What is Wheel Alignment & How Much Does it Cost?
Of all the maintenance items your vehicle needs, an alignment check might be the one you’re least likely to get done on a regular basis. But a recent driving demonstration held by Kal Tire proves it’s an important service that could potentially save you a lot of money.
What is wheel alignment?
If your alignment is out, it can cause premature or uneven tire wear, and can increase fuel consumption. It can even be a safety issue, since your vehicle may pull to one side, be harder to control when braking, be more difficult to steer, and possibly affect some of its driver safety assist features, such as lane departure or lane centring.
Most vehicles gradually go out of alignment, so if you don’t check it regularly, you could be heading toward more expensive issues without realizing it.
Wheel alignment involves three measurements. Toe is how straight ahead the tires point. Caster is how far the wheels are positioned front to back in relation to the vehicle’s suspension components, while camber is how far the top of the tire leans in or out from centre.
According to Kal Tire, toe is the one most likely to be out, but it can also be the hardest for a driver to notice. Many vehicles don’t have adjustable camber, so if it’s out of range, it may be because one of the suspension components is worn or damaged.
The event involved two similar Hyundai Kona N vehicles, wearing the same tires and all inflated to the recommended pressure. One was aligned correctly while the other was considerably out, and drivers weren’t told which was which.
The aligned car tracked straight, was easy to handle around curves, and the steering didn’t feel heavy. In contrast, the misaligned car pulled to one side, and it took more effort to turn the steering wheel around corners.
Vehicles progressively go out of alignment – but what causes it?
Photo: Kal Tire
It's easy to notice it when you’re driving the two back-to-back, but as previously mentioned, most cars progressively go out of alignment, and most drivers don’t notice because it’s gradual and they get used to how it feels, at least until it’s really bad.
It’s a combination of the hazards encountered during everyday driving, such as rough roads, bumps and potholes, brushing up against a curb or snowbank when parking, road debris and other issues, with all of them building up over many kilometres of driving. Of course, it can also happen immediately with a more serious event, such as a hard hit against a curb or a deep pothole.
When is tire & wheel alignment neccessary?
If your alignment’s out, some of the things you may notice are the front end pulling to one side or “wandering” when you’re going in a straight line; shimmying or jerking in the front end when you hit a bump; the steering wheel isn’t straight when the wheels are pointed ahead; or the tires are wearing unevenly.
These are signs that the vehicle’s issues have already made a lot of progress toward severe misalignment, and having it checked proactively could have prevented it from getting that far.
It's tiring to drive a vehicle that’s constantly fighting you when you’re trying to keep it straight, especially on the highway, but it can also be dangerous. If the alignment is out too far, there’s a chance you could lose control if you have to swerve or brake hard in a panic stop.
How much does wheel alignment cost?
It's recommended to align all four wheels, and the total cost for professional wheel alignment will vary across Canada, depending on the shop. But here's what you can expect to pay, on average:
- $50 to $100: align front or rear wheels
- $100 to $200: align all four wheels
Beyond the driving issues, there’s the one with your wallet, because misalignment can be costly. According to Kal Tire, for every kilometre you drive with your vehicle’s alignment out by one degree, you’re doing the equivalent of dragging a tire sideways for 1.75 metres.
That results in uneven or premature wear, which could mean replacing your tires well before you normally would. At the event, the misaligned vehicle’s tires were already showing signs of wear that weren’t on the aligned vehicle, and both only had about 200 kilometres of use on them.
Misalignment leads to poor fuel efficiency
Kal Tire also estimates that a misaligned vehicle can decrease your fuel efficiency by as much as 7 per cent, due to increased tire rolling resistance. Using an example of driving 20,000 kilometres a year in a vehicle that gets 8.9 L/100 km, with gas at $2.06 per litre, a misaligned vehicle adds an unnecessary $250 to your fuel bill.
Free wheel alignment – ask your nearest shop
Tire and repair shops want your business, and many of them will check your alignment for free. Take them up on it. It’s recommended that you check once a year, which can be done when you switch your tires from winter to spring, even if nothing seems wrong.
Of course, get it done right away if you notice any signs of misalignment, and any time you buy new tires, to help ensure a longer lifespan. Catching misalignment early can help prevent even more expensive repairs down the road.