Wheel alignment?

Tiny
BUXTON
  • MEMBER
  • 2001 VOLKSWAGEN GOLF
  • 2.8L
  • V6
  • 4WD
  • MANUAL
  • 84,000 MILES
A mechanic changed the wishbones on my car, and took off both front wheels to do it. It was returned to me with the tracking out. When I queried this, I was told that the 'settings' matched the worn wishbones, and to redo the tracking was a separate, unrelated job, which I would need to pay for. I feel like I am being completely ripped off.

Is this the case, Please help?
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Wednesday, August 20th, 2014 AT 8:24 AM

3 Replies

Tiny
CARADIODOC
  • EXPERT
In this case you may be right that an alignment was needed, but the mechanic was right at least in that would be a separate charge. Most independent repair shops don't even do alignments because that's a highly-skilled specialty area, and you want it done right. The equipment needed for today's cars has to be very precise, and most of the computers cost more than most new cars. Shops have to do a real lot of alignments to pay for that stuff and to keep it updated every year.

The first thing we have to do is clear up the terminology so I'm giving you the right answers. "Wishbone" is a generic term that can refer to a number of different parts. You need to determine if those were the lower control arms, upper control arms, (which I don't think your car uses), an upper or lower control arm assembly on the rear, or a part of the spindle the front struts attach to on the bottom. They use that design to make room for the half shafts to pass though to each front wheel.

If these parts are on the bottom of the struts, your mechanic is right. The alignment is set by the position of the upper strut mounting points that you can see with the hood opened, and by the position of the lower control arm. It's only those two pivot points that are relevant. That wishbone in between can be shaped completely differently, but as long as its length is the same as the old one, nothing related to the alignment will change. The replacement parts are machined to very exacting tolerances to match the original ones so that isn't going to be an issue.

If it's the lower control arms that were replaced, you absolutely do need an alignment. Even if you don't notice any change, tire wear can result over time. More on that in a minute.

Removing the wheels is not related to anything because that is a normal part of any service work that needs to be done to the brake, suspension or steering systems, and that alone doesn't affect the alignment. I don't know if you were thinking that was part of the problem, but you mentioned it, so I did too.

The next term you used is "tracking". That actually is an important term related to four-wheel alignments, but I've never met a car owner who knew what that was until it was explained to them. I suspect you're referring to something else, and you have to tell me what you mean. There's three things to look for related to vehicle alignment. Changing parts in the suspension or steering systems almost always changes the alignment as seen on the alignment computer screen, but you may not notice them just by driving the car.

The first thing is if the car pulls either way to one side of the road when you let go of the steering wheel. A little drift can be expected and will vary based on the road you're on, but if that pull is different after service work is done, suspect the alignment has changed.

The next one is the steering wheel position. When you're driving straight, the wheel should be straight too. If it has changed after work was done, the alignment has changed. Sometimes we can adjust new parts to get the steering wheel back where it was, but the alignment can still be off enough to cause the last concern, and that's tire wear. The first two issues can be seen right away. Tire wear takes a long time to show up. It is used mainly by the alignment specialist to "read" the wear patterns to determine what to expect to find wrong.

It's also important to understand the difference between a pull and an off-center steering wheel. If the car goes straight when your hands are off the steering wheel, you don't have a pull. A lot of people mistake a crooked steering wheel for a pull. They PUT the steering wheel straight, then of course the car goes that way and they think that is a pull. That is just an off-center steering wheel.

Please let me know
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Wednesday, August 20th, 2014 AT 10:23 PM
Tiny
BUXTON
  • MEMBER
Hello, and thanks for your detailed, answer. The car does not pull either way, but my solitary symptom is that the steering wheel is not on straight. From what I have managed to find out, could this be that the whole thing was not aligned when the wheels were put back on?

I took the car back to the garage the following day, and was given the same, rather curt answer that you have given regarding the tracking, or whatever the issue might be. This has now been compounded by the fact that the squeaking suspension is back with a vengeance.

I hope that you can see my point of view. I agree to work being done on my car to correct squeaky suspension; it is returned with a wonky steering wheel; now the suspension is squeaking worse than ever.
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Friday, August 22nd, 2014 AT 11:48 AM
Tiny
CARADIODOC
  • EXPERT
The problem is sometimes squeaks and rattles are intermittent and the mechanic thinks he solved it, but it comes back later. That is especially true of rubber bushings such as those on control arms. Simply raising the car on a hoist allows the suspension to hang down and stretch the bushing further than they normally do when you're driving. That can twist the rubber and put pressure on it that hides the noise for a little while. You don't have to be angry that the problem came back, but you do have the right to have it looked at again, and there should be no additional charge for the diagnosis. You paid for the diagnosis already, and it's not your fault if it was wrong.

The shop can legitimately charge you for additional work and parts, but typically they will give you a reduced labor charge or something in the way of an apology for the inconvenience of having to come back for the same thing.

The next thing to keep in mind is that people in every profession make mistakes, and they deserve the chance to correct them. Mechanics are hard enough on themselves already because we all like to think we're perfect, ... Or at least real good at our job. We really appreciate it when a customer is understanding when they have to come back, but there's nothing wrong with being firm either. Shop owners don't get upset with their employees when they have to do a job over, even when it means they aren't available to take care of the next customer. What they DO get upset over is the angry customer who never comes back to complain. That means they're complaining to their friends and co-workers. That's much worse for business than someone having to come back multiple times for the same problem.

Related to multiple visits, sometimes that is necessary, and usually they'll tell you that right away. My record is nine visits before I solved a really elusive electrical problem. Fortunately the car owner was very appreciative and understanding. Some problems act up once or twice per day. Obviously it isn't practical for the mechanic to drive your car around all day just waiting for the problem to occur. Instead, they try the most likely suspect, then let you take the car and determine if it has been solved. The understanding is if the problem is still there, you have to come back, and the mechanic moves on to the next most likely suspect. When that is the case, you don't want to jump to a different shop because they're going to have to start the diagnosis all over again. That means you're paying for someone to repeat what you already paid the first mechanic to do.

To get back to the original story, you still didn't tell me which part was replaced, so I can't tell you if the car needs to be aligned. Simply removing the wheels and tires, and reinstalling them has no affect on the alignment or steering wheel position. I'm sorry if you interpreted something as "patronizing", by you are the one who said twice now,

"From what I have managed to find out, could this be that the whole thing was not aligned when the wheels were put back on?

I could infer that you meant the wheels were put back on AFTER other parts were replaced, but every time I assume something, I'm wrong. Also, 95 percent of the people who come here for help are car owners who know little about their cars. That's why I have to ask the questions that can seem condescending. That's not the intent, but if I don't ask a lot of very detailed questions, just like a live mechanic standing in front of your car would do, I don't have enough time left in my life to type all the possible causes and cures.

To get a little more technical, there are things that will cause a wheel to lean in or out on top a little, (which will also cause a pull), and you have to correct for that by turning the steering wheel the other way. As I mentioned previously, that is often misinterpreted as an off-center steering wheel. To compound that problem, there are things that will move the wheel and spindle, but not the steering linkage, and those things can cause NO pull but since the relationship between those parts changed, it changes the position of the steering wheel, hence, it's off-center. Then there's the simple final adjustments during an alignment which is to PUT the steering wheel straight and lock it there, then adjust each wheel individually left or tight to match that. If those parts were replaced or even just taken apart and put back together, the car needs to be aligned. There's a number of things that will cause the steering wheel to change position, and only some of them will create other symptoms like pulling or tire wear.

From what you're explained so far, it sounds like the repairs involved things that require an alignment afterward, but that wasn't done, AND you weren't charged for it. In that case there's nothing wrong with taking the car to an alignment specialist yourself. At issue though is the squeak is still there. Unless you notice bad handling or tire wear patterns are already showing up, wait with the alignment until all the steering and suspension-related problems are solved. An alignment won't solve noises.

If your current mechanic is unable to solve the noise, visit that alignment shop I mentioned. They're experts at finding noise causes and fixing them. I still want to know exactly which parts were replaced. "Wishbone" is a legitimate term just like "pipe" is. There's more than one and they do vastly different things and cause totally different problems. "Wishbone" can refer to up to three different parts in the front, and up to two different parts in the rear. In every application I can think of, every one of those has two rubber bushings, and bushings often dry-rot and start to squeak.

Ball joints can squeak too. Here again, simply raising the car on a hoist lets the suspension hang down. That rotates the ball in its socket much further than normal and can temporarily distribute any remaining grease and stop the noise for a little while. Some ball joints don't have grease, and they can't be greased. Often when they wear, they get tight instead of getting sloppy, and that tightness causes them to squeak, but it also makes them appear to be in good shape when they're inspected. That doesn't happen real often, but a mechanic may run into that a few times per year. We find those by driving onto a "drive-on" hoist, then bouncing the car up and down while poking around with a stethoscope.

Alignment shops also usually have a tool called a "Chassis Ear". It is a set of six microphones, a switch box, and headphones. You clip the microphones to suspect points, then drive around while listening with the headphones. You can move the microphones around to zero in on the source of the noise. Be aware that many mechanics have never seen or even heard of this tool. Suspension and alignment mechanics use it to find rattles, squeaks, and other noises
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Saturday, August 23rd, 2014 AT 2:40 AM

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