How often should the wheel alignment be done?

Updated: April 20, 2020
The wheel alignment is the process of checking and adjusting the angles of the wheels relative to each other and to the car body or frame. To perform the wheel alignment, the vehicle is placed on an alignment rack (in the photo). Special sensors are mounted to each wheel.
Wheel Alignment Performing the wheel alignment on the alignment rack.
The computer uses the sensors to measure the actual angles of the wheels (called toe, camber, caster, etc.), so the technician can compare them to the specifications for the vehicle. Based on the measurements, a technician corrects the wheel angles that can be adjusted to the specifications.

Before doing the wheel alignment, the technician should test drive the vehicle, adjust the tire pressure, as well as check the ride height and basic suspension and steering components (e.g. ball joint, tie rod, strut). Can you get an alignment with bad tie rods or control arms? No, if any of the steering or suspension components is bad, it should be replaced before the wheel alignment.
After the alignment is done, you will usually get a printout showing the wheel angles before and after the alignment. See the sample wheel alignment report below. The top portion shows measurements taken before. As you can see, some angles are in the red, which means that they are out of specifications. The bottom portion shows all angles are within specifications (green). Click on the image to see a larger view.
Wheel alignment report before and after the alignemnt The wheel alignment printout shows the wheel angles before and after the alignment. Angles that are marked red are out of specs.
A 4-wheel alignment is always the best option, as the 2-wheel alignment involves adjustment of only two (front or rear) tires.

Why does the wheel alignment need to be done? The wheel alignment needs to be done because over time the wheel angles change. This happens as a result of deforming and wear of various rubber bushings in the vehicle suspension and sagging of the springs. Besides that, the wheel alignment needs to be checked after hitting large potholes and curbs, as well as after accidents. The wheel alignment also needs to be done after the replacement of major suspension or steering components. Similarly, it should be done when lowering or raising the suspension.

What are the symptoms of improper wheel alignment?
– the steering wheel is off center when driving straight
– the vehicle pulls to one side when driving on a straight and level road
– the vehicle doesn't hold the road well, feels unstable, wanders from side to side
– tires are screeching when turning
– tires wear unevenly

How often should the wheel alignment be done? For most cars, there are no specific requirements. Your mechanic would typically recommend doing the wheel alignment every two-three years or if there are signs that the alignment is off. Often, the wheel alignment is recommended when new tires are installed. The alignment should be done more often if your car has wider tires or if it's a sporty car, e.g. Audi, BMW, Mazda 3, Nissan 370Z, etc. From our experience, if you re-check the wheel alignment after a year or two of driving, usually it will be slightly off. If you hit a large bump, the alignment will most likely be off.
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However, if your vehicle holds the road well, doesn't pull aside and tires are wearing evenly, doing the wheel alignment every year is not necessary. Car makers typically don't include the wheel alignment in the vehicle's maintenance schedule, but advice checking it if you find a tire is worn unevenly.

What are the benefits of doing the wheel alignment? Your tires as well as suspension and steering components will last longer and your vehicle will handle better. You might notice that after the wheel alignment, the car holds the road better and feels more stable. Again, this is even more noticeable if you have a sporty car or wider tires.

How much does it cost to do the wheel alignment? The prices vary between $50 and $180 depending on the vehicle. You might be charged more if some of the adjustments are badly rusted or seized. For better results, look for a repair shop that has a newer, more advanced wheel alignment rack. On average, the wheel alignment takes from 40 minutes to an hour.