Car Tracking Explained
The suspension and steering of modern cars is quite complex. There are numerous components that all need to work together within the correct tolerances to ensure that the car rides smoothly and steers and handles as it should.
A knock or hitting a large pothole can affect the delicate balance of these components and this can lead to problems with the handling of the car and affect the way and rate at which your tyres wear. One of the most common problems that can occur is that the vehicle’s tracking is incorrect. This can lead to a problem with the steering, braking or just the way the car drives. But what exactly is tracking, why does it make such a difference? Most importantly, how can you spot a problem and what can you do to get it corrected.
What is Car Tracking?
In a nutshell, tracking is all about the way the front wheels of the vehicle point. This can be affected by impacts from day to day driving as we have described above. These can knock suspension components out of alignment. You should also have the tracking checked after a collision, even a minor one, as this can cause hidden problems. On older cars, tracking problems can also be caused by general wear and tear, the springs becoming slacker over time, for example, or the shock absorbers becoming worn. If you have carried out any modifications to the car - fitting different wheels or changing the ride height, for example - it’s also important to have the tracking checked afterwards to ensure you haven’t upset anything.
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Free Wheel Alignment Check
Correct tracking should ensure that the front wheels of the vehicle are pointing straight ahead when the car is in motion. However, this doesn’t mean they should necessarily be pointing straight when stationary. This is because of the way different types of cars work. A front-wheel-drive car, when it’s in motion, will tend to pull the driven wheels in towards the centre line of the car; this is known as ‘toe in’. A rear-wheel-drive car, on the other hand, will tend to push the un-driven front wheels out from the centre line; or ‘toe out’.
So, you might be asking, what’s the difference between tracking and wheel alignment? Tracking refers to the front wheels only; for that reason, it’s sometimes known as ‘two-wheel alignment’. Four-wheel alignment checks all of the wheels, so it also checks the direction in which the rear wheels are pointing. Even if your tracking is correct, it’s still possible for the rear wheels to be misaligned and this can cause problems with the car pulling to one side or with uneven wear of the tyres if it isn’t corrected.
Some people confuse tracking with balancing, but this is completely different. Balancing is about ensuring that all the wheels run smoothly without vibration. Tyre fitters do this by applying small weights to compensate for any minor variations in the tyre or wheel that could cause vibration at speed.
Setting the tracking or wheel alignment to the vehicle manufacturer’s specification compensates for the forces that might cause toe in or toe out in motion, so that the wheels should always track straight ahead when the car is being driven in a straight line. This is a skilled task that needs specialist equipment to do it correctly, especially where high-performance cars are involved.
Signs of a problem
So, what are the clues that your car’s tracking may need attention? One of the key signs is excess or uneven tyre wear. If the tracking is correct, your tyres should wear evenly across the whole width of the tread. Tyres have wear indicators built in that become visible when they are close to the legal limit, but you can check the tread depth with a gauge or the edge of a coin. One of the signs that your tracking is off is that the tyres wear more on the inner or outer edges of the tread than in the centre. Toe in will lead to excess wear on the outer shoulders of the tyre, whereas toe out will cause wear on the inner shoulders. The latter can be hard to see and could be dangerous if undetected, so park the car with the front wheels turned to one side so that you can get a clear view of the full surface of the tyre.
Another sign of poor tracking is that the car may tend to pull to one side or the other while it’s being driven, or the steering may feel vague. You might also notice that the steering wheel is not centred even when you are driving in a straight line. The steering wheel may not centre properly after turning a corner either. You may find that the car takes longer to stop or pulls to one side under braking too.
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Vibration through the steering can be a sign of a tracking problem too. This can also be caused by an unbalanced wheel that has lost one of its weights, for example. If you detect any of these issues with your car, it’s therefore important to get it checked by a professional who has the correct equipment to diagnose the problem and make the appropriate fix.
If you are worried about your vehicle and the way it is driving or handling, book your car into your local Protyre garage where our tyre professionals will be happy to carry out a free wheel alignment check. Keeping your tracking correct can save you money in the long run by ensuring that you don’t have to replace worn tyres so often.
If your tyres are worn and need replacement, you’ll find we have many sizes in stock for rapid (sometimes same-day) fitting. And we can supply leading brands including Pirelli, Falken and Sumitomo so we have tyres to suit all requirements and all budgets. With garages around the country, there will be a Protyre somewhere near you and you can book appointments online.
David is the National Retail Operations Manager for Protyre. One of David’s areas of responsibility and ...