is a case for a professional garage, specialised in bodywork. The frame will be measured with laser technology at defined points. The garage’s protocol can be used as a valid document for filing a police report.
Foto: Lucky Business, Dmitry Kalinovsky, pelfophoto, ARTYuSTUDIO, Steve Heap, Fusionstudio / shutterstock.com