A Brief Guide to
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
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-
- 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.
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.