Earl Stewart is the owner and general manager of Earl Stewart Toyota in North Palm Beach. The dealership is located at 1215 N. Federal Highway in Lake Park. Contact him at www.earlstewarttoyota.com, call (561) 358-1474, fax (561) 658-0746 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to him on Seaview AM 960, FM 95.9 and FM 106.9, which can be streamed at www.SeaviewRadio.com every Saturday morning between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m.
Estimates on the number of cars on the road right now that need an alignment range from as low as 25 percent to as high as 75 percent.
Even if you have the best tires and vehicle that money can buy, all it takes is a little pothole or curb to cost you a new set of tires. This can cost you anywhere from $300 to more than $1,000.
If you live in an area with unpaved roads or lots of roads in need of repair and being repaired (like South Florida) you're especially vulnerable to potholes and other road obstacles that can knock your front and rear wheels out of alignment.
One of my "favorite" ways to misalign my wheels is curbs. I can't seem to avoid them when I'm parking, especially backing into a parallel parking place.
Most people know if their car is pulling to the left or right, they need an alignment. Most also know that if they see wear on the edges of their tires, they may have an alignment problem (it could also be under- inflated tires). But what most people don't know is that your wheels can be badly out of alignment with no symptoms whatsoever. It's like high blood pressure and that's why I used the phrase "silent killer" in the title of this article.
Some people can tell their blood pressure is high from headaches or dizziness, but most feel no difference. Most people learn they have hypertension only when their doctor measures their blood pressure. Unfortunately, many never find out until it's too late.
Last year I had to replace a nearly new set of tires, which had only about 5,000 miles on them (it cost me more than $1,000) because all four of my wheels were out of alignment. There were no symptoms whatsoever. My car didn't pull, my steering wheel was perfectly straight and I saw no abnormal tire wear.
I brought my car in for its routine 5,000 mile service and when my technician put it up on the lift to rotate and balance my wheels and tires, he found the inside of all four of my tires was severely worn. When you have offsetting misalignment on opposing wheels, there is no pull and when the wear is only on the inside of the tire, it's invisible until the car is up on a lift. I had my car aligned only a few months ago, but I knocked it out of alignment again without even realizing it.
Aligning the four wheels of your car, like everything else, is a lot more complicated than it used to be. Cars shocks' and suspensions are more complex today. When most cars had rear-wheel drive, aligning was simple. Now we have mostly front-wheel drive and even some all-wheel drive cars on the road. We no longer do just "front-end" alignments where we have to align all four wheels.
In the "old days" service departments routinely checked the alignment for all cars that drove in. There was a simple machine built into the service drive that registered the measurements when you drove over the track. Some service department still use these dinosaurs but they are not accurate on today's cars.
Nowadays, many alignment machines are so complex that it takes almost as long to measure your alignment as to adjust it. For this reason, many service departments will charge you the same to measure your alignment as they do to actually align it even if the measurements find it is perfectly in adjustment. There are newer, very expensive machines that will quickly measure alignments but most service departments don't have these.
There are three basic measurements that must be exactly right for your tires to be in alignment: castor, camber and toe-in. This website links to a video that gives a very clear, easy-to-understand explanation of these measurements, www.TireKiller.com. The video was produced by the manufacturer, Hunter, who is the largest and best manufacturer of alignment machines in the world.
When you buy a new or used car, you should insist the dealer check the alignment. A new car can be knocked out of alignment in many ways. Transporting the car to the dealer from the manufacturer and driving it on or off a ship, truck or train can do it. A technician can do it during a pre-delivery road test or a car salesman or prospective customer might during a test drive.
Remember that a demonstration drive in a new or used car won't necessarily reveal any symptoms such as a pull or abnormal tire wear. Many manufacturers will allow one alignment under warranty for a short time and mileage period (one year or 20,000 miles), but some will only permit the dealer to check your alignment if you complain about a pull or abnormal tire wear.
Manufacturers consider alignment a maintenance item that is your responsibility. This is why it's important to be sure your new car is aligned when your car is still within the alignment warranty time and mileage.
When the service department measures your alignment, be sure they use the latest equipment. A modern alignment machine is computerized, measures all four wheels, requires that your car be elevated on the lift and the technician must be fully trained.
And they are very expensive, about $60,000 for a state-of-the-art machine. Many independent service departments and some dealers can't afford these. You should ask for a copy of the computer printout showing the specific measurements before and after your alignment. You should have your alignment checked every time you bring your car in for service, approximately every six months or 5,000 miles. If you hit a curb, pothole or other obstacle in the road or notice abnormal wear on the edge of your tires, bring it in for an alignment check immediately.