The Impact of Tire Wear on Steering and Alignment: Definitive Guide
Have you ever noticed your car handling differently when you haven’t changed its tires for a while? You may not have realized it, but the wear and tear of your tires can have a major impact on the alignment and steering of your vehicle. The tires are the only point of contact between the vehicle and the road, so the condition, wear, and tear of the tires has a major impact on the performance of the vehicle.
Tires are fundamental for controlling the car and keeping it on track. If your tires are worn or not correctly aligned, it can drastically affect the way your car handles, turning radius, and braking ability.
In this article, we’ll delve into the inner workings of tires and how wear and tear can have an impact on the steering and alignment of your ride.
You’ll learn about the different types of tire wear and how they affect your car’s steering and alignment. We’ll also look at the various signs of tire wear, such as irregular tread and excessive wear on the shoulders of the tire. We’ll discuss how to properly inspect your tires for wear and tear, as well as how to balance and align your tires for optimal performance.
Table of Contents
Road Test To Indicate Tire Wear and Bad Alignment
Select a flat road where the vehicle can be driven in a straight line for at least 100 m at a constant speed of 56 km/h. Please confirm safety and set the steering wheel to its straight position. Drive the vehicle in a straight line without exerting steering effort on the steering wheel.
Note: Before road testing, turn off driving support systems, if equipped, such as Lane Keep Assist and Lane Tracing Assist.
If your vehicle deviates laterally more than 1.5 during the road test, it means your vehicle has alignment and tire wear problems.
Definition of the term “Tire Wear”
Tire wear is the gradual deterioration of a tire’s tread depth caused by regular usage. It is an essential concept to understand as it impacts the safety of the vehicle, as well as its performance. Tire wear can both be seen and felt, as the tread becomes more shallow with regular use.
When tires are new, they typically have a tread depth of around 10/32 of an inch. Over time, this tread depth will be reduced due to the regular usage of the tire. Tire wear is especially noticeable when you start to feel it in the way that your vehicle handles.
The more worn the tire, the harder it is to control the vehicle, especially in wet conditions. The minimum recommended tread depth for replacement is 2/32″, but it is safer to replace them at 4/32″.
The tire tread of the tire is part of the tire that provides traction when driving, and as it wears down, the tire becomes less effective at gripping the road and may become unsafe. Tire manufacturers usually provide a tread wear rating for each tire, which is an indication of the rate at which the tire will wear over time.
Tire wear is caused by a number of factors, including the type of vehicle it is used on, the terrain it is driven on, and the weight of the car. Uneven tire wear can also be caused by improper inflation, misaligned wheels, worn brake components, aggressive driving, and road conditions.
Here are some signs that your tires may need to be replaced:
- Uneven tread wear: When the tread wears down unevenly, it can cause one side of the tire to grip the road more effectively than the other. This can lead to increased pulling in your steering performance.
- Bulging tires: Bulging tires can indicate that the tire is worn down and losing its shape. This can lead to decreased control over the car and increased pulling. Typically, low-profile tires bulge as compared to high-profile tires.
- Cracks in the sidewall: Cracks in the sidewall of the tire can lead to air leaks and decreased tire pressure, which can make the tire less effective and cause increased pulling.
- Age: As a tire gets older, it will naturally wear down and become less effective. It’s important to replace your tires before they get too old to ensure optimal performance.
What Exactly Is Wheel Alignment?
Wheel alignment is the process of adjusting the angles of the wheels so that they are perpendicular to the ground and parallel to each other.
Wheel alignment is confused with wheel balancing and while the two have similarities, they serve different purposes.
When a wheel is out of balance, it can cause a vibration at highway speeds while driving. That’s where balancing comes in. Balancing simply refers to the distribution of weight around the circumference of the wheel.
Wheel alignment, however, deals with the angle of the wheels relative to the car, and to each other.
If a wheel is misaligned, it means the angle of the wheel in relation to the chassis has been thrown off. This can happen for several reasons, such as hitting a pothole, running over a curb, or simply just normal wear and tear. When this happens, the tire wear will be uneven and the steering will be affected.
If your car’s wheels are misaligned, it can cause tire wear, loss of control while driving, and difficulty in steering. A misaligned wheel can cause your car to pull to one side or the other, making it difficult to drive at times.
Factors On Which Wheel Alignment Depends
Wheel alignment has a significant impact on tire wear. If the wheels of a vehicle are misaligned, the tires do not run parallel to each other. As a result, one shoulder of the tread of a tire gets scrubbed off, resulting in one-sided wear.
To know if the wheel is properly aligned, you should have an idea of the following terms:
Caster angle is the angle of the steering axis, relative to the vertical centerline of the vehicle. when viewed from the side of the vehicle. Caster is seen as an important part of a car’s handling and stability. It’s responsible for how the car turns in and out of corners, and how it feels to the driver.
Too much caster angle can make the vehicle harder to turn, but can also make it more stable at higher speeds. Too little caster angle can make the car easier to turn, but can also make it less stable on the highway.
A negative caster is when the steering axis is tilted backward (toward the rear of the vehicle). Positive caster is when the steering axis is tilted forward (toward the front of the vehicle).
The primary benefit of a positive caster angle is that it tends to straighten the wheel when the vehicle is traveling forward. This helps improve straight-line stability, as the wheel is less likely to wander or drift off course.
Having too much positive caster angle can be detrimental. The most common symptom is a tire shake or shimmy, which is when the car seems to be shaking/shimmy or vibrating at high speeds.
Too much positive caster angle can also reduce the contact patch between the tires and the ground, especially in turns. That means there’s less of the tire surface in contact with the road, making it more likely to lose traction. This can be especially problematic in wet or icy conditions, where traction is already limited.
Negative caster is especially beneficial in vehicles that are driven on curvy roads. The improved cornering capabilities of a vehicle with negative caster can help drivers navigate tight turns more easily. Negative caster is only good if you want to steer easier in an older cars.
In modern cars, a positive caster angle is used as modern cars have power steering which makes it easier to turn.
Toe-in and Toe-out
Toe-in means that front of the tires are closer to each other as compared to the back of the tires when viewed from the top. This adjustment helps improve the handling, steering, and overall safety of the vehicle. It’s measured in fractions of an inch and is measured from the center of the wheel. Toe-out is when the front of the wheel is farther away from the vehicle than the rear.
Toe settings of a vehicle affect three major areas of performance:
- Tire wear
- Straight-line stability
- Corner entry handling characteristics
Too much toe-in or toe-out can cause excessive feather wear or saw tooth wear on the tire.
When a vehicle has too much toe-in, the wheels will be angled towards the center, due to which feathering will angle towards the center of the vehicle. As a result, too much toe-in causes accelerated wear at the outside edge of the tire. Over time, this can cause the tire to develop a feathered appearance where the edges of the tread blocks are smooth, and the center of the tread is raised.
Conversely, when a vehicle has too much toe-out, the wheels will be angled away from the center, due to which feathering will angle toward the outside of the vehicle. As a result, tire will wear more on its inside edge.
Correct toe-in and toe-out settings are important for tire wear, as well as for driving stability and safety.
Toe-in is an important factor when it comes to vehicle stability. It helps to keep the vehicle in a straight line when driving, reducing the risk of drifting off the road. This is because the angled wheels create a slight inward pull that counteracts any tendency to veer to the side. By having a small amount of toe-in, the driver can maintain a straight line without having to make any corrections.
As the vehicle begins to wander, the steering wheel will respond by pulling the vehicle back into the center of the lane. At the same time, the inward angle of the front tires will create a greater resistance when turning, making it harder to turn
On the other hand, toe-out is slightly more agile and will make the steering more responsive to inputs. So, toe-out increases the cornering ability of a vehicle.
This is because cornering involves the outside tire needing to take a larger turning radius than the inside tire to achieve the maximum cornering force. Toe-in in particular can create an issue, as the inside tire is turned inwards, which pulls against the outside tire and reduces the total front cornering power. In summary, the inside tire must turn more sharply than the outside tire to maximize the cornering potential.
When a car’s front wheels are set with a small amount of toe-out, it means that the wheels are angled slightly away from the center of the car when viewed from above. This means that the wheels are not pointing straight ahead, but are instead angled slightly outward.
When the driver turns the steering wheel to navigate a corner, the inside tire of the car turns more sharply than the outside tire. This is because the inside tire has a shorter distance to travel around the corner than the outside tire. With a small amount of toe-out, this turning effect is already present in the front wheels, allowing the car to turn into the corner smoothly and quickly, almost like it is on rails.
The toe-out setting helps the car to turn into the corner more quickly and precisely because the front wheels are already angled slightly outward. This means that the turning effect of the inside tire is more pronounced, and the car is able to navigate the corner with ease. Once the car is turned into the corner, the weight of the vehicle starts to transfer from the inside to the outside. This means that the inside front tire has less weight on it, which minimizes its effect on the car’s stability and control.
As a result, street cars are set up with toe-in (maximum stability while driving straight) and racing cars are set up with toe-out (for sharp turns at high speed).
When it comes to wheel alignment, camber is one of the major components that needs to be taken into consideration. In simple terms, camber is the angle of the wheel, measured in degrees, when viewed from the front of the vehicle. The angle is determined by how much the wheel is tilted in (negative camber) or out (positive camber) from the vertical axis.
Positive camber means that the top of the wheel is tilted outward, away from the vehicle’s body. This can cause the outside edges of the tires to wear faster than the inside edges. Negative camber means that the top of the wheel is tilted inward, towards the vehicle’s body. This can cause the inside edges of the tires to wear faster than the outside edges.
It’s important to check the camber after any suspension work has been done, such as replacing struts or shock absorbers. The alignment should also be checked periodically to make sure the camber is still within the manufacturer’s specifications.
Positive camber improves the straight-line stability of the vehicle, as the wheels are more firmly planted on the ground. You’ll see positive camber in off-roading vehicles.
On the other hand, negative camber is the most common type of camber seen in modern vehicles. Negative camber helps to improve cornering by creating a larger contact patch between the tire and the road surface.
When a car enters a corner, the weight of the car shifts towards the outside tires, which causes the inside tires to be lifted off the road. With negative camber, the outside tires are able to remain in contact with the road for a longer period of time, resulting in improved grip and better handling during cornering.
Tire Wear Pattern Guide
Here are the types of tire wear:
Cupping type of tire wear is a type of tire wear, in which the tire treads are wearing off in a wave-like pattern. It is also known as scalloped wear.
When the suspension system is working properly, the tires should make contact with the ground and be able to rotate freely without any irregular wear.
Cupping type of tire wear is usually caused by a combination of several factors. Worn-out suspension components, such as shocks, struts, and ball joints, can cause the cupping type of tire wear.
The same is true for incorrect wheel alignment, which can cause uneven wear on the tire treads. In some cases, this type of tire wear can also be caused by an imbalanced tire or wheel, which can cause the tire to bounce up and down while driving.
Improper alignment can cause the tire to wear unevenly, which creates U-shaped dips in the tread.
Shoulder wear is a type of tire wear that occurs when the tire’s shoulders become excessively worn. It usually shows up as a widened tire tread on the outside of the tire, near the sidewall. It can also be caused by overloading the tires, excessive cornering, improper inflation, or improper wheel alignment.
During cornering, the sidewall of the tire flexes and causes the shoulder of the tire to wear out, resulting in shoulder wear. If you give excessive camber, you’ll observe shoulder wear on tires.
Too much positive camber will cause shoulder wear on the outer side of the tire, and too much negative camber will cause wear on the inner shoulder of the tire.
Flat spotting occurs when a vehicle has been parked for an extended period of time and the tires are in contact with the road surface. This spot is usually visible to the naked eye, and can be identified by its oblong shape and lack of tread. If you look closely, you may even be able to see the pattern left by the road surface in the flat spot.
Flat spotting wear is generally considered to be more severe than other types of tire wear. It’s important to be aware of the signs of flat spotting, as it can lead to more serious problems such as reduced traction and increased stopping distances.
Flat spotting can be caused by a variety of things, including sudden acceleration and hard braking. When a car is driving at high speed and the brakes are suddenly applied, the tires lock up, causing the car to skid and the tires to slide on the road. As the tires slide, they create a flat spot on the tread.
When looking at the tire, feathering wear appears as a set of light and dark feather-like patterns. It looks like a wave pattern that goes across the treads in a linear fashion.
Feathering wear is caused by excessive toe-in or toe-out, which is when the wheels on the car are angled towards or away from each other.
Feathering wear is like shoulder wear on tires. The difference is that shoulder wear is isolated to the shoulder and is smooth. On the other hand, feather wear starts on the shoulder, moves inward, and feels rough.
Diagonal Spot Wear
Diagonal Spot Wear is a type of tire wear that is characterized by an angled pattern running across the circumference of the tire. The angle of the pattern is typically around 45 degrees to the circumferential plane and it usually occurs on the circumference of the tire only.
Diagonal spot wear on the tire can occur for a number of reasons, but it is most likely caused by an issue with the car’s suspension system. This type of tire wear can be caused by a worn suspension component, such as a bearing, bush, or ball joint, but it can also be caused by an issue with the wheel alignment. When the alignment is off, it can cause the tire to wear in an angled pattern, instead of evenly across the tire.
Diagonal spot tire wear can also be caused improper inflation pressure. If the tires are underinflated, then the tread pattern can start to form an angled pattern across the circumference of the tire.
Center Rib Wear
If the wear is more pronounced on the center of the tire than on the edges, it is likely caused by overinflation. The tire’s contact patch, the area that contacts the road, will be smaller than it should be, resulting in less grip and more wear on the center of the tire. This can also cause an increase in fuel consumption, as the tire will be working harder to achieve the same level of performance.
When the tires are inflated beyond the manufacturer’s recommended pressure, the center rib is stretched too far, causing it to wear down more quickly than other areas of the tire. This wear can cause the tire to lose its grip on the road, leading to poor handling and misalignment.
That’s why it is always recommended to follow the manufacturer’s recommendation regarding tire pressure if your vehicle has stock tires.
When you open the driver-side door of your car, you’ll see the label of recommended pressure for front and rear tires.
I have a 2018 Toyota Vitz. So, I have attached the picture of recommended tire pressure so that you can get an idea of how it looks:
In the picture above, 165/70/R14 is a tire size. 2.5 bar is the tire pressure for the front tires and 2.4 bar is the tire pressure for the rear tires.
How Does Tire Wear Impact Steering Performance?
Tire wear is a natural occurrence in any car and it happens over time due to a variety of factors. Heat build-up, road conditions, and driving habits all play a role in how fast the tires wear and how it affects the steering.
Keeping in view all scenarios, tire wear affects steering performance in the following ways:
One of the most common problems that can arise when it comes to tire wear is increased pulling in the steering performance. This is especially true if you have a newer tire with more tread on one side, particularly on the front of your vehicle, and an older tire with much less tread on the other side. This can cause more drag on the side with less tread, making the vehicle pull in the same direction as the tire with more tread.
As a tire wears down over time, its slip resistance increases. Due to the increase in slip resistance, the tire drags more. For a tire to effectively roll on the road, it should have rolling resistance as is the case with the new tires. If one of the tires on the front of the vehicle has more slip resistance, your vehicle will pull to the side with more rolling resistance as that side will be gripping the road with a stronger force.
The contact patch of a tire is what determines the amount of traction that the tire is able to generate. The deeper the tread depth of a tire, the larger the contact patch will be. This will allow the tire to generate more traction, which will in turn allow the tire to respond more quickly and effectively to the driver’s steering commands.
When a tire’s tread depth is reduced, the contact patch of the tire is also reduced. This results in less traction and a decreased ability of the tire to respond to the driver’s steering commands. This results in a decrease in the vehicle’s steering performance and a reduction in responsiveness.
Increased Vibrations In Steering
Uneven tire wear can cause the tires to “grab” or “skip” when driven, causing the vehicle to vibrate. This is especially noticeable when turning or cornering, as the tire is constantly grabbing and releasing the road surface.
There are several different types of tire wear that can cause increased vibrations in steering performance. The most common is cupped tire wear, which causes the tire to have an uneven surface. This can cause the tire to skip or grab on the road surface, causing the vehicle to vibrate.
Furthermore, as the tire wears, the tread is reduced, and the contact patch between the tire and the road is reduced. As this happens, the tire will not be able to absorb the bumps in the road as well as it did when it was new. This can lead to increased vibrations in the steering, as the tire is unable to absorb the road’s bumps and dips.
The prevention of increased vibrations in the steering system begins with proper maintenance of your tires. It is imperative to monitor tire pressure on a regular basis and to have the tires rotated every 5,000 to 8,000 miles. Furthermore, it is essential to keep the tires balanced and aligned and to have them examined for any evidence of wear or damage.
Finally, it is paramount to have the suspension system carefully examined on a regular basis to make sure it is functioning properly. Taking this step helps to diminish the amount of wear and tear on the tires, thus minimizing the chances of the steering system enduring heightened vibrations.
Reduced Maneuverability and Cornering
The rubber on tires is designed to flex and move as the vehicle moves, allowing it to grip the road and maintain traction. Over time, the rubber begins to break down and tear, reducing its ability to grip the road. As a result, the vehicle becomes less maneuverable and is less able to corner effectively.
Additionally, worn tires can be more prone to punctures and blowouts, which can cause a sudden loss of control.
Worn tire treads have a detrimental effect on the rubber of a tire. As the tire’s tread becomes shallower, the gap between the tire and the road surface diminishes and the amount of air circulating through the grooves to cool the tire is reduced.
This increase in heat is a major cause of tire failure, as it leads to a breakdown of the rubber. Not only does the tread of the tire provide cushioning, it also serves as a protective barrier against punctures and other forms of damage. Thus, having adequate tire tread is paramount to the longevity of a tire.
Increased Braking Distance
The amount of wear on a tire also affects the braking distance. The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, when tires are worn, the soft rubber compound that makes up the treads is less effective at gripping the road surface. This means that the car takes longer to slow down as the tires are unable to get the same level of grip on the road, making it difficult for the brakes to slow the car down efficiently.
Secondly, when tires are worn, the contact patch between the tire and the road is reduced, which also reduces the amount of traction (rolling resistance) the tire can generate and increases the sliding resistance. As a result, the braking distance of a vehicle increases when you apply brakes.
A case study was conducted to study the effect of the tread depth of tire on the braking distance on two different surfaces. It was found that as tread depth decreases (tires wear out), braking distance increases.
How to Minimize Tire Wear Impact on Steering?
Here is how to minimize the tire wear impact on suspension and steering:
Regular Tire Rotations
Tire wear reduces steering responsiveness, grip, and handling. While there are many variables that impact tire wear, proper tire rotation is one of the simplest things you can do to minimize its effects.
Tire rotation is the process of regularly changing out the tires on a vehicle, thereby prolonging the life of the tires.
Front tires wear more as they bear the weight of the engine and transmission, and handle the bulk of the steering and braking forces in FWD vehicles.
When you rotate your tires, you are essentially taking the tires from the front and moving them to the back and vice versa. This ensures that the tires wear evenly over time, as the front tires are no longer taking all the brunt of the force.
In addition to this, rotating the tires ensures that the tires are properly aligned and are in the correct position for the vehicle’s suspension system. This helps to ensure that the car handles as it should in terms of braking, acceleration, and cornering.
If you have all-season tires, then you should be rotating them every 6,000 to 8,000 miles.
Proper Tire Alignment and Balancing
Tire alignment and balancing are two important elements of vehicle maintenance. When done properly, they help minimize tire wear, improve steering, and enable your car to perform at its best.
Tire alignment is the adjustment of the angles of the wheels to the car body. When the wheels on a vehicle are not aligned properly, it takes more effort to keep the vehicle travelling in a straight line. The wheels don’t spin as freely as they should, so they experience more friction. This friction slows down the wheels, meaning that the engine has to work harder to maintain the same speed. This extra work requires more fuel, resulting in up to 10% more fuel being used than would normally be necessary.
Tire balancing involves the placement of weights on the wheel that counteract any heavy spots caused by the non-uniform distribution of the tire’s mass. This ensures that each wheel spins smoothly and the suspension is not disturbed. Proper tire balancing can help to prevent uneven tire wear and improve steering.
When a car is driven, the weight of the vehicle and the forces generated by the road are carried by the tires. If the tires are not aligned properly, the weight distribution can be uneven leading to premature wear on some tires. Improper alignment of tires can also cause the vehicle to pull to one side, which can affect the handling and can make it difficult to keep the car in a straight line.
Proper tire alignment and balancing are essential for minimizing the impact of tire wear on the car’s steering. When tires are properly aligned and balanced, they sit at the correct angle on the car’s chassis. This helps them roll straight and evenly, which reduces the load on the car’s suspension and steering system.
Can Unbalanced Tires Cause Steering Problems?
Unbalanced tires can cause a number of problems, from a shaky ride to irregular wear and tear. In extreme cases, unbalanced tires can even lead to steering problems.
When a tire is out of balance, it means that its weight is unevenly distributed along its circumference. It’s usually caused by uneven wear on the tread, but can also be the result of an issue with the tire itself, such as a puncture or a manufacturing defect.
Unbalanced tires will create a vibration when you drive. This is because the tires are rotating unevenly, with different amounts of weight on each side. When the weight is unevenly distributed, the tire will vibrate and cause the steering wheel to shake and wobble.
Another way to tell if your tires are unbalanced is to look at the tread wear. If the tires wear out more on one side than the other, this could be a sign that they are unbalanced.
Now, how can unbalanced tires cause steering problems? Well, when your tires are unbalanced, the suspension system has to work harder to keep your car stable. This can cause wear and tear on the suspension system, leading to a loose or wobbly steering wheel.