Thursday, August 24, 2006

Alignment and 4 Wheel Alignment

"Alignment" Can be a scary word for motorists. The term, especially "Four Wheel Alignment" conjures up visions of inscrutable equipment and highly specialized automotive service. Even drivers who understand the term "tune-up" are often mystified by "alignment." And the new trend toward four wheel alignment can appear to be an expensive service for which the unwary motorist seems to be paying extra. Don't reject out of hand the terms "alignment" or "Four Wheel Alignment" the next time a service technician recommends it to you, alignment is an important service that your car really needs from time to time.

Alignment is recommended for today's cars and light trucks in at least four situations:

  • When you buy new tires. In fact, if your old tires wore unevenly, bad alignment could be the reason they had to be replaces, and the same thing could happen quickly to your brand-new tires!
  • When you have a rack & pinion steering unit or certain other steering parts in your car replaces, alignment is necessary.
  • When certain warning signs (see below) appear on your car, indicating that alignment is needed.
  • Or about every 2 years or 30,000 miles, whether warning signs appear or not.

Just what is an alignment
Basically, alignment is making sure the wheels are operating parallel with one another, and that the tires meet the road at the correct angle. Wheel alignment is much simpler that most people think. It is simply adjusting the relationship between the suspension and steering components, the wheels, and the frame of the vehicle. Everyday road shock and general wear and tear can knock some of these angles out of spec. When that happens, control of the vehicle may be threatened, and the tires may begin to wear unevenly and rapidly. The car needs to be realigned, to have all the proper angles restored.

Warning signs are easy to spot:
  • Unusual tire wear. Look closely at all four of your tires. If one or more of them demonstrate excessive wear on one side, or wear in a cupped, scalloped or diagonal stripe pattern at edges or across the tread, or uneven wear but with feathered edges on the treads, and alignment could be needed.
  • Unusual steering feel. If the steering feels stiffer than it used to, or if the wheel does not return to the center position when released, or if the car feels skittish and like it is riding "on tip-toes", your wheels may be out of alignment.
  • If the steering wheel is cocked to one side when the front wheels are pointing straight ahead, an alignment is almost certainly needed.
  • While driving, if the car wants to pull to one side, tends to wander or weave, or is subject to front end "shimmy", you should have the alignment checked immediately.
  • If your car wants to move "crab-like" on the road, with the rear end cocked off to one side while moving straight ahead, you're a top candidate for serious alignment.

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