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A proper wheel alignment helps your tires last longer, improves your fuel economy and protects your suspension, keeping you and your passengers safe. It makes steering less taxing and ensures your car drives straight rather than pulling to one side.
It’s highly recommended to pay a professional to do the job because they use digital equipment that provides more accurate results in far less time.
What Is a Wheel Alignment?
A wheel alignment is a service where a specially trained automotive technician adjusts the angle of your vehicle’s wheels so they conform to the vehicle manufacturer’s specifications. The three key measurements the mechanic will take and adjust are toe, camber and caster.
Toe refers to the direction your tires point. It’s the most critical part of your alignment but also the easiest to adjust. Correct toe helps you drive straight despite the constant, slight adjustments you make to the steering wheel while driving. Correct toe also helps you turn safely and prevents premature wear on your tires.
- Toe in alignment means your tires point inward, toward each other.
- Toe out means your tires point outward, away from each other.
For most passenger vehicle, the correct angle is usually a slight toe in alignment.
Camber describes whether your tires lean in or out. You can also think of camber as the angle at which your tires sit relative to the flat axis of the road surface. If the angle is outside the manufacturer’s specifications, the inner or outer edges of your tires can wear out sooner.
- Positive camber means the tires tilt outward, away from each other.
- Negative camber means the tires tilt inward, toward each other.
Negative camber in the rear wheels helps the car turn corners more easily by increasing contact with the road. But too much negative camber makes the car hard to steer and wears the inside of your tires excessively. If one wheel is positive and one wheel is negative, the car will pull toward the positive side.
Caster describes the angle of the steering axis or front suspension. Caster affects how your car steers, but not how your tires wear.
- Positive caster means the steering axis is tilted a few degrees toward the back of the vehicle. This is the position you want. It helps your steering wheel return to the correct position after you turn it.
- Negative caster can happen if you hit something with your car. Your car will pull toward the more negative side.
Your left and right caster angles typically need to be equal, or nearly so. It’s important to remember that differences in fractions of an inch can cause component wear, even if you can’t visually see the tires at seemingly odd or incorrect angles.
What Is the Average Price for a Wheel Alignment?
You may be able to get an alignment check for free; however, the cost of the alignment itself will start at around $90. The price can vary by location, but some national chains charge the same rate everywhere. Here’s one example of what it would cost (parts and labor) to get a wheel alignment on a 2018 Ford F-150 pickup truck in different cities throughout the nation, according to Kelley Blue Book (KBB).
In addition to location, there are a number of factors that affect how much you’ll pay to get your vehicle’s wheels aligned.
What Factors Impact Alignment Price?
- Alignment type
- Vehicle make and model
- Vehicle modifications
- Suspension condition
- One-time vs. lifetime alignment
The type of alignment—digital or manual—is one factor that impacts the price. A digital alignment costs more up front but will save you money in the long run with its precision. Auto shops need to charge more for this service because of the cost for equipment and labor.
To perform a digital alignment, a mechanic will drive your car onto a vehicle alignment lift rack, then attach brackets with electronic sensors to each tire. A separate piece of equipment—a console with cameras—captures measurements from the tire sensors.
The console’s software evaluates the captured measurements against its database of manufacturer specifications for that vehicle make and model. A mechanic then makes all the necessary adjustments to perfect the car’s alignment with ongoing help from the machine’s measurements.
The mechanic should give you a printout showing the before and after readings of your car’s alignment as proof that the work was completed correctly, or if further repairs are needed.
A manual alignment, however, is often cheaper and done by measuring the tires by hand with string. The mechanic will use lengths of string and measuring tape to measure the distance from the front of your left tire to the front of your right tire to assess the camber, caster and toe.
This manual process is easier to perform with two people but is cheaper than the digital assessment. Though it sounds less precise, even 200-mph drag racers are sometimes aligned this way, and for cars that have been modified from their stock configuration, a manual alignment will be required.
Vehicle Make and Model
While a digital alignment will obtain readings for all four wheels, some vehicles only require a two-wheel or front-end alignment because they have a solid rear axle. You might pay $130 if your vehicle requires a four-wheel alignment, versus $90 if your vehicle only requires a front-end alignment.
You would not want to ask for a front-end alignment on a vehicle that requires a four-wheel alignment in an attempt to save money because the technician wouldn’t be able to do the job correctly. Instead, you might take your car to a shop that charges the same rate for all vehicles.
High-end or exotic premium cars, particularly those with adaptive suspensions or active steering, may need more specialized procedures. Those vehicles are often best served by having the alignment done by a dealership or a make specialist. The same is true for the small number of makes and models that have offered four-wheel steering systems, such as the 1990s-era Honda Prelude, though most alignment shops will have instructions on alignment procedures for these vehicles handy.
If your car needs an alignment, a mechanic has to go underneath your car with tools to physically adjust various parts of your suspension. The alignment machine only takes the measurements. So the more complex the alignment job, the more labor it takes and the more you should expect to pay.
For example, if your vehicle requires an additional two hours of labor, you might pay another $210 on top of the average alignment price of $90.
Not all shops will perform an alignment on a modified vehicle, so call first to check.
It will also cost more to get a wheel alignment if any part of your suspension or steering, including your tires, is worn out or damaged. Parts will need to be repaired or replaced before your wheels can be aligned correctly. The additional parts and labor will cost extra on top of the alignment service.
One-time vs. Lifetime Alignment
Purchasing a lifetime or multiyear alignment service can be a good value if you think you will own your car long enough to get alignments at that same shop that will make it worth the price you pay. For example, if the regular price of an alignment is $90 and a lifetime alignment costs $200, you’ll be $70 ahead by your third alignment. If you live in an area with lots of potholes or regularly take your vehicle off-road, lifetime alignments will likely pay for themselves.
Instead of offering lifetime alignment, some mechanics offer packages that provide service for a certain number of years. They might charge $90 for a one-time alignment, $125 for a one-year alignment policy, $175 for a three-year policy and $215 for a five-year policy.
How to Know if Your Car Needs a Wheel Alignment
If you want to err on the side of preventive maintenance, the easiest way to know if your vehicle needs an alignment is to check how long it’s been since your last alignment and evaluate the condition of your car.
If you’ve driven 36,000 miles or it’s been three years since your last alignment, it’s likely time. However, if you drive over rough roads and it’s only been a year or two since your last alignment, you should have it checked.
The biggest telltale sign is that your car pulls to one side at speed. With your tires properly inflated, take your car onto a flat, empty road and drive straight at 30 mph. Does it pull to either side if you’re not actively steering? If so, it’s definitely time.
Besides mileage, here are some other signs that it may be time for a wheel alignment:
- You’ve hit a curb, driven into a pole or over a major pothole
- Your car has been in a collision
- Your tires are wearing unevenly
- You have to replace one or more tires after 6,000 to 10,000 miles (tires should last 40,000 miles or longer)
- You’ve just gotten new tires (you’ll need an alignment to protect your warranty)
- The steering column vibrates when you’re driving
- You hear excessive road noise while driving
Your car squeals when you turn a corner
- You’ve had a lift kit installed
- You’ve replaced any suspension or steering components
If your car does need an alignment, you can get the job done at a tire shop, automotive shop or dealership.