Wheel Alignment 101: Let’s talk Camber, Caster & Toe!
So how does it all actually work? Well before we get into it, let’s first talk about when your wheel alignment should be checked! Basically whenever new tires are installed, suspension components installed, when the vehicle has encountered a major road hazard or curb and any time unusual tire wear patterns appear. Remember, your wheels are the point that secures you and your family onto the road… or your race car on the track… or your 4x4 getting off the beaten trail so maintaining their alignment is the best thing for your safety, your purpose and your pocket!
Remember, a ‘wheel alignment’ in more serious terms; is the measurement of complex suspension angles and the adjustment of a variety of suspension components. In simpler terms it is a suspension-tuning tool which greatly influences the vehicle's handling and tire wear.
So let’s get started; hope you have your learning hat on – if not this a perfect time to find it:
Camber is the angle of the wheel, measured in degrees; if the top of the wheel is tilted out then the camber is positive and if it's tilted in then the camber is negative. If the camber is out of adjustment, it will cause premature tire wear on one side of the tire's thread. When the camber is out of adjustment it can cause a pulling problem (the car feels as if it’s pulling to one side) to the side with the more positive camber.
This can usually happen when the vehicle has been involved in an accident, large pot holes, and the common disagreement with gutters whilst parking; these can cause structural damage or damage to the suspension assembly. Camber will also go out of alignment when suspension begins to sag with age, or when ball joints and bushings begin to fail.
Remember, whenever camber changes it directly affects toe.
Caster is the angle of the steering pivot, measured in degrees. When talking Caster you always view it from the side, it’s simply put that caster is the tilt of the steering axis. When the wheel is in front of the load the caster is positive. Three to five degrees of positive caster is the typical range of settings, with lower angles are being used on heavier vehicles to reduce steering effort.
If the caster is out of adjustment, it can cause problems in straight-line tracking. Tracking is the car pulling side to side, or following ruts and impressions of the road. If the caster is different from side to side, the vehicle will pull to the side with the less positive caster. If the caster is equal but too negative, the steering will be light and the vehicle will wander and be difficult to keep in a straight line. If the caster is equal but too positive, the steering will be heavy and the steering wheel may kick when you hit a bump!
Even though this sounds more involved than Camber, Caster has little or no effect on tire wear.
You put your left toe in; you take your left toe out… Ok – we all know that game, but Toe with your vehicle isn’t a game. Toe is the most critical alignment setting relative to tire wear, if your toe is out by even a third of an inch, each tire on that axle will scrub almost three and half feet sideways every mile and in turn dramatically reducing the life of the tyre.
Like camber, toe will change depending on all standard forces like how fast you’re going, how much downforce is being provided from aerodynamics and worn parts. These will all affect the Toe due to the geometry of the steering linkage in relation to the geometry of the suspension.
The toe angle identifies the direction of the tires compared to the centerline of the vehicle. Rear-wheel drive vehicle "pushes" the front tires, as they roll along the road; resistance causes some drag resulting in rearward movement of the suspension arms against their bushings. Most rear-wheel drive vehicles use positive toe to compensate for suspension movement.
Front-wheel drive vehicle "pulls" the vehicle, resulting in forward movement of the suspension arms against their bushings. Most front-wheel drive vehicles use negative toe to compensate for suspension movement.
Toe can also be used to alter a vehicle's handling traits. Increased toe-in will reduce oversteer, steady the car and enhance high-speed stability. Increased toe-out will reduce understeer, free up the car, especially during initial turn-in while entering a corner.
Hot Tip: Before adjusting toe outside the vehicle manufacturer's specification to manipulate handling, be aware that toe setting influences tire wear. Excessive toe settings often cause drivability problems, especially during heavy rain. This is because most highways have tire groves from the daily use by loaded tractor trailers. These heavy vehicles leave groves that fill with water. When one of the vehicles front tire encounters a puddle, it loses some of its grip, the other tire's toe setting will push causing excessive toe-in, or pull causing excessive toe-out. This may cause the vehicle to feel unstable.
All summed up:
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