When you think about how cars work, you probably picture what’s beneath the hood: all those gears, valves, and other precisely cut metal thingies, hammering away in an expertly choreographed dance of modern machinery. But one of the most important parts of making a car function is one of man’s first inventions: the wheel.
But that is not to say it’s easy. And just like all that complicated machinery inside the engine, the tires and suspension need to be precisely calibrated in order to run smoothly. It doesn’t take much for them to get misaligned: driving over a pothole, hitting a speed bump; or doing wheelies up and down the street in front of your old high school. Tires can also slide out of alignment slowly over time, like the spine of a corporate-video scriptwriter. Eventually, cars of a certain age require some chiropractic work. Alignment needs to be calibrated on three angles: camber, caster, and toe. Think of tires like feet. Camber measures whether your car is standing on its inner or outer soles. Caster measures of your car are standing on its toes or on its heels. And toe measures if your car is pigeon-toed… or duck-footed.
A fraction of a degree of misalignment on any of these angles can cause problems: for making your car less fuel-efficient, for causing tires to wear out more quickly, to – worst of all – making your car harder to control and more dangerous to drive. Vehicles of different makes and models require alignment checks at different intervals, but a good rule of thumb is to have your alignment checked every other oil change. A service technician can do quick computer tests to figure out if your car needs an adjustment. Some signs you might need aligning include if your car pulls to one side, your steering wheel doesn’t line up straight when you’re driving straight, you see uneven tire wear (especially on your front tires), or: if you feel a vibration in your steering wheel while driving.