Different Types of Car Tires

With so many types of tires, how do you choose? Here's the info you need to get beyond the sales pitch and make the best choice for your car.

One visit to a car tire retailer, whether in person or online, can leave you feeling overwhelmed. Fortunately, a little knowledge of tire basics is all you need to get you back on the road.

Types of Car Tires

With all the different types of vehicles out there, it’s no surprise there are lots of different tire brands, types and styles to choose from. Here are the basic types of tires.

All-season

With the exception of some high-performance and other special-purpose vehicles, all other cars and trucks sold in the U.S. come with all-season tires.

The term “all-season” has been used since Goodyear introduced the brand in 1977, and other manufacturers quickly followed suit. A more accurate name is “most-season” tires, since they aren’t designed for the deep winter snow. Nevertheless, for most drivers they represent the best value, balancing dry and wet traction, wear resistance and economy. That’s why they account for more than 97 percent of tires sold.

Best for: Most vehicles, except where annual snowfall is heavy.

Snow

With deeper, more widely spaced tread blocks and compounds that stay soft and flexible at low temperatures, snow tires are designed to bite into snowy roads. They offer vastly increased traction over regular tires in severe winter weather.

Most vehicle and tire manufacturers recommend replacing all four tires with snow tires for the best winter safety, even if your vehicle is all-wheel drive. Once the weather clears, however, it’s best to re-install regular tires, because snow tires will be much noisier and wear rapidly if used for summer driving.

Best for: Any vehicle driven in snowy road conditions during winter months.

Summer performance

As the name implies, summer performance tires are intended for dry use in summer months on performance cars. These days, that covers everything from a Hyundai Veloster N to a Chevrolet Corvette, Porsche 911 or BMW M3. They provide ultimate grip on dry roads to take advantage of all the performance a vehicle has to offer.

The drawback? They wear much faster, due to the softer tread compounds used. And most summer performance car tires have tightly spaced tread patterns that may not offer good water channeling characteristics on wet roads compared to all-season tires.

Best for: Those with high-performance vehicles who want to experience all their vehicle is capable of in good weather.

Nondirectional vs directional

Most tires are nondirectional. That means once mounted on a wheel, they can be moved from one side of a car to another during tire rotation. This increases the usable life of a tire.

Directional tires have tread patterns meant to roll at speed only in one direction. Markings on the sidewall indicate which direction they are to be mounted. Some have additional markings to indicate the outside (sidewall facing outward) and inside during mounting.

The advantage of directional tire tread patterns range from better high-speed performance to better water-removal characteristics. (Some snow tires are also designed with directional treads). The disadvantage is that, once mounted, they can only be rotated between front and rear on the same side of the car.

Nondirectional Are Best for: Those with a conventional vehicle seeking maximum mileage out of their tires.

Directional Are Best for: Those who want enhanced performance and aren’t as concerned about mileage. Directional tires can also be a good choice for those with cars where rotation is not possible, such as a sports car with different size tires on front and rear axles.

Run-flat

Some vehicles come with tires with reinforced sidewalls and construction that permit them to be driven for a distance (albeit at lower speed) in case of a loss of tire pressure from a puncture or other problem. Hence, the name. While this added peace of mind may seem attractive, bear in mind these tires are much more expensive, generally ride rougher due to their heavy construction, and typically don’t last as long as conventional tires.

Best for: Those uncomfortable with the thought of a flat tire who are willing to pay more and sacrifice ride quality for the added security.

Racing

Standard all-season tires would not work well on a racetrack, and tire manufacturers have offerings specifically for use in those conditions. They provide ultimate grip at high speeds, and are capable of handling the high temperatures seen during racing. Warnings on the sidewall (“racing use only” or “not for highway use”) indicate they are not approved or legal for street and highway use.

Best for: Racing vehicles used exclusively on drag strips, autocross events or amateur/professional circuits.

Off-road

Designed to offer the most traction possible in rough conditions, off-road tires feature deep treads with widely spaced tread patterns. Many have reinforced sidewalls and other specialty construction to resist punctures and tears in demanding terrain. They feature a warning on the sidewall (“off-road use only” or “not for highway use”) to indicate they are not legal for regular road use.

Best for: Trucks or SUVs driven off-road full-time.

Randy Udavcak
Randy Udavcak is a Pennsylvania-based writer, instructor, and ASE Master Certified Automobile Technician with over 30 years of experience repairing and servicing a wide variety of cars and trucks. His friends and neighbors call him the Hooptie Whisperer for his ability to keep their well-used vehicles on the road.