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How to choose the right replacement tires

buying car tires Photo by Igor Kardasov / Alamy Stock Photo

What to do when the tires that came with your new car wear out.

Sticking with the original equipment (OE) tires is a good bet. Automakers know that tires have a huge effect on a car’s performance, handling, and comfort, which in turn affects how satisfied motorists are with their cars. As a result, automakers work closely with tire manufacturers to develop tires that best suit their vehicles.

A tire may appear to be a simple, homely hunk of rubber. In fact, tire making is quite the art and science. Tire manufacturers have yet to achieve the holy grail of their craft: one tire that will do everything well. That’s why, for example, if you research tires online, you’re likely to find more than two dozen types for cars and light trucks, ranging from “extreme performance summer” to “off-road maximum traction.” 

“An automaker chooses a tire it thinks will provide the qualities desired by most buyers of a particular car—handling, comfort, wet-weather traction, fuel efficiency, or tread life, for example,” says John Baldwin, PhD, chief product and technical strategist at Discount Tire, the world’s largest independent tire and wheel retailer. 

However, your needs may be different. For example, run-flat tires, which are standard on many high-end German cars, work well on smooth autobahn roadways. But on coarse American tarmac, some run-flats ride like bricks—non-OE conventional tires and a tire-inflator kit might be a better replacement choice. 

Likewise, performance summer tires may provide optimal handling for your sports sedan. But head to the mountains on a ski trip and they’ll lose traction below 40 degrees and will begin to crack below 20 degrees. More versatile all-season tires may better suit your needs. 

7 tips for choosing the best replacement tire

1. Turn to tire experts. Tire dealers can offer advice, as will technicians at your favorite auto-repair facility. Online decision guides offer customized recommendations. And if you want to get granular, type “tire reviews” into any search engine. You’ll find dozens of sites that provide test results and reviews from both consumers and tire retailers.

2. Consider more than price. “Know your priorities,” Baldwin says. “Do you want the best possible handling on dry roads? Great traction in rain or snow? The most comfortable ride? Low noise levels? Long wear? High fuel economy? Remember, you can’t have them all.”  

3. Don’t obsess on the brand. A well-rated tire that matches your priorities is more important than the company that makes it.

4. Determine the correct size. For instance, if your tire sidewalls read 225/50R16, 225 refers to the width across the sidewall, 50 refers to the sidewall height, R refers to radial construction (98 percent of passenger-vehicle tires are radials), and 16 refers to the wheel diameter. All four tires should match, though some (usually sporty) cars will have a “staggered” rather than “square” fitment, meaning the rear tires are slightly different in size from the front tires.

5. Check the OE tires’ service description. For example, if you see 225/50R16 91S on the sidewall, the 91 refers to how much load the tire can carry and the S to its speed rating. Even if you never expect to carry as much or go as fast as the tires’ service description, to be safe, your new tires should meet or exceed that rating.

6. Beware of old tires. In letters smaller than the size and service description, you’ll find a tire-identification number on the sidewall, beginning with DOT. The last four numbers indicate the week and year of the tire’s manufacture; for example, 5119 would mean the 51st week of the year 2019. Buy the freshest tires available, because tires have a shelf life—5 to 10 years, says Michelin—even if there’s tread remaining.

7. Keep tires properly inflated. Every tire’s load capacity, handling, traction, and life span are compromised if it’s not inflated to the correct air pressure. So check tire pressure frequently—at least once a month. Do not inflate them to the pressure branded on the tire’s sidewall; that’s the tire’s maximum inflation pressure. The correct pressure is listed in your car’s owner’s manual, on a placard attached to the driver’s doorjamb, the glove-box door, or the fuel-filler door. 

Peter Bohr has been writing about cars for more than four decades.

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AAA members in California save with Discount Tire

AAA members get exclusive savings at Discount Tire and America’s Tire: Up to $40 off a set of new “better” or “best” tires, or a free tire repair (a $20 value).1 Buy a set of tires and you’ll get free air checks, tire inspections, tire repairs, rotation, and re-balancing.

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Offer only available to AAA members in California.

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If you have questions about your car’s tires or whether they need replacing, visit your local AAA Approved Repair facility or stop by your neighborhood Discount Tire store for more information.

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