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What You Need to Know Before You Buy New Tires


If you made a list of all the things you’d like to buy in the next month, new tires would probably not even make the list. But when your tires are ready for a replacement, new tires should jump to the top of the list.

No matter how fancy your car is, what kind of engine it has, how it handles, and what type of safety features it has, your tires are where the rubber hits the road, literally. Everything your car can do has to be transmitted to the road through four small patches of rubber no larger than a notepad, which is the only contact your vehicle has with the road. So if you need new tires, there’s no way to wait. You’ve got to get new tires, or you could put you, your passengers, your car, and anyone else on the road in danger.

When Is It Time to Replace Your Tires?

The most popular and simple test for when to replace your tires is the penny test. Take a penny, and place it in between your tire tread with LIncoln’s head upside down. As long as any part of Lincoln’s head is hidden by the tread, you’ve got sufficient tread left on your tires. But if you can see the top of Lincoln’s head poking up between the tread, your tires need to be replaced. In addition, some states mandate how much tread your tires must have for your car to be legal. In Georgia, your car tread must have a depth of 2/32 inch, which fits the penny test perfectly.

In addition to tread, heat, cold, and other driving conditions can affect your tires. Heat and UV rays from the sun can break down the material on your tire over the years. So even if you rarely drive your vehicle, after a certain amount of time you may need new tires. Changes in temperature from heat to cold can also affect your tire. Here in Georgia, we don’t have extremely cold temperatures, but we do experience some rather significant temperature swings. 

Road conditions, such as potholes and uneven roads, can also damage your tires. If you do a lot of driving on dirt or gravel roads, your tires will wear out more quickly.

What You Need to Know Before You Buy New Tires [infographic]

Breaking the Tire Code

Every tire has a string of letters and numbers somewhere on the sidewall. To most drivers, it looks like gibberish. But that unintelligible garble actually contains vital information about your tires. Let’s take a look at one example of the code on the side of your tire: P195/60R16 63H M+S

Tire Type

The first letter, P, tells you what type of tire you are dealing with. The two options are P and LT. P indicates a passenger-car tire. LT indicates a light-truck tire. For almost all vehicles, including SUVs and pickup trucks, a passenger-car tire is sufficient. Passenger-car tires provide a smoother ride and almost always cost less than light-truck tires. The only time you need light-truck tire is if you regularly carry very heavy loads or pull a heavy trailer. If you think you need light-truck tires, talk to your tire repair and replacement specialist to determine if it’s worth the added cost and less-smooth ride.

Tire Size and Construction

The next string of letters and numbers tells you about the size and construction of your tire. In our example of 195/60R16 M+S, 195 is the width of the tire across the tread in millimeters, 60 is the aspect ratio of the sidewall compared to the width, R indicates radial construction, and 16 is the diameter of the rim in inches.

In most cases, it makes sense to replace a worn-out tire with a new tire of the same size. One exception is plus sizing. Plus sizing is when both the wheel and tire are replaced with a larger wheel and tire than the original manufacturer’s recommendation. This can be done for looks, for improved handling, or both. However, the improved handling comes at a cost. Plus-sized wheels and tires usually result in a less smooth ride.

If you plan on plus sizing, you need to keep several important factors in mind. First, you can only go so big. The combined diameter of your new wheel and tire shouldn’t vary more than 3% from the original tire diameter. Also, even though you aren’t using original parts, you need to use a tire that is recommended for your vehicle. It is also crucial to check the load capacity of your new tire to make sure it meets or exceeds the old one. Finally, you install place a new tire placard in the car so that any future owner knows the new recommended tire pressure.

Load Rating

In our example of P195/60R16 63H M+S, the 63 indicates the tire’s load rating. In the most basic sense, a tire is a flexible container that holds compressed air. It is made of a variety of materials, and the materials, along with the compressed air, need to support the weight of the vehicle and its contents. The ability to support weight is the tire’s load rating.

Always replace a tire with a new tire that has an equal or greater load rating than the one you are replacing.

Speed Rating

In our example of P195/60R16 63H M+S, the H indicates the tire’s speed rating. A speed rating isn’t actually how fast a tire can go—that would have more to do with the engine and transmission. A speed rating indicates how well the tire can dissipate heat or avoid heat buildup altogether. The faster and farther you drive, the more heat builds up. Heat is the number one enemy of tires and the single most significant factor in tire wear.

The speed ratings on passenger-car tires range from 99 to 186 miles per hour. However, the two most common ratings are T (118 mph) and S (130 mph). It may seem strange that these are the two most common ratings since they are both much faster than you would ever drive. However, the speed rating has more to do with heat than actual speed. Either one of these ratings would be sufficient for long drives on the highway. However, if you only plan to drive in urban settings, at lower speeds, and for shorter distances, you could get a lower rating. An S rating (112 mph) could work for an urban driver, although it is a less common tire and may not be cheaper.

Tire Season

No matter what your tire’s various ratings are, the most important thing your tires do is hold onto the road. Traction is how well your tires grip the road and will vary with the driving conditions. Dry, wet, or snowy conditions all affect your tires’ ability to grip the road, and you need tires that can handle the conditions you plan to drive in.

In our example, the final piece, M+S, indicated that this tire is suitable for driving in all seasons. If you live in a region with snowy winters, you may want to consider a winter tire for better traction. However, in warmer regions, like here in Atlanta, an all-season tire would work just fine.

Where to Go for New Tires

The most expensive option is to go to your dealership for new tires. While it sometimes makes sense to return to the dealership for maintenance and repairs, new tires is not a time to turn to your dealership. Buying tires at a dealership can often cost twice as much as buying them somewhere else. You will get original manufacturer tires, but in most cases, that’s not necessary.

If you are looking for deep discounts or specialty tires, you can order tires from a discount wholesaler. The tires are often much less expensive than buying them in a shop. If you are looking for specialty tires, wholesalers may offer tires that aren’t available off the rack at your local tire shop. However, wholesalers only sell tires. They don’t install them. You will still need to pay a local tire shop to mount and balance your new tires. Unless you plan to keep the old tires, you will likely have to pay a recycling fee as well.

The most convenient and cost-effective option for tire replacement is to turn to a local tire shop. Local shops have a wide variety of tires in stock, and can often order the tires you need at no extra cost. Sellers often include the cost of installation, balancing, and recycling the old tires in the sale price. Many local shops also offer discounts and specials.

As always, TrustDALE recommends that you do your research before relying on a local tire shop. Look up online ratings, check the Better Business Bureau, and ask for some references.