Tyre Alignment: What you need to know

By Julia Freeman

“Tyre Alignment” isn’t a meaningful term. Drivers often confuse wheel alignment and tyre balancing, which are two different things. Wheel alignment is rather like chiropractic or yoga, but for cars. It makes sure the car wheels are pointing and tilted precisely in the right direction on their axles. It improves braking distance and performance, eliminates vibrations, reduces tyre wear, lowers fuel consumption and minimises strain on suspension components. Tyre balancing is to do with how tyres are fitted to their rims and involves fine adjustments to equalise the weight around the circumference.

wheel alignment

Misaligned wheels and unbalanced tyres can produce similar symptoms, such as vibration, unusual tyre wear, impaired handling or a pull on the steering column. However, in our experience, tyre imbalance is rare if you use properly qualified fitters, although tyre weights do occasionally slip after fitting. Wheel alignment checks are an opportunity to spot a tyre balance issue if one exists, or to rule it out as the cause of a problem. Poor wheel alignment is far more common.
 
The most common reason for wheel alignment to drift is an impact with a pothole or kerb. Another cause is mileage, because as suspension components wear their original orientation is almost certain to wander. Re-aligning wheels minimises their future long-term wear. A third cause is lack of use, because when a vehicle is parked for long periods the tyres lose their shape and in turn affect the suspension. We all hit potholes, wear our suspension and leave cars parked so alignment checks make sense for every car.

Symptoms

There are some consequences of wheel misalignment you can feel and others you can’t. Those you can include steering problems, vibrations and squealing tyres. Those you can’t include accelerated tyre wear, poor fuel economy and progressive damage to the suspension and steering. All of these symptoms can have other causes, such as a worn linkage or damaged tyres; causes which may be more serious. However, a free alignment inspection at a Protyre garage is the sensible way to begin a diagnosis.
 
The symptoms usually provide a clue to where the problem lies. For example, a trembling in the steering wheel suggests a problem with a front wheel while a trembling felt through the seats often suggests an imbalance in the rear. Squealing sounds can resemble those caused by brake pads but they happen when you accelerate or turn rather than touching the brakes.
 
Another clue is uneven rates of wear to the tyres on different sides of the vehicle. It makes sense to have this fixed as soon as possible to even out tyre wear. Changing one tyre at a time is never advisable: handling and safety suffer when opposing tyres don’t match.

What does a Wheel Alignment Service do?

The machinery needed to conduct wheel alignment is a complex array of cameras, lasers and computers. Usually only the front wheels need adjusting so most machines are designed for two wheels. Occasionally, for example rear-wheel drive, a car may need 4-wheel equipment, but our engineers will advise you about this.
 
There are three different orientations involved in achieving correct wheel alignment. They are called camber, caster and toe.
 
Camber is the uprightness of the wheel. If it leans in at the top it will have negative camber and will wear more on the inner edge of the tyre. If it leans outwards, it will have positive camber and will wear the tyre on its outer edge. The car will pull towards the side with the greatest camber angle. On a racetrack, slight negative camber maintains more tread contact when cornering hard, but it is not desirable for regular road use.
 
Caster is the angle of the pivot spindle that turns the wheel. In effect, the wheel can be too far forward or not far enough. The correct angle varies a little between car models, but a pivot too far forward is called positive caster and leaning backward is negative. When incorrect it can make the steering feel heavier or in some cases lighter, but neither is desirable: eventually it can damage the suspension.
 
Toe is when the wheels aren’t facing directly forwards. Toe-in is the equivalent of being “pigeon-toed” and toe-out is like being “duck-footed”. Toe-out can improve cornering but degrades stability in a straight line and vice versa.

Tyre Benefits

Most alignment problems cause tyre wear so our free tyre checks are an ideal opportunity to identify wheel alignment problems. Regular checking can extend the life of your suspension and especially your tyres so many car and tyre makers, including Bridgestone and Firestone, recommend wheel-alignment every 6000 miles or twice a year. Cars with ADAS also need alignment but the procedures are different.
 
Every Protyre garage carries a great range of tyres from Bridgestone, Michelin, Pirelli, Falken and Avon and our tyre experts are always on-hand with free independent advice.

Book with Protyre

If you are unsure about your load rating or which tyres to get, click the ‘Find My Protyre’ button below and speak with the team at your local Protyre centre. With their wealth of knowledge and years of experience, you can be certain you will receive high-quality advice from our friendly team. Or you can book a free tyre check at a time and date to suit you, where our tyre technicians will be able to carry out a range of safety checks on your tyres to help keep you safe on the road.

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About the author

Article Author Photo
By Julia Freeman
Julia is Head of Retail Marketing for Protyre and loves engaging with customers and the business as a whole to make sure Protyre is more than just a local garage.
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