April 30, 2017

Buying Tires – the Best Way

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Tires and Auto Safety

If you own a car for long enough, sooner or later you’ll need to replace the tires. Even if you’re lucky enough to avoid massive pot-holes and don’t go over a curb, tire treads wear down, and once the tread is worn low enough, the tires are not safe to continue driving on. This article describes some of the options on where to buy tires, some pros and cons, and the best way to buy replacement tires for newer sedans such as late model Toyota Camry or Honda Accord that come with tire pressure sensors.

Replacing Tires Needed Even on New Cars

Even on high-end new cars, manufacturers often put very poorly-rated tires as OE tires. This is true even on high-end Honda Accord and Toyota Camry trims. Offers to pay the difference in cost to replace the low quality tires with good ones are likely to be rebuffed. As a result, after far fewer miles than one would wish, the tires must be replaced.

Your Ride: Tires 101 provides an excellent primer on why buying the right tire is critical, as well as explaining a great deal about the various trade-offs when choosing what tire to mount on your vehicle. In explaining how critical good tires are to safety, that article says “Every move a driver makes with the steering wheel or brake or gas pedal is transmitted to the road through the four notepad-sized contact patches of the tires.”

Buying the Right Tire

Choosing the right tire for your situation can seem bewildering, especially at first. The options seem endless. Dozens of manufacturers, odd-sounding sizes like P215/60R16, specs such as 95V or 94T, etc. So, how do you choose the right tire? The first step is to understand the codes.

The size of the tire is comprised of the initial letter(s) which specify e.g. P for Passenger, LT for Light Truck, etc. Next, the first number specifies the width of the tire in mm across the tread, after the slash, the next number is the aspect ratio of the side-wall height divided by the tire width. The R stands for Radial, and the last number is the rim diameter in inches. The 95V or similar spec is comprised of the number portion, specifying the maximum load the tire should handle, and the letter, which specifies the highest speed at which the tire can safely dissipate the resulting heat build-up (usually much higher than the legal speed limit).

Tires also come in a variety of performance categories such as “High Performance All Season”, “Grand Touring All Season”, “Passenger All Season”, etc. The category you buy should be determined by the type of driving you expect to do with the tires. Thus, don’t buy “Max Performance Summer” tires for use in snowy conditions, nor “Studdable Winter/Snow” for desert driving.

Your best bet is to start your search with the OE tires your car came with. Those will clearly define the size tire, the load, and the minimum speed rating needed. For example, according to TireRack.com the OE tire for a late model Camry is the P215/60R16 Michelin Energy MXV4 S8, with a 94V rating (implying max load of 1477 lbs/tire and max speed of 149 mph). Clearly, if you get tires that meet or exceed the load and speed rating, and match the size, you should be safe.

However, this does not imply you must buy that OE tire, or any other tire that happens to be in stock at a local tire store, be it a national chain or a local merchant. Instead, visit TireRack.com, enter the make, model, and year of your vehicle and compare all the tire options they have. Choose the tire category based on where you drive, the type of weather you contend with, etc. Many who live in snowy areas buy two sets of tires – one for winter, and another for the rest of the year.

At the end of the process you should find a tire that at least meets, and preferably exceeds the performance of the OE tires in most or all aspects, at the best price. When comparing tire prices, account for mileage warranties. A $120 tire good for 60,000 miles is a better long-term deal than a $90 tire good for 40,000 miles. Divide the price by the expected number of miles. A good goal for the net price per tire for most sedans is $0.0015 – $0.0020 per mile. Light truck and SUV tires will be more expensive, as will specialty tires.

For the Camry example, the Yokohama AVID ENVigor High Performance All Season tires out-rank the Michelin OE tire in all categories1:

  • Hydroplaning resistance
  • Wet traction
  • Cornering stability
  • Dry traction
  • Steering response
  • Light snow traction
  • Deep snow traction
  • Ice traction
  • Ride comfort
  • Noise comfort
  • Tread-wear.

In addition, the Yokohamas cost just over half as much as the OE Michelins, and are made in the US.

Best Way to Buy and Mount the Tires

Buying tires at a discount store (e.g. Costco, Walmart, etc.) is normally cheaper than buying the same tires at a dealership or even at a regular tire store. However, the selection is much more limited, and the technicians not necessarily as experienced or well trained. Instead, you can (and in many cases should) order the tires from TireRack.com and have them shipped directly to a local shop that can mount, balance, and align them for you. Tire Rack has a list of recommended shops they work with, but do not limit you to those.

For cars with tire pressure sensors there is an added wrinkle. Technicians at low-cost tire shops may not have the training and knowledge to avoid damaging the tire pressure sensor, or even letting the sensor lose its digital hand-shake with the car. This could end up costing you hundreds of dollars to undo. In such cases you’d be better served to let the dealership do the actual labor for you.

For the best price, get a free online quote from TireRack.com for the set of the tires you want, including shipping to the dealership. Then, visit your dealership with the quote to see if they can beat it. Make sure to include any extras such as road hazard warranty (available from TireRack.com and from some dealerships if you buy the tires through them), mounting, balancing, and alignment. If the dealership can’t beat the price, they may well be willing to accept delivery of the tires you order from Tire Rack. In this scenario you’d pay Tire Rack for the tires, road hazard warranty, and shipping cost; You’d pay the dealership for the mounting, balancing, and alignment, along with their normal shop charges and old tire disposal fee.

Doing this preparatory research can save you over half the cost of simply having the dealership sell you a set of OE tires and mount, balance and align them. For a set of high end tires that could save you hundreds of dollars. As an added benefit, you may well end up driving on better tires at that lower price.

1 According to TireRack.com, for P215/60R16 Yokohama AVID ENVigor compared to P215/60R16 Michelin Energy MXV4 S8, as of this writing, December 2010.

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