By Jim Kerr
I am looking forward to spring and the disappearance of slippery, rutted streets and roads, as I suspect many of you are too. Unfortunately, winter takes a harsh toll on our automobiles, with everything from rusty body panels to damaged suspensions. One of the maintenance items you should have done on your vehicle at least once a year is a wheel alignment. The alignment may be okay, but a checkup gives you the opportunity to have a technician inspect the suspension and check the vehicle steering angles to ensure everything is in good operating condition.
A wheel alignment can be done at many auto repair shops and tire dealers, but it does require specialized equipment that may cost $15,000 to $25,000, plus a drive-on hoist, so not all shops do them. However, if you have a favourite repair shop that doesn’t have the equipment, it will usually sublet it out to another shop, so you can still deal only with your preferred shop.
Before doing an alignment, a technician will inspect the vehicle’s suspension for damage. If something is wrong, there is no sense in performing an alignment until after it is corrected. Damage can come from hitting a curb or pothole, or bouncing over rutted lanes. A vehicle’s suspension is tough, but if it takes an impact in certain directions, it is fairly easy to bend parts slightly. There may not be any visual indication of damage, so the technician will go ahead with the alignment.
The technician inspects ball joints, steering joints, springs, suspension rubber bushings, shocks and tires for wear. Some of these, such as suspension bushings, are inspected visually, but other items such as ball joints have maximum wear specifications in the repair manuals. If they are not worn beyond specifications, they don’t need replacing. Even springs have specifications. In this situation, the technician measures the ride height of the vehicle to see if the springs are supporting properly. If the ride height is too low, the springs have sagged and should be replaced. Also, be sure to remove any heavy loads from the trunk, such as sand bags, as this will affect the vehicle ride height.