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How to Choose the Right Tires

How to choose the right tires header

By Andy Jensen on February 16, 2021 in life hacks

Shopping for tires may not be as fun as searching for dream homes, but tires are one of the most important parts of your vehicle. The right tires keep you safe, while the wrong ones downgrade your ride.

Proper tire selection is complicated by the wide variety of options available. If those numbers on the sidewall are as confusing as a congressional budget, use these tips to take the mystery out of tire selection.

Why You Need the Right Tires

Tires are the only part of a vehicle — which is made of thousands of parts — that are in contact with the road. It looks like they just roll, but tires have multiple functions.

  • Supporting the vehicle and passenger load
  • Maintaining direction of travel
  • Translating driver input into action, sometimes performing braking and turning — two different forces — at the same time
  • Reducing road bumps as a shock absorber
  • Reducing emissions through low rolling resistance, which saves you gas money

How to Know When it’s Time for New Tires

There are two main ways to know when you need to replace your tires.

Penny Test

New tires usually have 10/32 or 11/32 of an inch of tread when new. As you rack up miles and the tread wears out, that tread depth decreases. The legal minimum limit for tread depth is 2/32.

To check your tire tread depth, do the penny test. Stick a penny into the valley of the tread, with Abe’s hair down. If you can see all of his head, it’s time to replace your tires.

Manufacture Date

Like that salad in the bottom of your fridge, tires expire. Unlike that salad, your tires will last six to 10 years. Check the date code on the outside of the tire: It should look something like “1420.” This represents the week and year the tire was manufactured. In this case, the fourteenth week of 2020. If you see something like “1510”, the tires are well overdue for replacement.

Other signs you need new tires include:

  • Increased road noise
  • Reduced shock absorption
  • Increased hydroplaning
  • Loss of grip
  • Bald tires
  • Visible metal threads

How to Select New Tires

There are multiple ways to shop for tires. Select the option that best works for you.

Reorder

This is the equivalent of hitting the easy button. If you’re completely satisfied with the original tires on your vehicle, reorder the same ones. The manufacturer chose those tires as a best match for that vehicle. If those specific tires are no longer manufactured, you’ll have to do some homework.

By the Numbers

An easy way to shop is by tire size. On the sidewall, look for something like P215/45R17. This looks like the name of an IRS form, but tires are fairly easy to decode.

  • P: Passenger car tire, as opposed to LT, for Light Truck
  • 215: The tire’s width in millimeters
  • 45: The tire’s sidewall expressed as a percentage of width. In this case, the tire sidewall height is 45 percent of the width of the tire. (Yes, they should have made that simpler.)
  • R: Code for tire construction, R meaning radial. If you have a classic from the 1950s, it could be bias ply. You will likely only find radial tires until we get those cool airless tires.
  • 17: The diameter of the wheel in inches

With this complete tire size code, you can shop for tires guaranteed to fit.

Terrain

Tire selection matters for where you drive, too. If you’re into camping or fishing, you’ll want to drive down muddy roads. So, you need all-terrain tires. On the other hand, if your idea of nature is a farmer’s market downtown, look for a touring tire with a high comfort rating.

Summer, Winter, or All-Season

Nope, it’s not a personality test: This class groups tires according to the temperatures and road conditions you’re likely to see.

  • Summer tires are excellent in warm temperatures (anything above 45 degrees) but get stiff in cold temps. SoCal and Florida can use summer tires year-round, but they should only go on your cruising convertible in Kansas, hidden away for the winters.
  • On the other hand, winter tires love cold temps, but they quickly wear out in warm temps. Winter tires are best in Minnesota’s long winters, but you need to change them out for summer.
  • All-season tires are the compromise here, remaining drivable below summer temperatures and above winter tires’ temperature threshold. They don’t provide the dry grip of summer tires or the snow/slush traction of winter tires, but they’re a good compromise for most drivers.

Grip Versus Quiet

With passenger car tires, it’s a fight between a quiet and smooth ride, or a sporty, high-performance experience. Generally speaking, a Grand Touring comfort tire will be quieter, but lower on grip, while a high-grip, high-speed performance tire transfers road noise and harshness to the cabin.

Have a Corvette? Get the summer high-speed sport tire. For a Camry, get everyday comfort with the touring.

Low Rolling Resistance

Low rolling resistance tires, which often include “green” or “eco” in the tire name, reduce friction against the road surface, allowing your vehicle to roll more easily. The result can save you around $40 per year.

Check the Treadwear

The tire’s treadwear rating, usually included after the tire size, lists how long the tire will last compared to a manufacturer’s test tire. A 200 treadwear rating lasts twice as long, while a 400 lasts four times as long. Manufacturers perform these tests in-house, so a 400 at Michelin is different from a 400 at Goodyear.

Look Into Warranties

All tires have a warranty, but damages, years, and miles of coverage vary greatly. Optional extended warranties can add peace of mind, but often have stipulations, like proof of maintenance, letting the retailer perform regular tire rotations, and prorating any claims.

Buy the Best You Can

While tires aren’t the cheapest car parts, spring for the best your budget allows. Cheapo tires pass safety standards, so they probably won’t blow out on the highway, but their ride, handling, and stopping distances fall far short. For the safest drive, look for the best reviews in your max budget. Additionally, most retailers offer a credit account with low monthly payments.

Conclusion

Your car’s tires matter. With a bit of research into the size and type of tires you need, your ride can be as safe and comfortable as the day you bought it.

We know about cars, you can trust us.


Andy Jensen is a consultant for Say Insurance. He's an automotive enthusiast writer specializing in new and used models, industry tech and trends, and the car culture that surrounds it all. After receiving a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma, he decided to write about cars instead of getting a real job. He’s written for Jaguar, Volvo, Ford, Advance Auto Parts, Haynes Manuals, and others. His project car probably isn’t running.

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