It might be because you're cheap. Or maybe it's because you don't trust your Civic in the hands of the gas station apprentice. It doesn't really matter. Doing things yourself is almost always a good thing. It's that whole not knowing what you're doing part that can turn a cheap situation into a bad one, though. Fortunately, adjusting camber, caster, and toe isn't terribly difficult. Even the kid at the gas station can do it. But adjusting camber, caster, and toe in ways that won't wear your tires to the cords every other oil change or make your hatchback handle like mush can be.
Camber, Caster, And Toe: What You Think You Already Know
If you don't know what camber, caster, and toe are, then you probably shouldn't be doing your own alignment. In case you just forgot, though, follow along for a brief refresher.
Camber is simply the tilt of the wheel when viewed from the front of the car. Negative camber means the top of the wheel is tilted in, positive camber means it's tilted out. Most Hondas' camber settings are non-adjustable, so when the vehicle's ride height is lowered and camber naturally errs toward negative, there's not much you can do to correct it without some sort of aftermarket, adjustable alignment kit. Although some front strut suspensions, like those for the TSX, RSX, and newer Civics offer some play, it's negligible.
If you've got the adjustability, you can play with recommended camber settings for optimum handling, but there's really no better way to set up your suspension than to monitor tire temperatures with a tire pyrometer. The goal is to achieve an inside edge that's 5-10 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the outside edge. You can get this with typically no more than 2.5 degrees of negative camber on a track-bound, FWD Honda. Any more than that is just asking for excessive tire wire and poor handling. Although toe is the number one culprit of tire wear, incorrect camber isn't far behind.
Caster is the inclination of the steering axis when viewed from the side. Caster adds stability-or takes it away-and shouldn't be messed with on your street car. Turns out, you really can't on most Hondas anyway without shims and some fancy measuring. Unless yours is out of factory specification, don't mess with it.
Toe is the relationship of the front edges of the front or rear tires when viewed from above. Toe-in means the fronts of the tires are closer together than the rears of the tires. Toe-out means the opposite. All Hondas feature adjustable front toe and is often all that's messed with when you pay for the obligatory "four-wheel alignment." A small amount of rear toe-in can increase straight-line stability while a small amount of front toe-in can improve steering response. However, track settings will differ. For example, toe-out settings are often used up front for improved steering when turning into tighter corners. If tire wear is your number-one concern, aim for the specs in your service manual.
Preparing The Surface
Alignment racks, lasers, and precision measuring instruments are all well and good, but the poor man's alignment begins with some string, a box of linoleum tiles, and some salt. Whether you're working with lasers or string, though, whatever it is that you're aligning has to be level.
Since you're poor, chances are your garage floor isn't level. Position your car where you plan on performing the alignment and mark the ground next to each tire. Move the car and place a single 1/8-inch-thick linoleum floor tire next to the marks. You'll want to start with one tile where each tire was. Most linoleum tiles have an adhesive backside covered by paper. Don't remove it. With a tile at each corner, you've just raised the potential surface height by roughly 1/8 inch-but it's still not level.
You might think that now would be a good time to borrow your neighbor's 10-foot carpenter's level, but there's a better way, and all you need is a bucket of water. A floor jack, some clear tubing, and a piece of tape will help too. Fill the bucket with water and place it on your floor jack's mounting pad. Submerge one end of the tubing into the bucket, securing it to the side with a piece of tape. Grab the other end of the tubing and secure its last 12 inches or so alongside a yardstick with tape. Set the yardstick vertically on top of any of the four tiles with the tube's open end facing up. Be sure to hold the yardstick as upright as possible. Next, look for the end of the water trail inside the tube. Raise or lower the jack until the tubing's water level terminates at a height that's easy for you to see head-on and coincides with a whole number on the yardstick. For example, raise or lower the jack until the water's meniscus (the curve-shaped water surface), sits just below, say, the five-inch mark. Don't get too hung up on the actual value the meniscus sits at; just make sure to reference the same value for each tire. Repeat the procedure at each corner until you find the highest location. Calculate the difference between the highest and the three lower locations and add tiles as necessary. You'll know all four corners are level with one another when the water level's meniscus reaches the same spot on the yardstick for each corner.
If you did all of this right, you'll end up with a perfectly level surface. Before pulling your car back in the garage, sprinkle table salt in between each tile. This will let the tiles slide around, allowing the suspension and tires to relax as adjustments are made. You could also use grease, but grease is messy. Park your car on the tiles, leaving it out of gear, the emergency brake released, and the steering wheel straight. Jounce the front and rear ends up and down to settle the suspension and be sure all four tires are properly inflated.
Your car's now sitting on a level surface but its alignment's still out of whack. Typically, toe should be adjusted first. To do so, we need some sort of reference point to measure from. If your car's front and rear track widths (the space between the two front tires and two rear tires) are the same, then simply run a string parallel to the chassis. If they aren't, you'll need to calculate the difference in track widths and adjust one end of the string accordingly. Locate a jack stand next to each wheel along the side of the car and run a string back and forth. Measure from the wheel's center caps or hub mounting surfaces to the string to ensure equal distances both front and rear. The distance between the front center cap and the string should be the same as the distance between the rear center cap and the string if your track widths are equal. Shoot for somewhere around 10 inches. Next, raise or lower the string to the center caps' height. Do the same for both sides of the car. If any adjustments are made, recheck all other measurements.
Unless your car is relatively new, chances are some of your suspension components are slightly bent-not to the degree that you'd notice it but enough to throw off an alignment. Ideally, you want to locate the vehicle's centerline from underneath and measure out to your string instead of relying on the wheels, which are potentially mounted to bent hubs and/or control arms. The best place to locate a vehicle's centerline is on either crossmember-not its body components, which are all likely misaligned worse than your suspension is bent. Although this method is the most accurate, it's a bit impractical for lowered vehicles if you don't have access to some sort of rack.
Align It Already
Begin the alignment by adjusting the front toe. If you want zero degrees of toe, simply measure a particular wheel's forward-most and rearward-most points from the string at axle height and ensure they're the same. If they aren't, adjust the tie rod to pull the wheel in or out. Most Honda service manuals include toe specifications measured in inches/millimeters as well as degrees, but if you're looking to set a bit of toe-in or toe-out based on a specific degree value, you'll need to convert that value to inches and adjust your string-to-wheel gap accordingly. The math can get a bit convoluted, but there are several online calculators that'll do it for you; all you've got to do is plug in some variables, like wheel diameter and/or overall tire height and your toe gap measured in inches or degrees, depending on which way you're converting. With the toe set you can move on to camber. Even if you are poor, you should still be able to afford a simple alignment kit like the FASTRAX gauge from SPC. It'll fit most any wheel, measure camber, caster, and toe, and save you from lots of math. But if you just don't want to spend the money, simply attach a two-foot carpenter's level to a metal straight edge, just enough to position the level away from the tire and fender. It's a cheap and effective way to measure camber if your goal is simply to get as close to zero as possible. And since you're poor and are tired of wasting money on tires, zero is a good place to be. However, if you need a bit of negative camber-or any setting that's not zero-you'll need to arbitrarily adjust the camber, position your level at zero, and measure the distance between the level and the top of the rim. Next, you can take this figure and convert it to degrees since camber isn't measured in inches. Again, more trigonometry, but nothing's ever easy when you're trying to be cheap.