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How to Buy Car Tires

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The tires on your car are one of the most important (and under-appreciated) safety features on your vehicle. A good set of tires can not only keep you safe, but also provide a smooth ride, enhance fuel mileage, and help keep your vehicle in good repair. Unfortunately, buying tires is not the easiest thing in the world, especially since it is something most people only do once every few years.

How to Buy Car Tires

There are so many different types of tires and one of the most important things to do before going to the tire store is to understand your tire needs. Think about how often you drive, in what type of weather you usually drive, speeds, on road or off road, etc. This article will help you better navigate the tire buying world, understand your tire needs, and decipher the multitude of codes found on the sidewalls of most tires.

Do you need new car tires?

If you go to the service shop for regular oil changes or other maintenance, then your mechanic will likely let you know when you are due for a tire change. But it’s important that you can recognize basic signs as well – just in case something happens between regular maintenance trips. There are two quick tests you can do to see if you need new tires: the penny test and the wear bar test.

Penny test. Take a penny and insert it into the tire tread. If part of President Lincoln’s head is covered, then your tires probably have enough wear left to be street legal (usually more than 1/16th of an inch). If all of his head can be seen, then you probably need new tires. Be sure to check the inner, middle and outer threads for uneven wear.

Wear bars. Many tires have wear bars in them that will show when the tread gets too low. If these are visible on your tires, then you should get new tires.

Other signs you need new tires. You will need new tires if you see breaks, tears, slashes, or dry rot in the sidewall, if your tire is punctured and cannot be repaired, or if your tires experience uneven wear (which may also be a sign of improper balancing, bad shocks, or other maintenance problems).

All season vs. Snow Tires

If you live in a temperate climate, then all-season (or all-weather) tires are most likely the best solution for your vehicle. However, all-weather tires don’t grip as well on snow and ice, so you may consider purchasing snow tires if you live in an area that receives heavy snow in the winter. Snow tires are usually made with a different rubber compound that retains better flexibility in the winter and grips the road better than all-season tires, which may become hard and slick in cold weather and more likely to lose traction. If you live in a cold climate with frequent or heavy snow and ice, then it’s a great idea to invest in a set of snow tires.

It’s important to note that Anti-lock brake systems (ABS), electronic traction control, electronic four wheel drive, and other features aren’t a substitute for proper tires. These systems can be nice, but you still need to have the proper equipment on your vehicle.

Understanding Tire Ratings and Sizes

Tire ratings can be difficult to understand if you don’t know how tires are rated. What the heck is a P275/75/R15 tire anyway?

The following is a synopsis of the codes used for rating tires and how you can compare them across brads and styles.

  • Tire Type. Different cars require different types of tires. P = a passenger tire, LT = light truck, etc.
  • Tire Width. The width of your tires can affect traction, fuel efficiency, handling, and other factors. Width is expressed in millimeters; there are approximately 25.4 millimeters in an inch. So this example is 10.8 inches wide.
  • Aspect Ratio. The aspect ratio refers to the height of the tire from the mount to the tread, expressed as a ratio to the tire width. In this example, the tire height is 75% of the width.
  • Construction. The type of construction of your tire is important. R = radial construction, which is reinforced for better strength and longevity.
  • Rim Diameter. The diameter refers to the wheel size. You will need to purchase tires that have the exact tire diameter as your wheel. In this example 15 = 15 inch diameter tires.

Based on this information, a P275/75/R15 tire is a Passenger tire that is 275 millimeters wide, has an aspect ratio of 75, is made of radial construction, and fits a 15 inch wheel.

What about speed ratings? Tires do have speed ratings, the which start at around 100mph and go up from there. For most day to day driving, the speed rating shouldn’t be much of an issue as the speed limits don’t go above 70-75mph in most places. If you have a sports car, or other needs then ask the dealer for more information.

Here are more ratings and where they can be found on the tire:

Tire Ratings

Uniform Tire Quality Grading

Another important set of numbers to look at is the Uniform Tire Quality Grading (UTQG) rating which is located on the inner sidewall of the tire. This is a standardized testing system to rate the relative performance in the areas of treadwear, traction, and temperature resistance. These ratings are based on control tests and requirements set by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

These ratings can help you understand how the tires you are considering purchasing compare to a control tire regarding treadwear (how long the tires should last under normal driving circumstances), traction (tested based on stopping on different surfaces), and temperature resistance (heat dissipation, buildup, etc.).

Tire Buying Tips

Balancing quality and price. You don’t want to buy the cheapest tires on the floor because a lot of times you get what you pay for and you’ll find replacement tires will be needed before you’re ready. At the same time, purchasing the most expensive tires probably isn’t necessary for most people.

Size and style. Be sure to purchase tires that are the right size and style for your vehicle. The wrong size tires can cause problems for your vehicle down the road and will lead to more expensive repairs in the future.

Where should you buy car tires?

One consideration many people don’t think about is where they should purchase their tires. All things being equal, I would buy tires from a national chain.

I like to shop locally, but this is one situation where buying from a national chain can save you a lot of money and heartache in the future. Why? Because most tires come with a warranty and you may not be able to get your warranty serviced if you are several hundred miles from the local store that sold you the tire. But it is easy to find a national chain such as Firestone, Wal-Mart, Sears, etc.

If you prefer shopping at your local store, then consider a compromise, such as buying your tires from an online company such as TireRack.com where you can get some great savings on tires, especially if you use TireRack coupon codes. The way it works with TireRack is that you purchase your tires online, and they ship them to your local store. Since Tire Rack can’t service warranties in person, they contract that out to authorized service locations. As long as your local shop is an authorized location, you can get your tires serviced there, as well as at any authorized service location when you are away from home. It’s the closest thing to a portable warranty as you will get anywhere else.


Published or updated May 11, 2012.
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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 basicmoneytips

The penny test is a good test to determine wear. Watch some places, they will prematurely tell you that you need new tires. If they tell you, ask them to show you as well. If you can pass the penny test, you are probably okay for another several thousand miles.

Also, the national tire chains follow guidlines on what tires you can choose to put on your car or truck. For example, if you drive a Ford Mustang, you have to put Z rated tires on your car, even if you do not drive fast.

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2 Ryan

Some of those standards make sense, such as the speed ratings. I’m sure they are up to par with manufacturer recommendations/requirements.

I’ve had car repair centers “recommend” buying tires before they were needed. They went through the motions as though I needed them right away and it was only after about 5 minutes of repeated questions that they told me I had at least 10k miles left in them “but I should start thinking about getting tires now.”

Thanks, but I’ll wait. ;-)

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3 dima

I have just purchased a set of tires for my car and here are a couple things I picked up. I ended up getting the tires from Tirerack. Even after all shipping costs and mounting, I still came out ahead comparing to the prices at the shop.

- Tirerack has many reviews and ratings for many tires. It does not have them for all tires. I picked a couple of tires that had better ratings than my current tire and had good reviews and went shopping around. Many of the local shops did not carry those and could not order them, so they tried to tell me that tire X they carry is just as good. Maybe, maybe not. I figured I might as well just stick to the tires that have been reviewed on TR.

- When comparing prices, keep in mind shipping charges ($50+ for me) and mounting charges by the shop you will take them too. Usually, the prices provided by the shops include the mounting charges.

- Some shops will mount the tires you bring in, some would not, so ask in advance.

- Tirerack offers an option to ship to an authorized installer. Shipping charges are the same, you just don’t have to deal with the tires. If you go that route, make sure the address Tirerack has and the actual address match. In my case, Tirerack had the old address and I didn’t care to mess with it to figure out how to update that.

- If you live in an apartment complex, call your office and make sure they are ok with UPS dropping off the tires there if you are not home. Mine were ok with as long as I pick it up the same day.

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