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by Lauren Fix Auto & Finance Contributing Editor

Advances in tire technology have created more options for consumers. Read our guide to learn about and choose the best tire brand for you. We explain Uniform Tire Quality Grade (UTQG) standards, treadwear and traction grades, speed ratings, vibration control systems and other factors in your decision, including durability.

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Features to consider when you buy new tires

Uniform Tire Quality Grade (UTQG) standards

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) Uniform Tire Quality Grade Standards (UTQG) were originated to provide consumers with useful information to help them purchase tires based on their relative treadwear, traction and temperature capabilities. It is required by law for most passenger car tires sold in the United States.

When looking at UTQG ratings, it is important to realize that the Department of Transportation does not conduct the tests. Tire manufacturers assign these grades based on their test results or those conducted by an independent testing company they have hired. The NHTSA has the right to inspect the tire manufacturer's data and can fine them if inconsistencies are found. Once a grade is assigned it must be branded on the tire's upper sidewall and printed on its label.

Treadwear grades

UTQG base Treadwear Grades on actual road use in which the test tire is run in a vehicle convoy along with standardized Course Monitoring Tires. The tire manufacturers then assign a Treadwear Grade based on the observed wear rates. The Course Monitoring Tire is assigned a grade, and the test tire receives a grade indicating its relative treadwear. A grade of 100 would indicate that the tire tread would last as long as the test tire, 200 would indicate the tread would last twice as long, 300 would indicate three times as long, etc.

Traction grades

UTQG Traction Grades are based on the tire's straight line wet coefficient of traction as the tire skids across the specified test surfaces. The UTQG traction test does not evaluate dry braking, dry cornering, wet cornering or high speed hydroplaning resistance.

In 1997, the UTQG Traction Grades were revised to provide a new category of AA for the highest performing tires in addition to the earlier A, B and C grades. Today the grades and their traction coefficients are as follows:

Transaction gradesAAABC
Asphalt g-forceAbove .54Above .47Above .38Above .38
Concrete g-force.38.35.26.26

Temperature (resistance) grades

The UTQG Temperature Grade indicates the extent to which heat is generated and/or dissipated by a tire. A loaded tire's ability to operate at high speeds without failure by running an inflated test tire against a large diameter high-speed laboratory test wheel establishes the grade. If the tire is unable to dissipate the heat effectively or if the tire is unable to resist the destructive effects of heat buildup, its ability to run at high speeds is reduced.

Temperature gradesABC
Speed in mphOver 115Between 100 to 115Between 85 to 100

Every tire sold in the United States must be capable of earning a "C" rating which indicates the ability to withstand 85 mph speeds. While there are numerous detail differences, this laboratory test is similar in nature to those used to confirm a tire's speed ratings.

Comfort

When it comes to tires, comfort includes how smooth and how quiet the ride is. There are tradeoffs, but if comfort is paramount, there are some factors to consider.

  • Wheel size: The larger the wheel, the more tire rubber there is to produce road noise. Every vehicle has specifications for recommended wheel size, but a smaller wheel is needed if comfort is a factor. Typically, you should replace a tire with the same sized tire that came with the vehicle unless a professional assists you. This ensures that your odometer and speedometer readings remain accurate.
  • Tire width: Similar to wheel size, a wider width tire will allow more rubber to touch the pavement, creating more noise. To reduce noise, check the owner's manual for the narrowest tire recommended for a vehicle. Purchasing wider tires may also lead to rubbing on inner fenders and suspension, so it’s a good idea to get advice from a professional if you wish to get wider tires.
  • Tread material and pattern: Tire manufacturers use several types of materials to create tires. The tread material and pattern affect how the tire will react with the road, and in some cases the smoothness of the ride is noticeable. Different materials will perform in different ways than others: winter tires are softer to grip the snow and cold roads; summer performance tires are designed for warmer temperatures above 45 degrees and all-season tires will appear and perform differently but are not designed for heavy snow.

Performance

For some drivers and vehicles, performance is a key factor when making a tire purchase. Tires are rated on performance by various tire manufacturers, and there are features that contribute to a higher speed rating.

Speed Rating Chart

L75 mph120 km/hOff-Road & Light Truck Tires
M81 mph130 km/hTemporary Spare Tires
N87 mph140 km/h
P93 mph150 km/h
Q99 mph160 km/hStudless & Studdable Winter Tires
R106 mph170 km/hH.D. Light Truck Tires
S112 mph180 km/hFamily Sedan & Vans
T118 mph190 km/hFamily Sedan & Vans
U124 mph200 km/h
H130 mph210 km/hSport Sedans & Coupes
V149 mph240 km/hSport Sedans, Coupes & Sports Cars
W168 mph270 km/hExotic Sports Cars
Y186 mph300 km/hExotic Sports Cars
Y149 mph149 km/hExotic Sports Cars
  • Wide tread: A wide tread provides for more rubber on the road and a better grip. However, a wider tread performs worse than a narrow one on snow.
  • Low-profile sidewalls: A low-profile tire has a lower aspect ratio than a typical tire. This can increase performance by providing improved braking and handling. These tires are also more likely to get damaged by potholes.

Load rating / index

The load index is an assigned numerical value used to compare relative load carrying capabilities. The higher the tire's load index number, the greater its load carrying capacity. Typically, the load indexes of the tires used on passenger cars and light trucks range from 70 to 110.

Load IndexPoundsKilograms
71761345
72783355
73805365
74827375
75853387
76882400
77908412
78937425
79963437
80992450
811019462
821047475
831074487
841102500
851135515
861168530
871201545
881235560
891279580
901323600
911356615
921389630
931433650
941477670
951521690
961565710
971609730
981653750
991709775
1001764800
1011819825
1021874850
1031929875
1041984900
1052039925
1062094950
1072149975
10822051000
10922711030
11023371060

When looking at light truck (LT) or newer Special Trailer Service (ST) tires, there are two load indexes branded on the sidewall, separated by a forward slash. The correct load rating changes on trailers depending on the situation in which the tire is being used. Since LT tires are commonly used on trucks with dual rear wheels, they are branded with two load indexes. The first number indicates the load carrying capacity if the tire is installed on a truck with a single-wheel rear axle, and the second number applies when the tire is used in a dual rear application. A tire professional can advise you.

Durability

Durability refers to how long a tire will last. Durability is directly related to road conditions and driving habits.

  • Tire material: The tire manufacturing process utilizes different types of rubber. Harder rubber will make for a more durable tire but will give up some performance and ride comfort.
  • Tire tread: The tread design chosen for tires are typically all-season tires except in the case of performance automobiles. Winter tires and off-road tires offer a more aggressive tread pattern for grip in different conditions.

Traction

Traction is that grippy feeling that comes when the gas is applied and friction takes over between the road and the tire. Road conditions play a big role when it comes to traction, but some tires perform better than others.

  • Tread design: The design of a tread pattern is not random. Tire manufacturers use specific designs that help to disperse water and limit hydroplaning, plus offer grip, braking, safety and handling. Snow tires are a good example of deep treads that are intended to cut through a certain amount of snow.
  • Tread depth: Beyond dispersing water, the tread depth plays a role in traction, which is where the “rubber meets the road.” Tread depth below 3/32” is considered unsafe and the tire needs replacement.

Handling

Handling is the way the vehicle responds to the driver. Handling includes how the tires respond to acceleration, braking and turning. Handling affects safety and driving comfort.

  • Speed rating: Every vehicle manual specifies the recommended tire speed rating. To improve handling, some owners choose a tire of the same size but with a higher speed rating than specified.
  • Larger wheels: Larger wheels will mean more tire on the road and increased handling. However, most manufacturers do not recommend going more than one inch above specifications. Always consult with tire experts before making any +1 or +2 changes. This can impact the safety features on your vehicle.
  • Lower sidewalls: It is common for vehicle owners to go with larger wheels with narrow sidewalls. This improves handling, but it may decrease comfort, producing a rougher ride, and these tires can be damaged easier from impact to the sidewall from curbs and potholes.

How much do tires cost?

On average, tires cost $80 to $150 each. Choosing which tires to buy should not be based on price alone. However, for most people price is a considerable factor. There are some ways to keep price down.

  • Tire size: When it comes to pricing tires, quality and name brands will be your best choices. From a safety perspective, it’s best to stick with the vehicle manufacturer recommended tires.
  • Retailer: It pays to shop around and compare prices when it comes to tires. There are many tire retailers, and there is almost always a sale of some sort, either online or in the store.
  • Online: Online tire suppliers often work with local shops that can install and receive the tires. It’s best to do your homework online and in store before making a decision.
  • Extras: There are deals to be found when purchasing tires. Some retailers offer extras such as free rotation for life, free air checks or free flat tire repair.

What are the different types of tires?

Extreme performance

Extreme performance tires are as close to racing tires as one can get for a passenger vehicle. They are designed for dry surfaces and competition-level performance. These are not everyday tires. Go for these tires when it's time to take the BMW for a run on the track.

Ultra-high performance

Ultra-high and high-performance tires favor predictable handling and improved ride quality. Generally, the UHP tires will carry the "V" speed rating. Refer to the chart above and discuss your driving needs with a tire professional.

Touring

Touring tires focus on fuel efficiency and ride quality while stepping down a notch in handling and performance. Touring tires are less expensive than performance tires and are suitable for daily drivers.

Passenger

On the low end, passenger tires are generally lower in price and performance, though winter models can be an exception. Remember you get what you pay for: low priced tires won’t last as long or provide the best traction or safety.

Winter

Winter tires offer the best traction, handling and braking in cold weather. Winter passenger tires can provide the best performance in snow and ice; however, these tires will wear out quicker if driven when temperatures are above 45 degrees.

Run Flat Tires

Run Flat tires are designed to resist the effects of deflation when punctured and to enable the vehicle to continue to be driven at reduced speeds (under 55 mph) and for limited distances (up to 10 mi). Many new cars do not have spare tires and are instead using run flat tires. These tires are more expensive and provide a slightly rougher ride.

Which tires fit your vehicle?

Light trucks, Cross-Overs and SUVs

Trucks, Cross-Overs and SUVs have their own category for tires because of their heavier design, load-bearing tires and towing capacity. Manufacturers assume these drivers will possibly do some light off-roading, will be carrying a larger number of passengers and cargo or will be towing or hauling a trailer.

Passenger vehicles

These are tires made for passenger vehicles that travel on paved-road driving at posted speed limits. These drivers are more concerned with cost, ride comfort and durability.

Off-road vehiclesFor those who frequently drive off-road, these are special tires made to withstand the abuse of off-road driving. Off-road drivers are often looking for a tire that can handle a combination of on and off-road conditions.
Sportscar and high-end vehicles

Drivers in this category are less concerned with price and more concerned with performance and handling. Some will attend performance driving schools on race tracks and are spirited drivers. These consumers spend a lot of money on their cars and want tires that perform and handle well.

Tires FAQ

What is H or V rating on tires?
Those letters are the tire's speed rating.
  • H-rated tires are safe up to a speed of 130 mph. These tires are common on sports sedans and coupes.
  • V-rated tires are safe up to a speed of 149 mph. These tires are common on sports sedans, coupes and sports cars.

While most people will never drive their cars this fast, a tire’s speed rating gives you indications about its low-speed characteristics. A tire with a higher speed rating typically has a comparatively stiff ride at low speeds but better performance at high speeds.

Is it worth buying more expensive tires?
Generally speaking, yes. The tires that come on cars from the manufacturer are likely the cheapest option that would allow the vehicle to pass safety standards. Upgrading your tires provides:
  • Faster acceleration
  • Increased fuel economy
  • Better braking
  • Superior bad-weather performance
  • Less road noise

Tire quality doesn’t always go hand in hand with price, but shopping for the best tires you can afford is almost always worth it.

What is the best time of year to buy tires?
The best times to buy new tires are during seasonal sales in October and April.
  • October is a good time to buy tires because consumers are looking to upgrade before winter weather starts.
  • April is also a good time of the year because people are changing out their winter tires and planning spring and summer road trips.

If your tires need to be replaced, however, waiting for a sale could be a safety hazard. Many people wait until their tires are bald to buy new ones, but this leaves them driving on unsafe tires longer and spending more money in the long run.

What makes a good winter tire?
Winter tires perform well on snow and ice because of two factors:
  • Tread pattern: Winter tires have a more aggressive tread design that creates greater traction when driving through snow or ice. Some winter tires even have studs that penetrate the ice for increased grip.
  • Rubber compound: Winter tires are manufactured with rubber that stays soft in extreme cold for better traction.

You can identify a good winter tire by looking for the three-peak mountain snowflake (3PMSF) mark on its sidewall. This certifies that the tire meets testing criteria.

Can you order tires online?
Yes, numerous retailers sell tires online. These sites make it easy to see a wide variety of tires and compare specifications and reviews. You can even bundle tire and wheel packages to save money. The downside is that you usually pay for shipping, and installation is a bit more expensive than when buying directly from a tire store.
How do you know if your tires are bald?
The minimum legal tire tread across most of the U.S. is one-sixteenth of an inch. Tire tread gauges give you an accurate reading on how much tread you have left, but there’s a simpler, tool-free way to see if your tires are bald:
  1. Place a penny in your tire tread with Lincoln’s head facing down.
  2. If you can see the top of Lincoln’s head, your tires are bald (under one-sixteenth of an inch).

You can also do this test with a quarter to see if your tires are ready for replacement (under one-eighth of an inch).

Is it OK to replace one tire?
It depends. Your tires should match as much as possible, but if all of your tires are new and only one is irreparably damaged, replacing that tire is fine. However, there are many situations where replacing just one tire is a bad idea, including:
  • If you drive a car with all-wheel drive
  • If the tread on your other tires is below the legal limit (one-sixteenth of an inch)
  • If you can’t find a tire that’s a perfect size and tread match

If you’re worried about the cost of replacing all four tires at once, consider an extended auto warranty with wear-and-tear coverage. These warranties often cover the cost of tire replacement.

Is there a difference between all-season and all-weather tires?
Yes, there is a difference:
  • All-season tires are the most common type of tire in the U.S. These tires perform well in a variety of weather conditions and temperatures but fall behind actual winter tires in snow or ice.
  • All-weather tires are similar to all-season tires in most conditions, but they also perform as well as many winter tires in the snow and ice. This means that you can keep all-weather tires on your car year-round, unlike many winter tires. All-weather tires have the same three-peak mountain snowflake (3PMSF) certification that winter tires do, which means that they are legal in places where winter tire use is compulsory, like parts of Canada or Northern Europe.

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    Author reviews for tire brands

    AUTHORIZED PARTNER
    Mavis Discount Tires

    Founded in 1949 as a bicycle tire shop, Mavis now has over 160 service centers. Mavis is found in New York State, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

    • Beat any price: Mavis offers to beat any price from another company for the same tire. This includes shipping and installation costs.
    • Online tire pricing: There is an online pricing tool on the company's home page. Customers can shop by vehicle or tire size.
    • Full-service shop: In addition to selling and installing tires, many Mavis shops provide auto service. This can be convenient for consumers needing several jobs done at once.
    • Online reservations: An appointment can be made anytime online using the company website.
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    Tire Rack

    Tire Rack has over 2.2 million square feet of distribution center space across the country packed with inventory from 21 major tire and 58 wheel brands. Their prices are competitive and their expertise is unmatched. Tire Rack has its own track to put tires to the test lap after lap, so you know exactly how a tire performs.

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    by Lauren Fix Auto & Finance Contributing Editor

    Lauren Fix, also called The Car Coach, is an automotive and auto finance expert. Her understanding of vehicles has made her the “go to” person on TV, radio, print media and the Internet. She has authored multiple books and writes a column for several outlets, including Parade Magazine, NewsMax and Car Coach Reports. She is a regular guest on major news and morning shows, discussing the latest updates on cars and car financing that will help drivers make smart decisions when buying, maintaining and financing cars.

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