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Without getting into the birds and bees of vehicle design, it’s safe to say that cars come in all sizes and shapes. In all but a few cases, those sizes and shapes are tied directly to the way that a vehicle performs and behaves on the road. One of those dimensions, length, is important to the way a vehicle drives and behaves, but it’s not just the distance bumper-to-bumper that matters.
Your car’s wheelbase impacts nearly every aspect of how it handles and its interior dimensions. The distance between a vehicle’s wheels plays a big role in how it handles and how it rides and can determine how good it is off-road, among other things. Knowing how to take that measurement is just as important as understanding what it means. Thankfully, it’s an easy job that anyone can pull off with just a safe parking spot and a couple of tools. Let’s dive in.
- Estimated Time Needed: <10 minutes
- Skill Level: Beginner
- Vehicle System: Exterior/dimensional
What Is a Car's Wheelbase?
A vehicle’s wheelbase is a measurement of the distance between the wheels, more specifically the center of each wheel. Think of an imaginary line between the center cap of your front wheel and the center cap of the rear wheel. Beyond the length of your car, the wheelbase has a big impact on how it drives and on how much room you have to stretch out inside.
Luxury cars tend to have longer wheelbases to allow for better rear legroom and to provide a smoother ride. Hot hatchbacks, on the other hand, have a shorter wheelbase, which makes them more agile and gives them the ability to hop around corners and deliver a fun ride. Of course, there are always exceptions, such as in the case of some front-engine sports cars, which have longer wheelbases so that the engine can be moved back behind the front axle for better weight distribution.
Everything You’ll Need To Measure Your Wheelbase
You won’t need much to measure your car’s wheelbase. In fact, you probably already have what you need to get started. Without further ado, the tool list:
Organizing your tools and gear so everything is easily reachable will save precious minutes waiting for your handy-dandy child or four-legged helper to bring you the sandpaper or blowtorch. (You won't need a blowtorch for this job. Please don’t have your kid hand you a blowtorch—Ed.)
You’ll also need a flat workspace, such as a garage floor, driveway, or street parking. Check your local laws to make sure you’re not violating any codes when using the street because we aren’t getting your ride out of the clink.
Here’s How To Measure Your Car’s Wheelbase
It’s important to note that if you just want a rough wheelbase number, you can get away with measuring directly from wheel to wheel without making chalk marks, but you’ll likely need a friend to hold the other end to get a decent measurement. A slightly more accurate way to measure, and one you can do on your own, is to use chalk.
Let’s do this!
- Park the vehicle on the most level surface possible. If you’re on a bumpy or hilly surface, it can affect the measurements you take. Set the parking brake and make sure the vehicle is in gear or in Park. Straighten the steering wheel and make sure the front wheels are straightforward.
- Take your square measure and stand it up against the wheel, making sure that the vertical portion is aligned with the center of the wheel’s center cap as closely as possible. Mark a line on the ground with your chalk where the bottom of the square meets the road surface.
- If you’re unsure of the angle or believe that you’re unable to align at a perpendicular angle to the wheel, you might need to use a second square to ensure that you’re not over-or under-measuring.
- Make a second mark for the rear wheel, leaving two chalk marks on the ground.
- Use your tape measure to determine the distance between the two chalk marks. This is your wheelbase measurement.
- Perform the same measurements on the other side of the vehicle to investigate and diagnose any issues with alignment and tire wear. If the wheelbase doesn’t match up on one side or the other, you may have a problem that needs to be addressed by a body shop.
- You can confirm your measurements against those of the manufacturer by checking the sticker inside your driver’s side door jamb. In addition to recommended tire pressures and the location of your vehicle’s manufacture, you should be able to find the OEM’s wheelbase figures there.
Pro Tips To Measure a Wheelbase
Measuring your car’s wheelbase isn’t difficult, but there are a few things to keep in mind to make the job as smooth as possible.
- Try to get the angle of your square as close to perpendicular to the wheel as possible. If it’s turned one way or the other, it can skew your wheelbase measurement to look longer or shorter than it really is.
- Smooth surfaces like a paved driveway or garage floor are the easiest locations to measure your wheelbase because they allow the chalk to be seen more easily.
- If you notice a difference in measurements between the two sides of your car, don’t ignore it. If one side is longer or shorter than the other, your car could chew through tires more quickly or may be harder to control on the road.
FAQs About Wheelbase Measurements
You’ve got questions, The Drive has answers!
Q: Can I change my car’s wheelbase?
A: You can, but not without significant effort. Everything from your car’s suspension to its exterior bodywork is tied with the wheelbase, and changing it means the trickle-down effect of having to change everything else. The vehicle’s frame rails would need to be shortened or lengthened, for instance, and, in the case of rear-drive cars, powertrain items like the driveshaft would need to be changed accordingly to meet the new distance to the drive wheels.
Q: Is a longer wheelbase better?
A: It really depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re looking for a smooth-riding car with plenty of space inside, having a long wheelbase is ideal, but if you want something agile and sporty, one with a shorter wheelbase will likely be best.
Q: Can I buy a car with a short wheelbase and still have a decent-sized interior?
A: Absolutely. Some smaller vehicles “cheat” a bit by being taller, which allows the seats to be mounted a little higher to avoid being down between the axles.
Q: Is it better to have a shorter or longer wheelbase for off-roading?
A: Off-roaders prefer shorter wheelbase vehicles because they are easier to maneuver over rough terrain. There’s also something called the breakover angle, which is the sharpest peak, so to speak, that a vehicle can drive over without scraping its undercarriage. If you imagine a mountain as a perfect triangle, the breakover angle would be the most acute peak angle a vehicle could clear with all of its wheels in contact with the ground.
Learn more about measuring your wheelbase with this helpful video.
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