The choices are mind-boggling, and the tire ratings and tread designs confusing. I’ll be honest with you: I don’t have any “insider secrets” on how to save big bucks on tires. Tires, all of ’em, are expensive—period. But I can give you some tips on how to pick the right tires for your vehicle. And I’ll warn you away from the most common tire-buying mistakes. When you’re done reading, you’ll still have to drop a ton of dough on new tires. But you’ll be less intimidated by the process and more confident about picking the right tires for your vehicle.
Get the Original Specs
Don’t assume the tires on your car are the right size. Instead, buy tires based on the original factory specs. Find the specs on a sticker right on the driver’s door or door pillar. Jot down the tire size and the load and speed rating. Don’t get talked into buying the wrong tire. If the tire store doesn’t stock the recommended tire, ask the staff to order it for you. Installing the wrong size can affect speedometer readings and cause shifting problems.
The most common mistake tire buyers make is to choose tires based solely on price. Here’s a better way to approach the tire-buying process. Start by ranking the following tire features in order of importance to you: traction, tread wear, noise, handling/ride comfort and warranty. Shop for tires based on your top three priorities. However, if you’re on a really tight budget, you may have to settle for your top priority and ditch the rest.
The U.S. Department of Transportation mandates tire testing to arrive at traction, temperature and tread wear ratings. Other tire features, such as appearance and warranty, come down to personal preference.
Ranking your priorities is a great first step if you’re buying a set of four tires. But, if you’re buying only two tires, it’s a whole new ballgame. In that case, you have to buy two new tires that match the “keeper” tires. Buy new tires with a tread design that’s as close as possible to that of the two old tires. Match the traction ratings as well. Mismatching new and old tires can cause uneven braking and instability in turns.
Once you pick out the two new tires, make sure the dealer mounts them on the rear of the vehicle (even if it’s front-wheel drive). New rubber on the rear greatly reduces the likelihood of rear-end fishtailing during acceleration and hard stops.
Tires with high tread wear ratings and high performance tires are usually made with harder rubber, so they’re far more responsive to minor steering changes—especially at higher speeds. But the tradeoff is you’ll have a harsher ride. If you don’t mind losing an occasional dental filling, go for those tires. Otherwise, pick a tire that provides a more comfortable ride.
You want the most aggressive tread design for best performance in snow. But that same aggressive design will make more noise at highway speeds. If you do a lot of highway driving and noise bothers you, shop for a “Touring” style tire. They’re designed for a quieter ride.
This rating tells you how fast the tire can run under load while still dissipating heat at an acceptable level. It’s a pretty worthless rating for most consumers. An “A” tire will cost more and won’t get you any better performance under normal street driving conditions. “B” or “C” tires work fine for most drivers.
The traction rating tells you how well the tire’s rubber compound generates traction on wet pavement. The ratings are AA, A, B, C. “AA” is the best traction. “C” is the worst. Buy an “AA” tire if you drive in the rain or on snow or ice. If money is tight, drop down to an “A.” If you rarely encounter those conditions or want to spend less, drop down to a “B.” Only buy a “C” tire if you drive full time on bone-dry roads.
The tread wear rating gives you a rough idea of how long the tread will last when compared to a test track “base” tire. So a tire rated “400” should last four times longer than the “100” base tire. But each manufacturer uses its own formula to extrapolate tread wear from the test. So use tread wear ratings to compare different tire models from a single manufacturer. But don’t compare tread wear ratings across manufacturers. If you just need new rubber on your commuter clunker and don’t expect the vehicle to last long, you can save money by buying a “100” tire. But if you have the cash and want the maximum tread life, buy a “500” (or greater) tire.
It’s always a good idea to check objective data on different tire brands before you buy. One good site to check is tirerack.com. Tire Rack conducts its own tests and posts the results online. And it posts actual customer tire reviews. You can read it all by clicking the “Tire Reviews” tab at the left side of the home page. It’s free and you don’t have to register to get that information. Of course, Tire Rack would like to sell you your next set of tires. But even if you don’t get yours from the site, it’s a great place to do your research.
Buying online can save money. But there are some downsides to consider. First, shipping can take up to a week. Next, you’ll have to make sure an adult is home to sign for the tires (the driver won’t leave them without a signature or with a kid). Then you’ll have to pack the tires into your vehicle and pay a local shop to mount them.
So here’s an online shopping tip: Try to find an Internet seller that has arrangements with a local shop near you. That way the shop will accept the shipment and mount the tires for a set fee.
If you don’t want the hassle of buying tires online or you need them right away, shop at a local tire store. I prefer tire stores over warehouse clubs because the sales clerks know more about tires. Tell the salesperson your top priorities and your budget. Next, pick out two or three tires that match your criteria. Then ask the salesclerk to quote you “out-the-door” prices for each selection (cost of tires plus all taxes, lifetime mounting and balancing, tire pressure sensor rebuilding charges, and tire disposal costs). Most salespeople include the cost of the road hazard warranty in the out-the-door price. If you don’t want the warranty, say so up front.