Keeping The Car on The Road: A Look at Tires

Photo courtesy of Randy Stern

Photo courtesy of Randy Stern

When was the last time you bought tires for your vehicle?

We often don’t talk about tires. Yet, they are the most important piece of your car, truck, and SUV. They are a “wear” item, which means that when your tires start losing traction because the tread is being worn down, they need to be replaced.

It is where the rubber meets the road, literally.

It is an interesting fact that the average consumer does not talk about tires. We often take them for granted. Perhaps it is time to talk about tires.

First off, we should discuss the types of tires that are available. You probably have heard about these (or, read about them on our Ride Reviews), but do you know which is which? Here is a guide to the most common tire types on the roads (and off of it) around here.

ALL-SEASON TIRES: These types of tires are becoming common items, as they represent a tire that does it all. If it’s raining, the tread design enables water to be channeled away from the car, providing more tread to the road. It is assumed that they would be fine in snow, mud, and ice, even when the tire is rated for “M+S” (Mud and Snow) on the sidewall. Yes, but not really. All-season tires could go through mud, but the soupier surfaces could yield a loss in traction. The same with snow; the softer the snow, the less traction you might experience. As for ice, forget it. No traction would be available on icy surfaces. If you drive year-round and are cautious during winter storms, these tires would be sufficient.

WINTER TIRES: There are some winters where it is mild, but for bad winters with a lot of precipitation, like the one we just experienced, the need for specific winter tires is a must. These tires are made of a rubber compound that is soft and yielding for varying tire pressures. Their tread is designed for maximum traction on snow and ice. Some tires could be studded, with additional metal pieces that are slotted in holes for maximum traction on icy surfaces. Keep in mind that it is illegal to drive with studded tires on Minnesota highways and roads, but please check your local laws regarding these tires for other uses. One thing to consider about winter tires is outside air temperature. The softer rubber compounds are sensitive to temperature, so it is not smart to have them on when the outside temperature is above 40–45 degrees Fahrenheit. We actually suggest considering getting a set of winter tires along with your regular tires. That way, you can survive another bad winter on those tires.

SUMMER TIRES: There are plenty of tires that are not rated for all-season use. They are becoming rare these days, or made for a specific purpose. In particular, high performance tires or racing tires. The rubber compounds on these tires are made to be driven on hotter road surfaces and air temperatures. Speed-rated tires (mainly Z-rated performance tires) also combine a maximum speed limit to equate to a specific air pressure for optimal use. These are tires no one wants to drive on when the temperatures drop below 50–55 degrees Fahrenheit due to sensitivity to outside air. Also, some summer tires are not made to manage wet surfaces, so they could become risky to drive in a rainstorm.

LIGHT TRUCK TIRES: As a rule of thumb, one cannot put passenger car tires on pickup trucks. By pickup trucks, we mean traditional cab/box/frame pickups. Tire sizes are specific, as they should begin with the letters “LT.” Their construction and compounds are specific for heavier use, including hauling in the box up to payload limits and for towing.

ALL-TERRAIN TIRES: For owners of the Jeep Wrangler, Toyota 4Runner, or any specific vehicle that is designed for off-highway use, you will most likely purchase bigger, knobby-tread tires. There is a specific purpose for these tires; to provide traction and grip on surfaces beyond the tarmac. On the highway, they can be quite noisy. Yet, they can also be superb in the rain and snow.

When shopping for tires, it is important to know a few basic bits of information. One, you must know your tire size. The size of the tire must at least match the exact size as stated on the current set of tires of your vehicle. Any other size or speed rating might impact performance and efficiency of the vehicle. You also need to know the year, make, and model of your vehicle, since not all tires of that specific size and speed rating are equal to the specific vehicle you are driving.

There are other things to look for in selecting the right replacement tires for your vehicle. A tire store or dealership would try to sell you a tire that fits right for your vehicle, but may not get the best tire warranty or tread life. Consider the length of ownership of your vehicle or the stipulations of your lease before you choose a tire that could end up costing you more at the end of its tread life.

Some of us may put on a more custom tire/wheel setup. There are plenty of things to consider when doing so. First and foremost, will the new setup fit in the wheel well? If not, try a smaller setup. You might even consider suspension and body modifications to make it work. The most important piece is to see whether the tire/wheel setup fits your lifestyle without compromising driving dynamics.

Lastly, we cannot make suggestions on which brand to go with. We test plenty of vehicles year-round and not all tires are equal. There is actually parity among tire brands, as specific tires stand out of their lineup over others.

However, we can suggest looking into support options for your new set of tires. Check to see if they are covered under your vehicle’s support programs, such as roadside assistance or through AAA. If not, a tire store may offer a protection plan for your new set of tires. See what they offer before you buy.

This is not an easy purchase decision because tires vary for each vehicle’s purpose and driving conditions. However, choosing the right tires will save you headaches down the line to ensure an enjoyable vehicular experience.

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