Sure, we’ve all heard the old myth that one small bump against the curb will cost you a wheel alignment. Before we address that myth (it’s often true), let’s talk about wheel care in general: Regular alignment checks are often pushed to the bottom of the car care maintenance list. After all, “it’s not the engine”, and so car owners sometimes neglect to service a vehicle that pulls to the right or left.
The good news is, a car that pulls to the side is not necessarily in need of and alignment. And the bad news? Well, a separate problem may be causing this drifting to occur. So, after you have checked for drift (be sure to do so on a straight, level road; in particular, do not perform a check on larger roads, which are often ‘crowned’ to allow for water runoff), if it appears your car is drifting to one side, have a repair shop evaluate your alignment.
As mentioned, your problem might not be lack of alignment at all. Front end part wear or damage, or a problem with the steering linkage, can also cause the car to drift. However, if these elements check out, you will need an alignment.
Point of no Return: Okay, that phrase might be a bit dramatic to describe the following condition, but use it as a general framework. If your tires display uneven wear such that the tread is deeper on one side of the tire, or if you have a ‘saw-tooth’ pattern (on running your hand over the tread, it feels smooth in one direction but jagged as you come back), there is a good chance the wheels are out of alignment. If one of these wear patterns is pronounced enough, it may be too late to save the tire/s. They should be replaced, or moved to the rear, before an alignment is performed. Your mechanic can make a recommendation here. Your best bet would come earlier in your tires’ lives, when regular alignment checks (every 12,000 – 15,000 miles, or at least once per year) can diagnose any problems and prevent uneven wear.
Wear patterns not related to poor alignment: Not all uneven tire wear is due to misalignment. A tire that is deeper on the edges than in the middle is likely simply overinflated, while the opposite (deeper in the middle than on the edges) is probably a result of underinflation.
Wait a minute, what’s this ‘Wheel Balancing’ stuff? Wheel alignments, wheel balancing…it’s all the same, right? Not quite. While wheel alignment refers to the angle of the wheels, with proper positioning being that the wheels are perpendicular to the ground and parallel to each other, wheel balance is another ball of wax, er, rubber altogether. Balance has to do with the weight distribution of the tire/wheel unit. Stated simply, the weight should be distributed evenly. When it is not, you may notice a vibration of the steering wheel (in the case of imbalanced front wheel/s) or vibration of the seat/s (imbalanced rear wheel/s). A check of the wheels by your mechanic can identify any uneven distribution of weight, which is ‘repaired’ by affixing a small metal counter weight opposite the spot of imbalance.
While the specifics of wheel alignment and wheel balance are different, a problem with either can cause problems with the ride and handling of your vehicle, as described above.