We're here to walk you through the complicated process of picking the right rubber for your car. Scroll down for our specific tire recommendations.
Unless you're replacing your car's tires with the identical set that it came with, you're going to face some decisions. What's the story with treadwear? Can you replace a run-flat tire with something else? Are winter tires worth the investment?
Here are some answers—and specific recommendations—to inform your search for a new set of rubber.
Treadwear Rating: How Much Should I Pay Attention to That?
Among the specs you confront when tire-shopping, treadwear is one of the more mysterious. If one tire has a treadwear rating of 400 and another is 600, does that mean the latter tire will last 50 percent longer? Not really, because although there's a standardized Uniform Tire Quality Grade test to measure treadwear on specific roads in West Texas, the test is so easy that most tires get crazy-high scores.
And while manufacturers can't overstate their rating, they are allowed to understate it. How much it's understated and why is up to them, but you can figure that each company looks at everybody else's numbers for competitive tires and pegs their rating to that ballpark. For instance, Michelin's LTX A/T2 scored more than 1,800 on the UTQG test. But Michelin gave it a rating of 500. Why? Because they don't want people getting mad when their tires don't last 120,000 miles. So: Take treadwear ratings with a large grain of salt.
Are All-Season Tires Really Good for All Seasons?
Jack of all trades, master of none, all-season tires are okay at everything but not particularly great at anything. If you just want to mount one set of tires and forget about it, then get all-seasons. They won't have the grip of a summer or three-season tire when it's warm out, and they definitely won't have the traction of a winter tire in the snow. But they won't be useless in either context, either. Ideally, if you live in a cold climate, you'll have two sets of tires—winter and everything else.
Explaining Aspect Ratio
In practical terms, aspect ratio is the height of your sidewall, and a lower number means less sidewall. Which means that, if you want the low-profile look, you shouldn't just buy new tires—you have to buy new wheels, too, in a larger size to compensate for the loss of sidewall. Otherwise, you're effectively regearing your car, as shorter tires will make your engine rev higher at a given speed, as well as causing your odometer to rack up the miles at an accelerated rate. And you don't want that. So, if, say, you want to go from a 205/60/16 tire (where 205 is the width in millimeters, 60 is the aspect ratio, and 16 is the inner diameter for the wheel) to a 50-profile, you'd also need to upgrade to a 17-inch wheel to maintain the same overall diameter.
That's the general rule: If you drop aspect ratio by ten, you increase wheel diameter by one inch. Just remember that those rubber-band sidewalls may look cool, but might actually hurt your car's performance, after a point—that's because huge wheels and thin tires probably weigh more than modest wheels and tires with more sidewall, and adding rotational mass to your wheel and tire are horrible for performance. Plus, you might bend those wheels a lot easier, given that a thin sidewall won't offer much protection from potholes or inadvertent brushes with the curb.
To Run Flat, or Not?
You might think that if your car came from the factory with run-flat tires, you have to replace them with run-flat tires, which might be more expensive and almost always offer a harsher ride than non-run-flats (that's because of their super-stiff sidewalls, which have to be robust enough to enable driving when the tire is deflated). But that's not necessarily the case, even though your run-flat car won't have a spare. You could always choose an option that's becoming increasingly common from OEMs, which is to use non-run-flat tires and just carry a tire repair kit, which is basically a can of Fix-A-Flat stashed in your car. That stuff works, at least for the kind of punctures that are repairable. Tire-inflation goop can can get you home, and thence to the tire shop for a new tire or a more permanent repair.
Winter Tires: Yes, They're Worth It
Winter tires offer so much of an advantage in the snow that you should consider them mandatory if you live anywhere with more than occasional snowfall. With rubber compounds that stay soft at low temperatures and tread designs that hold snow (because snow-on-snow offers better traction than rubber-on-snow), winter tires can transform your car. The difference is so pronounced that we'd rather have a two-wheel-drive car with winter tires than an all-wheel-drive one with all-seasons. "Two-wheel-drive with winter tires beats all-wheel-drive on all-seasons all day long," says Wyatt Knox, special projects director at the Team O'Neil Rally School in New Hampshire. "You'll probably accelerate about the same either way, but there are also these things called stopping and turning. They're nice to have, too."
If you're getting winter tires, buy a complete set with rims so you don't have to mount and balance everything each fall and spring. And if you're balking at the cost, remember that your winter tires effectively extend the life of your rest-of-the-year tires—so you're not really spending extra money, except for the wheels. And on that front, you should scour eBay or junkyards for "take-off" wheels, which are stock factory wheels that someone removed in favor of custom rims. Take-offs are a good call for winter wheels because if you bend one on a midwinter pothole, it'll be easy to find another matching wheel. That could be a lot harder with an aftermarket wheel, which might have gone out of production since you bought your set. One other note: You can order an extra set of the tire-pressure-monitoring sensors that go inside the wheels, if your car has a TPMS system. But if you can live with a lit dashboard warning light for the winter (and no insight from your car regarding tire pressures), you can save money and skip the sensors on your winter rubber.
Our Tire Recommendations
We hit up Woody Rogers, director of Tire Information at Tire Rack, for some specific recommendations across a few popular classes of tire. Tire Rack conducts its own in-house comprehensive testing (and compiles thousands of real-word consumer reviews), so Rogers knows of what speaks. And these are a few top choices.
Max Performance Summer:
Rogers says that, "The balance of civility and refinement for everyday driving, ultimate grip in dry and wet conditions, and poise, predictability, and feedback to the driver make this one of the best performance summer tires ever." It's a tire that people who know tires would put on their own cars.
Long-Wearing Touring All-Season:
Rogers says, "If you want a buy it and (nearly) forget it tire, this is it. Traction is good, road manners are nice but unengaging, and wear life is very good. All these need is monthly pressure checks and periodic rotation to give years of solid service."
“Premium Traction” Grand Touring All-Season
This category bears a bit of explanation, since this a mutation of all-season tires that are geared a little bit more toward winter. Some people call them "all weather," but that's actually a trademark owned by Goodyear. Tire Rack calls them "Premium Traction," and you identify this type of tire by the 3 Peak Mountain Snowflake (3PMSF) on the sidewall. That means the tire's met a minimum level of acceleration traction on medium packed snow. "We find they work surprisingly well in the snow, but of course cannot equal a true winter tire," Rogers says.
Which one is best for your needs depends on how much bias you need toward winter traction. But here's a recent between Goodyear, Michelin, Pirelli, and Vredestein tires in this category. Note that a lot of truck tires are also gaining 3PMSF certification, including the Cooper Discoverer AT3 4s, Kumho Crugen HT51, and Pirelli Scorpion All Terrain Plus.
Dedicated Winter: Bridgestone or
"These are the best when winter-weather driving conditions are at their worst," says Rogers. "Consumer favorite by a mile. Bridgestone has been in the game of developing special winter compounds since they launched the studless winter era back in the 1990s. They have quite a head start." But, if you want a winter tire with more high-performance precision on dry pavement, check out the .
One More Thing
If you're overwhelmed by all the choices and want a simple recommendation that factors in your preferences along with hundreds of tire tests and big data from consumer surveys, check out the , which will generate a recommendation in about two minutes or so.