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The Low-Down on Vehicle Alignment

How often do you have you car aligned? Probably more often than you need. According to Pat Goss, host of the nationally syndicated radio show “Goss’ Garage” and columnist for The Washington Post, alignment is not a part of regular maintenance. If you take the time to learn what an alignment involves, you will be less likely to get ripped-off.

There are two common types of alignment: thrust-angle and four-wheel. Thrust-angle uses the rear wheels of your car to align the front wheels. This is performed only when the alignment equipment says the rear wheels already are aligned. If your rear wheels aren’t already aligned correctly, a four-wheel alignment is performed, first aligning the rear wheels, and then performing the thrust-angle alignment. A thrust-angle alignment can cost between $49 and $79, and a four-wheel alignment from $89 up.

It takes a lot to knock your car out of alignment; your average run-of-the-mill pothole won’t do it.

“You have to actually bend steel to affect alignment,” Goss said. He admits that one of the common misconceptions occurs in the repair shop when customers are given the choice between the “cheaper” thrust-angle alignment and the “premium” four-wheel alignment, when in fact your car might need only the front tires aligned.

Another tip: a repair shop can’t tell what type of alignment you need until they hook it up to their machines, so they can’t charge you for a four-wheel alignment until they have checked it out.

When should you align your wheels? When you steering has an obvious pull, if your car has been in an accident, or if tire wear is uneven.

Just make sure you have it done right. A proper wheel alignment should take about an hour and a half. If you’re only in the waiting room for 10 minutes, it probably wasn’t done right. A proper alignment involves aligning three angles: caster, camber, and toe-in. Some shops do a quick toe-in, which will make your steering feel more exact, but won’t actually align the tires the way they were intended. Have an alignment done by a trusted technician who won’t charge you for an unnecessary four-wheel alignment.

By becoming more familiar with the alignment process you won’t waste money on unnecessary repairs. Wondering what to spend that extra cash on? Try an oil change or a car wash.

Even so, the Tire Industry Safety Council reminds us that having properly aligned wheels can increase the life of your tires. The Council offers a free publication entitled, “Motorists Tire Care and Safety Guide” which contains the latest tire care and safety information for cars and light trucks. To order the guide, send a SASE to: Tire Industry Safety Council, P.O. Box 3147, Medina, OH 44258.