OFF-CENTER STEERING WHEEL WORTH A TRIP BACK TO MECHANIC

BY TOM AND RAY MAGLIOZZI Modified: September 21, 2012 at 10:59 am •  Published: September 21, 2012
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Dear Tom and Ray:

I recently had my car's front end aligned by a mechanic whom I have trusted for more than 10 years. The problem is, to keep the car running straight on the road, I must have my steering wheel turned to the right by about 15 degrees. When I straighten out the wheel, the car pulls to the left. Shouldn't a front-end alignment include making sure the steering wheel is straight? Isn't that the idea behind getting a front-end alignment? -- David

TOM: Well, it's not "the idea" behind a front-end alignment. The idea of a front end alignment is to make sure the front wheels are pointing in exactly the same direction so that the car handles correctly and the tires don't wear out prematurely. Your mechanic probably did do that.

RAY: But centering the steering wheel is something that should be done as PART of a front-end alignment.

TOM: Having the steering wheel "agree" with the direction of the wheels isn't a mechanical necessity. Your car will steer fine regardless. But it's an indication to you that the job was done conscientiously. It's like when the dry cleaner folds your clean clothes and puts them on hangers, rather than just tossing them on the counter in a crumpled pile. They may still be clean, but it doesn't leave you with the same feeling.

RAY: In the old days, adjusting the position of the steering wheel after the fact was a piece of cake. You could simply loosen a nut on the steering column and move the steering wheel to where you wanted it.

TOM: But now, with electronics that read the steering angle and air bags galore, it's no longer so easy. So you have to do it BEFORE you start the alignment.

RAY: First, you place the steering wheel at dead center. Then you align the front wheels so that they're pointing straight ahead. And when you're done, everything should be as nature intended it.