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5 tips for buying tires

One of the pivotal innovations in the history of the modern automobile was the development of the pneumatic tire. The air-filled tire has proved an invaluable part of automotive progress. While the technology of tires and tire manufacture has indeed progressed, the basic principle behind the pneumatic tire hasn't changed all that much over the years. A cushion of air inside the tire, in combination with the materials and construction of the tire itself, work together to not only let the car roll with minimum resistance but also allow it to do so on a cushion of air.

The compounds and materials in the tire tread and sidewall work with the suspension to keep the tire on the road surface and maintain vehicle control. It is the materials and construction of the tire itself that vary from tire to tire. Choosing the right tire starts with determining what type of driver you are and the type of driving you're going to do, as you’ll learn in this brief tire buying guide.

New shoes
As anyone who has recently had to put a new set of tires on their vehicle can attest, new tires can be a pricey proposition. While saving money on tires is not always the smartest decision, spending too much on the wrong tires makes no sense either. The solution is to fit your vehicle with tires that suit not only the vehicle, but also your driving style and the conditions at hand. The easiest and often most prudent choice to make is to purchase the same size, type and rating of tire with which your vehicle was manufactured. The engineers with the white lab coats and pocket protectors with your vehicle's brand name on them usually know what's best. While stock replacement may be the easiest route, some vehicles come with a model designation of tire only available for that vehicle and only from the dealership. Not to worry. A replacement is as easy as rolling into a tire of exactly the same size and rating.

New math
While choosing the correct diameter of tire is an obvious choice, there is almost an algebra book's collection of number and letter designations on the sidewall of a modern tire. The biggest one is the most important and usually goes something like P235/70R15 87H. Reading from left to right, the translation is this:

  • The P stands for passenger. Easy.
  • The 235 is the width of the tire in millimeters.
  • The 70 is somewhat tricky. This number is the tire's aspect ratio, or percentage of the width that is the tire's height. A 70 series tire is 70 percent of the tire's width tall. The higher this number, the taller the tire, and vice versa. The R stands for Radial. Easy again.
  • The 15 is the wheel diameter the tire will fit.
  • The far right number is the load rating, and the final letter the speed rating. The higher each one of these is, the greater load and speed the tire is manufactured to handle.

There is another number called the treadwear rating. This number gives an idea of how long the tire will last, or how fast it will wear out – depending on how you look at it. Read on.

Grip versus wear
Tire wear is dependent on the blend of natural and synthetic rubbers from which the tire itself is made. The recipes for these blends are what make the tires perform in one way or another. A softer, sticky performance blend will help the vehicle hug the road but won't bring long tire life along with it. An all-season M+S tire will bring long tire life and a smooth ride but not the same blazing performance as a softer performance blend. Snow tires work best in the snow. Soft and sticky high-performance summer tires work best in the summer and will turn hard as hockey pucks when the temperature drops.

Off-road tires are built with mud, rocks and gravel in mind; as such they don't play well on smooth pavement. The key point is that there is no single do-it-all perfect tire that works without compromise. Tires are manufactured to work best in a defined set of circumstances. Choosing the right tire rolls in behind first determining what kind of driving you do and taking time to honestly examine your driving circumstances. That will go far in making the right decision the first time around.

Five tire buying tips
  1. Your driving style and operating environment will determine the best tires for your vehicle. Be honest with yourself and your dealer.
  2. Tire performance is about compromise. High-performance tires wear quickly and can be noisy. Quiet, long-wearing tires sacrifice some performance.
  3. Consider a dedicated set of wheels for snow tires in winter climates. Always run with a full set of four snow tires.
  4. Don't mix and match types and ratings of tires. Handling and braking will suffer. Always replace tires as a set.
  5. Always use tires for their designed purpose. Off-road tires are useless on the highway, as are high-performance summer tires in wintry conditions.
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