Believe it or not, some people dread having to buy car tires. They stick with what’s on their car for as long as possible, even to the point of said tires going bald, endangering the lives of anyone in the vicinity. But for the uninitiated, or those who haven’t bought a tire since everything was sized in purely imperial measurements, buying a car tire of any kind, let alone the perfect one, can often be painful and confusing. That said, here’s a simple guide and some tips for buying the right car tires.
Tire Ratings System
The alphanumeric rating system of tires can be maddening, even for car enthusiasts. Throw in the fact that the letters for speed ratings are, as some might hope or expect, not in alphabetical order, and that each manufacturer trots out their “branded” technology, and you can safely say that even the informed amongst us can sometimes get confused on how to choose the right tire. But rest assured, you can still find the perfect tire for your vehicle without using the confusing alphanumeric tire rating system.
The Importance of the Right Tire
The right tires, may be the most important thing on your vehicle, as they are the only contact with the ground that you have. Tires are a large factor in determining handling prowess, braking ability, manoeuvrability, even fuel mileage and road noise. Yet so few people seem to pay attention to them, and even fewer seem willing to pay to get good tires. Now, these are not statistically valid statements from surveys, just an amalgamation of collected bits from listening to conversations at tire shops, asking those who work at tire shops, and reading the musings of countless car writers who rail about this very topic… and a few parking lot surveys of looking at what kind of tires people have on their cars. That said, this seems to be a widely held industry belief, so I feel relatively confident in stating its validity.
Granted, the average person, with the average family sedan, SUV, minivan, etc., doesn’t need a hugely expensive tire, because the quality of even lower-priced tires have increased considerably. However, consider that as everyone is starting to think of themselves as Ricky or Regina Racer – even the stereotypical aggressive soccer mom driver in her “safe” 4,500-lb monster sport utility vehicle who seems to tailgate me coming down an icy hill – the right tires for your vehicle have become even more important.
And, really, that’s what it comes down to, the right tire for your vehicle. No one brand fits every make and model out there nor is built to. To choose the right ones for you, below are some quick tips. If you want a detailed understanding, check out a manufacturer’s site like BF Goodrich, an installer’s site like Tire Rack, or a car information site like http://www.edmunds.com. These types of sites will help you get the basics for understanding sizing, seasonal needs, etc. From there, you can get into wheel sizing and offsets. Later, you can bore and annoy friends and neighbors with all you know about tires, and how they’ve chosen the wrong wheel/ tire set-up for their vehicle.
Some Tips for Choosing Vehicle Tires
These tips are based on common sense and the experience of the RideLust editors.
1. Find a tire shop you can trust and who services a lot of cars like your make and model.
Regardless of how complex your tire requirements are, it helps to be able to trust the shop where your tires are purchased and installed. This is about more than a shop just being capable and trustworthy, and giving you the price they advertised. Ideally, you want a shop that has dealt with your kind of vehicle, or at least understands specific nuances about it.
If you’re not sensitive to differences, those nuances may not be an issue. If you are, like me, you’ll wonder why your car suddenly wanders a centimetre more off line than it did before. A good shop will ask you questions about your needs, make recommendations based on your budget and needs, and will let you know the compromises you’ll need to make depending on the tire chosen.
This would seem like a no-brainer to an enthusiast, but it’s something most people really don’t think about because they don’t know they should. Again, this is where trusting your tire shop comes into play. A good shop will ask you these questions and then suggest tires to fit your specific needs.
For instance, if you regularly drive over roads that are very rough but your driving style is smooth and unaggressive, a high performance tire with a stiff sidewall and high tread wear is likely not the right one for you – no matter what someone else may tell you. If your vehicle happens to require a high performance tire, though, then you’ll need to find one that balances the safety requirements of a good performance tire, with something that is a little more compliant over rough roads, and has a long enough tread life that you’re not having to replace it every 20,000 kilometres.
3. Do your research.
Even if you don’t completely understand all the tire brands, options, sizes, seasonal requirements, etc., it helps to know what to ask. Visit some of the car forums and ask the opinions of people who are enthusiasts and drive your model of car. Visit some of the sites mentioned above and get a better foundation. Visit the installer sites and look at the customer reviews for specific types of tires available, especially from drivers who drive similar types of vehicles to you. Ask people you know whose opinion you trust when it comes to car matters. They can give you a list of things to ask the tire shop. Knowledge is power and it is also comfort. Don’t go into a situation where you won’t even know if you’re being told the right thing.
4. Don’t listen to anyone who says, “Oh yeah, it’ll fit,” and don’t skimp on cost.
If you’ve decided to go with plus sizing and move up in tire diameter, make sure you have the clearance to have that size of tire. The opposite is true if you go down in sizing: is there enough room to clear your brakes? You always want to hear, “This is the tire that fits your vehicle.” This is especially true if you are buying wheels with your new tires. Every manufacturer has a different offset requirement for their wheels; get the wrong one and you’ve got all kinds of trouble. (Subaru drivers know what I’m talking about.) Also, for all those tuners who lower their cars and then get oversized tires, that rubbing you hear or that thump when entering a driveway… Wanna guess what that is?
As for cost, you don’t have to break the bank to get a good tire, but make sure you don’t choose a cheap tire that cannot handle your driving style or the performance of your car. You wouldn’t put high heels on a basketball player and expect them not to break their ankles (Dennis Rodman excluded). Buy the best tire you can afford, and the ones that fit your car and needs, it’s worth the few dollars more.
5. Stay with the tried and true tire brands.
If you don’t want to think about all the above, simply go with what the manufacturer specified on the original vehicle. There is a reason that manufacturers specify a tire of specific size, speed rating, tread wear, etc. A good manufacturer has selected a tire after a lot of testing, and choosing the specifications that will give the best compromise in all conditions. In rare instances, the manufacturer has seemingly chosen the wrong tire for the car, but even then that’s generally for your individual requirements, not for the broad base of the ownership.
Of note, remember that differences in tread pattern, sidewall stiffness, even how the wheels are balanced after new tires are installed, can change the dynamics of your car. Even if you get the “perfect” tire, give yourself time to adapt to the differences in the way your car may handle, brake, maneuver, even steer. Also, regardless of choosing the right tire, you have to remember to keep them inflated properly, get them rotated according to the specifications, and replace them if the tread has worn down below about an 1/8th inch. An easy way to check is to put a penny in the tread, if you can start to see the top of the Queen’s crown, it’s time to look for new tires.