10 Common Misconceptions About Car Alignment

mechanic working on car alignment and balancing 

Imagine you’re sailing west on I-8 and something about your car feels…off. No weird sounds, smells, or other indicators of an imminent breakdown, but it just doesn’t handle the way it should. You might assume the problem is the alignment, but that may or may not be true. Just like with the health of your body, there are some things about the health of your car that are easy to diagnose on your own—and other things you’ll need a professional to confirm. Alignment is usually one of the latter. 

There is plenty of faulty information floating around out there about…well, everything, including alignment. So, the best way to know if your car needs an alignment is to take it to a reputable car repair facility. Here are 10 of the most common misconceptions about alignment we hear regularly:

1: Alignment is part of a regular maintenance program

Wheel alignment falls under the repair category, not scheduled maintenance. If your car’s steering has an obvious pull, the tire wear is uneven, or if your car has been in an accident, a wheel alignment might be needed, so beware of car shops that push alignment as part of a preventative maintenance package.

2: Hitting a pothole will knock the alignment out of balance

Only major damage can affect your car’s alignment—an accident or other incident strong enough to bend steel—which is why an average pothole, or even hitting the curb, isn’t always serious enough to require an alignment.

3: Excessive tire wear means you need an alignment

If most of the tread on your tires is gone, you probably just need new tires. But if the wear is noticeably uneven, the problem could be the alignment, so you’ll need to have it checked out with a mechanic. 

4: A shaking steering wheel means the alignment is out

If your steering wheel shakes when you drive, it’s definitely a problem needing attention—but it’s not the alignment. The more likely culprit is a bent wheel, an out-of-balance tire, or worn parts in the steering column or elsewhere.

5: Alignment is to blame if the car pulls to one side

While an out-of-whack alignment is often responsible for vehicles pulling to one side while driving, it’s not the only possibility. Low air pressure in a tire, a damaged tire, or tires of different sizes or tread designs can cause the same problem. Even a strong crosswind or sloped pavement can make your car pull, so it’s best to get it diagnosed by a repair professional.

6: All cars are supposed to pull to the right

We’re not sure who started this myth, but they might be referring to most roads being sloped slightly to whatever side has the drainage (most commonly the right side). Skilled car repair technicians account for this effect when performing wheel alignments, so if your car is still pulling, you probably have another issue that needs to be addressed.

7: A wheel alignment will cure vibrations

If your car vibrates—especially when you’re driving at high speeds—alignment is most likely not the issue. More likely: damaged tires; bent wheels; transmission problems; or damaged or worn drive axle, brake components, or suspension components. Unevenly worn tires can also cause vibrations, in which case an alignment might be required. However, without new or rotated tires, the vibrations will persist.

8: Some cars just don’t “hold” alignments

Some older cars with mileage in the six digits can have worn steering components that make it difficult to stay within alignment specs, but in general, if a car is falling out of alignment soon after having the repair done, the blame can be placed on the mechanic who’s missing one of the crucial adjustment angles. 

9: Always go for the “premium” instead of “cheap” alignment

There is actually no such thing as a “cheap” or “premium” alignment, which usually refers to the two types of alignment available: thrust-angle and four-wheel. If a repair shop’s alignment equipment says the rear wheels are already aligned, a thrust-angle alignment uses the rear wheels to align the fronts. If the rears aren’t aligned, a four-wheel service is needed. But while four-wheel alignments are more expensive than the thrust-angle version, there’s nothing “premium” about it. So beware the mechanic who tries to sell you on a four-wheel alignment as soon as you bring your car in. They won’t be able to tell which alignment you’ll need until the car is hooked up to the equipment. 

10: A brand-new alignment machine will provide the most accurate results

We might be used to thinking that new technology is best, but the accuracy of your car’s wheel alignment depends more on the technician running the equipment than the equipment itself. Think of it this way: an expensive new stove won’t transform an unskilled cook into a professional chef, so don’t judge a repair shop by the age of its equipment. A better way to tell if you’re getting quality service: proper alignments take about 60-90 minutes to complete, so if your car comes off the rack after 20 minutes, chances are it wasn’t done properly.

Quality alignments—guaranteed 

At General Auto Repair in San Diego, we’re so confident in our experienced technicians that we offer a 1-year or 12,000-mile nationwide warranty on our services, which includes alignments, brakes, smog inspections, oil changes, complete engine repair, and more. So if you think your car might need a wheel alignment, give us a call or stop by and see us in downtown San Diego today.