After putting in more than 50 hours of research, talking to several tire experts, and comparing the websites of more than a dozen tire retailers, we found that it’s impossible to recommend a single tire that will suit most people because so much depends on a driver’s specific car and driving environment. But we did find that Tire Rack provides the best overall shopping experience for most people. It offers better shopping tools than its competitors, a large selection, competitive prices, and a wide network of installers.
Tire Rack makes it easy to find a set of the same tires that originally came on your vehicle or to find the same size and type of tire from a proven, reliable brand, such as Michelin, Continental, or Bridgestone. (If you want to be pickier and find a tire that excels in areas that are specifically important to you, like winter tires if you live in a snowy area, we tell you how to navigate tires specifications and online ratings below.) Tire Rack ships to more than 8,000 installers around the country so chances are there’s a place within reach of your home. And it makes this easy on buyers by seamlessly integrating this into the ordering process. Best of all, it offers more comprehensive and helpful buying advice than other sites, including expert tire reviews that are based on their own track testing and an extensive database of user ratings. Other tire retailers have other advantages, which we go into below, but they don’t cover all of the bases as well as Tire Rack. That said, it’s worth noting that prices fluctuate between retailers, and we found that no one place consistently had the lowest price. Although Tire Rack is competitive in this regard, we recommend checking several websites before buying to see which has the lowest out-the-door price on the tire you want, including installation.
Eric Evarts is a veteran auto journalist who spent the past 10 years at Consumer Reports writing about a wide range of auto topics, including many of its annual tire test reports. He’s covered everything from a tire’s rolling resistance (which affects fuel economy) to which warning signs to look for before a tire fails. Between CR and his 15 years at the Christian Science Monitor, he’s consistently written about the auto scene with an eye for the needs and concerns of the average driver.
For this guide, we interviewed several tire experts who are or have been involved with some of the largest tire-testing programs in the country: Gene Petersen, head of tire testing at Consumer Reports; Woody Rogers, director of tire information at Tire Rack; Tom Carter, technical communications director, Michelin North America; and Mac Demere, former Michelin tire tester, race-car driver, and Motor Trend test editor. We also talked to Sean Williams, co-owner of Caliber Tire & Auto in New City, New York, about tire care. And we compared the websites for a dozen tire retailers, looking at their prices for several common tire models, the services they offer, and the tires they recommend for three popular cars: a 2009 Honda Civic, 2011 Toyota RAV4, and a 2013 Jeep Wrangler.
Tire Rack has a large selection, a wide network of installers, a user-friendly interface, expert reviews, in-depth user ratings, and competitive prices (although not always the lowest).
Overall we feel Tire Rack offers the best overall online tire shopping experience for most people. It has a large selection and typically competitive prices—sometimes the lowest. User-friendly search tools help you find the right tires for your car more efficiently than you can through other online retailers (it’s one of only two sites that makes it easy to find original-equipment tires for your car, as we recommend for most people), and Tire Rack’s tire information library is among the best we’ve seen, with useful, well-presented technical detail based on in-house expert testing.
Another way Tire Rack stands out is by being able to ship directly to you or any of about 8,000 installers around the country. Other online tire retailers do this as well, but Tire Rack impressed us with its coverage and seamless integration in the ordering process. When we checked various locations across the country, we found that Tire Rack has the major metro areas well covered, but, more important, it also services smaller towns well. It was one of only two sites that had nearby installers for each of three random small towns we checked, including Boone, North Carolina; Geneva, New York; and Silverdale, Washington (the other site was TireBuyer). Tire Rack also makes it easy to ship to those installers by integrating it into the online buying process. You do have to call the installer to set up an appointment, though.
Other benefits: Tire Rack provided free roadside hazard warranties on the tires we shopped for. Also, if you’re near one of their eight warehouses across the country, you can pick up your tires for free, saving shipping costs.
Tire Rack’s website has the most extensive info center we’ve seen, which is chock full of helpful advice and decision-making tools. This includes detailed user ratings, expert reviews that are based on its own track testing, a user-friendly decision guide, and an extensive Tech Center that clearly answers virtually any tire question you could have. That said, before you buy we recommend that you visit other websites to check their prices, which can vary considerably day to day.
Another online tire retailer worth checking out is TireBuyer. It’s a retail arm of the giant American Tire Distributors (ATD), which trucks tires to shops and tire stores across the US. TireBuyer contracts with 9,000 installers across the country and, like Tire Rack, has good coverage in both cities and small towns. Also, like Tire Rack, it integrates the shipping process to those installers into the online ordering process, and it makes it easy to find original-equipment tires if you want. An extra benefit: For several of the tires we searched for, TireBuyer offered free shipping to one of their installers (which is probably a side benefit of ATD’s trucks going there anyway). Be sure to check the installation costs of the installers it recommends, though; in our area we found it ranged from about $70 to $140 for four tires. TireBuyer doesn’t have the extensive ratings, expert reviews, and info center that Tire Rack offers, though.
If you have a Sears or Walmart auto center near you, one of them could be a good choice for you. Both had all of the tires we looked for in our testing, were usually among the lowest in pricing, and do their own installation, which simplifies the process. Sears also makes it easy to schedule an appointment at the same time you’re buying the tires online; we didn’t find this as easy with the Walmart website, which wanted us to pick up the tires in the store. Another advantage is that if you get a roadside hazard warranty (which we recommend), a major retail chain will have a wide network of installers across the country that will honor it and help you out if you have trouble.
We looked at about a dozen online tire retailers, comparing their prices, selection, and services. They included Amazon, BJ’s, Costco, Discount Tire Direct, Online Tires, Pep Boys, Sam’s Club, Sears, TireBuyer, Tires-Easy.com, Tire Rack, TreadDepot, and Walmart. Some are linked to brick-and-mortar stores that can install your tires, and others are online only and ship the tires to either you or an installer in your area. (We didn’t include Goodyear and Firestone stores because they have a limited brand selection, but you could use those for installation of any tires. We also didn’t include some regional chains because of their limited territory or tire selection.)
To compare various online tire retailers, we went to a dozen of their websites and looked up the prices for several common tires, the services they offer, and their recommended tires for three popular vehicles: a 2009 Honda Civic, 2011 Toyota RAV4 SUV, and 2013 Jeep Wrangler. We found that, in addition to shopping around and comparing prices at several online retailers, you should:
Here’s how different types of tire retailers compare.
Online tire retailers. We checked out Amazon, Discount Tire Direct, Online Tires, Pep Boys, TireBuyer, Tire Rack, Tires-Easy.com, and TreadDepot. Most will ship to an installer near you, so you don’t have to haul the tires there yourself. The better sites, such as Tire Rack and TireBuyer, will integrate this into the online ordering process, while others make you enter the shipping information for the installer of your choice. Online Tires will only ship to the buyer’s address.
To make it easier to compare apples to apples, we suggest calling a couple local tire installers to see what they would charge for installation. Then use that figure to compare the total “out-the-door” prices at the various sites. We found installation prices for a set of four tires that ranged from $60 at warehouse clubs to $140 at a local tire shop. It can also vary by the tire model.
All of the sites have a large inventory, but their selection can vary. Only three of the sites we checked out had all of the tire models in the sizes we searched for: Online Tires, TireBuyer, and Tires-Easy.com. (Although, we found the Online Tires selector to be glitchy compared with the others.)
Prices varied quite a bit for some of the tires we looked for, sometimes by as much as $50 to $150 for a set of four. That said, none of the sites always had the lowest prices, nor the highest. Tire Rack, for example, had one of the lowest prices for the Michelin Latitude Tour, but one of the highest for the similar Latitude Tour HP. That reinforces the need to visit several sites to compare prices. Several of the retailers, including Amazon, Discount Tire Direct, Pep Boys, Online Tires, TireBuyer, and TreadDepot offered free shipping on at least some of the tires we searched for, but this was sometimes part of a special offer. Regardless, when comparing tires, you should look at the total out-the-door price, as free shipping could be offset by a higher tire price, or vice versa.
When we looked for the top tire recommendations for three popular vehicles, we got mixed results. Tire Rack, TireBuyer, and TreadDepot came through with major-brand tires as the top choices for all three models. Discount Tire Direct mixed in a couple major brands with a brand—Arizonian—that we weren’t familiar with. Online Tires and Tires-Easy.com suggested all off-brand tires that we didn’t know that well. Amazon and Pep Boys were also a bit iffy in their recommendations, with a mix of known and unknown brands, and none of the three that our experts recommended.
General brick-and-mortar retailers. A Sears or Walmart could be a good choice for buying and installation, if you have one of their auto centers near you. They didn’t always have the lowest prices on the tires we searched for, but they were among the lowest for most. They can also make it easy to get the tires installed. Even if you don’t have one of their auto centers near you, Walmart provides free shipping to you or a local installer. Sears doesn’t ship tires, but you can pick them up at a Sears store (if there’s one in the area) and take them elsewhere to be installed, if you want.
We did get mixed results on recommended tires when we entered three popular vehicles on their websites. Walmart’s first recommendations for all three were Hankook tires, which is a mid-level tire brand. Its tires may be okay, but there’s no way to tell without checking independent ratings. Sears recommended a Michelin for one vehicle as well as Uniroyal and Radar tires for the others (Uniroyal is Michelin’s low-priced brand, while Radar is a brand we’d never heard of). This makes it hard to stick to our overall recommendation, which is to go in looking for either a specific tire model or one from a major brand, such as Michelin, Continental, or Bridgestone.
Warehouse clubs. We looked at three warehouse clubs—BJ’s (an eastern US chain), Costco, and Sam’s Club. If you’re a member and have a location near you, these could be good choices if you just want to get a major-brand tire in the right size for your car, and you aren’t looking for a specific model. Their prices can (though it’s not always the case) be among the lowest, but they have a more limited selection than other tire retailers. Installation costs (around $60 for a set of four tires) were among the lowest, and they provide free maintenance for the life of the tires (rotations, balancing, flat repairs), along with free shipping to the store nearest you. But they won’t ship to you or an independent installer.
Their limited selection was evident in our searches. When looking for the popular Michelin Latitude Tour tire, for example, Costco was the only one of the three that had the right size in stock near us. The nearest BJ’s that had it was a two-hour drive away. And the local Sam’s Club only had the pricier Latitude Tour HP in stock. None were among the lowest in price. We also had hit-or-miss results when searching for other tire models. We couldn’t find either of two popular Continental tires for the Civic at any of the three clubs. We couldn’t find Goodyear Wrangler tires in the right size at either BJ’s or Costco. And Costco didn’t have Michelin Defender LTX tires.
All of the experts we interviewed agreed that you should get the same type and size of tire that originally came on your car when it was new. A tire’s size is shown on its sidewall and will usually look something like this: P215/55R17. The type refers to whether a tire is all-season, all-terrain, or something else.
The experts we interviewed recommend a couple of easy ways to get good tires for your vehicle.
Buy the same model that originally came on your car. This is a simple way to make sure you get a tire that works well with your vehicle. “Think about how your car performed when it was brand new,” said former test-driver Mac Demere. “Were you happy with the ride, the handling, and the braking? Then just buy the same tire that originally came on your car.”
While a replacement tire with the same model name should be fine for most people, the experts we interviewed said that it still may not be exactly the same as the original one. That’s because automakers can have a tire manufacturer tweak the design of the originals to work better with a particular car model. Consumer Reports’s Gene Petersen said that a vehicle’s original tires, for example, are often tuned to provide a quiet, comfortable ride and better fuel economy to enhance the car. But the replacement versions might have longer tread life or better all-weather performance.
So, if you want the exact same tire, you have to get one with the same part number as the originals. Of the websites we looked at, only Tire Rack and TireBuyer made this easy. Once you’ve entered the make and model of your car, they provide an option to click on Original equipment. You could also try going through a local dealer, although we found that to be hit or miss—even Sears and Walmart, which often have good deals, provided no way to easily track down OE tires, and they weren’t available in several dealerships we checked.
Buy from a reliable brand. Sometimes, it may be hard to find the model that originally came on your car locally, or anywhere. Or you may decide you want or need something different. Gene Petersen said, “As the car gets older, and the new-car novelty fades, consumers tend to look for cheaper tires and tires that wear longer, which can be equated to higher value.”
So, another easy solution is to get the same size and type of tire from a reliable, major brand; the experts we interviewed recommended Michelin, Continental, and Bridgestone as making tires that you can depend on to consistently deliver good all-around performance and tread life. Their tires consistently provide a good balance of good grip, long tread life, low noise, a comfortable ride, and above-average fuel economy. Not all tires from those brands will necessarily be the top rated in their class, but when it comes to mainstream tires you rarely see them outside the top tier.
True, they tend to be among the more expensive brands, but the best tires also tend to have longer tread life, which can help defray some of the cost over the long run. “True value comes in the form of price per tire,” Petersen said. “So, using our data, the Michelin Defender costs $120 in our test size, and would wear out in about 90,000 miles, based on our test. A GT Radial costs about $64 and would wear out in about 45,000 miles. The Michelin, therefore, costs about 13¢ per mile versus 14¢ per mile for the GT Radial. Very similar, but then consider the cost of buying new tires, and the cost of mounting and balancing those GT Radial tires twice as often, and then you can see the Michelin makes a lot more sense if you plan on keeping your car for a long time.”
Tom Carter, Michelin’s technical communications director, pointed out that everything a vehicle does on the road—braking, acceleration, cornering—depend on the tires: “As vehicles become more powerful and more sophisticated, many of those features function better with good tires. This includes, but is not limited to, anti-lock braking, dynamic stability control, and accident-avoidance systems, such as frontal collision avoidance.” These systems, he said, function better with good tires.
Most people will be happy with the tires they get by buying them the way we recommend above. But if you’re willing to spend some time digging into detailed ratings, you may be able to find tires that better fit your personal preferences. Maybe you want tires that will give you better grip in wet weather or snow. Or you want a more comfortable ride, or less noise, or a little better fuel economy. Detailed tire ratings can guide you to tires that are stronger in key areas.
The two best sources for individual tire ratings are Consumer Reports, which requires a subscription, and Tire Rack, which provides both expert testing and user ratings and reviews—the most useful selection among the online retailers we checked out. CR rates tires in 10 areas: dry braking, wet braking, handling, hydroplaning, snow traction, ice braking, ride comfort, noise, tread life, and rolling resistance (the lower the rolling resistance, the better the fuel efficiency). By looking at its ratings charts, you can see which tires do better in different areas. And the ones with the top overall scores may not be the best for your needs. Keep in mind that if you aren’t up to subscribing for this info, you can often access it through your local library, either online or in print.
Tire Rack offers a wealth of info, but getting to it can take a little more digging. By hovering your cursor over the Research & Advice tab and then clicking Tire Ratings & Reviews, you can access its user info in several ways. You can read individual user reviews by car model or by tire brand. Or you can click on a specific tire category, such as Passenger All-Season or Crossover/SUV Touring All-Season, and see aggregate scores for the different tires in 12 areas that are similar to CR’s.
In the Tire Test Results, you can read numerous reviews by Tire Rack’s experts, sorted by tire brand or category. This is where the free-form presentation requires some digging time, though. Tire Rack’s Tire Decision Guide can also help you pinpoint recommended tires, based on your car and some basic priorities. And the site’s Tech Center has a wealth of info about tires, should you decide to dig deeper in any area.
You can also find user reviews on other websites, such as Walmart, Amazon, Sears, Discount Tire Direct, Tirestest.com, and other online tire retailers. But they vary a lot by quantity and quality, especially since most drivers don’t have the experience or opportunity to compare a wide range of tires.
Overall, we found that the user ratings on Tire Rack often align pretty well with those of Consumer Reports’s experts. To see how close they were, we looked at both charts for three popular cars: a 2009 Honda Civic EX, 2011 Toyota RAV4, and 2013 Jeep Wrangler Sport. While we found a fair amount of discrepancy, we also found some tires that are highly rated in both. For the Civic, four tire models show up among the top-rated ones in both charts: the Pirelli Cinturato P7 All-Season, Michelin Premier A/S, Continental PureContact, and General Altimax RT43. We found three common ones for the RAV4: the Goodyear Assurance CS TripleTred All-Season, Pirelli Scorpion Verde All-Season Plus, and the Continental CrossContact LX20. For the Jeep, we found two: the Goodyear Wrangler All-Terrain Adventure and the Michelin LTX A/T 2. So, for those types of cars, any of these tires would likely be good overall bets. When looking for highly rated tires for your vehicle, you can do the same type of comparison and likely find tire models that do well in both.
As an example of how to use these ratings, when one of our editors recently bought tires for his family’s two compact cars—a 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid and 2010 Mazda3—he used them to compare the pros and cons of different tires and ended up choosing Continental PureContact tires for both. Here’s why. Because he lives in New York, he wanted tires that would provide great grip in both dry and wet conditions and have a high resistance to hydroplaning. And because his wife hates driving in the snow, he also wanted ones that would provide good snow traction. (His area gets some heavy snow in the winter, but it doesn’t stay on the roads for long periods. So, he decided against getting dedicated winter tires.) Low road noise, good ride comfort, and long tread life are also important to him, although those are areas he’s willing to compromise on for great handling and braking. CR rated the PureContact among the highest in its class for most of those areas, although it’s among the worst in ice braking, a trade-off he’s willing to accept with their limited snow seasons. Tire Rack’s user-ratings chart reflected largely the same strengths for the PureContact: very good in dry and wet conditions, light snow traction, and ride comfort, but not quite as strong in ice traction, noise, and tread wear. Plus, the PureContacts are reasonably priced for that type of tire; not as expensive as the Michelin Premier A/S, but more than, say, the General Altimax RT43. The bottom line is that you can easily do the same type of comparison for your vehicles and needs.
Some tire retailers will try to sell you inexpensive off-brand tires. That may be an option if you don’t plan on keeping your car for a lot longer and just need some new rubber. But, unless your budget is really tight and your current tires are pretty worn, the experts we talked to say it’s not a great idea to buy the cheapest replacements you can find.
The US market has been flooded with a torrent of inexpensive tires from China, with brand names such as Pegasus, Lionhart, Crosswind, and Nankang. But they are an unknown quantity, and buying them is a crap shoot. None of the organizations we spoke to has been able to test them because they tend to be imported in very limited quantities: sometimes only one shipping container at a time. When the container sells out, their manufacturers move on to other models. This can make it impossible to find a matching replacement tire later if you encounter a road hazard or have a blowout. This lack of consistent sales inventory is also what has made it difficult for testing organizations to buy the quantity of tires that they need to conduct their tests and publish the results while the tires are still on the market.
Worse, when Consumer Reports did manage to buy a set of Pegasus Advanta SUV tires to test, it discovered they had been counterfeited by an unknown Chinese manufacturer (and not the one that had previously been authorized to build them). The tire maker purported to comply with all federal tire-safety requirements, but there was really no way to tell. As CR said at the time, such tires are a safety concern if for no other reason than there would be no way to conduct a recall on them if a problem were discovered. And the buyer would have no recourse if he encountered a problem. The experts we talked to say it’s worth spending a little more to buy from a recognized name brand, even if it isn’t one of the premium brands they recommend.
When we asked if there are any bargain brands that often make good tires for buyers on a budget, Tire Rack’s Woody Rogers mentioned General Tire, Continental’s budget brand, which he says consistently delivers surprisingly good results in Tire Rack’s tests.
You should never buy used tires for the same reason that experts say you should never buy a used car seat for your baby, and why you stay away from cars with salvage titles. There’s no way to tell what’s inside them or what the tires have been through. It could have been slammed severely into a pothole and have broken internal cords that haven’t yet resulted in any visible signs on the outside of the tire. It could have been exposed to excessive heat in a garage or house fire, or submerged in a flood and be corroding from the inside out. Any of these types of internal damage could cause a blowout with no warning.
Even if a used tire has a decent amount of tread on it, it’s likely to be old. Since rubber deteriorates with age as well as with wear, used tires have a higher risk of failure even if they haven’t been damaged. No matter how tight your budget is, just don’t go there. The same goes for retreaded tires.
Similarly, when buying new tires, you should be aware of their age. Look closely at the sidewall. Every tire is stamped with a date code that shows when it was originally built. It’s a four-digit number, embossed inside a little oval, just after the size and weight and speed ratings. The four digits represent the week and year the tire was built. For example, 0615 denotes a tire that was built in the sixth week (February) of 2015.
Safety organizations, including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as well as the Rubber Manufacturers Association, recommend that you never drive on tires more than seven years old. Beyond that, the rubber can deteriorate and become brittle, increasing the chances of a blowout. Overall, it’s important to buy tires built as recently as possible to get the most use out of them.
Road-hazard warranty. Most tire-buying websites and almost all brick-and-mortar tire stores offer some kind of road-hazard warranty, which is either baked into the price of the tires or offered as an add-on. While a tire’s manufacturer warranty covers defects in the tire, a road-hazard warranty covers damage caused by a puncture, pothole, or anything else encountered during normal driving on a maintained road. It can be useful if, say, the tire is punctured by a nail or glass, or if the sidewall gets torn as you’re driving through a construction zone and accidentally hit the edge of a road plate or some other hazard. If you get a road-hazard warranty, which we recommend, it’s helpful to have one from a store with lots of locations where they can install a new replacement tire wherever you are.
With this coverage, most tire stores that do their own installation will replace and mount the damaged tire for free and even shave it down so it matches the tread depth of your other tires so it won’t damage your car or compromise its handling. With online retailers, things can be different. Tire Rack, for example, includes free road-hazard protection with most tire purchases. If a tire gets damaged, it will ship you a new one, but you will need to go to an installer and pay to have it mounted.
Treadwear warranties. Most name-brand all-season tires list a treadwear warranty, in miles. That is, the tires are guaranteed to last 25,000, 40,000, or even 70,000 miles. If your tires wear out before they reach that point, the tire manufacturer will return a portion of the money you paid for the tires, based on how many miles they went.
The catch is that the tires have to be legally worn out—to 2/32 of an inch of tread depth—before they apply. As tires wear, their ability to maintain a good grip in wet conditions becomes significantly compromised, certainly long before that point, saids Tire Rack’s Woody Rogers. You also have to show that your tires have been properly maintained with regular rotations and alignments, so few consumers end up receiving anything under treadwear warranties.
Nitrogen-filled tires. Many tire installers offer to fill your tires with nitrogen instead of ordinary air, often for an extra charge of about $5 to $10 per tire. The premise is that nitrogen leaks through a tire’s rubber more slowly than air molecules, so you don’t have to adjust the tire pressure as often. We recommend that you save your money, though. First, air is 78 percent nitrogen anyway. And tests conducted by Consumer Reports show that nitrogen-filled tires do lose pressure more slowly, but they still leak. Colder temperatures will also still cause the pressure to go down. So, the bottom line is that you’ll still have to check the pressure on a regular basis. And if it’s low, you may have to pay more to keep it topped up. It’s easier and cheaper just to keep your tires filled with air.
Siping. Some tire stores offer to “sipe” the tires for you for an extra cost. This involves cutting lots of extra crossways grooves, called sipes, across the tread blocks of your tire, which can give all-season tires extra bite in the snow. But when we asked Consumer Reports’s Gene Petersen if it was worth it, he cautioned that the extra sipes could do more harm than good. Cutting tread blocks can lead to quicker wear and more heat, which can cause the tire to wear prematurely. It also isn’t good for handling. A better solution if you often drive on snowy roads is to buy a set of dedicated winter tires, which have extra sipes designed into them.
As the only things that connect your car to the road, tires are a crucial element in maintaining control of your car. In fact, replacing your tires can make a bigger difference in your car’s handling and overall control than any other single component. The right tires—in the right shape—can help you avoid a crash, let you brake in a shorter distance, keep you in control if you suddenly have to swerve, and prevent you from hydroplaning and skidding out of control in standing water. Different tire models also provide different levels of ride comfort, road noise, fuel efficiency, and tread life. In snowy conditions, the right tires can even help keep you from getting stuck.
The biggest difference between the top tires and average or cheap ones is how well they grip the road, especially on wet pavement. When you need to stop short or make a sudden emergency maneuver, a tire with great grip can make the difference between a crash and a near-miss. In a wet-braking test performed by Tire Rack, the best set of high-performance all-season tires stopped 22 feet shorter—a full car-length and a half—from 50 mph than the median tire in that group and a whopping 62 feet—about 8.5 car lengths—shorter than the group’s worst tire.
That said, all tires are a compromise, designed to excel in some areas with trade-offs in others. (In the above test, the median and worst tires may not stop a car as quickly, but they have strengths in other areas.) That’s why in most cases, you should buy replacement tires of the same type that originally came on your vehicle (unless you need a different type for special use).
For cars and minivans
All-season tires: These are good everyday tires that are used on most mainstream vehicles. Normally, labeled with “M+S” for mud and snow, they’re designed to provide good all-around grip on dry and wet roads, and decent grip in light snow. So, in many areas of the country you can use them year-round, if you don’t have to deal with snowy roads for an extended time. They also provide decent ride comfort and can typically handle small potholes and bumps without a risk of a blow-out or wheel damage.
Regular all-season tires: Designated by speed ratings of S and T (we’ll explain about those below), these are usually good values, because they are among the least expensive tires and often come with long treadwear warranties of up to 70,000 miles. Higher performance versions—with speed ratings of H or V—are now common on new cars and deliver sportier handling, sharper steering response, and better grip. But they cost significantly more, can have a stiffer, less-comfortable ride, and may have treadwear warranties of only 40,000 miles or less. So check before you buy.
High-performance tires: If you have a sports car or other high-performance vehicle, you may need these even higher performance tires. These are typically wide, with short sidewalls, and are primarily designed to provide great grip and to really stick to the road in corners. But they’re pricey, and the ride can be pretty stiff. They are available as all-season or “summer” tires. The latter are designed to provide the maximum grip on pavement, but with no pretense of snow or ice traction. In general, the higher the performance, the less snow traction any tire is likely to deliver, so you may need to switch to winter tires if you have to drive in snow a lot. High-performance tires come with very high speed ratings of Z, W, or Y. But, with their softer, grippier rubber, they don’t tend to last as long, with some having treadwear warranties of only 25,000 to 30,000 miles, if any at all.
For SUVs and light trucks
Light-truck all-season tires: These tires are used on most SUVs and crossover vehicles, and they generally come in larger sizes than passenger-car all-seasons and have somewhat heavier-duty construction to carry more weight. Tire Rack and some other retailers are starting to call them Highway light-truck tires to differentiate them from passenger-car all-season tires and all-terrain tires. Either way, these are your standard, all-purpose tires that offer decent performance in all types of weather. Most carry S, T, or H speed ratings and many have slightly higher profiles than equivalent passenger-car all-season tires for a better ride, more load-carrying ability, and better durability. They’re also more likely to carry 70,000-mile treadwear warranties than passenger-car all-seasons.
All-terrain tires: These are designed for SUVs and trucks that are driven both on and off road, and they provide a little extra traction on dirt roads, in mud and sand, and similar conditions than typical all-season light truck tires. They often come as part of an off-road package on many four-wheel-drive vehicles. But they can be noisy when driven on asphalt, and their handling and ride comfort on pavement isn’t as good as all-season light-truck tires. A subset of all-terrain tires is off-road tires, which are designed for even more grip in loose or rocky terrain, but have even more noise and mushier handling on the road.
For special use
Winter, or snow, tires: These are recommended for people who often have to drive on snowy or icy roads. Because they’re designed with rubber compounds and tread designs that deliver significantly better grip on snow and ice than all-season tires, they can give you more control when the roads are slippery and help prevent you from getting stuck. The rubber of winter tires also stays more pliable in sub-freezing temperatures, so you get more grip even on bare asphalt in the winter. In normal road conditions, though, they don’t provide as much grip as regular tires and they wear very quickly. So, drivers who use them typically get them mounted on the vehicle just before the first snow arrives and swap back to their regular tires as soon as possible after the need is over. Winter tires come in a wide variety of sizes to fit passenger cars, vans, SUVs and pickups.
Some tire makers now offer what they call performance winter tires, which provide better grip on dry pavement, but they cost more and wear even more quickly. If you buy winter tires, consider buying a second set of wheels to mount them on; this makes installing and uninstalling them easier. Budget $1,000 to $1,200 for a set of snow tires, extra wheels, and extra tire-pressure monitors.
Run-flat tires: These tires can keep you going even when they lose air pressure, which prevents roadside-emergency calls and lets you drive to a safe place to have them repaired. When “flat,” run-flat tires can typically go about 50 miles at speeds below 55 mph. The slower you drive, the longer they’ll last. But they’re expensive, and because they have stiffer sidewalls, they can be less comfortable for normal driving. Some drivers have also reported that it’s harder to find replacements if you do have a puncture that can’t be repaired while you’re on a trip.
If you can easily see the rubber in the spaces between your tires’ tread rows, you’re probably close to needing new tires. When the depth of a tire’s tread wears to 1/16 of an inch (or 2/32, when talking tires), they are legally worn out, unsafe to drive on, and should be replaced right away. However, well before they reach that point, worn tires have already lost a lot of their ability to grip the road in wet conditions and are more susceptible to hydroplaning, which can cause you to suddenly lose control of the car. That’s why the experts we talked to recommend that you start shopping for new tires before you reach that limit.
You can tell a tire is fully worn when its “wear bars” are flush with the surrounding tread. These are like horizontal bridges between the tread rows that become more visible as the tire is worn down. Or you can simply use a penny or quarter to gauge tread depth. Insert the coin into a tread groove with Lincoln’s or Washington’s head facing you and upside down. If you can see the top of Abe’s head on the penny (that is, it isn’t blocked by the tread), the tires are fully worn. Some of the experts we talked to say that using a quarter is better, because if you can just see the top of George’s head, you still have about 4/32-inch of tread depth, which gives you more time to shop for tires, and a little wider margin of error in wet conditions. If you want to get a more exact measurement, you can buy an inexpensive tread-depth gauge (or combo pressure/depth gauge) on Amazon or at any auto-parts store.
You should also replace your tires if they become damaged or deteriorated, because that can cause tire failure, which can leave you stranded, or a blowout, which can also cause you to lose control of the car.
It can be tempting to replace only the front or rear tires if one set is worn more than the other. But our experts say that you should replace all four tires at the same time so the tread will be worn evenly (see Why rotate your tires?). And don’t mix different types or brands of tires. That can have the same affect on handling as having one set worn more than the other.
For most drivers, there’s no reason to buy different size tires than the ones that originally came on your car. Your car’s tires have to fit the wheels and underneath the fenders, especially when you’ve got the steering wheel cranked all the way for a tight maneuver. And moving to larger tires can create interference or clearance problems.
When shopping for tires, you’ll need to know the size that’s recommended for your vehicle. Look on the tire’s sidewall, in the car’s owner’s manual, or on a sticker that’s usually found in the driver’s side door jamb. It consists of a fairly complex string of numbers, such as 225/65R17. You don’t need to know what it all means just to buy tires, but for the tech-heads among you, here’s a breakdown:
Next to the size designation on a tire’s sidewall, you’ll often see another code, such as 88V, 99H, or 104T. The number is the load rating, which indicates how much weight the tire is designed to safely carry at its recommended inflation pressure. And the letter is the speed rating, which can be pretty unintuitive to many drivers. That’s because most tires have speed ratings that are far in excess of any legal limit on the road.
Standard all-season tires are usually rated as S or T, which means they are approved for speeds up to 112 and 118 mph, respectively. Performance all-season tires often carry speed ratings of H (130 mph) or V (149 mph). And ultra high-performance or summer tires can be rated as Z (in excess of 149 mph), W (168 mph), and Y (186 mph). You’re probably not going to be pushing the limits of your tires, even if you’re late for work.
Michelin’s Tom Carter pointed out that the original tires for a 2015 Toyota Camry are rated V, but “virtually no person replacing a tire on a Camry will travel at 150 mph. So, why on earth would they need to have a speed rating of V?” For the average driver, these speed ratings provide a good indication of a tire’s overall structural quality, because they reflect its ability to withstand heat buildup and resist a blowout. In essence, the higher the speed rating, the better it’s built. Because of the tread materials and tire construction necessary to get higher speed ratings, higher-rated tires also tend to provide better handling, with more grip and quicker steering response. So people who drive sports cars and sporty cars will want to stick with tires that have a speed rating at least as high as what came on their car.
Keep in mind that a compact spare tire and dedicated winter tires have lower speed ratings than normal tires (between 81 mph and 99 mph), so don’t push it if you’re using them.
Tires can lose air pressure so gradually that many drivers aren’t aware of it. Yet, underinflated tires compromise your car in several different ways. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 12 percent of the cars on the road (the study included 2004 to 2011 models) are driving on at least one tire that is substantially underinflated. The agency also says that vehicles driving on tires that are underinflated by more than 25 percent are three times more likely to be involved in a crash related to tire problems. And even tires underinflated up to 25 percent run the risk of overheating, which can lead to tire failure and a roadside emergency.
Even if they don’t cause failure or a blowout, underinflated tires can cause your car to handle poorly and make it less likely that you can safely swerve around a sudden obstacle in the road or stop in time. They also use more energy to roll down the road, so they hurt your car’s fuel economy. Tires can lose pressure for several reasons. A tire or an alloy wheel can have a slow leak. Dropping temperatures in the fall and winter cause inflation pressure to go down. And all tires lose pressure over time because air molecules slowly seep through the rubber.
It’s usually recommended that you check your tire pressure at least once a month with a good tire-pressure gauge, and more often if you have a slow leak. Michelin’s Tom Carter said that most people don’t have the time or motivation to check them that regularly, though. So, he recommends checking if you observe anything unusual, if the weather suddenly changes, or if you’re getting ready to leave on a trip. In between those type of events, he suggests checking them at least quarterly.
You can find the recommended inflation pressure for your tires on a sticker inside the driver’s door jamb, in the owner’s manual, or inside the fuel-filler flap. Don’t go by the psi figure imprinted on the tire’s sidewall; that’s the maximum inflation pressure, not what the automaker recommends.
If you forget to check the pressure, all cars built since 2012 (and quite a few built earlier) will eventually let you know. They’re equipped with a tire-pressure monitoring system that typically warns drivers when one or more tires are 25 percent below their normal pressure. But it’s better to catch them before they get to that point, for all of the reasons above. Still, if the yellow light comes on in your dashboard, take the first opportunity to fill your tires, either with a portable air compressor or by stopping at a gas station. Unfortunately, they don’t always tell you which tire is low, so you should check them all.
If a tire suddenly loses air, it’s a good idea to check for a screw, nail, piece of glass, or anything else that could have punctured the tire. If you find something in the rubber, don’t pull it out! You could let all the air out of your tire and become stranded. Instead, refill the tire and head to a service station or tire store as soon as possible to have the tire repaired.
Hydroplaning is one of the most dangerous situations when driving. It’s occurs when you drive through water and the tires lose contact with the road surface. The result can be a complete loss of control, with the car skidding off the road or into other objects. According to Tom Carter, Michelin’s technical communications director, the things that affect hydroplaning the most are the car’s speed, the tires’ tread depth and air pressure, and the depth of the water.
As we said above, a car’s tires are legally worn out when the tread depth reaches 2/32 inch, but its performance in wet conditions can decrease dramatically well before that point. That’s because tires are designed so that the grooves between the tread rows channel water out from under the tire, so the tread can maintain good contact with the road. As a tire wears and those grooves get shallower, they can’t channel as much water, which makes it easier for water to get under the tread and cause the tires to hydroplane. Similarly, if a tire is underinflated, it can’t maintain its contact patch with the road as well and can more easily hydroplane.
How fast a car is moving also affects how much water can be channeled out. Depending on the depth of the water, a tire could start to hydroplane at only 35 mph, Carter said. But even in shallower water, the tires on a car traveling at higher speeds, especially if they are partially worn, could become entirely separated from the road, robbing all of your control of the car. At 70 mph there’s no tire that won’t skim across the surface of a puddle like a water ski, even if it’s brand new.
If you often drive in wet conditions, you should consider replacing your tires sooner rather than later to maintain as much hydroplaning resistance as possible. Consumer Reports’ tests show that even tires that are only half worn showed a significant 8 percent drop in hydroplaning resistance compared with their new counterparts, starting to skim over the water’s surface at around 40 mph.
Michelin’s Tom Carter cautions to slow down if there is standing water on the road. And if you feel the car begin to hydroplane–indicated by a lack of steering control–immediately let off of the gas. Of course, it’s always best to avoid driving through puddles or standing water whenever possible. You never know what could be lurking underneath, and if there’s standing water on the road, water underneath could be undermining the pavement leaving a pothole or even a giant sinkhole.
Even if your tires aren’t overly worn, they should be replaced if they become damaged or deteriorated. Look for these signs of trouble.
Road damage: Tires can be damaged by hitting a pothole or a curb. Sometimes they may develop a bulge in the sidewall or lose a chunk of tread around the edge. Both of these conditions are dangerous and can lead to a blowout. If this happens, get the tire replaced immediately.
Cracking in the rubber: As tires age and are exposed to sunlight and air, the rubber can become brittle and crack. These cracks usually show up along the rim of the tire sidewall, just below the tread.
Abnormal tread wear: If the car’s suspension is misaligned, it can result in strange and problematic wear patterns in the tire’s tread. This can result in asymmetrical wear along the inside or outside of the tread pattern. Or it could cause “cupping,” which is when the tops of the tread blocks across the tire are dished, rather than flat. In addition to having your tires inspected, you should have the car’s alignment checked and adjusted.
Driving on underinflated tires will also cause the tread to wear more quickly on the outside edges than in the middle. With overinflated tires, the opposite it true; the middle of the tread pattern will wear more quickly than the edges. That’s another reason to keep your tires properly inflated.
Rotating your tires on schedule helps you get the maximum life out of them. On most cars, the front tires will wear out much faster than the rear ones, because the front tires carry most of the weight, are involved in all of the steering, and do most of the braking. On front-wheel-drive cars, they’re also handling the engine’s power. The rear tires are just along for the ride. Rotating the tires between the front and rear helps them wear more evenly, so you don’t end up with different tread depths on the front and rear. That can cause the car to respond unevenly in emergency maneuvers, giving you less overall ability to avoid an accident. In an all-wheel-drive vehicle, having different tread depths puts enormous stress on the AWD system and can cause premature wear.
A car’s owner’s manual shows the mileage intervals when the tires should be rotated. But Tire Rack’s Woody Rogers said you should rotate your tires even more often when they’re newer. That’s because the taller tread blocks of newer tires squirm and heat up more under the car’s weight, which causes them to wear faster. Rogers said that you should ideally rotate your tires every 4,000 to 5,000 miles when they’re new, but that can taper off to every 10,000 miles when they get worn down. Gene Petersen, of Consumer Reports, said it’s simpler to average that out and plan on rotating your tires every 6,000 miles. For most drivers, that works out to every five to six months.
Different types of tires require different rotation patterns. Your tire shop should know the right pattern for your tires, but if you swap the tires yourself, check the owner’s manual.
Originally published: November 30, 2016