The safety features on your vehicle include more than anti-lock brakes, traction control devices and air bags. Your wheels and tires play an important role in helping you drive straight, turn corners and stop whenever necessary. To perform optimally, the wheels need to be properly aligned, a service that typically costs anywhere from $50 to $150.
What is a tire alignment?
Tire alignment or wheel alignment is the process of adjusting your vehicle’s suspension, making sure that your tires are connecting with the road at the proper angles.
Tire alignment ensures that your car works as the manufacturer intended; having improperly aligned tires could lead to worse gas mileage, more wear on your tires and damage to your vehicle’s components.
Typically you’ll need an alignment once or twice a year, but the exact timing will depend on your car and driving habits.
Factors that impact alignment cost
The cost of an alignment depends on several factors:
- The number of wheels: A front-end alignment, which involves only the two wheels on the front of the car, typically costs anywhere from $50 to $75. Four-wheel alignments cost more, usually $100 to $150.
- Type of car: Luxury cars will have more expensive tire alignments, as will models that require specialized equipment or have a design that makes the job more difficult and time-consuming.
- Extra services: Services like tire balancing or car suspension repairs, which the mechanic might need to complete before the alignment, increases the cost of the alignment.
- Local labor costs: The cost of alignment depends on your location, and it can also vary mechanic to mechanic.
What happens during an alignment?
When you take your car into a shop for an alignment, the technician starts by analyzing angles at three checkpoints — caster, camber and toe — by using an alignment machine and performing a visual inspection.
- Caster is the angle between the steering mechanism’s upper and lower ball joints. This angle affects the vehicle’s steering so that it stays at the proper height and has more stability at higher speeds.
- Camber is the angle between the road and the tire. This determines how much of the tire comes in contact with the road and can affect how the tires wear.
- Toe is the angle between the tires. This setting affects the wear of the tires and stability when turning.
Some mechanics also take the vehicle on the road for a test drive to check for signs of alignment problems, like a steering wheel that vibrates or a vehicle that veers to the left or right when the steering wheel is in a resting position.
The mechanic then compares the angles with the manufacturer’s recommendations for optimal performance.
After completing the analysis, the technician places the vehicle on an alignment rack and mounts the targets to the wheel ends. The technician then uses the machine to adjust the caster, camber and toe until they are within the vehicle manufacturer’s recommended ranges.
Most mechanics take the vehicle out for another test drive to check the new adjustments to make sure everything functions properly.
Benefits of an alignment
Regularly adjusting your vehicle’s alignment offers several benefits that save you time, give you a smoother ride and keep you safer on the road.
Properly aligned tires maintain better contact with the road’s surface by extending the life of your tires and reducing skidding on slick roads. This also reduces rolling resistance and better absorbs road shock, resulting in improved gas mileage and a smoother ride on paved surfaces.
During the alignment, your mechanic may discover worn suspension parts, giving you an opportunity to replace them before they turn into a costly or dangerous mechanical problem that takes your car off the road for an extended period of time.
Getting your alignment
You can get an alignment done at any local mechanic or auto repair center. If you don’t have a relationship with a mechanic, call around for quotes or use resources like Kelley Blue Book to compare pricing in your area.
While you should call ahead for an appointment, the wheel alignment itself should take only about an hour. With that said, the process could take longer if the mechanic finds any underlying issues or needs to replace additional components.
The bottom line
If getting an alignment seems expensive, remember that it could ultimately be more expensive to skip it. Forgoing this preventative maintenance means you’ll have to replace the tires more frequently, and driving with unaligned tires could also wear out components like your suspension. Spending the hundred or so dollars each year on tire alignment could end up saving you much more in costly repairs.