How Does Caster Affect Driving?

Of all vehicle alignment adjustments, caster is probably the least known and understood, but you can rightly think of it as the unsung hero of proper alignment. If it weren’t for caster, vehicles of all varieties would be drastically less stable and predictable.

So what is there to know about caster, and how does it affect driving?

What is caster?

With a vehicle side view, picture a vertical axis (line) that runs straight through the center of your front wheels.

Caster, which is also referred to as caster angle, is the top to bottom angle of the steering axis and suspension components as they meet the wheel.

A zero/neutral caster setting would result in a perfectly vertical spring/shock with the center of the wheel positioned directly “south” of the strut mount or upper ball joint (depending upon the vehicle suspension type).
How caster works

Caster is an alignment adjustment that occurs on the turning wheels only, i.e., the front wheels of a vehicle.

What is positive caster?

Positive caster positions the lower ball joint in front of the upper ball joint or strut mount. This results in the tire contact patch hitting ground in front of the steering system and suspension components.

Why is positive caster desirable?

The origins and numerous documented benefits of positive caster date all the way back to the late nineteenth century. (Discoveries of the French automotive engineering pioneer Arthur Constantin Krebs, for all you history buffs out there.) Positive caster creates two primary benefits:

  • Improved straight-line stability at speed. The front wheels positioned forward of the upper ball joint/strut mount produces a self-aligning torque on the front wheels and tires. This is a fairly complicated engineering concept, but the idea is that positive caster creates a tension that wants to return/keep the front wheels pointed straight ahead while at speed.

    You experience the benefits of positive caster and self-aligning torque every time the steering wheel naturally “unwinds” back to 12 o’clock when exiting a corner. And without positive caster and the resulting self-aligning torque, the vehicle would be very inclined to wander at highway speeds. (You’d feel that too! For a risk-free preview, send a shopping cart, which has negative caster at the front wheels, on its way. Just make sure there aren’t any cars or fellow shoppers around.)

  • Improved vehicle handling and cornering performance. Caster has a direct relationship to negative camber, which is fundamental to maximizing the tire’s contact patch when cornering, and therefore key to maximizing the available grip.

Specifically, positive caster helps to create increased negative camber on the outside wheel during cornering. When cornering, the vehicle weight shift is met with a maximization of the tire contact patch on the outside front wheel that’s under maximum cornering load.

In performance driving circles a caster increase – sometimes to the maximum available setting that the vehicle will accommodate – is credited with improvements in vehicle handling, maximum traction, and steering responsiveness.

What is negative caster?

Negative caster positions the lower ball joint behind (rearward of) the upper ball joint or strut mount. Unlike in a positive caster arrangement, the wheel and tire contact patch hit the ground behind the steering system and suspension components.

Negative caster angle isn’t a setting used by modern road cars. The self-aligning torque and straight-line stability that is characteristic of positive caster are absent in a negative caster setting. In fact, a “loose” steering wheel and immense front wheel instability would result from a negative caster setup.

Caster’s influence on tire wear

Caster settings are not a primary, direct factor in tire wear. However, excessive positive caster in association with other alignment maladjustments can exacerbate a tire wear issue. For example, a tire wear pattern called feathering can result from a combination of too much caster with incorrect toe settings. Tire feathering is characterized by a high-low, smooth-sharp variation in the wear pattern of the tread blocks.
Tire feathering

Of all of the alignment settings, however, caster is the least likely to be a cause of uneven or abnormal tire wear. A holistic alignment approach involves verification of caster settings that are to your vehicle’s specification.

Caster might not get the headlines of the other alignment variables and adjustments, but it’s fundamental to vehicle performance and safety just the same. Next time you’re pushing a shopping cart around the store, note the unpredictability of the front end, and be thankful for Mr. Arthur Krebs and his positive caster concept!

How much do new tires cost?
With tires and warranties, you get what you pay for. Find out what you should expect to pay.
How do I find quiet tires for my car?
Here's some practical advice to help you find a quiet set of tires – and keep them that way.
Tire rotation patterns
Find out exactly what your local tire professional is doing when they're putting new tires on your car.
Mounting and balancing
Find out exactly what your local tire professional is doing when they're putting new tires on your car.
What’s a tire/wheel alignment?
Find out why it’s a good idea to get an alignment now and then – and how much it’ll cost you.
Using mismatched tires
Using mismatched tires isn't ideal. But if you have to do it, here's what you need to know.
Tire inflation pressure and time
Pssst your tires are leaking! Just another reason why it's so important to check your tire pressure