Tires provide the only contact your vehicle has with the road, so when it's time to replace them, you need the right information to get the most ideal tires for your vehicle. This buying guide outlines the foremost types of tires used by the 253 million automobiles on the road and provides examples of some of the best automotive tires available from major manufacturers such as Goodyear, Michelin and Continental.
Sure, your vehicle has tires, but how much do you really know about them, other than that it's a hassle to change a flat? Automobile tires evolved from metal wagon rims to the rubber-based radial designs developed by Michelin in the mid-1940s, and they have kept improving since then.
Let's examine the common features of a typical radial automobile tire.
Located on the outer circumference of a tire, the tread is the most recognizable tire feature. The tread comprises varying patterns of lugs – chunky, durable rubber or composite materials separated by grooves that allow water to siphon off for maximum traction. The section of tread that is in contact with the road is called the contact patch or footprint.
Tread plays a big part in keeping you safe while you drive. The fancy patterns aren't just a way for tires to look different – they are engineered with specific traction in mind, whether that's for daily commuting on the highway or for driving through mud or snow.
The shoulder is the section where the tread begins to transition into the sidewall. This is an area that is highly susceptible to wear damage if the tire is not inflated properly. Wear on this area of the tire exposes the wire and fabric underneath the protective layers, raising the possibility of a blowout or air leak.
The sidewall is the part of the tire that you see the most. The sidewall of a radial tire is usually reinforced with multiple layers of various materials, including steel cords that provide strength while remaining flexible. Sidewalls help contain the compressed air between the inside of the tire and the rim and stabilize the side-to-side motions of the tire. Sidewalls also show important information about the tire, including pressure ratings, size and type. See more information about how to read a tire sidewall below.
The inner circle of a tire, where the sidewall ends and comes into contact with the rim, is called the bead. The bead needs to be incredibly strong and inflexible, as it has to prevent air from leaking out and provide enough tension to remain in contact with the wheel without slipping. The bead is generally constructed of steel wire and extremely stiff rubber. Specialty equipment is needed to install an automobile tire onto a rim, due mainly to the tightness of the bead.
Reading Tire Sidewalls
You may have wondered what the strange assortment of letters and numbers on your vehicle's tires mean. This section decodes this mystery by providing details about each section, paying special attention to the sections that are most relevant to the buyer.
How Can You Tell When You Need to Replace Your Tires?
There are many ways to tell if your tires need to be replaced. The easiest method is a visual inspection for wear or damage. As always, safety first! Make sure your parking brake is engaged and your car is in park. Do this exercise on a flat surface, not an angled driveway. For the front wheels, turn your steering wheel all the way to the left or right when parked and look at your tires. Rear wheels can be trickier for a visual inspection, but look at what you can and mark with a pen or grease marker where the tire footprint is, and then pull up so the rest of the tire is visible.
Another way to find out if your tires are nearing the end of their lifespan is to take a penny and place it in the groove with Honest Abe's portrait facing you. If you can see all of Lincoln's head, it's time to replace your tires, especially if winter or rainy seasons are approaching. Don't wait until you take your car in for its yearly safety and emissions inspection to find out if you need new tires. By staying aware of your vehicle's tire health, you'll be better prepared to prevent or deal with costly tire replacement.
Are You Using the Right Tire?
Now that you've learned about what makes a tire, you may wonder what type of tire is best for your vehicle. We've outlined the most common tire types for passenger vehicles, light trucks, vans, SUVs, and off-road vehicles. Use this information to discover which type fits your driving needs and your vehicle for the smoothest ride.
All tires share basic similarities, but not all tires are created with the same performance in mind. What may be the best option for a commuter car won't be the optimal tire for a light truck or van. Using the right tire type is essential to your safety and fuel economy.
As the name implies, all-season tires take you where you need to go regardless of the time of year. All-season tires give you a smooth, quiet ride and offer versatile performance, as they can handle different weather conditions. These tires tend to have a long tread life and offer decent fuel economy due to their overall design. Although these tires don't compare to winter tires in the snow, they can handle dry, wet and somewhat icy roads without much trouble. We found that some of the best all-season tires include a versatile tread that can accomplish different tasks depending on the road conditions you are driving on.
The Assurance TripleTred All-Season is Goodyear's new passenger tire, designed to get you through a number of different road conditions without having to switch out tires. All-season tires like this one balance a number of different elements to give you a reliable ride regardless of road conditions, making them ideal for climates that experience dry, rainy and snowy seasons.
Like every all-season tire you'll come across, Pirelli's P4 Four Seasons combines a number of design elements to give you a reliable ride regardless of the weather. This all-season tire provides a smooth, comfortable driving experience, and it's designed to handle high mileage and only produce a low amount of noise.
All-Terrain (A/T) Tires
All-terrain tires, commonly abbreviated A/T, are used primarily on trucks, SUVs and four-wheel-drive vehicles that encounter off-road conditions occasionally, such as dirt roads and worksites. Some of the best A/T tires we found are also designed for paved roads, providing good traction in wet and snowy weather and producing lower noise at high speeds than off-road tires do.
The Cooper Discoverer A/T3 is one of the best all-terrain tires on the market today, providing the traction your vehicle needs to handle nearly all types of terrain you'll encounter. As an all-terrain tire, it has the right kind of traction to handle dirt and paved roads, construction sites, and wet and snowy road conditions. The tire is rated for mud and snow use, and a limited warranty covers wear on the tread for up to 55,000 miles.
If you frequently drive on dirt or gravel roads as well as paved roads, then your vehicle needs a set of some of the best all-terrain tires. The Michelin LTX A/T2 is an all-terrain tire that provides strong traction on wet or dry roads and reduces slipping on tough, rocky terrain.
Light trucks – such as the Ford F-150, Chevy Silverado and Dodge Ram 1500 – that are primarily driven on paved streets and highways can benefit from these tires. Light-truck tires are designed specifically to handle vehicles that carry heavier loads than small cars but don't need the off-road capability of A/T tires. Our research found that some of the best truck tires feature thick tread to increase gas mileage while providing good traction in inclement weather.
Not all light-truck tires are made solely for highway usage. Some tire manufacturers offer A/T or all-season functionality on light-truck tires. Consult with your trusted automotive professional to determine which type of light-truck tire will be most beneficial for your driving needs.
The Continental CrossContact LX20 EcoPlus is a durable and budget-friendly tire for your truck, van or SUV. In addition to being an affordable option, the CrossContact LX20 is covered with a 70,000-mile limited warranty, and Continental Tires offers a 60-day conditional trial period that allows you to return the tires if they do not meet your satisfaction.
Whether you drive a light truck, SUV or van, you need tires that grip the road and allow you to stop safely without skidding or slipping. The Michelin Defender LTX M/S is an excellent light-truck tire that combines long tread life with smooth performance. This tire is also covered with a six-year, 70,000-mile limited warranty.
Mud tires are ideal for off-roaders and those who regularly drive on unpaved roads, as they are designed to get the best traction on a variety of different surfaces, such as sand dunes and rocky terrain. These tires use a heavy and blocky tread pattern to really bite into ground when you're on loose or wet terrain. This tread pattern is also self-cleaning, so mud and various debris doesn't clog up the cavities, or tread grooves, and reduce the grip on the terrain.
If you drive on rocky surfaces, look for mud tires that have an aggressive tread to grip the surface and additional puncture resistance to avoid getting a flat from sharp rocks. When you drive on sandy terrain, you'll want a wider tire for more surface area and a rounded shoulder so the corners don't dig into the loose soil. For gravel or hard-packed dirt roads with little elevation change, you don't need a very aggressive mud tire tread, but you'll want a tire with a broad shoulder.
BFGoodrich's Mud-Terrain T/A KM2 is designed for serious off-roaders looking to cross sand dunes or climb rocky terrain without too much trouble from their car tires. The self-cleaning tread design, durable construction and gripping power combine to form an excellent off-roading tire. This tire is also designed to offer a smoother performance with less road noise than what you can normally expect from an off-road tire.
Firestone's Destination M/T is an off-road mud tire with a rugged, durable design and an efficient tread so you can take your truck off the beaten path with confidence. You can use the tires in winter conditions, meaning there's no seasonal limit to when you can take them for a spin.
Also known as winter tires, snow tires have tread designs that improve your traction on snowy or even icy roads. They have more sipes, thin slits across the tire that allow it to grip the road in wet conditions, and tread cavities that drain and expel water and snow. We looked for tires that are capable of gripping the road and cut into snow and ice to give you better traction than other options.
Some snow tires use metal studs to dig into ice, improving your traction on icy roads. However, these tires can damage the road when it isn't covered in ice, so many states regulate when you can install these tires on your vehicle. Studless tires, on the other hand, provide comparable results to studded tires through better tread design and stronger rubber compounds.
Altimax Arctic tires are versatile, meaning they can be installed on sedans, coupes, crossovers, minivans and light trucks. Additionally, with this set of General Tire's snow tires, you have the option of installing metal studs to the shoulder and treads to give you maximum control on snow-packed or extremely icy roads. Just remember that metal studs can damage roads, so many states limit the time in the year when you can use studded tires.
The Blizzak WS80 is a new studless winter tire developed by Bridgestone for coupes, sedans, compacts and minivans. Rather than using metal studs as traditional snow tires do, the Blizzak WS80 utilizes modern advances in engineering to provide comparable results to studded tires. These tires have a hydrophilic coating, which reacts to water molecules to help you stop your vehicle in wet conditions. The tires are also made of Bridgestone's Multicell Compount with Nano Pro-Tech, which keeps the rubber flexible in cold weather. Regular tires become more rigid in cold weather, giving you less traction, and therefore less control, on the road.
Where to Buy Tires
Traditional Retail Dealers
All you have to do is open a phone book or drive through your town to see there are many choices when it comes to selecting a tire dealer. The major tire manufacturers, such as Michelin, Goodyear and Cooper, sell tires to resellers who in turn offer them to the public across the nation. Some manufacturers, such as Firestone have official franchises located across the country. The following national tire dealers are among the most well-known of the traditional brick-and-mortar retail shops, and there is likely one near you that offers a wide variety of quality tires and automotive services.
- Discount Tire
- Big O Tires
- Les Schwab
- Pep Boys
- NTB Tires
While your location definitely plays a significant role in finding a tire dealer, thanks to the internet and capable shipping companies, you can order a set of tires online and have them delivered right to your door. While this may be convenient, you still need to find an auto shop that will mount and balance your tires, but ordering online could potentially save you time and money. The following online retailers provide a wide selection of tires and wheels to choose from.
- Tire Rack
- Discount Tire Direct
- Tire Buyer
Tires obviously play a significant role in your vehicle, and they are arguably the most fundamental component of your car in getting you from point A to point B. A tire purchase should not be a quick, at-a-glance decision, as they are critical to the safety of your vehicle and, more importantly, you. For this reason, you want to know a few things before you walk into a tire shop and start talking to a representative.
One of the most important elements when you walk into a tire shop is the salesperson you interact with. Of course, we all want the ideal salesperson who is only there to make sure we purchase the safest, most reliable and most affordable tires on the market. Unfortunately, not every salesperson has your best interests at heart and may overlook questions or concerns you have.
A good salesperson takes an educational approach when they explain the work your car needs. Generally, a salesperson who takes the time to talk to you and answer your questions clearly will give you multiple options and explain the pros and cons of each approach. When it comes to tires, you generally have multiple options, so watch out for salespeople who try to convince you to buy one particular set of tires without explaining why.
Remember that tire shops will try to sell you additional services when they install new tires. When you approach a salesperson, know they are going to ask you if they can change your oil, replace your brakes, check your alignment and so on. Some salespeople resort to scare tactics to make some money off of you. If a salesperson tries to scare you into buying additional services, keep some things in mind.
First, the tire shop will initially only give you job quotes on work they want to complete. In other words, if a technician sees a problem with your vehicle, such as low oil, they will ask for your permission before performing the service. This means you can get a second opinion on your vehicle if and when a salesperson says it needs a specific repair. Secondly, you can always ask to see the issue on your vehicle for yourself before making a decision. This is a good way to prevent charges for services you don't actually need. For example, if an employee says your oil needs to be replaced, you can ask them to show it to you before giving your approval. Finally, if you don't feel confident about a specific decision, you can always take a moment to call a family member or friend who has more experience with these matters.
One good habit is to check your oil, brakes and other areas on your vehicle before going to a tire shop. If you notice your oil looks dark or your brakes are worn down, you can have the tire shop take care of these areas with confidence. If you know your vehicle is in good working order, you can tell the shop that you don't require additional services when you start discussing new tires. This can prevent a lot of headache down the road.
Another tactic some salespeople use is to try to get you to purchase four new tires when you can get away with two. Now, purchasing four new tires is always best, as it prevents unnecessary wear and tear on your vehicle, but if you have two good tires on your car and are on a budget, in many cases you can get away with only purchasing two new tires.
If you decide to do this, make sure the new tires replace either both the front tires or both the back tires. Never replace one front tire and one back tire, as this leads to alignment issues, which can lead to your tires wearing down prematurely, making your vehicle more difficult to handle. This problem can lead to your car pulling to one side of the road or drifting when you drive on a straight road, making your vehicle less predictable when you drive in rainy or snowy weather. One quick way to see if you have a bad alignment is to check your four tires and see if one side of each tire is worn down more than the other.
For a four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive vehicle, you need to replace all four tires at a time. Otherwise, you put unnecessary strain on the central differential, which is the gear train that allows your outer tire to rotate faster than the inner tire while turning, resulting in bigger issues. The same thing goes with snow tires. If you are purchasing snow tires, you should get all four in order to get the traction you need in icy or snowy conditions.
Unfortunately, some salespeople take scare tactics to the next level by flat-out lying to you to make extra money. If you ever walk into a shop and feel too much pressure from the salesperson, sometimes the best thing is to take your car to a different shop. Here are some red flags to watch out for when you take your car to a tire shop:
Some shops call you and tell you your battery died while they were working on your vehicle and offer to replace it. If you get this phone call, tell them you want to check the car before having it replaced.
Many shops offer free services when you take in your car, which can save you some money. However, pay attention to what the salesperson says is included and examine your bill before heading out of the shop. Some people state a service is included, then try to hide the charge on your bill.
Out of Stock
Some salespeople give you a call and quote a certain tire they say they have in stock when they really don't. When you get to the shop, the employee will tell you they have to order the tires from another store or warehouse, or they can install a different and more expensive set of tires on your car right now. This last tactic is rather malicious. If it happens to you, ask to speak to a manager and explain the situation. The shop could lose business for misquoting you, and a manager may try to make a favorable deal with you to keep your business.
If any of the above situations happen to you, remember to be civil to the people working on your vehicle. It is perfectly possible that your battery died in the shop, a salesperson made a mistake while they calculated your bill or a computer error led to inventory issues. If you catch any of these issues, you can decline the additional services they offer, speak to a manager or take your car to a different shop. The salesperson wants your business, and if there are too many red flags going off, they know they will lose you as a customer.
A good salesperson will offer additional services, but they won't use scare tactics and will be willing to show you potential problems on your vehicle before they work on it. Remember, just because a salesperson points out a couple of trouble areas on your car does not mean they are trying to scam you. There are plenty of salespeople who won't try to sell you something you don't actually need, as they understand the value of long-term, loyal customers.
Ultimately, look for a salesperson who is respectful, answers all your questions in detail, gives you numerous options, and is more concerned about your safety and situation than the sale. Once you find a tire shop or an individual salesperson who has your best interests at heart, stick with them, as that will be a mutually beneficial relationship that you don't want to lose.