There's nothing sexy about tires, but these four pieces
of rubber can affect the life and handling of your auto as much
as more complex components.
In the last decade, tires have improved dramatically.
New computerized designs, tougher construction materials and increased
understanding of the role of tread patterns have produced a far superior
All-season tires are likely to be the standard on your
new car. Unless you plan to drive straight from the dealership to
an off-road rally or you drive a lot in ice and snow, these tires
should meet most of your driving needs.
"The tire that is on the car originally is a compromise
tire," says Steve Wesoloski, lead chassis engineer for General
Motors Corvette racing team. "The car manufacturer tries to look
at the entire range of customers, optimizing the standard tire for
the target customer, but also providing a tire that can handle other
kinds of drivers and conditions."
Surveying the sidewall
The stiffness of the tire's sidewall is the single most important
factor in how it will ride, explains Wesoloski. While tread and
tread pattern will help a tire grip the road, how it does that is
affected by how the sidewall bends and collapses out of the way.
"The Corvette driver demands traction performance
so he wants a stiff tire, whereas the Buick Century driver wants
tires that will maintain traction for safety purposes, but he isn't
likely to be driving under high-speed conditions and he doesn't
want a stiff tire that will result in a harsh ride," Wesoloski
If you've selected a car like GM's Grand Prix or Monte
Carlo (not really a sports car, but more performance-oriented than
a Buick Century), Wesoloski says your choice of tires will change
the personality of the car.
Put a performance tire designed to give better traction
on these sedans and you've got a sporty ride and handling. But buy
passenger tires if comfort is the goal. In Wesoloski's case, he
had performance tires on his Monte Carlo SS until he got married
and turned that car over to his wife, who complained that the ride
was harsh. So he switched to tires with a softer sidewall.
"Now it's like driving my couch down the road,"
In general, the more rubber you put on the road, the
more stable the vehicle will be. But Wesoloski believes that opting
for the big rims and low-profile tires that have become a popular
SUV and sport truck option won't help increase traction.
"It's an appearance, not a safety issue,"
He advises against off-road tires unless you're really
going into the outback. If the only off-roading you're going to
do is when you accidentally back over the flowerbed, stick with
the standard-issue, all-weather truck/SUV tires, or even choose
passenger vehicle tires.
"The tires these trucks came with have three
or four inches of rubber showing on the side that give the tire
more room to flex, and that gives you a much more comfortable ride,"
Matching tires to your driving
Online tire retailer Tire Rack, whose headquarters is located near
the racing capital of Indianapolis, started out in the tire business
20 years ago selling specialty tires to racers and car collectors.
Today, Tire Rack maintains a testing facility, an online database
of tire evaluations and has expanded its sales to consumers.
Matthew Edmonds, Tire Rack's director of marketing,
says the tire industry makes it confusing for anyone buying replacement
tires because even though a tire has the same name, it may not be
the same tire everywhere it is sold. That's because tire manufacturers
tailor tires to the requests and limitations of their customers:
auto manufacturers and retailers.
Instead of trying to sort through the confusing array
of numbers in an effort to match original equipment, Edmonds suggests
that you shop for the tire that best reflects your driving habits.
If, like most people, you do some of your driving on city streets
and some of it on highways, an all-weather tire may be the best
choice. But if you spend a lot of time on rough roads, drive often
in rain, snow or icy weather or never go beyond the city limits,
you may be happier with a more specialized tire.
"Even if you and I drive the same car in the
same city, I may be concerned with how comfortable the car is, while
you may be willing to sacrifice comfort for good handling around
the turns and a performance feel," Edmonds says.
If you decide to change to a size other than what
the manufacturer recommends, be particularly cautious. While a larger
size will give a car a sportier look, tires and suspension work
together. If the tire rubs or otherwise impedes the way the suspension
works, at best you'll wear out the tires quickly, and at worst you
could lose control in wet or snowy conditions. If you really have
your heart set on larger tires, Edmonds suggests having two sets:
the larger tires for the good-weather months and the recommended
size with heavy-duty tread for the winter months.
Before you buy, do some research. Each tire manufacturer
has a Web site that will help you identify a recommended range of
tires available for your car. Tire dealers also often offer online
advice and tools to help you determine your tire needs and compare
options. Tire Rack's Web site, for example, will give you an evaluation
and make recommendations about a number of brands.
It also might help to talk to a knowledgeable tire
dealer, although remember that he probably sells only a few of the
available brands. Compare prices at three or more tire outlets.
Prices vary enormously.
Keeping the rubber on the road
Regardless of the type of tires, proper care will help keep them
-- and your car -- on the road longer. One easy, but usually neglected,
maintenance task is checking inflation.
When a professional racer complains that his car isn't
handling well, technologically complex corrections usually aren't
required. In most cases, a simple tire pressure adjustment will
ease the problem.
Rising NASCAR star Ryan Newman, with a degree in vehicle
structure engineering from Purdue University, relies on Goodyear
to keep his race crew informed on the recommended air pressure for
each track. "We are forever putting air in and taking air out
to see how the car reacts on the race track. You never want to go
too high or too low on pressures because it can do some big damage,"
says Ray Osian, tire expert for Newman's Dodge ALLTEL team.
Consumer tire experts say ordinary drivers should
be as concerned as Newman and his colleagues about tire pressure
because proper pressure will determine the life of the tire as well
as the way it rides.
"Rubber is permeable and if the temp drops 30
degrees, tire pressure goes down. After three winter months, your
tires probably dropped six pounds. If you're driving in snow or
ice, that kind of low tire pressure can be extremely dangerous,"
Check your tire pressure often, with an accurate gauge,
for routine driving and before and during any long trips. Measure
the tire when the tires are cold, before you drive on them. The
recommended inflation pressure can be found in your owner's manual
or on a label frequently found in the glove box, near the door latch
on the driver's side, or other locations on your vehicle.
Other tire safety tips from the U.S. Department of
-- Posted: Dec. 9, 2003