One of the worst feelings is getting in your car after getting it fixed, only to find a new problem. If you just got a tire alignment and your steering wheel isn’t straight, you’re probably pretty confused. Are you justified in being skeptical, or should you just trust your mechanic?
The short answer is that your steering wheel should almost always be straight after a professional does an alignment. The whole alignment process revolves around getting your tires square, pointing in the right direction, and parallel with one another. Part of that involves ensuring the steering wheel is pointing straight. If the mechanic made any mistakes during an alignment, it’s possible for the steering wheel to be crooked. Don’t accept this repair and ask them to fix it.
In this short guide, I’ll let you know if your steering wheel should be straight after an alignment or not. My goal is to get you what you deserve and help you fix your car.
How an Alignment Works
An alignment is something that should be done about once a year. There are some extra circumstances that would cause you to do it earlier, like getting into an accident or lowering your car. In addition, you would do an alignment after installing new tires like winter tires.
The mechanic will start by putting your car in front of a camera with computers. The camera takes a picture of the current configuration of your tires and determines if any corrections need to be made.
Unless you notice something wildly wrong while you’re driving, these alignment corrections are going to be very minor.
In general, corrections will be made in any combination of five categories:
If you look at your car from a bird’s eye view, you’ll understand how a toe correction looks. Toe is the angle of your tires compared to a perfectly straight tire.
If the tire is rotated 2 degrees, then you have a 2-degree toe.
Any amount of misalignment here will make your tires wear quickly and will hurt your vehicle’s grip and performance.
In this case, your tires will be fighting against each other if they’re both pointing in different directions. If only one is pointing in a different direction, it will pull your car that way.
Camber is a term that people are more familiar with. Some people will purposefully add camber to their vehicle to improve its stance and make it look cooler, but it is ruining the tires and grip of a car.
To understand this angle, you’ll need to imagine looking at a tire head-on. This refers to the vertical angle of the tire as it’s facing you.
Ideally, the tire will be directly up-and-down, or perfectly vertical. If the tire has a positive or negative camber, it’s kicking in or out slightly.
The problem is that tires are meant to ride perpendicularly on the road under it. That’s how the grip is designed in the first place.
If your car has a camber, there’s no telling how your tires will react. They’ll wear out unevenly and you can randomly lose grip during certain turns.
Thrust is a little tougher to understand. It essentially measures the squareness of the rear axle as compared to the front axle.
It looks at the rear axle’s direction and then looks at the centerline of your car. If these axles aren’t square, then you’ll notice vibrations and weird responses when you accelerate or decelerate quickly.
There’s also a steering axis that needs to be considered. This axis ties to both of your wheels and ensures each axle is square.
Looking at the side of your car, the caster should be straight up. Any deviation here will result in a wonky steering wheel.
One of the main purposes of a true caster is to keep your steering wheel straight after you go through a turn.
Positioning the Steering Wheel
The mechanic might also go through and reposition your car’s steering wheel. To do this, they’ll need to play with the tie rods on either side of the vehicle. Doing this will determine the steering wheel’s natural position.
This is probably the most common reason why your steering wheel isn’t straight after an alignment. There are specs that need to be followed when it comes to steering wheel position. It’s possible for your car to be within spec but still have a steering wheel that’s misaligned.
What Makes a Steering Wheel Straight?
The combination of all of the previous five categories makes up the straightness of your steering wheel as you drive along. If your tires are cocked out of alignment, then your car will want to pull, and subsequently, your steering wheel won’t be straight.
If the tie rods were incorrectly positioned, then it doesn’t matter how straight your wheels are. The steering wheel is always telling your car to go slightly to the left or right, and the rest of the steering assembly is happily obliging.
To keep it simple, your steering wheel is the result of the alignment of the steering wheel itself, and the positional squareness of each of your four wheels.
Is It Time For a Wheel Alignment?
Listed below are some of the signs that your car most likely needs to get a wheel alignment done. There could be other factors at play, especially suspension components, however, these are the most obvious signs.
Car Pulls Despite a Straight Wheel
If your steering wheel is held straight and your car veers in one direction, then your steering system is messed up.
It means that you’ll need to hold your wheel at a weird angle in order to drive in a straight line.
A good way to test this is by going into a big, empty parking lot. Make sure there are no obstacles in front of you and start driving in a straight line. Take a close look at your steering wheel and see how your car responds to a straightened wheel.
Wheel Isn’t Centered
Another dead giveaway comes after you finish a turn or initially start driving. If you’re at a stop sign and look down and see that your steering wheel isn’t centered, then something’s wrong.
This is the most obvious for wheels that have a spoke in the center of the wheel. A straight steering wheel will be exactly centered with the vertical spokes going directly vertical. Any deviation from this indicates that something could be wrong.
Uneven Tire Wear
If your tires have signs of wear on them, inspect on which side of the car and where on the tire itself specifically is the tire wear occurring.
If your vehicle has uneven wear amongst the front vs rear tires, or only the outer edge of the tires is wearing out then you might first want to check if the tire in question is still good and then get a wheel alignment to sort out the issue.
The Steering Is Unresponsive
You might also have a steering wheel that isn’t very responsive as you move it around. You might be used to a small correction changing the direction of your car, but it isn’t doing it anymore.
You might be able to slightly wobble your wheel back and forth and your car will keep going straight.
In this case, something is probably loose within the steering assembly (most likely the tie rods).
Should a Steering Wheel Be Straight After an Alignment?
In almost every case, a steering wheel should be straight after you get an alignment. Why? The very root of the problem has to do with misalignment.
Steering wheels don’t just randomly decide to be off-center. They’re just telling you that your car is somehow misaligned. When a mechanic (or you) performs an alignment, you’re straightening everything out.
If you finish straightening your steering assembly and it’s still misaligned, then the alignment wasn’t right in the first place.
Have the Mechanic Fix it
Ideally, you’ll notice a crooked steering wheel before leaving your mechanic’s parking lot. This will give you the best chance of getting a quick correction.
It’s a lot tougher if you don’t realize it until you get home or a few days later. By that point, the auto shop could have forgotten about your car altogether, or they could blame you for the mistake.
If you have an honest mechanic, they should fix this mistake for free. It could be something as simple as tie rods that need to be slightly tweaked. If it’s the result of a bigger issue like a mechanic who didn’t correctly align your car, I would look for a new shop.
If they can’t align your car correctly, you shouldn’t trust them with even more complicated repairs in the future.
They might put up a fight if the steering wheel is only slightly crooked. Personally, I would still fight it and ask them to correct it. If a slight misalignment will distract you while driving or make you drive worse, then it’s definitely worth pushing the mechanic to fix it.
Other Issues That Cause Crooked Steering Wheels
If you noticed a crooked steering wheel a few days after an alignment, it might not be the mechanic’s fault at all. There are a few other culprits that cause crooked steering wheels.
Potholes are hated by everyone. They’re one of the leading reasons why your steering wheel is crooked in the first place.
Whenever that much force is applied to your steering, there’s no telling what exactly will go wrong. A pothole can knock components out of position, rack your tire, or rattle part of your steering system.
Steering Components are Failing
There are some linkages, gears, and connectors that go into your steering assembly. If any of these components are failing or slipping, you’ll notice a steering wheel that isn’t straight or has a lot of play as you turn.
This is typically a slower progression, but it can definitely happen immediately after a sudden impact.
Lowering a Car Without Changing the Suspension
Finally, make sure you never lower your car without doing your due diligence on the suspension system. Bringing your car down without fixing the suspension will put a lot of extra force on your steering assembly and force a misalignment.
Now you know that your steering wheel should be straight after an alignment. Don’t let a mechanic bully you into thinking that you should just accept a crooked wheel. If the wheel’s misalignment is bad enough, it could lead to a disaster on the road.
For more DIY guides for car owners, check out the rest of my site. As always, be sure to see what car products I highly recommend. Leave a comment below if you’ve experienced something similar in the past.