ALIGNMENT IS IMPORTANT
As you probably know, being able to properly align your lowered truck is almost as important as lowering it. Unless you’re building a “show truck” (which is rarely driven), it is important that you be able to drive your lowered truck on a daily basis without ruining your tires, without serious handling problems or without facing divorce. Before you lowered your truck, you never gave the alignment “thing” a second thought, but now you must seriously consider this before you choose your method of lowering. Your wheel and tire combo may cost you several times the cost of a lowering kit (especially a cheap one) so you may find a few extra dollars spent on a full suspension system will actually save you money in the long run. Let’s begin this tutorial by defining the important parameters of alignment, especially where it pertains to lowered trucks. There are three big adjustments in your front end that, when set properly, will result in miles of driving pleasure – CAMBER, CASTER, and TOE. If any of these three are not set correctly, maximum pleasure will not be achieved. Let’s explore this alignment trifecta.
CAMBER: Check out the camber rollover to see an animated drawing of camber. Simply put, camber is the angle of the wheel, measured in degrees, when viewed from the front of the vehicle. If the top of the tire is leaning in (towards the frame) then you have negative camber. If the top of the tire is leaning out (away from the frame), you have positive camber.
FIRST LAW OF ALIGNMENT
“When you lower a truck you cause negative camber. When you lift a truck you cause positive camber”. It’s that simple, and this is why the way you lower is so important. Cutting, heating, or even using engineered lowering coil springs will cause negative camber every time and you need to have the ability to adjust the camber enough to offset this. (This is discussed on the coil spring page). Camber adjustment takes place with the upper control arm, a primary reason why control arms have such an advantage over spindles (this is discussed on the control arm page). Spindles do not have any effect (good or bad) on the alignment. So moving the upper control arm in or out (relative to the frame) is how camber is controlled. Moving the upper arm out gets you more positive and moving it in results in negative camber. If camber is out of adjustment you will see uneven tire wear, if the camber is too negative for example then the tire will wear the inside tread. If camber is different from side to side it may cause a pulling problem. Typically the truck will pull to the side with the most positive camber. As a general rule, if you drive like a maniac, a little negative camber (-1/4 to –1/2 degree) may actually improve handling.
SECOND LAW OF ALIGNMENT
“It is important to understand that there is no absolute right alignment”. It is subject to driving conditions, and personal styles. You can have five different people with five different alignments on an equally prepared vehicle and have five happy campers, so don’t let alignment ruin your life. Just make sure your truck handles safely and does not wear your expensive tires needlessly.
THIRD LAW OF ALIGNMENT
Just because some knucklehead alignment shop tells you “I can’t align this thing because its been lowered” you don’t have to believe him. Every CALMAX Suspension system can be set to factory alignment no matter how low it is. If this happens to you, run like the wind to another alignment shop who understands this. CASTER When you turn your steering wheel, your wheels turn either left or right, this pivot is known as caster. It is the angle of pivot viewed from the side relative to straight up and down. Check out the caster illustrations to help understand this alignment characteristic. If this pivot angle is leaning toward the back of the car it is positive caster, and, of course, if the angle is rotated toward the front of the car, it is negative caster. So what happens if caster is out of alignment? You would notice problems in straight-line tracking, or if it were different from side to side the truck would pull to the side with less positive caster. If both sides are equal but too negative the steering will feel light, the truck will wander and be difficult to keep driving straight. If both sides are equal but too positive, the steering can be heavy. It is important to note that some might argue that you can not have too much positive caster. Remember there is no absolute right numbers to align your truck to. If you are the spirited driver from the camber tutorial, you could benefit from some of the handling properties of positive caster. Increased tire contact patch during cornering, increased turn in response, improved directional control, improved steering (“feel”), improved steering (“self-centering”). In fact if you are trying to fine-tune your alignment it is better to adjust caster than camber. Why, you probably wonder, lets look. Camber doesn’t improve turn-in, Positive caster does. Camber is not good for tire wear Camber doesn’t improve directional stability Camber adversely effects braking and acceleration This alignment information is for high performance set-ups. If you have noticed Mercedes, BMW, or an Audi’s front end when parking, you will see a lot of positive caster. Just like high performance tuning of engines, you can do a high performance “tuning” of your suspension with alignment.
FOURTH LAW OF ALIGNMENT
“Alignment is measured sitting still, and its only important when moving” It is important to understand that we are discussing a dynamic (moving and changing) behavior when we talk about handling and alignment. We measure and setup the alignment setting still or “static” for the optimal alignment when driving “dynamic”. Strictly speaking your truck is technically out of alignment when it is parked. When driving, however, the suspension is moving up and down which is causing the camber and toe to change while your caster setting intends to optimize your camber and toe. Speaking of suspension movement, we should also talk about “deflection”. Deflection is the phenomenon that occurs because all of the moving parts in your front end are mounted in rubber. When you hit bumps, or, are cornering, or putting stress on your suspension at any time the rubber bushings actually change shape because of the force applied to them. This causes your control arms to move around in their mounts. The rubber is soft and “deflects” a little when force is applied. For most people, this is no sweat, but if you’re an enthusiast, it is yet another way you can improve the performance of your truck. Race prepared vehicles use metal or very hard composite bushings in their suspensions, they want to minimize deflection. This should be a factor when you choose your lowering method, springs and spindles don’t come equipped to improve your suspension in that way. Calmax Control arms however come from the factory with urethane bushings and “twin tube” pivot points which reduces deflection and maintains ride quality. Another reason why control arms are the smart choice for modern lowering systems. Now, having said all that, it brings us to:
THE FIFTH LAW OF ALIGNMENT
When lowering you truck with an engineered lowering kit you should ALWAYS be able to align to OEM specs. Period. With today’s technology there is no excuse for a lowering kit that can’t be aligned to factory or you’re own high performance set-up. Whew, got that off our chest now we can continue and discuss toe. TOE IN/OUT Back in the old days, before radial tires and power steering, alignment values were a lot different. For example caster tended to be negative because at highway speed the dynamic caster resulted in a positive value, with a corresponding near zero or very slight negative camber. This was because of tires actually changing shape and altering the physical dimensions of the front end. It was also popular to set the toe negative, now a days you can decide how you would like your toe based on your driving style. The toe setting is typically used to help compensate for the suspension bushings compliance, and to enhance tire wear. On rear wheel drive trucks they push the front end down the road causing the control arms to “deflect” rearward against their bushings. Because of this most rear wheel drive vehicles use some positive toe-in, which allow the wheels to run parallel to each other at highway speeds. Toe can also be used to affect your trucks handling. Increased toe-in will typically result in reduced oversteer, and improve high speed stability, but too much and you get an unresponsive, thick feeling. Increased toe-out reduces understeer, and improves “turn in” when cornering. Excessive toe-out makes the truck feel “nervous”, twitchy, lacking in directional stability. Racecar’s are generally set with toe-out, they are willing to sacrifice straight line stability for a sharper turn-in to the corners. For street guys a little toe-in is probably the best choice. If you are doing your own alignment or just getting it close before you take it in, always make the toe adjustment your last one. In fact it is a good idea to “eyeball” the alignment yourself good enough to put a few miles on your truck and then recheck all bolts and fasteners making sure that all are tight and nothing has moved on you before you take it to the alignment shop. If you can find a good alignment guy, it’s not a bad idea to perform regular alignment checks, especially if you have expensive wheels and tires and certainly if you notice your truck pulling to one side or if you hit a “pothole” etc. It optimizes tire wear and handling and can actually save you money over time. We have covered most issues you can encounter when it comes to alignment of lowered trucks. Let’s finish by discussing “Bump Steer”. Once in a while someone thinks they are experiencing BS (bump steer) in their lowered truck. BS is often used as a “catchall” to diagnose a poor handling truck. BS is defined simply as your wheels steer themselves without input from the steering wheel or, the road interacting with an improper length or angle of your suspension or steering linkages causes undesirable steering. Jeez, remember while driving the relationship between your suspension components change as the suspension goes up and down (dynamic alignment). Your camber and toe settings change while you are driving over bumps. BS is assumed to be the culprit when the trucks steering moves or jumps while hitting a bump. It is possible to do a bad lowering job and cause bump steer, but the most likely candidate is alignment. Modern front ends are independent front suspension (“IFS”) and the wheels have the ability to react independently (by design). When, for example a truck with excessive negative camber hits a bump that causes only one tire to lose grip the other tires negative camber will push the truck in the direction of the tire that lost grip. Or hit a bump and the truck steers without input from the steering wheel, gotta be bump steer. Nope, just an alignment problem. Oh, one more thing. Some of you are going to find out that you can’t adjust your alignment because the factory forgot to put the adjusting kits in your truck. Opps, it must be flash back amnesia from the 70’s when some of the finest autos ever made were tearing up the asphalt. Not to worry click here to see the Specialty Products alignment kits page where you will find the missing parts for your truck