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A Brief Guide to Tire Selection

There are four parts of your car that control traction, speed, and control, and over-all ride quality. What are they? Your tires. You already know that having tires with worn treads, or not enough air, is a detriment to your driving, if not a danger to yourself and others on the road with you, but did you also realize tires (and wheels) are a fashion statement as well? Why else would vintage car owners be so proud of their wire rims? Why else would wheel/tire upgrades be part of most premium trim levels on new cars?

Once you've decided, that you, too, want to change the tires and wheels on your car from the original models to something new and different, here are some things to know, that may help you choose the right style for your vehicle:

Those Letters on the Side Mean Something

The first step in choosing a new set of tires is to crack the tire code, you know, those numbers and letters you see on the sides of your tires. Typically the sequence will look something like this:

P195/60R16 63H M+S

Broken down, the individual numbers and letters represent:

  • Type of tire. P for Passenger Car or LT for Light Truck. LT tires are designed to carry higher loads (more weight), and are usually found on full-sized SUVs and pickup trucks, although if you check the owner's manual for such vehicles, it may state that Passenger car tires are fine.
  • Width of the tire across the tread, in this case 195 millimeters.
  • Aspect ratio of the sidewall to the width (60)
  • Type of construction (R- Radial)
  • Diameter of the rim, in this case 16 inches
  • The next number (63) represents the tire's load rating. This is the load capacity of a single tire.
  • The next letter (H) represents the speed rating, from 99 to 186 MPH, with T meaning 118 MPH and H meaning 130 MPH, which involves the tires ability to dissipate heat (more heat = faster breakdown of tire). These two numbers are recommended for people who do a lot of highway driving, but if you're a senior citizen or teenager, and all your driving is within cities at relatively low speeds, a type S tire (112 MPH) would probably work for you.
  • And the final letter or letters (M+S) means the tire is designed for all-season driving.

Why are these numbers important? Because the tires you choose must fit the way you drive, as well as the specifications for your car. If the original tires have a load rating of 63, any new tires you purchase should have an equal or greater load rating.

As well, it's important to consider where you live. If you live in a place like California or Texas where the weather is fairly warm all year, with only occasional moments of actual "winter," and all-season tire will work well for you, but if you live in the mid-west or northeast, where winter involves many months of snow, ice, and slush, you'll want to get winter tires, at least for that season. It's also good to know that new tires have better snow traction and wet traction, while older, worn tires have better dry traction, so if you do live in a place where winter means rain and snow, make sure you purchase your new tires in the fall.

How Do You Drive?

Now that you know how to read the tire code, consider your own driving habits, as these will inform the best choice of tires for your car. Specifically, consider the following:

  • The size and type of tire recommended by your owner's manual, always the best guide.
  • Your needs: What kind of driving will you be doing? Long jaunts on highways or mostly in town? What about dirt roads?
  • Your preferences: Do you like a firm ride, a soft ride, or something in-between?
  • Your vehicle's needs: Be sure you purchase tires that meet the load-bearing demands of your vehicle, but don't over-buy. All-season tires will probably be perfectly sufficient, even if a touring tire is being pushed at you. Getting the wrong tires could lead to unnecessary wear-and-tear and maybe even to an accident later on. Ultimately, the right tires may help to save money on gas along with other unseen benefits.
  • The style factor: If a hot look is your goal, you may be thinking about plus-sizing - that's when you mount larger-than-spec wheels and tires on a car or truck (it's especially popular on mini-pickups), to make them look different, but it can also improve cornering responses and increase traction. The down-side is that plus-sizing can mean a harsher ride, and there is often less durability. If you do opt to plus-size, only choose tires and wheels that are approved for use on the vehicle you drive, have the same (or greater) load rating as the original tires, and are within 3% (in either direction) of the original tire diameter.

Is Fuel Economy a Factor?

While fuel economy should never be the only basis for choosing your new tires, it is a valid point to consider, especially since, according to a spokesperson from Bridgestone Firestone North America, there may be a "15-20 percent difference" in fuel economy depending on which tires you choose. What tires are best for increasing fuel economy? Usually OEM tires will give the best results, but only if they're properly inflated and in good condition.

Where to Buy

The last piece of the tire purchasing puzzle is where to buy them. You can go back to the car dealer, where they will offer replacement OEM tires for roughly twice the price you would pay anywhere else, though they might be able to offer you upgrade options that you didn't select at time of purchase.

Alternatively, you can go to a tire discounter, where you can get new tires at wholesale prices. If cost is an issue, and you are comfortable changing the tires yourself, this option can save you a significant amount of money, but you'll still have to take your car to a service station or mechanic to have the new tires balanced, or mounted and balanced if changing your own tires isn't something you want to do (an emergency tire change is a completely different thing, of course).

Finally, you can go to a local store, which may be independent or may be part of a national chain. These stores are a blend of better-than-dealership prices and better-than-discount-shop service, and the people working in them are generally pretty savvy about tires in general, and can answer questions, as well as mount and balance the tires you select.

When it comes to tires, think of it this way: your tires are like your car's shoes. You wouldn't play golf in wingtips, or hike in roller-blades, and tire choices can be just as specific. Ultimately, you should balance performance, preference and the price you're willing to pay.