The average car is made up of 30,000 parts, but only four of them actually touch the pavement as you travel down the road. Tires don’t take care of themselves, and even the best car tires eventually will wear out and have to be replaced. Average drivers need to replace their car tires every three or four years — and even discount tires cost $50 to $150 each — but how long they last and how well they perform have a lot to do with you. Here’s how to get the most out of the four inflatable circles responsible for the expression “where the rubber meets the road” and how to cut down on your maintenance costs.
Last updated: Nov. 27, 2019
Start With the Right Tires
Getting the most bang for your buck starts with buying the proper tires. You must, of course, choose the right size of tires, but you have to pick the right type, as well. Long-life touring tires, for example, might be great for a Toyota Prius but won’t help a Porsche Cayman live up to its potential. That Cayman’s performance tires, however, wouldn’t fare well on a Land Rover that spends time off-road. Consider your vehicle, your driving habits, your climate and the terrain you encounter most frequently. Talk to your tire shop’s staff and, if you’re still unsure, keep in mind that the people who made your car know what they’re talking about. The manufacturer’s default is a safe bet.
Never Mount Your Own Tires
There are plenty of ways to save money on auto upkeep by tackling certain maintenance jobs yourself, but even for the most ambitious DIYers, mounting your own tires is not one of them. Attempting to mount your own tires is dangerous, and it takes specialized equipment and training. Either during installation or, even worse, while driving down the highway, your efforts likely will hurt your tires, rims, wheels, car, yourself, your passengers or all of the above.
Consider Investing In Winter Tires
All-season tires can tackle most driving conditions in much of the country, but if you live in a region with predictably harsh winters, changing to winter tires during the coldest months makes sense. They’re made from a more malleable rubber so they don’t get hard and brittle when temperatures plummet. They also have deeper treads with special patterns designed specifically for handling and providing traction on ice and snow.
Always Swap Back Out
When you change your tires for winter, you’ll give your all-season tires a break of a few months and extend their lives. Winter tires are not, however, designed for all-season driving because their soft composition makes them wear faster in warm weather. They also can give your vehicle a sluggish response time and lower fuel economy. When the weather breaks, swap your winter tires and put your all-seasons back on.
Store Your Tires Correctly
If you opt for winter tires, you’ll have to store whichever set isn’t on your car, depending on the time of year. When your mechanic takes off the set you won’t be using, ask that they’re fully inflated and make a note of each tire’s position on the car. Wash them with warm, soapy water before you tuck them away so that any built-up grease and brake dust won’t gnaw away at them in storage. Store them in airtight, opaque bags — lawn bags sealed with duct tape will do — and if you can, store them indoors. If not, make sure they’re covered and off of surfaces that get very hot or cold. For example, don’t store them directly on asphalt or metal.
Inspect Your Tires Regularly
At least once a month — and every time you’re about to take a long trip — take a minute to walk around your car and give your tires a good, close look. Check for bubbles and bulges in the sidewalls, cracks, scrapes, gouges and, most importantly, proper inflation and the level of wear to the treads.
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Keep an Eye on Tread Depth
Tread depth is measured in increments of 32nds of an inch, and you should replace your tires when their treads reach a depth of 2/32. Since that’s hard to measure, your tires come with tread wear indicators, which are little ribs in the main tread grooves. When they’re level with the tread surface, they’ve worn down to 2/32 of an inch and should be replaced. Alternately, you can insert a penny into the main tread with Lincoln’s head upside down and facing you. If you can see all of Honest Abe’s head, it’s time for new tires. If you insert a quarter the same way and all of George Washington’s head is visible, you’re at 4/32 of an inch, which means you’re good.
Check your tire pressure periodically, even if they look OK, with a standard pressure gauge. Check when your tires are cold, either in the morning before you drive or several hours after you’ve last driven. If they’re low, fill them to the PSI level recommended by your car’s manufacturer. That is listed in your owner’s manual or on a sticker pasted on the frame of the driver’s side door. Too little air is bad for your tires and reduces their lifespan. Even worse, cars need more distance to stop when their tires are underinflated.
Again, refer to your manual — not the number on your tire’s sidewall — when inflating your tires. The number on your tire’s sidewall is the maximum pounds per square inch (psi) allowed for the tire, not the recommended psi for your specific car. If you overinflate, just press the metal stem in the center of the inflation cylinder to let some air out. Then measure again with your gauge. Overinflated tires are too stiff and don’t perform well. Overinflation also stiffens the sidewalls, causes uneven wear on the center treads and makes the tires more prone to bulging, bubbling and other damage when you hit potholes or uneven terrain.
Be Aware of Temperature
Cold weather causes tires to lose pressure — as much as 2 psi for every 10-degree drop in temperature — and they gain pressure in high heat. It has to be very cold or very hot for this phenomenon to take effect, but in the most extreme temperatures, check and adjust your tire pressure more frequently.
Always Have Four Matching Tires
There was a time when mechanics would put snow tires only on the drive tires for winter use, leaving the all-season tires on the nonpowered axle. Now, however, it’s well known that all four tires must be as close to identical as possible to get the best performance and safety. That means that they should be the same type, model and tread pattern, and they also should have the same degree of wear. When all four tires are the same, they’ll behave predictably when cornering, braking, accelerating or working in inclement weather.
With All-Wheel Drive, Buy in Sets of 4
If you have an all-wheel-drive vehicle, you should replace all four tires at the same time even if two are worn but still roadworthy. While that might be a tough expense to swallow, it’s not actually a waste of money. That’s because tires on all-wheel-drive vehicles lose diameter, not just tread depth as they wear. With just a few 32nds of an inch difference, even slightly worn tires will spin faster than the newer ones. Check with the manufacturer of your vehicle for specific information about your model.
For All Other Vehicles, Put New Tires on the Rear Wheels
If you don’t have an all-wheel-drive vehicle, you can get away with replacing tires in pairs, but the new tires always go on the back. It’s a common misconception that they should go on the front if your car has front-wheel drive, but that’s not true. The rear wheels do most of the work in terms of stability and traction. When the front wheels slip on snow, slush or water, it’s fairly easy to compensate with steering and your car’s traction-control system. When the rear wheels fishtail out, however, the car can quickly slide into an unrecoverable spin. This dynamic is the same whether your driving wheels are on the front axle or the rear.
Rotate Tires Frequently
Tires wear differently on front-, rear- and all-wheel-drive vehicles depending on their placement. Tire rotation — swapping tire positions from front to back and side to side — encourages even tire wear. By making frequent tire rotation part of your regular maintenance schedule, you’ll also extend the life of your tires and, in some cases, keep your warranty in good standing. Generally, 5,000 to 7,500 miles is a good rule of thumb for scheduled tire rotation.
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Get Your Wheels Balanced
Wheel balancing, or tire balancing, equalizes the combined weight of the tire and wheel, neither of which are exactly the same weight all the way around. Over time at high speeds, those minor weight imbalances can become significant from the effects of centrifugal force. This leads to wobbling, vibrations, noise, uneven wear, poor performance and reduced tire life. When you rotate your tires, get them balanced, as well.
Get Your Tires Aligned
Tire alignment, also known as wheel alignment, actually doesn’t involve changes or maintenance to either the wheels or the tires. It refers to work on the system that connects the wheels to the larger vehicle — the suspension. If your vehicle is pulling, if it drifts while the wheel is centered, if your steering wheel vibrates, or you notice uneven tire tread wear, you likely need to have your vehicle’s tires aligned. Doing so will realign the camber, toe and caster. When any of those are off, your tires will tilt or tip inward or outward, reducing performance and wearing out your tires prematurely.
Keep Your Suspension Well-Maintained
Your tires are directly affected by your suspension, which needs some TLC if your tires are going to live up to their potential. If you want to do your tires a favor, don’t wait until you notice uneven tread wear or other telltale signs of a flawed suspension. Have your struts and shock absorbers checked to make sure they’re doing their job to support the vehicle and provide a cushion over potholes and uneven road so your tires don’t have to bear the burden of the car’s mass.
Keep Your Spare in Good Shape
There’s one tire that drivers neglect more frequently than all the others — the spare. Your spare needs to be periodically inflated to its suggested psi and inspected for damage, just like the tires you drive on. Tires degrade over time even if they’re not in use. This is particularly true for spares that are stored on the outside of the vehicle and are exposed to the elements.
Toss Your Spare if You Must
Out of sight and out of mind, the spare is easy to forget about — until you need a capable, well-maintained temporary tire to replace the damaged one you just wrestled off your car on the shoulder of the road. Throwing out an unused tire is a tough pill to swallow for drivers on a budget, but most spares need to be replaced every eight years even if they were never called to duty. Again, this will go against every instinct in your body, but the consequences of driving on a faulty spare are higher than the cost of a replacement.
If You Must Drive on a Spare, Keep It Slow and Brief
If necessity forces you to change a flat or otherwise undrivable tire, remember that your spare is a band-aid fix for emergency situations. Virtually all spares are designed for driving under 50 mph — well under, if possible. They’re also not meant to drive for more than 50 miles. Spares are not long-term solutions, and driving on them too long, too fast or both can be dangerous. Doing so can wear out your full-size tires and even throw off your alignment. Your spare is designed to get you to a service station to get a new tire and little else.
Avoid Sidewall Weathering
Tire degradation first becomes visible in the sidewall, which will look cracked, brittle and breakable when it becomes afflicted with sidewall weathering, which is sometimes called sidewall cracking or dry rot. Excessive UV light contributes to this degradation, so always try to park in the shade. Lack of use is also a factor, either due to overextended storage when tires are off the car or a lack of driving when the tires are on it. Also, avoid storing your tires near ozone-generating sources such as welding equipment, generators, battery chargers and electric motors.
Avoid Bumps in the Road
Speed bumps, railroad tracks, uneven terrain and the worst of all by far — potholes — can devastate your tires, not to mention your wheels and suspension. Potholes are most common at the end of winter and in early spring when the freeze/thaw cycle opens gaping holes in roads, which can cause flats in the forms of tears and punctures. A hard plunge into a pothole also can throw off your alignment, cause sidewall bulging, mess up your steering and even break some suspension components.
Avoid Curb Rash
Sidewalls are the most vulnerable part of a tire because they don’t have the steel-reinforced belt found in the tread. Also, the sidewall contains the adhesive that binds the steel-belt tread to the rest of the tire. Tires are not meant to absorb impacts from the side. That, however, is exactly what happens every time you scrape your tires against a curb or other raised obstacle when parking. The result is what’s called curb rash, an unsightly scraping of your rims and sidewalls, but curb rash is not just aesthetically unpleasing. It can tear, rub or otherwise weaken the already weak sidewall, making it vulnerable to bulging or bursting.
Get Inspections After 5 Years
As discussed, tires degrade over time even if they’re not in use. They break down differently depending on the tire, vehicle, weather, driving habits and a host of other variables. Assuming normal driving of around 12,000 miles per year, tires should last three to four years. In some cases, however, they can last as long as a decade. They also can, however, turn into ticking time bombs building toward a dangerous, high-speed blowout or tread separation. The untrained eye won’t be able to see a breakdown in adhesives or other hidden failures, so if your tires are older but still drivable, get them inspected regularly after five years.
Don’t Buy Used
Tires are expensive, but even the most frugal motorists should resist the lure of used tires. Even if they look like they’re in tip-top shape, you have no way of knowing how old they are, or how they were stored or maintained. The previous driver might have degraded them unintentionally by doing things such as driving when the tires were improperly inflated, or they could have been punctured and patched. You don’t have to splurge on high-end tires, but never buy used.
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About the Author
Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street’s investment community in New York City.