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How to Buy Tires

Shopping for new tires isn’t as simple as it might seem. A few basic guidelines will help ensure that you’re getting the maximum performance, comfort and mileage possible out of what’s arguably the most important wear item you’ll replace on your car.

Skimping on replacement parts for your car is never a good idea, and there are few high-price items that offer as much return on investment as good tires. When your car left the factory, its four tires weren’t slapped on at random. They were selected by a team of engineers after they met certain performance criteria.

Tires don’t last forever, of course. Even if you haven’t worn down the tread by adding a lot of miles to your car over the years, the tires’ rubber naturally begins to degrade and can eventually become unsafe. Trust the opinion of your local tire shop — if it says it’s time to replace the tires, it’s time to shop for tires.

Do You Really Need New Tires?

Maybe you’re wondering whether you actually need a new set of tires. After all, maybe you only drive your car a few thousand miles a year, and the tires look like they’re in good shape.

But if your tires are old, they’re probably due for replacement.

Look for cracks and check tread depth

First, give your tires a thorough visual inspection. If you see cracking on the sidewalls or the tread, it’s time to replace your tires.

Next, dig through your pockets or your change drawer for a penny. Flip Honest Abe upside down and put the penny between the tread blocks. If the top of Lincoln’s head is visible, it means you’re low on tread and should replace your tires soon.

Even if it looks like Lincoln’s head isn’t quite entirely exposed, consider how you’ll be driving over the next couple of months. If snow or rain is likely to be a part of your daily drive, replacing your tires is advisable.

Tires expire

Tires are a consumable — even their makers know that they won’t last forever. Manufacturers generally estimate that a tire is ready to be recycled after 10 years, even if it’s never been mounted to a car. Luckily for you, tire manufacturers are legally required to tell you when your tires were produced.

A small code on the sidewall shows the week and year a tire was made. A code of 0316, for example, would indicate that the tire was made during the third week (03) of 2016 (16). If you still have that tire on your car in 2020, it’s nearly halfway through its service life.

When in doubt, ask a professional — and maybe get a couple of opinions. Nearly every tire shop will measure your tread depth and help you inspect your tires to determine whether they’re due for replacement.

How Do You Shop for Tires?

Online tire retailers offer dozens of tires in common sizes, which might be overwhelming at first. Bigger tire shops, such as The Tire Rack, TireBuyer and Discount Tire, offer tools that help you determine the tires you need, and their customer service representatives are well versed in what tires are best for your car.

Still, there’s a lot you can do ahead of time, especially if you’re in a crunch and need to pick tires out today.

Buy the right size — the original size

Unless you’ve changed your car’s wheels or suspension and have solicited the opinions of professionals, it isn’t smart to change the size of tire fitted to your car. Your car was designed for a specific size of tire, which will be listed in the owner’s manual or on a sticker located on the door or the door jamb. When in doubt, contact your automaker’s consumer assistance line or your dealership to confirm the tire size you need.

You’ll want to stick with the size specified by the automaker for a number of reasons. If you switch to a larger or smaller tire, your speedometer and odometer won’t read correctly, meaning that you might find yourself speeding when you don’t intend to be and that mileage will accumulate faster. Additionally, larger tires degrade fuel economy, and smaller tires can lead to major handling compromises.

Buy the right kind of tire

There’s a lot more to a tire than the size, of course. A tire shop can point you in the right direction when it comes to the strength of the tire and the type of rubber compound used to maximize grip or to hold up to higher speeds. Most cars, SUVs and crossovers are designed to use passenger car tires. Pickups and larger or off-road-oriented SUVs are built to use light truck tires. There are many differences in how these tires are constructed, so shop accordingly.

From there, look at the load index. This number — which typically falls between 70 and 126 — indicates how much the tire is rated to carry. You’ll want to find a figure the same as or close to what your car was built to run. Putting on a tire with too low a load index increases the risk of tire failure. Put on one with a load index that’s too high, and the tire might not absorb bumps as well.

Finally, look at the speed rating. Though hopefully you won’t go 100 mph in your car, the speed rating, which is indicated by a letter, gives an idea of the tire’s capability. Sports car tires should have a higher speed rating, whereas plush family cars should use tires with a lower rating.

Buy what fits your climate and driving patterns

Nearly every new car is built with all-season tires designed to be as grippy at 100 degrees as they are at 40 degrees. If you routinely drive in colder weather, make sure that you’re swapping into winter tires. If you live where it’s warm year-round, you might see some benefits from a summer-specific tire, depending on the kind of car you drive. But though winter tires are adequate in warmer weather, summer tires are dangerous below about 40 degrees. So shop carefully.

Look for tires that fit your type of driving. There’s no reason to go for a loud, hard-riding performance tire unless you drive a sporty car and enjoy exercising its abilities. Ultra-grippy tires wear faster than all-season tires, so you might find yourself replacing your tires more often.

What Else Should You Consider When Shopping for Tires?

Once you’ve narrowed your shopping list, you still have some work ahead of you.

Consider the warranty

Tires almost always include two kinds of warranties: a conventional program that ensures replacement in the event of a manufacturer defect and a treadwear warranty that ensures the tires will be serviceable up until a certain mileage.

Manufacturer defects are unusual, though they do happen, and they tend to be obvious before the tires are even installed. Should an issue arise, tire manufacturers are usually quick to replace a defective tire.

Treadwear warranties, on the other hand, are prorated, which means you won’t get a free set of new tires should you wear through tires in less time than the manufacturer has warranted. Instead, the manufacturer will credit you a discount toward a new set of tires. This discount is usually very small — tire manufacturers have decades’ and billions of miles’ worth of data at their disposal, and they know how to build tires to last for a certain time.

That said, a longer treadwear warranty generally indicates that a tire will last longer. Hard-wearing tires are fine for moderate commuting in gentle climates, but enthusiastic driving, wintry weather or off-road use demand a different kind of tire compound, which will wear down faster.

Check the date codes

Tires that have been sitting in a shop’s inventory for years might look perfectly fine, but much of their serviceable life has been used up. Tires are made from rubber, which degrades and presents a higher risk of failure at speed over time.

If you put a lot of miles on your car every year, a set of 3-year-old but never used tires bought at a big discount might be OK. But most drivers will want to find newer tires.

Many vendors sell older tires at big discounts on online marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay. It’s worth asking to see the date codes before spending your money, though.

Where Should You Buy Tires?

You have several options when it comes to buying tires: on the web, from a big chain store or through a specialist. There are pros and cons to each.

Online

Major online tire retailers, such as The Tire Rack and TireBuyer, will send tires either to your home or to your preferred tire shop. These retailers deal in big volumes, which helps them keep prices low. In certain markets, The Tire Rack will even further discount your tires if you pick them up at a local distribution center.

Vendors also sell tires on Amazon and eBay, though, as mentioned above, big online marketplaces tend to have many sellers trying to unload older tires that big shops have purged from their inventories. Shop carefully — a deal that looks too good to be true probably is.

And if you’re in a hurry, online tire shopping isn’t a good option.

Big-box stores and warehouse clubs

Major retailers such as Walmart, Sam’s Club and Costco have massive car repair departments, though what they have in stock might be limited compared to specialty tire shops and websites.

Major tire manufacturers sell certain tires through big-box and warehouse stores. For example, Goodyear sells a lower-end passenger car tire, the Viva, through Walmart. It’s not a high-end tire, but the Viva is fine for typical commuter use and offers the presumed quality of the Goodyear brand.

Also, big-box stores typically won’t install tires you bought online.

Tire shops

Tire shops, like the items they sell, come in all shapes and sizes. Big chains, such as Discount Tire, NTB and Big O, have large inventories and can usually install and balance your tires in an hour or two. In metro areas, chain tire shops can trade tires between locations, which helps ensure that they’ll have what you need.

Smaller stores run the gamut from mom-and-pop shops that have been around for years and might not provide the lowest prices but are often community fixtures with excellent customer service to operations that specialize in used tires. We don’t recommend purchasing used tires — the benefits of unused tires outweigh any cost savings that come with buying older tires, which might be unevenly worn and don’t include a warranty.

Dealerships

Car dealership service departments often offer tire replacement services. The advantage of buying your tires at a car dealership is one-stop service. While the car is, say, getting its oil changed, the dealer can also fit new tires, saving you time.

Dealers tend to offer competitive pricing, though they might not have the wide selection of bigger retailers.

Which Extras Are Worth Buying?

Tire shops might try to upsell you on a few extra-cost items — and not all of them are worthwhile.

Spend

A road hazard warranty is often a good buy, though you’ll want to do the math to confirm that you’ll drive enough to take the risk. Consider whether the shop offering the warranty has enough retail outlets near where you expect to be driving to make the warranty worthwhile, too.

A rotation and balance program is, generally, a good plan, so long as you intend to hang onto your car long enough.

Tire pressure monitors are required on new cars, and their batteries will eventually fail. If it’s been a few years since your tire pressure monitoring system batteries were replaced, consider having them swapped out when your tires are off your wheels. Doing so later will mean paying a shop to dismount, remount and balance all four tires again.

A wheel alignment is a good idea if you haven’t had one performed recently. A wheel alignment ensures that your car goes in a straight line when the steering wheel is centered, and it reduces wear on your new tires and on costly suspension parts.

Maybe don’t spend

Many shops fill their tires with nitrogen, and most charge a few dollars extra for it. The advantage of nitrogen over air is that tire pressures tend to remain more consistent as the weather changes. However, you’ll need to periodically top off the tires with nitrogen, which means visiting the tire shop again.

Some tire shops charge extra for wheels with tire pressure monitoring system sensors. Working with wheels that have these sensors is more time-consuming than it would be otherwise, but most tire shops don’t charge extra.

Now That You’ve Had the Tires Installed, What’s Next?

Once the new tires are on your car, you’re good to go — but some preventative maintenance will extend their lives and save you money.

Inspect the tires carefully

Take a good look at the tires and your wheels after the shop has installed them. Look for signs of wheel damage around the lug nuts and the rim, and inspect the tires to make sure that they’re the ones you purchased and that their date codes are consistent and recent.

Take a good look at the sidewall and the tread on your tires periodically to see if there are any cuts, bruises and cracking.

When in doubt, ask your local tire shop for their opinion on a tire’s condition.

Check your tire pressure

Newer cars have tire pressure monitoring system sensors that relay to your car’s dashboard or to its instrument cluster when tire pressures have dropped below a certain threshold. As soon as you see this light or low-pressure indicator, refill your tires at a gas station or a tire shop, or by using a home compressor.

Proper tire inflation ensures that your car rides and handles the way its maker intended and that it can reach optimal fuel economy. If your tire pressure is too low or too high, it can lead to premature and uneven tire wear.

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