Your Ultimate Tire Buying Guide: How to Select Tires
There’s more to buying the right tires for your car than getting the right size. You also need to factor in things such as your driving style, comfort needs, and the type of roads that you’ll be driving on the most. For drivers in the northeast, you’ll need to think of varying climatic conditions, snow and ice included.
Choosing the right tires for your car isn’t as easy as ordering your favorite Starbucks drink. But it shouldn’t be so confusing: here is your ultimate guide on how to buy tires that meet your needs and those of your ride.
1. Is it Time for New Tires?
It’s a fact that auto tires are generally expensive. So before swapping your current rubbers for a new set, it pays to understand whether it’s necessary. Tires don’t have a definite expiry date. How long they last will depend on your driving habits, road conditions, the climate, and, of course, the level of maintenance that you give them.
All in all, experts agree that after 5 years, tires need to be examined at least once annually. Additionally, if the tires are 10 years old since the manufacturing date, they should be replaced even if they appear usable. Tire experts say that a decade after production, the tire’s compounds have broken down to lower its integrity and safety level.
To check your tires’ age, check for a 4-digit code preceded by the initials DOT (Department of Transportation) on the sidewalls. The first 2 numbers represent the week that the tires were manufactured. The second two digits represent the year of manufacture. For instance, if the code is 1318, the tire was made in the 13th week of 2018.
- Measure tread depth
The most effective way to determine whether your tires are safe to ride on is to measure their tread depth. There are several ways of doing this, but using a tread depth gauge is the most accurate. These gauges are readily available online and in most local auto parts stores.
Here is a simple interpretation of different tread depth gauge readings:
- 6/32″ and above: tires are fine.
- 5/32″: replace tires if snow and ice-covered roads are a concern.
- 4/32″: replace if you’re frequently driving on wet roads.
- 3/32″: tires are getting bald; start shopping for new ones.
- 2/32″: tires are legally worn out and need to be replaced.
- Give your tires the penny test
The penny test is another verified method of determining whether it’s time for new rubber. To perform this test, take a penny and insert it in several grooves on the tire with President Abraham Lincoln’s head pointed downwards. If you can see the top of Lincoln’s head each time, your tires are bald and should be replaced. If a part of Lincoln’s head remains hidden, your tires are fine. Confirm with a tread gauge for precise measurements.
2. Deciding Between Original vs. New Tires
If it’s clear that your car needs a tire change, the primary decision you’ll need to make is whether to go with the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OE) tires or aftermarket ones.
As with other OEM car parts, OEM tires are the official and genuine tires for your car. The most significant advantage of OEM tires is that they are designed and engineered purposely for a particular car make or style.
Car manufacturers spend tons of money to ensure that the tires emphasize and complement the vehicle’s features as much as possible. That being said, if you loved how your car rode and handled when the tires were new, then OEM tires might be an easier option for you.
The major drawback of OEM tires is that they are crafted to be a jack for all trades and an expert in none. These tires are designed to pass different tests. The manufacturer needs to prove to the end consumers that the tires can handle various conditions, such as dry road, gravel, pavement, snow, and rain. On the downside, these tires may not be the best for a specific condition, for instance, exclusive off-roading.
Secondly, there is an old suspicion that manufacturers cut corners in OEM tire production. Auto manufacturers go for very soft rubber to ensure that you get the smoothest ride when test-driving your brand new car. The catch with this smooth ride is that the tires wear out way faster than they should, thereby requiring replacement sooner.
3. Decoding the Tire Size Code
Whether you’re going with OEM or store-bought tires, getting the right tire size is crucial to maintaining your vehicle’s performance. Fitting the car with identical or similar tires also highlights the manufacturer-intended safety level and fuel economy in different road conditions.
Most of the information regarding your vehicle’s ideal tire size is on the sidewalls of your current tires. You can also find this information on a sticker on the driver’s door, in your owner’s manual, and even online. Importantly, tire size is just one part of the information in the string of letters and numbers on the tire.
A quick guide on how to read your tire’s sidewall
The markings on your tire may be something like this: P225/45R1791V. Here’s what each letter and number means.
i) P: Tire service type
In most instances, the tire size code begins with one or two letters. These letters indicate the type of vehicle (sometimes service) that the tire is engineered for.
- P– P stands for passenger. These tires are meant for passenger vehicles, such as cars, SUVs, minivans, and light-duty pickup trucks with ¼ to ½ ton weight capacity.
- Metric tires– if your tire code does not begin with any letter, for instance, 225/45R1791V, it’s considered to be equivalent to P designated tires. Metric tires come from Europe and are sometimes nicknamed Euro-metric.
- LT (prefix)– e.g. LT225/45R1791V- these tires are designated for light trucks and vehicles that tow trailers. These are the best tires for full-size vans, SUVs, and medium-to-heavy-duty trucks with ¾ ton to 1-ton weight capacity.
- T (temporary)– these tires are meant to be used as spares. They should only be used for the short-term.
ii) 225: Tire width
In a tire code, the first 3 digits indicate the width of the tire in millimeters. It’s measured from sidewall to sidewall.
iii) 45: Aspect ratio
The first two digits following the slash mark on the sidewall markings signify the aspect ratio. The aspect ratio is the height of the sidewall as a percentage of the tire width. In our example- P225/45R1791V, the sidewall is 45% the width of the tire.
iv) R: Construction type
The letter following the aspect ratio gives us an idea of the internal construction of the tire. Tires are categorized into 2 based on construction:
- R (radial) – in these tires, the plies of cord seem to radiate outward from an imaginary tire center. Radial tires are the most popular as they provide highly reduced rolling friction, excellent fuel economy, and more breakaway grip. These tires also offer better steering control and longer tread life.
- D– tires with a D have a bias-ply construction approach. The plies overlap each other at 30-40 degrees to create a crisscross design. Bias-ply tires are known to offer relatively smoother rides on rough surfaces while withstanding higher loads. On the downside, they have increased rolling resistance and less traction. These tires are mainly used in machinery.
17: Wheel diameter
This number specifies the wheel diameter that the tire will fit. In our case, this tire would fit a car with a wheel diameter of 17 inches.
91: Load index
Load index is used in conjunction with a tire load index chart to show the maximum weight that the tire can support with proper pressure. A higher load index signifies a higher weight capacity. For instance, on the tire load index chart, a tire with a load index of 91 can support a load of up to 1356 lbs. It’s advisable to install tires that match or slightly exceed your car manufacturer’s specifications.
V: Speed Rating
The last letter on the tire’s sidewall markings is the speed rating. This refers to the maximum speed at which the tire can safely carry a load. The recommended maximum speed for a car with a V speed rating symbol is 149 mph.
4. Right Rubber for Different Seasons
The next major consideration on how to choose tires is the season. Do you want summer, winter, or all-season car tires?
These tires are also known as performance tires. They have the perfect mix of soft rubber compounds that make them ideal when the sun is scorching hot. These tires feature larger tread blocks with shallower and straighter grooves. These characteristics ensure that there’s more rubber with maximum contact with the road. The result is more stability when braking, accelerating and cornering.
Summer tires aren’t perfect for summer road trips only. It might come as a surprise for most people that summer tires beat all-season tires in both wet and dry conditions. They have the poorest traction when it comes to snowy and icy conditions, though. As the temperatures drop below 45 degrees F, the soft rubber compound becomes rigid lowering traction. This impairs cornering and stopping distances.
Unpredictable conditions, such as black ice and heavy snowfall, make driving during winter challenging and hazardous. Luckily, tire manufacturers have the technology to make tires that best meet these conditions.
Winter tires have a higher percentage of natural rubber in their construction, making them softer than summer and all-weather tires. While summer tires start to stiffen at 45 degrees F, winter tires remain flexible even below this temperature range. Additionally, winter tires have deep tread grooves, which reduce snow buildup. These treads are wider, too, which helps in controlling snow and slash to disperse water fast. These features combined give you a set of tires with enough traction to grip and brake nicely on packed snow.
Unfortunately, winter tires tend to wear fast as the temperatures soar above 45 degrees F. This makes it necessary to have both winter and summer/all-season tires, which can be quite expensive. If you don’t experience harsh winters in your place, all-season and summer tires may be the best investment for you.
All-season tires are meant to be used confidently in a mix of hot, cold, and wet conditions. These tires have intricate tread patterns with decent traction that enable them to withstand light snow. The rubber compounds that they are made of also makes them effective in low temperatures of up to 45 degrees F.
However, the word all-season is a misnomer. When temperatures plummet below 45 F, these tires become stiff, and this lowers grip, thereby increasing the risk of sliding. Also, the blend of compounds used for these tires sacrifices maximum warm-weather grip and traction for durability. For that reason, we recommend all-season tires for use in areas whose weather tends to remain in the middle of the spectrum and rarely gets to the extremes.
5. Have Your Priorities in Mind
Choosing car tires is all about sacrificing certain tire features (or benefits) for others. Before starting the tire shopping process, you need to be clear about what you want from the tire between fast responsiveness, grip, comfort, and tread life.
If you’re among the type of people who enjoy their car rides and prefer feeling every inch of the road, you’ll want to gravitate towards high-performance tires. These tires have ultra-low profiles (aspect ratio 30-45) and stiff sidewalls. The design of these tires provides super-fast responsiveness, superior grip, and sporty handling. On the downside, they have bumpier and noisier rides and typically low tread life.
High-performance tires are ideal for racing cars, sporty cars, exotic cars, and individuals who are after a firmer grip and quick responsiveness- not comfort.
These tires have a relatively higher aspect ratio of 50 and above. This higher sidewall profile acts as a cushion leading to a more comfortable, smooth, quiet, and cushiony ride. Touring tires also tend to be more fuel-efficient and eco-friendlier than high-performance tires. While they have reliable traction, touring tires don’t match their high-performance alternatives in handling and responsiveness.
6. Should You Buy 2 or 4 Tires?
We’re often asked whether it’s okay to replace just 2 tires instead of 4. The answer is yes, but it depends. If you’ve been rotating your tires routinely as recommended in your owner’s manual, the chances are that the treads have worn out evenly. In this instance, you’ll need to replace all 4 tires.
If your vehicle has a front-wheel-drive configuration, the front tires will wear out much faster than the rear tires. The same case applies to rear-wheel-drive vehicles. Most mechanics agree that it’s safe to replace the car tires in pairs in such a scenario. The most common recommendation here is to move the older (but decent) tires to the front and the new tires at the back. Notably, the new tires need to be of the same brand and make for handling and safety reasons.
Mind tread variation
Before replacing the tires in pairs, be sure to consider the resulting variation in tread depth of the old and new tires. An important thing to keep in mind here is that tires with varying tread depths have different RPMs. This causes the differential to distribute more power to particular tires to even out the difference. This could overwork the differential and the entire powertrain leading to costlier damages.
As a thumb rule, the tread difference between the old and new tires shouldn’t exceed 4/32. For instance, if your rear tires are at 4/32 and front tires 5/32, replacing only one pair will leave you with a 5/32 and 11/32 tread configuration. This resulting tread depth difference (6/32) is colossal and might put more strain on the differential.
7. Maintaining Your New Tires
Now that you know to choose the best tire for comfort and noise or grip and responsiveness, here are tips on how to keep your tires in good condition:
- Check the tire pressure monthly.
- Inspect your tires for cracks and tread wear regularly and especially before a long road trip.
- Rotate the tires as recommended, ideally after every 5000 miles.
- Avoid overloading your vehicle.
- Always replace the tires on time.
- Always install matching tires for proper handling and even tread wear.