Wheel alignment maximises your tyres’ lifespan and performance.
In previous tyre help guides, we’ve taken a look at how to choose the best tyres for your car and how tyres affect braking distances. Thing is, all of these amount to nought if tyres are not well looked after. This is where wheel alignment comes into play to make the most of what tyres have to offer. Put it this way – NOT doing regular wheel alignments will lead to uneven tyre wear and shorter lifespan.
To keep things simple, there are three main components that are usually adjusted at a tyre shop when performing a wheel alignment.
Camber refers to the relative angle to which a wheel sits in relation to the road. Zero camber is when the wheel makes a 90° angle with the road, sitting perfectly perpendicular. Positive camber is when the top of the wheel leans outward from the wheel well, and negative camber is the opposite, when the top of the wheel leans inward to the the wheel well.
Too much camber can cause excessive tyre wear, either on the inside (negative camber) or the outside (positive camber). Zero camber is usually the best to maximise tyre lifespan, but at the expense of better handling, which negative camber offers.
Depending on the vehicle, there may or may not be any way to adjust camber, especially with less expensive mainstream vehicles. Of course, the type of suspension design (MacPherson strut vs. wishbone/multi-link) must be taken into consideration when setting camber.
The simplest way to comprehend toe is to look at one’s big toes. Stand with feet parallel and pointing forward. This represents zero toe when it comes to wheel alignment and offers the best tyre wear characteristics to maximise their lifespan.
Now point your big toes slightly outwards and away from each other. This is called toe-out. A little bit of front-wheel toe-out can help a vehicle turn into a corner quicker, but at the expense of tyre lifespan since the toed-out tyres are always operating under a slip condition.
Finally, turn your big toes slightly inward to point more toward each other. This is toe-in and can be beneficial in performance applications across the rear wheels to improve cornering-stability in front-wheel drive vehicles, but again at some expense of tyre wear.
Toe is always adjustable across the front wheels. Less expensive cars may have toe fixed across their rear wheels, while others may offer some degree of adjustment.
Caster is much more difficult to explain, let alone comprehend, but in simple terms, a car with more positive caster has its front wheels pushed further forward as compared to one with more negative caster. Caster may not be adjustable in most mainstream vehicles, but if it is adjustable in performance vehicles, more positive caster helps improve straight-line stability and cornering effectiveness at the expense of a heavier steering wheel.
Street Alignment vs. Performance Alignment
There are different ways in which wheels can be aligned to achieve different purposes. In broad terms, street alignment seeks to maximise the tyres’ lifespan, while performance alignment seeks to sharpen the handling characteristics of a vehicle for such applications as track days and enthusiastic driving on twisty B-roads.
On the face of it, one might be inclined to say, “well, I drive a performance-oriented vehicle, so I need to have a performance alignment.” No, that’s not how it works. The predominant type of daily-driving also needs to be taken into consideration. For example, if one frequents highways and relatively straight roads on the daily commute, a performance alignment can possibly be detrimental to tyre lifespan, since performance alignments are not optimized to minimize tyre wear.
On the other hand, if one’s daily commute involves bombing up and down canyon roads and very little straightaways, a street alignment meant to maximise tyre wear may not be optimal, and the tyres may actually benefit from a mild street-oriented performance alignment.
Your Best Friend
This is where your local wheel alignment shop comes into play. Ask around in the community and go to one which is highly reputed. Not only would they be able to optimise your vehicle’s wheel alignment for the specific driving you do, they would also be able to explain why they’ve dialled in such settings based upon the type of suspension setup your car comes with.
Keep going back to them at once each year to have alignment checked and done, especially so when brand new tyres are installed. Also, if a deeper pothole or kerb-strike was encountered during one’s drive, it is good practice to have alignment checked and redone as soon as possible. This will keep your tyres happy and performing optimally for as long as they can with your specific type of driving.
To close out, his author prefers a street-based wheel alignment consisting of zero toe to maximise tyre lifespan for the daily commute. Some might prefer zero cross-toe instead (meaning each wheel has toe-in or toe-out, but aligned to negate each other) to account for the built-in water-drainage tilt in roads and highways. In his previous car, a Subaru WRX, some mild camber was also dialled into the front and rear wheels to help with cornering. Such a setup did not see much, if any, camber-induced tyre-wear and the car was pleasant to drive.