Everything you need to know about wheel alignment, balancing and wheel tracking

25th November 2019

What is the difference between wheel tracking, wheel alignment and balancing?

While tracking and alignment are almost (but not quite!) the same thing, balancing is an entirely different process. However, all three are equally important for good vehicle road handling, ensuring longevity, even wear and optimum tyre safety.


What is wheel tracking on a car?

Back in the day, when cars only had two adjustable front wheels and a fixed axle for the back wheels, the two front wheels were ‘tracked’, meaning aligned to point in the right direction and completely parallel. No adjustment could be made to the back wheels, which would just follow the direction of the front. When most people ask for ‘tracking’ these days, they usually mean ‘alignment’, unless they have an older vehicle.


What is wheel alignment?

As technology progressed, it became possible to align all four wheels as the rear suspension became adjustable. Alignment is now the most common practice and applies to most modern cars.

As cars are now more sophisticated, so is the equipment and accuracy, bringing laser 4 wheel alignment. This is the most accurate wheel and tyre alignment for your car, carried out on the front wheels and taking into account the position of the rear ones. This way the vehicle will not only have the correct wheel position at the front, but also perfectly aligned rear wheels. After good 4 wheel alignment your car will drive in a straight line without pulling to the left or right.

Most good garages will provide 4 wheel alignment, which is advisable for modern cars. In fact, when customers ask for ‘tracking’ at Coles they generally mean ‘alignment’, and we’re happy to explain the difference.


What is wheel balancing?

Wheel balancing is entirely different and no less important. When you have a new tyre fitted at Coles, the wheels will have balance weights carefully applied to the inside and the outside of the rims, to make sure that your wheel and tyre spins evenly and without vibration.

Although this is a simple process if it’s not done accurately, correctly and with care the outcome can be very costly and ultimately dangerous.

If your wheels are unbalanced, you’ll notice a vibration increasing with speed, which you’ll feel through the steering wheel. This vibration would eventually result in excessive wearing in various parts of your car; the suspension, wheel bearings, and uneven tyre wear often resulting in bald patches and illegal tyres.

Once perfectly balanced, providing your vehicle wheel alignment is also good (avoiding all potholes!) your wheels shouldn’t need rebalancing until you need a new set of tyres.

At Coles we make sure wheels are accurately and professionally balanced during the new tyre fitting process. Along with new valves, it’s all part of the price. When you’re asking for quotes for new tyres, make sure it includes valves and balancing.


What causes bad wheel alignment?

Incorrect tyre pressure

Always check your tyre pressures, especially before long journeys. Incorrect or uneven pressures can lead to poor handling, vehicle pulls to one side, premature tyre wear, dangerous when braking.

 Hitting a kerb or a pothole

If you have recently hit a kerb or a pothole, it is advisable to have your wheel alignment checked as soon as possible. Ask your garage to check for damaged rims, tyres and wheels at the same time. A large pothole can easily deform the tyre momentarily, causing the actual wheel, tyre or rim to be damaged by the pothole.


How do you know if your wheel alignment is off?

A visual inspection of the tyres

This will give you a good indication of how the alignment is. The tyre tread depth should be nice and even across the width of the tyre. This is the area in direct contact with the road surface and will tell tales of misalignment if there is uneven tread depth / wear. If the tyres are not tracking correctly you will see one side of the tyre worn more than the rest of the tyre. You will generally find that if one front tyre is worn on the outer edge, then the other side will also be worn on the outer edge. Likewise, if the front tyre is worn on the inner edge, then the opposing front tyre will usually been worn on the inner edge. This is a sure sign that the tracking is out.

An unusual steering wheel position 

Your steering wheel position is usually the same each time you drive and anything unusual is a good sign of faulty alignment. Most drivers will notice that although the car is driving in a straight line, the steering wheel position has changed slightly. This is a sign that damage has occurred and it is likely that your tracking is out.


Initially the signs will be subtle, but you will feel the car drift or even pull slightly to one side. If this happens it won’t improve without attention, so please get your car checked because this can be dangerous, especially if you are travelling at speed.

Rapid tyre wear

If you notice your tyres wearing quicker than usual, or an uneven tyre tread depth, it could be down to faulty alignment.

Tyre squeal

Alarming noises from your tyres could be a sure-fire indicator of alignment issues, ask your local garage to take a look.

Steering wheel vibration

This is an indicator of either bad alignment, unbalanced wheels, or both! Make sure you get this checked out as soon as you can as it can be dangerous or cause expensive knock-on mechanical issues, resulting in a big bill. 


How is bad wheel alignment dangerous?

Steering drift or pull

Bad wheel alignment can cause your car steering to pull or drift out. If you are driving at speed on a motorway, your vehicle may even drift across lane markings and could cause other drivers to take avoiding action and cause an accident.


If you are driving in wet or icy conditions bad wheel alignment and the resulting drifting is especially dangerous and can cause your car to aquaplane or skid.

Blow outs

 If your wheels are not well aligned this can result in uneven tyre wear. The tread depths could become illegal, and for good reason; bald or patchy tyres are prone to blow-outs. Getting a blow-out at speed on a motorway is incredibly dangerous.


Do I need 2 or 4 wheel alignment?

We would highly recommend 4 wheel alignment as opposed to 2 wheel alignment. Simply aligning the front two wheels (2 wheel alignment) takes no account of where they are in relationship to the rear. Most modern wheel alignment machines look at all four wheels and this is the service we recommend at Coles. The only exception to this recommendation is if your car is an older or vintage model with a fixed rear suspension, in which case we make sure the wheels are tracked with 2 wheel alignment and accurately measure the rear to counter wear or damage to the suspension.


Is wheel balancing free with new tyres?

At Coles Automotive it is, yes. We also add a set of new valves when you have new tyres fitted. This is why it’s important to know what you’re getting when you ask for new tyre quotes, make sure you ask if they are using an experienced tyre fitter who will give you good advice, free balancing and free valves, so you don’t get a nasty shock when it’s time to pay!

At Coles we will also give a free health check on all your tyres, making sure your car is safe and legal. We’ll never replace tyres unless they are needed and will give advice about wheel alignment if we see signs of uneven wear.

Learn more about wheel alignment, tracking and balancing at Coles Automotive

We have the latest, up to date, calibrated equipment to ensure your car is aligned properly. We offer a while you wait service and will check if your alignment needs adjusting. Any subsequent adjustments are priced according to the age of the vehicle. Wheel Alignment and adjustments start at £24.99 + vat.

Where to find us:

Find us:

Coles Automotive

Browns Meadow

Edburton, Henfield

West Sussex