There are three main goals of wheel alignment:
- The vehicle upon completion shouldn’t wear tyres.
- The vehicle should drive straight down the road with the steering wheel held straight, and
- It should handle as safely and confidently as the original engineering provided for.
All of these have some caveats; tyres wear from use regardless, and many vehicles are designed for performance rather than for optimal tyre wear. A vehicle’s tracking depends primarily on the caster it was built with, and this is only rarely adjustable.
Many times, tracking issues are caused by tyres rather than alignment. And naturally, most vehicles with normal wear and tear and aged components won’t drive like new.
What’s the Total Cost of a Wheel Alignment Procedure?
The basic car alignment cost is roughly calculated as an hour of labour. With the newer machines that are almost universally used, it shouldn’t take anywhere near the amount of time as before. However, that is still the basis for the charge and is usually justifiable by the high cost of the alignment machine.
The wheel alignment price varies from £35 to £100, roughly. Prices in many places also vary depending on whether a 4-wheel alignment or a 2-wheel alignment is done; usually a £15 to £25 difference.
Vehicles without rear adjustments, such as light trucks and many economy vehicles, will only need the front wheels aligned. Regardless of the fitment, most machines will measure all four wheels, without exception.
As with most things, wheel alignment costs are generally higher in metropolitan areas and dealerships than in rural areas and independent shops.
In most cases, a finished wheel alignment will come with a 30-day warranty. But many times, it is possible to purchase a lifetime alignment or a one-year warranty, bringing the price down to about £80 to £150.
Is it worth paying for a time warranty? In normal light use, probably not. Driving habits and the yearly miles your car drives are factors, as well as the condition of the roads it is driven on.
In regions where winters are harsh and roads are rough, it is usually recommended to check the alignment once a year, and it may be worth it then. In regions of milder weather and good roads, there is not too much to be concerned about.
Different vehicles also have different wear tendencies. A Jeep Wrangler, for instance, has solid front and rear axles, and there are few moving parts to wear or shift and cause alignment issues.
A vehicle with independent front and rear suspensions has a much larger number of moving parts and connections in comparison and will likely need more attention.
PRO TIP – A sound recommendation is to have the tires rotated regularly, in any case, and they will be checked for unusual wear at that time. Most shops will recommend an alignment if they see signs of a problem.
Where is the Best Place to Have a Wheel Alignment Done?
Always remember — it’s not a tyre shop or a dealership or a service centre that does the alignment — it’s a person. Wheel alignments are one service where expertise is not evenly spread or common in the mechanical trades.
Modern alignment machines have programs that guide a technician through the steps of the procedure. However, this is still a poor substitute for experience, expertise, and understanding.
The best advice is to have the wheel alignment done by an experienced alignment technician. As alignment problems are most often noted and corrected when tyres are replaced or installed, this leaves shops that don’t focus on tyre work at a disadvantage.
It’s hard to build expertise without experience. A tyre shop, for example, may have one or more technicians who do nothing but wheel alignments all day. Who then can benefit from the regular flow of past customers returning for tyre rotations and so forth, at which time the tyre wear is examined? This allows a technician to see the results of their work over time.
On the other hand, dealerships, while usually having very good training and excellent access to tools, service information, and technical specs, are often less likely to have general expertise in wheel alignments. This is due to the simple reason that they rarely have to focus on tyre work and, so, have fewer opportunities to perform wheel alignments.
Often, the best result is gained by scheduling the work there and making sure that the work is on a well-qualified mechanic’s schedule. In any case, ultimately it all comes down to the individual doing the alignment, and there’s no right way to find the best person to do the job without asking.
What to Expect with the Alignment Service?
The goal of an alignment shop is to hand you back the keys when it is finished and let you know that the tyre wear should be fine now and that it should drive and handle well.
This also gives us the three main reasons for bringing a vehicle in for an alignment:
- Tyre wear issues
- Handling or tracking issues, and
- For a steering wheel off-center.
It is worth noting that vibration in the steering wheel or front end at speed is not one of those reasons.
PRO TIP – It is a common mistake to think that a vibration issue can be corrected by an alignment when, in fact, it is usually caused by a rotating part out of balance or out of round, which is a different kind of problem.
You should let the shop know of any concerns regarding why the vehicle has been brought in for an alignment. The odds of issues being taken care of are higher if they know clearly what those issues are.
The shop should test drive the vehicle, place it on the alignment rack, and check the suspension for wear or problems. There are many things that can wear out in the suspension, and many of these are best addressed before an alignment.
If issues are found, expect to get an estimate rather than an alignment. If no issues are found, then the alignment should be completed within an hour.
Tips for Getting the Best Service
- Pay extra attention to how the vehicle drives before bringing it in and communicate any concerns to the shop doing the work.
- Allow enough time for the work to be done. An alignment should take about an hour and is often done while a customer waits. Sometimes, there may be a few vehicles ahead in line, and it may take longer, or the work might need to be scheduled for later. Now, that’s a good sign — that the shop is experienced with that kind of work and has dedicated technicians. If the goal is to have the job done once and done right, blocking out time to allow the job to be done without rushing is good practice.
- Don’t be afraid to ask about the technician’s experience and the equipment used. The replies are likely to always be positive and reassuring, and most shops will take a customer’s interest as a good thing. Having promised a good result, the shop incentivizes itself to deliver that result, and a good technician will welcome a customer’s high expectations.
If there are problems with the alignment that can’t be addressed with the adjustments built into the vehicle, sometimes, it is necessary to have more work done.
Adjustable arms, shims, and camber kits are available for many vehicles at a cost in parts and labour, on top of the cost of aligning tyres. This is always a tough call.
Ideally, the adjustments built into the vehicle should be adequate. If there is a problem, then, finding the root cause is often a better idea than installing parts that the manufacturer didn’t feel were necessary.
One example is camber issues. On an independent suspension vehicle, the camber varies with ride height. Springs can settle and weaken with age, and a vehicle’s camber might show up as out of spec on the alignment machine. The choice then becomes whether to replace the weak springs, to install a kit to allow adjustments that mask the problem, or to do nothing.
Camber issues can also be the result of something being bent. It’s always best to replace a bent part rather than find a workaround to the angle issues it causes.
Another similar case would be solid-beam rear axles such as the ones used on many economy cars. Those have, by design, no adjustments. The angles are built into the axle at the time of manufacturing.
An alignment problem on a rear axle of that type should indicate that the axle is bent and needs to be replaced. But it is also usually possible to install adjusting shims where the wheel hubs bolt to the axle.
Opinions vary as to whether that is a good idea. Manufacturers almost universally say no, but the service is available nevertheless in non-dealer shops.
One of the best practises in all these cases is to ask the question, “What are the consequences of doing nothing?” And then, if doubts remain, to take advantage of the normally free alignment-check service at another shop for the sake of getting a second opinion.
What Could Go Wrong
Wheel alignments aren’t an exact science. The manufacturers provide ranges of acceptable measurements for the three principal angles (caster, camber, and toe), and there is some leeway in where the final settings land.
One of the reasons for the initial test drive is to discover how the vehicle handles, and then, once the vehicle has been measured up, any handling issues can be considered in the adjustments. That doesn’t always work perfectly, and sometimes more than one try is needed. Any reputable shop should be willing to run the vehicle back in and go through the test-drive, suspension check, and measuring process. That is if the result of the first try was not quite optimal.
Another common problem is a steering wheel that comes out not quite centred. Not every driver pays much attention to that, but getting the steering wheel straight is a goal of wheel alignment. Often, there is a little looseness built into the steering mechanism—whether by design or from minor wear, which makes this goal difficult.
In other cases, the alignment machine may be blamed. Alignment machines perform measurements to a standard level of accuracy and well within the margin of error provided for in the manufacturer’s specifications. But on a modern vehicle with very precise steering, this might not be exact enough to centre the steering wheel perfectly.
Most alignment mechanics are used to the challenges there, and this is probably one of the most common and familiar issues. It is also usually easily corrected; it is commonly done at no charge and without fuss if a customer returns with a complaint.
Other Factors influencing the cost of wheel alignment
There is a tendency in the industry to move toward a single price point for a vehicle alignment, such as a one-year warranty alignment for a basic price. Every single alignment is different, and whether a vehicle needs one simple adjustment or numerous adjustments, it’s not possible to know until the vehicle has been driven and measured. About half of the work is driving and measuring, which is done about the same for every vehicle, and then it comes down to what needs to be adjusted and what can be adjusted.
While different vehicles have different kinds of adjustments available, for the most part, every alignment takes, on average, about the same amount of time. A single price point averages out the different levels of effort involved in all varieties of alignments and removes a level of uncertainty and complication from the service.
The answer is – nobody knows until the vehicle’s angles are measured. Some have adjustments just on one axle, some have adjustments on both, most modern alignment machines measure all four wheels anyway. Having the alignment checked is the first step.
Yes. A wheel alignment issue can affect the vehicle’s mileage and cause excess tire wear, which can both be expensive problems over time. It can also impact handling and make a vehicle harder to control on the road.
It’s possible. Most vehicles are well-designed to deal with potholes, but too long on rough roads can cause suspension parts to wear, become shifted or damaged, and lead to alignment problems.