1.) Your steering wheel is off center: If you’re driving straight down a flat, level road, your steering wheel should be sitting close to perfectly straight. There’s usually a small amount of discrepancy allowed depending on the crown of the road, but overall the wheel should be sitting centered and straight, and your vehicle emblem in the center of the steering wheel should appear level to you. If the wheel is off center by more than a few degrees in either direction, it’s time to have an alignment performed. This will return your steering wheel to center, and may improve the overall drivability as well.
2.) Your vehicle pulls in one direction or the other: Similar to the first point, vehicle pull is most easily noticed while driving straight down a level road. There is a common misconception that the vehicle should drive perfectly straight with your hands off the steering wheel. In a perfect world, this would be true, but in reality this isn’t the case because all roads have some degree of crowning which causes a slight pull to one side. Completely removing your hands from the steering wheel is also very dangerous. Instead, the vehicle should drive straight ahead with very little effort on the steering wheel. If your car pulls to one side or the other, it’s time to have your alignment checked and corrected, which usually corrects the vehicle pull and improves overall drivability.
3.) Abnormal tire wear in certain spots: Tire wear can speak volumes about the condition of a car. A qualified technician can use tire wear patterns to make educated guesses about tire pressures, suspension condition, and alignment problems. Wear on only the inside or outside edges of tires indicates a problem with the camber adjustment. Feathering or scalloping of the tires often indicates a problem with the toe adjustment. Tire wear is most often noticed by a mechanic while performing a tire rotation or an inspection or service. If you have any of these abnormal tire wear patterns, then you should consider having an alignment performed on your vehicle. There is added benefit in that proper alignment greatly increases the life of your tires by ensuring they wear evenly.
4.) The vehicle handling feels loose: If the steering in your car feels a little loose or unstable, one of the possible causes is poor wheel alignment. This can be felt as wandering all over the road when driving, or the car feeling very loose and sloppy around corners. If your vehicle feels a bit unstable while driving, regardless of driving straight or turning, you should have the alignment checked, then corrected if necessary.
5.) Your steering wheel doesn’t return to center: After you complete a turn, the steering wheel should naturally start to return to center on it’s own as you keep driving. Of course you need to keep your hands on the wheel to help it achieve this quicker and keep control of the car, but if your steering wheel doesn’t even attempt to move itself back to center, then it’s a good indication that your alignment is off. If this is the case, then you should have an alignment check done, and a full alignment performed if necessary.
See Also: 5 Essential Items to Keep in Your Car
Incorrect wheel alignment can create a host of drivability and premature wear problems, so it’s best to get the vehicle inspected as soon as it’s noticed. Even if it’s not a safety issue for your vehicle, the money saved by not prematurely wearing your tires will often exceed the cost of the alignment itself. Any time the alignment is checked, all the steering and suspension components should be checked as well, since worn components are a common cause of alignment going out of specification. After having the suspension checked and an alignment performed, you will likely be pleasantly surprised by how nice the car drives.
Toby Schultz is the senior automotive editor at YourMechanic.com. YourMechanic delivers mobile car repair by certified mechanics in over 700 U.S. cities. Their top-rated technicians can perform over 600 services at your home or office and will even answer your questions online.