DIY: How to Center Your Crooked Steering Wheel After Getting a Four Wheel Alignment
Disclaimer: I make no warranties or guarantees to anything I suggest or recommend here. You shall perform all the activities I describe below to your own will and observe common sense. If you don't know what your doing, please have someone who is mechanically inclined perform this for you.
The Rundown (My Story)
I recently got an alignment done at a reputable independent shop after Sears Auto botched an alignment job for me. Anyways, long story short, the other independent shop did an awesome job. However, I always feel that all the alignment shops never always "perfectly" aligned that steering wheel at what I feel is the true center! I'm sure many of you feel this way. The reason is because they don't really test the car at highway speeds to accurately spend the time to tweak and tune it. The adjustments are so minute that it isn't worth their time to fine-tune it for you, because there's another customer waiting.
At the same time, I also don't feel like spending $300-400 at the dealership for an alignment. So, here's an easy way to center your steering wheel WITHOUT having to bother your alignment mechanic every day to get it right.
Remember, everybody has their own feeling of what their "centerness" is. So today, we're going to get you that "centerness" you deserve!
The Science: Total Toe
I won't go into detail about alignment and toe, you need to read this online. Basically, the problem is that when the alignment shop aligns your car, they center your steering wheel. The centerness of your steering wheel represents the "reference" for the alignment computer when it makes its adjustments. If the shop puts the top of your steering wheel at 10 o clock, and aligns your car, you will then drive the car straight while your steering wheel is at 10 o clock. Yet, all your front toe settings will be correct. Why is this??
This is because, the alignment system doesn't really give a damn where the steering wheel is. It can be slightly crooked for all it cares. It is trying to center the car for you mechanically at the position of where the steering wheel is.
So here's what my settings were when I got my alignment:
Left Front Toe: 0.12 degrees
Right Front Toe: 0.12 degrees
Total Toe: 0.24 degrees
Okay, the key here to remember is total toe. Total toe is the sum of the left and right toe. What we want to do here today, is to MODIFY the total left and right toe, BUT keep the total toe the same. This ensures that we didn't change the actual alignment specifications, only the "reference" the steering wheel's offset is in relation to the left and right toe.
Okay, that probably doesn't make sense. So let me do the math for you.
If the car is supposed to go 100% straight at 0.12 degrees left / right toe, then you shall hold the steering wheel straight. But for me, I have to steer a bit left to get the car to go straight. So when I steer the car left a bit, the left and right toe changes, but the total toe does not. So when I hold the steering wheel left, the toe probably looks like this:
Left Front Toe: 0.10 degrees
Right Front Toe: 0.14 degrees
Total Toe: 0.24 degrees
Now, looky here! See what happened? When you turn your steering wheel, your toe's are changing, but the total toe still stays the same. So both the left and right front wheels turn evenly.
So what we want to do now, is to correct this offset problem. When I center my steering wheel, my toe is "realistically"
Left Front Toe: 0.13 degrees
Right Front Toe: 0.11 degrees
Total Toe: 0.24 degrees
So what I need to do is to change the left and right toe the same amount, relative to where the steering wheel is now. Because I just centered my steering wheel to MY settings, the front toes are off. So we need to correct this and bring it to 0.12/0.12 for the same total toe of 0.24. Realistically, I didn't touch my alignment dynamics, just how the car tracks in relation to the steering wheel.
Step 1: Get yourself an alignment first at a good shop! Check even air pressure on both tires. When you're done, figure out whether or not the car is going to the left or right when you "center" the steering wheel to your liking.
For me, after I got the alignment done, it was nearly perfect. But after I took it on the highway at excess speeds, I noticed that I have to push my steering wheel down on the left to maintain straight line tracking. For me, my center is when I see both stalks evenly when the car is tracking straight.
Step 2: Drive the car up onto rhino ramps or race ramps
When you drive up the ramp, make sure you drive up straight! Also, do not use jack stands to jack up the car! Because the front wheels are free to move, which causes the steering wheel/rack to move since there is no friction. That is why alignment shops lock the steering wheel when they perform alignments. The plates that the wheels are on allow the wheels to move. So when they make a toe adjustment on one side, it could cause the steering rack to move, changing the toe on the other wheel. But when the car is sitting on the tires, you're not likely to accidentally screw up the other side since the car's weight is sitting on the tires. In addition, you are only doing very minute adjustments.
Step 3: Mark both front tie rods for your reference
You need to mark the tie rods for your reference for two reasons. One, in case you messed up, and you have a seizure and recover, you need to know where to move it back to and start over. Two, you need know how much you're are turning.
Step 4: Make the adjustments to the tie rods
Loosen the nut on the tie rod but do not take it out! Using an open wrench, there is a flat spot on the tie rod which allows you to turn. On the driver side, turn counter-clockwise a 1/4 turn. This will lengthen the rod, and now my toe has changed. On the passenger side, turn clockwise a 1/4 turn. This will shorten the rod. So now I have turn both tires more to the left. If you are trying to turn to the right, you must turn clockwise on the driver side, and counter-clockwise on the passenger side.
Start with a 1/4 turn. In this case, a 1/4 turn was just all I needed!
Step 5: Tighten the Lock Nut
Tighten the lock nut up and drive the car off the ramps. Go for a test drive on the freeway. If everything is now straight, perfect! If it is still not enough, go back and try another 1/8 turn or 1/4 turn. If the steering wheel is now off to the other side, you've turned too much! Go back and turn the rod backwards a bit.
Step 6: Go get a FREE alignment check at Sears Auto (5 minutes!)
Right now, Sears Auto is offering free alignment checks using the latest state of the art Hunter HawkEye 3D. You basically pull up, they put the sensors on four wheels and scan your VIN at your door. Then they select the car profile and print out the specs. Your car doesn't need to go on the lift. But do not get your alignment done at Sears Auto! They do not know WTF they are doing on BMWs!
Everything looks perfect for me! I got even toe all around in the front.
So now my steering wheel is perfectly centered to my satisfaction when I'm hauling ass on the freeway and on surface streets.