Get It Straight – An Alignment Chat with Andrei Fenner
EDGE Motorworks recently hosted an alignment tech session in their Mountain View location. GGC members were given the ins and outs of alignment with technician and GGC member Anthony Zwain. As a follow-up to the session, eBombe editor Percy Chow sat down with EDGE manager Andrei Fenner to reinforce the concepts and lessons from the session.
What’s so important about a good alignment and shop?
Everybody has heard from someone that alignments matter – only to be told those guys are expensive, just go to (enter large tire chain name here) because all you have to do is make the numbers green, right? One couldn’t be more wrong! Alignments are much more than colors on a screen and before more GGC members figure this out with their own wallets, please consider my experience on this matter.
Andrei, for the members, tell us a little about yourself.
My name is Andrei Fenner, I am an ASE Master Technician and the Service Manager at EDGE Motorworks Mountain View. I have been working with BMWs for over 20 years, working in the automotive industry for closer to 30 and a GGC chapter member for 20 years next summer. I have seen many good techs, many bad techs, good repairs, and times where I simply couldn’t believe my eyes.
What does an alignment involve on our cars?
For BMW cars, there are three basic angles: toe, camber and caster. Toe is how the wheels are pointed. Toed-in means the leading edges of the tires are closer. Toed-out is the opposite. Camber is the top of the wheel tilting inward toward the body (negative camber) or tilting out which would be positive. The final is caster which refers to the upper to lower suspension pivot points and their tilt to each other in degrees.
One of the most important things I have seen is, even if spec is not achievable, to always attempt to match the setting side to side. Not having the adjustments match can lead to all types of problems. Another big one is pre-inspection of the suspension to make sure it is even alignable – checking for play, wear, etc. The next big deal is weighting the car. Most tire shops don’t put ANY weight in the car. Think about it. I don’t know about you, but most of the time I am driving, my weight is in that seat. Would it make the most sense to align the car the closest to the way it will be driven? BMW does use weight, but they use about 600lbs. to replicate a driver, a passenger and rear passengers. Most of us, especially doing performance driving, whether it be Highway 9, autocross, or a track day aren’t taking the whole family. We tend to weight the car with driver’s weight only. If you have been to or are going to our Tech Session, you will see how much the angles will change just adding or removing weight. It is huge!
What kind of alignment should I get?
That question is best answered by how the car will be used. Is it a track only setup (which would be twitchy and a little unnerving on the street), an aggressive street (a compromise, best of both worlds), or for tire wear (commuting car/daily driver)? There is a misconception that a car will not handle well on the street unless one goes with a super aggressive alignment – it is just the opposite. On the tire wear and aggressive street alignments, we tend to take rear camber out, still remaining negative but reducing how negative. BMW spec is super aggressive for rear camber to induce a push or understeer, but this accelerates rear tire wear. Some of the specs I have seen are as much as -2.8 degrees which we would only run on a full-blown, purpose-built race car.
Do new cars need an alignment?
Well, even if the car is new and drives fine, chances are it isn’t. The cars are built overseas and aligned there, then strapped down to a ship and bounced over miles of ocean. Upon arrival they are then strapped down to a truck and shipped to the dealers. There, a pre-delivery inspection is done, but unless the car drives poorly, an alignment is not part of this. That said, we have done a ton of alignments on brand new cars, not just BMWs, but Laboghinis, Ferraris, Minis, Mercedes, Alfas, Fiats, Porsches, Teslas, you name it. We even have greatly improved cars that were just aligned. Also, given the conditions of our ever declining roads, it is a good idea to at least get the alignment checked annually, or any time you have hit something big in the road, or had an off at the track.
What are the signs that I need an alignment?
By the time you realize that you needed an alignment, your tires are most likely already abnormally worn. A “bad” alignment can cause pulling, instability, severe/unusual tire wear, and poor handling to name a few. Even if you are not noticing any of these issues, it doesn’t mean your alignment can’t be improved. Often we get in a brand new car, the customer loves the way it drives already but wants to make sure it is as good as possible. We do some tweaks to make it perfect (or as close as possible) and they can’t believe it is the same car with the same suspension.
What type of shops do good alignments?
Any shop that has top of the line Hunter Alignment systems should be able to perform a good alignment. However, the equipment isn’t what aligns the car, the technician is. I always look to alignment shops that are familiar with race car set-ups. This isn’t because everybody needs a track alignment, it’s because if the tech understands alignments and suspensions enough to set up a competitive race car, he or she will not just attempt to make the numbers “go green”. Most tire shops employ entry-level technicians. Sometimes they are fresh out of school and sometimes without training in alignments. This is why a bargain shop can charge so little, because you are getting so little. For the Bay Area, how many hours should an alignment take and what would a shop charge? For the Bay Area, a custom four wheel alignment done by a good shop will usually run about $250. This can go up if you add corner balancing or if the car utilizes a non-stock, fully adjustable suspension. I do know of tire shops that will charge as little as $95, but again, you get what you pay for.
Think about it this way: All the GGC members drive and pay to own a BMW. Why not just get a Civic or a Corolla? They are cheaper to maintain after all, right? We all buy BMW because GGC members care about quality – and with that quality comes a little extra cost. An alignment is no different. Anything else we need to know? That is it for now, I hope this has been informative without droning on too long. If GGC members have any setup or product questions, please don’t hesitate to send me an email, I’m here to help. Thank you!
You can contact Andrei Fenner at Andrei@edgemotorworks.com.