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Tips & Advice

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What is an Alignment

Alignment is one of the key maintenance factors in getting the most wear and performance from your tires. In addition, wheel alignment provides safe, predictable vehicle control as well as a smooth and comfortable ride – free of pulling or vibration. Today’s modern suspensions require a precise four-wheel alignment that can only be achieved through a modern alignment system. This applies to both front and rear wheel drive vehicles. While the Discount Tire Company/Americas Tire Company stores do not perform alignment work, the following information should help to explain the importance of proper alignment.

Alignment Basics

Aligning a car or truck involves the adjustment of the vehicle’s suspension – not the tires and wheels. The direction and the angles that the tires point in after the alignment is complete, however, are critically important. There are five factors involved in setting the alignment to specifications: caster, camber, toe, thrust and ride height. The following brief discussion of each aspect will help you understand the process and spot potential problems.

Caster

Caster is the angle of the steering axis (the part of the suspension that supports the wheel and tire assembly). Viewed from the side of the vehicle, an imaginary line drawn between the centers of the upper and lower ball joints forms an angle with true vertical; this is define as caster. The illustration below shows whether this angle is referred to as positive or negative. Caster is important to steering feel and high-speed stability.

Camber

Viewed from the front of the vehicle, camber describes the inward or outward tilt of the tire. The illustration below shows whether this tilt is referred to as positive or negative. The camber adjustment maximizes the tire-to-road contact and takes into account the changes of force when a vehicle is turning. Camber is the one adjustment that can be set according to driving habits. Generally, if you drive more aggressively when cornering, more negative camber can be set. If you drive on highways and do very little hard cornering, more positive camber can be set.

Toe

Viewed from above the vehicle, toe describes whether the fronts of the tires are closer (toe-in) or farther (toe-out) apart than the rears of the tires. The illustration to the right shows this relationship. Toe settings vary between front and rear wheel drive vehicles. In a front wheel drive vehicle, the front wheels try to pull towards each other when the vehicle is in motion, which requires a compensating toe-out setting. A rear wheel drive vehicle works just the opposite, necessitating a toe-in setting. Stated differently, toe is set to let the tires roll in parallel (at zero toe) when the vehicle is in motion.

Ride Height

Rider height is simply the distance between the vehicle’s frame and the road. This is the reference point for all alignment measurements. Vehicle customizing very often will include raising or lowering the vehicle. Don’t forget to have your vehicle aligned afterward. Also, this rule applies if you put a taller or shorter tire on your vehicle.

Misalignment and Tire Wear

By now you may have concluded that poor tire wear and misalignment are closely related. That of course is true. But what can be done to minimize this condition? It turns out that many of these misalignment conditions can be easily “read” by your tire dealer; and s/he can recommend the appropriate solution, which will be “get an alignment.” For your assistance the following troubleshooting guide will help you see what your tire man sees. Armed with this knowledge you can check your tires every so often; a knowledgeable glance in the parking lot can pay big dividends.

Worn Parts

Very often a worn suspension part is the cause of an alignment problem. On older vehicles, worn springs can lower a vehicle’s ride height, altering its geometry and creating misalignment (all alignment settings refer to ride height). Weak springs can also contribute to uneven or “cupped” tire wear. Another common problem is worn ball joints. The symptoms here are erratic handling, slow steering response and irregular tire wear. Finally, worn tie rods can allow the tire to wander left to right, effectively changing toe as the vehicle rolls down the road. Irregular feathering will develop on the tire tread when this is the problem. Again this is not an exhausting listing, but if you stay alert to these common problems, it may help you schedule an early visit to your mechanic and save tire wear.