By November 18, 200512 Comments Read More →

How Do You Know Your Car Needs a Front End Alignment?

Reader Question: My car shakes and vibrates on the freeway, does this mean I need a front end alignment?

Thanks, Bill Thomas

Dear Bill,

How do you know if your car needs a front end alignment? Vibrations, shimmy, and shaking felt in the steering wheel are usually not a sign of needing a front end alignment. A front end alignment, or four wheel alignment as it is commonly referred to these days due to the fact that the rear end of the vehicle can also be adjusted, does just what the name implies align, or line up the direction of the wheels so the vehicle is pointed in a straight line.

Caster, camber, and toe are terms used to describe the direction of the wheel in relation to the body of the vehicle. The front of the tire can be pointed in toward the center of the vehicle thus “toed in.” When the front of the tire is pointed outward, it is referred to as “toed out.” Both of these problems can quickly wear down the tread of a tire and can cause a “pull” in one direction of the front end. The top of the wheel can also lean in toward the center of the vehicle or lean out away from the vehicle, causing a camber problem. This situation can also cause tire wear and a pull to one direction in the front end. Caster measures the relationship of the left and right wheels to each other. If one wheel is farther forward or back from the other wheel, then there is a caster problem. Caster will usually not cause tire wear, but will cause a pull in one direction, and this problem is commonly found on wrecked vehicles.

So what causes shimmy and shakes in the front end? The biggest culprit is an out-of-balance or out-of-round tire. As the tread on the tire wears, it will need to be re-balanced to evenly distribute the weight of the tire and the wheel. To do this, small lead weight is attached to the outside of the wheel and a machine is used to spin the tire and wheel to check balance.

Tires should be balanced and rotated every 12,000 miles (approximately every four oil changes) to ensure even tire wear and extend tread life. Out-of-round means the tire has worn unevenly and cannot be balanced. An out-of-round tire will have to be replaced. I have even seen new tires that were out-of-round due to a manufacturing defect.

Hitting a curb or large pot hole can cause the wheel weights to come off, and sometimes the weights sling off the wheel at high speed if they were not installed properly. Out-of-round or out-of-balance will not cause a pull in the front end, but will definitely cause shakes and shimmies. If you can drive out of a shake or shimmy by varying the speed of the car, it is a good clue that you have an out-of-balance problem.

A simple way to check tire balance: if the shimmy is present at one speed, but better or not present at a different speed, then a balance problem is likely. An out-of-round tire or a bent wheel will usually produce a wobble or shimmy at all speeds, and replacement of the tire or wheel is usually the cure.

Regular tire rotation is the best way to extend the life of a tire. Ask your mechanic which way to rotate the tires depending on how the tread is wearing. Crossing tires in an “X” pattern is usually the standard way to rotate most tires, but moving the front tires to the back in some cases is recommended to place the best tires on the front.

The majority of the stopping power of the vehicle comes from the front brakes, so the best tires should stay on the front for safety. Caution: Some tires are “directional” and must stay on one side of the vehicle, due to the fact that the tire was made for the tread to only travel in one direction.

A vibration or shaking that is felt in the steering wheel only when the brakes are applied is not a front end alignment problem, but a brake problem. Have the brakes inspected and make sure to tell your mechanic about the shaking that you feel in the steering wheel when you apply the brakes. This vibration may not be felt by the mechanic on a quick test drive around the block, so be specific. During this brake inspection, it would also be a great time to rotate the tires since you are already paying the labor to remove the wheels.

I have developed a quick and easy-to-use maintenance schedules that can help keep you up-to-date on the items mentioned above.

12 Comments on "How Do You Know Your Car Needs a Front End Alignment?"

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  1. Peter says:

    Front body , not steering wheel, is shaking between 55 and 60 mph ONLY WHEN I push the gas padel at that speed. I replaced 4 tires with new ones, and straitened all 4 rims, balanced, alignment-ed.
    But, still happenning.
    Which other can I do to fix it?

    • By Austin Davis says:

      IF this is a front wheel drive vehicle I would be suspect of a warped/out of round CV drive shaft, a problem with the control arm bushings or possibly the engine or transmission mounts being worn or broken.

      To check the shafts I would raise the vehicle on a lift and try to simulate the situation and see if either drive shaft wobbles.

      The motor mounts can be checked on the ground, have someone place engine in drive while you watch the engine movement with hood up. Goose the throttle a few times in park (park brake on and foot on brake) and see if the engine moves up and down excessively.

  2. Bryan says:

    I have a 2009 Nissan Maxima and while I drive at about 30 mph and up I hear. Vibrating noise and i can feel it in the gas and brake pedals mostly and some in the steering wheel. Brakes are fine and there’s no pull in the steering wheel. I can figure out what it could be

  3. Brooks says:

    Is it necessary to get an alignment when replacing 4 tires? I get most of my servicing done at a local chain and while they generally do good work, they are always trying to sell. They pushed road hazards for an extra $104 which I know do not make economic sense. Thx. (I did NOT have uneven tire wear with the old tires)

    • Austin says:

      I ALWAYS suggest an alignment to my customers when they purchase 4 tires from me, just as insurance against premature wear…..and to keep me from getting into a warranty squabble later on if there is unusual tire wear. if you have not had an alignment in 25K miles or so I would do it. The road hazard I usually decline.

  4. Dominic says:

    hi,

    i recented replaced my rotors & my wheels aligned and balanced but the shaking is still there but only when I hit the brakes. what could be the problem? The car is a 2003 toyota camry. I got it in december and i was told to change the suspension but i havent. could dat be the problem?

    • Austin says:

      I would still be a little suspect of the front brakes, did you replace the front brake pads as well as the rotors? You should, since they will both wear the same, unevenly. I would also make sure you did not over torque the wheels when you re-installed them and the wheel is not resting flat on the spindle because the first lug nut was put on too tight. You might also want to “true” the new rotors, would be even better if you could find a shop that will true them while they are on the vehicle.

      I am assuming you have stock wheels and did not change the wheels to a fancier aftermarket type wheel. I am also assuming this shaking is felt in the front end, the steering wheel and the brake pedal as a pulsation feeling on your foot. If so, this still leads me to believe in a front brake issue. If you only feel the shaking in the brake pedal, you could have warped rotors in the REAR of the vehicle. If the steering wheel shakes when you apply the brake its most likely still a front brake problem, but COULD be something loose in the front end. Since you did not mention any other front end alignment issues and you had an alignment done……seems to me it would be a brake issue more than a front end issue. Worst case scenario, maybe try replacing the front brake calipers.

  5. Wiley H. says:

    Thanks for the reply. I went and measured the difference on both sides of the relationship to the tire and bottom fender and they were both equal on both sides. I also noticed when centering the wheel inside the car that the left and right tire were pointing outwards a bit (Toe Out). Driving the car it has some vibration at around 55-60 and around 20-30 its somewhat smooth. I figure this to be the tires due that they have not been balanced. I will be putting my factory tires and rims back on anyways so not worried about buying tires for the rims I have now. Anyways the two front tires are wearing down on the inside of the tire so I am hoping all this is due to just an alignment. Took car to body shop about the frame and I was told the body got shifted about half inch over to left but will not hurt anything being due that the K- Frame and the body are seperate. When I replaced the K- Frame the bolts lined up perfect so all really needs now is front to be painted. Also I have been hearing rattling noises coming from the driver side wheel when going over rough or bumpy roads. Could this be the ball joint or the intermediate shaft? Thanks again.

    • admin says:

      I would be suspect of the strut mount bushings/bearings. See I you can jump on the front of the vehicle while parked with the hood open to duplicate the noise

  6. Wiley H. says:

    I have a 2005 Impala base model 3.4 V6 with a FE1 suspension (soft ride) and was racing a Nissan Titan. What happened was I waited to late to brake and he hit me in my right front fender going I say about 40-50 mph making me go back straight and jump a curb. After assessing the damage I found out that my sub frame was cracked on the driver side including control arm, sway bar being bent. I drove car back to house and tie rod end broke. This all happened around January. For past few months I replaced sub frame that came with control arms etc. The steering rack is used and the rear trailing arms, front bumper, left and right fenders are new. I also had to replace the windshield. After doing all this and driving it I noticed the steering wheel is off centered. I think it could be an alignment issue, but wanted another opinion. The car does not vibrate at highway speeds, but does pull to left and right. Also if I accelerate hard the car pulls and jerks. Could this be due to the alignment or could it be because fender support is bent. The fenders, hood and headlights or not aligning right, but close enough where you can barely tell. Another question is I have yet to replace steering wheel because of air bag coming out can I still get an alignment then eventually get wheel without getting another alignment?

    • admin says:

      You probably have more than just an alignment issue but having the alignment checked is a place to start. I bet you have a difference between the tire and the bottom of the fender on one side of the car. Try to fit your foot in between the tire and bottom fender…should be the same on both sides but bet yours is not. You probably need a frame shop to pull your frame forward on the driver side. You can replace the steering wheel later with no issue. Also check your tires, and maybe swap the left and right front tires to see if that helps or changes the pull to the right side if it does you might have a tire problem.

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